By Ojonugwa Felix Ugboja
There have been a lot of conversations on this issue since opposition party, PDP’s 2019 presidential candidate Abubakar Atiku, who returned to Nigeria after his stay in Dubai on Sunday tweeted that he was intimidated by security operatives at the airport.
“I arrived to Abuja this morning to a search by agents of the state, aimed at intimidating me and my staff,” he tweeted.
But in a swift reaction, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, released a personally signed statement, denying the alleged harassment.
Sirika stated that Atiku’s claim was mischievous as the checks carried out by the security agents at the airport were mandatory.
The statement read: “For the records, all incoming passengers on international flights go through customs, Immigration, health and security screening.
”Where the aircraft is using the private, charter wing, as the PDP Candidate did, such arrivals are met by a team of the Immigration, customs and other security agencies. They go to the arriving aircraft as a team. The airport authorities confirm that this is a routine process, applying to all international arrivals, including the minister unless the passenger is the President of Nigeria. The President, the Vice President and passengers aboard planes on the Presidential air fleet use the Presidential wing of the airport.
”It is also important to state that even in the Presidential Wing of the airport the President of Nigeria uses, there is the presence of Immigration and other security officials who must stamp his or her passport on arrival.
”By standard procedure, all aircraft on international arrivals must first of all park at the international wing of the aircraft. They can move to the domestic terminal only upon the completion of the arrival processes.
”While it is true that the Task Force on Currency at the airport did the routine action of checking the former Vice President’s travel bag, he was accorded full respect as a senior citizen.
”These checks are mandatory, conventional, internationally applied and routine. No one is excused from them under our laws. These checks are carried out on all international arrivals and President Buhari does not get involved in them.
”Law-abiding citizens are encouraged to respect the laws of the country and our VIPs should not seek to be treated over and above the citizens they wish to serve.”
To corroborate the Minister’s statement, it is indeed a routine procedure as confirmed from the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA)’s Compliance and Enforcement Handbook available on their website, and so does Private Jets Nigeria, a registered private flights company in Nigeria on its website.
‘’Customs and immigration regulations must be complied with for all private jet flights. These checks do not interrupt our customers significantly, as these can be completed before the flight. Dedicated customs and immigration staff are on duty 24hours a day at the Quits Aviation Centre,’’ reads the information.
It is indeed a routine procedure, but given the current political climate in Nigeria and with how Nigerian politicians always choose to engage each other, it can’t be totally ruled out that either party, the presidency or Atiku, had used the event to score some political points.
The Aviation Minister in his statement clearly stated that that was the case when he mentioned that Atiku’s protest was “a mischievous attempt to grab the headlines.”
The Minister suggested that Mr Atiku’s claims had been hatched from Dubai to deface the Buhari administration as intolerant of opposition ahead of a competitive general election.
“Nigerians need to know that one of the resolutions of the Atiku team at their recently-concluded, opulently-held Dubai retreat was to embark on scaremongering,” Mr Sirika said. “This is one of such.”
On the other hand, the PDP in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan said the party was shocked when it heard that the “deadly squad, in a Gestapo style attack, and acting on orders from the above rushed Atiku after landing the Abuja airport and attempted to physically manhandle him before invading his aircraft with dangerous weapons to conduct a violent search.”
Following in that storyline, Atiku’s spokesperson, Mr Timi Frank also alleged that there was a plan by the Special Squad, who searched the plane, to plant implicating items on it.
The squad, Frank revealed were armed with recording gadgets in and out of Atiku’s aircraft “to see if he returned to the country with foreign currencies or any other implicating materials.”
Such events and the trailing reactions are commonplace in Nigeria’s political system where public regulations and orders can be used for originally unintended effects.
Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is set to run for a second term in next year’s election against former party-man, Atiku Abubakar who has been tapped by the country’s main opposition, PDP.
As the countdown ticks, either party will be looking for ways to outsmart the other, and sometimes without any serious adherence to the law.
While a routine airport procedure would ordinarily be a no-issue, it is this time – and so will many more events in the coming months, and in them, there would hardly be a distinction between the villain and the hero.