Following allegations by leaders of the Middle-belt that leaders of Afenifere, South-South and the South-East were prevented from landing at the Makurdi Airport by the Air Force to attend the massive rally of the Middle Belt calling for the restructuring of the country, the Nigerian Air Force has issued a strong denial.
Benue and Taraba Governors Samuel Ortom and Dairus Ishaku, and Middle belt leaders at the rally called for the immediate restructuring of Nigeria.
The rally was organized by Middle Belt Forum (MBF) in conjunction with J.S.Tarka foundation with a theme; Restructuring Nigeria and Re- Awakening , the position of Middle belt.
In a statement, Air Force spokesman Air Vice Marshal Olatokunbo Adesanya said: “The attention of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has sadly been drawn to allegations that it prevented a chartered flight from landing at its Base in Makurdi on 16 July 2018, for political reasons. There is absolutely no iota of truth in the allegations that NAF’s decision was politically motivated. To start with, the runway at NAF Base Makurdi is not a dual user facility but one constructed strictly for military purpose. Accordingly, in line with global best practices, there is a clearly established procedure for non-NAF aircraft to operate into and out of the runway in Makurdi, and that procedure is well known to all qualified pilots in Nigeria. Indeed, many airlines had in the past adhered to the stipulated procedure and therefore successfully landed and taken off from the NAF runway in Makurdi. The procedure includes a written request to NAF Headquarters Abuja for permission for a specific aircraft to operate into its airfield on a specific date and time, including the names of passengers and other necessary details.
“In this case, there was indeed a request for permit by the Benue State Government, dated 16 July 2018, for Aircraft with Registration Number 5N-FCT to land at NAF Base Makurdi on 16 July 2018. Although requests for landing permits are expected to reach NAF Headquarters not later than two days before the desired landing date, the NAF went out of its way to expedite the process and accordingly granted the permit for aircraft with Registration Number 5N-FCT to land at NAF Base Makurdi on 16 July 2018. However, at about 5pm on 16 July 2018, the NAF was verbally informed that there was a need to change the aircraft for which permission had already been issued, reportedly because the aircraft had developed snags. The NAF, therefore, asked for another written request, in line with the established procedure. As at date, the NAF Headquarters is yet to receive a written request for the replacement aircraft with Registration Number 5N-IZY to land at its Base in Makurdi.
“For the avoidance of doubts, the NAF does not concern itself with political or religious affiliations of individuals/organizations in granting landing rights at its airfields. The issue of security and safety remains uppermost particularly while noting that the ongoing Operation WHIRL STROKE is largely being coordinated from NAF Base Makurdi, with fighter aircraft flying in and out of the Base. The NAF remains a highly professional and apolitical organization that would rather focus on its military duties. Consequently, the NAF wishes to implore all concerned to desist from dragging the name of the NAF into partisan politics.”
Narrating the ordeal of the leaders prevented from flying into Makurdi from Abuja, the leader of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo said leaders of the Southern part of Nigeria were kept back because of alleged bad weather in Makurdi.
Later they were told the aircraft would not be allowed to fly because the Makurdi Airport Commandant, Lt. Col. A. Audu, sought to see an approved landing permit for the aircraft.
The permit was sent by fax to Makurdi, but were greeted by silence for hours only to be told after they could not land for security reasons.
He added: “We have called you to express our anger and disgust at what happened to us today. We the people of Southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt have a forum called the Southern and Middle Belt Leadership Forum. Our major identity is our agreement that the only way to push our country forward and prevent a looming disaster, that is about to befall us, economically and politically, is to to restructure the Nigerian federation.
“Each of the component units of this organization has held a summit of their leaders expressing their support for this policy. The first was held in the South West in the ancient city of Ibadan, where all of us attended. The next was held in Yenegoa in the South-South region of Nigeria; all of us were there, including the people of the Middle Belt.
“The next was held in Awka where the South East expressed its support for the restructuring of the federation. The last of the zones to hold its rally is the rally holding today (yesterday) in Makurdi by the Middle Belt.
“This is not the second time we have gone to Makurdi on behalf of the Southern and Middle Belt Leadership Forum. When there were killings in Benue, with 100 people buried the same day, we went on behalf of this forum. We took a chartered aircraft and there was no difficulty whatsoever in landing in Makurdi or obtaining permission to take off from Abuja.
“We arrived in time for our flight today at 12 noon, the airport commandant disallowed us from flying and said we needed to go and get permission to land in Makurdi. We consider this fundamental infringement on our democratic rights of freedom of movement and freedom of association.
“There is nothing in our law precluding us from moving to wherever we like, from holding an opinion, in so far as we do not breach any law in Nigeria. What has happened to us today expresses a lot of doom for fundamental human rights in our country, for the free exchange of ideas as unavoidable instruments of achieving growth and development of our polity.
“We deprecate the treatment that we were given today, which treatment prevented us from physically joining our brethren in the Middle Belt in ..a common view, which we all hold, a very patriotic view, which we think will be the only way to guarantee the future of our country.
“Please publicise this for many reasons. One, the teeming crowd that you saw on television in the Middle Belt are our brethren who showed us solidarity in other zonal summits. The fact that we were barred from showing them this solidarity is bound to hurt them.
“Through this press conference, we want to express our solidarity with them. We want them to know that we are one and the same in our views of the restructuring of the Federation.
“Secondly, to deprecate these new tendencies, not too long ago, the President signed into law an Executive Order which gives him the right to seize peoples assets. This is almost like a military government. And we think that this is an intrusion into the principles of separation of powers in our country.
“It is the responsibility of the legislature to make law, of the executive to implement the law and the judiciary to interpret the law. I do not think that Section 5 of the Constitution gives the President such Executive authority to make laws. The right to property is a fundamental right in a democracy. It cannot be expropriated here without a decision of the court.
“What has happened to us today shows a continuing tendency to slide into a dictatorship in a democratic government. That is condemnable.”
Chief Edwin Clark on his part said: “No group of persons, no one ethnic group is superior to the other. The people say that they are Middle Belt and some people say that they are not, are you the one to tell them who they are? Everybody in Nigeria has an identity, your identity is not superior to my identity. No ethnic nationality is superior to mine.
“It was sabotage, they knew that we were going there to discuss restructuring, those who don’t believe in it decided to sabotage it.”