Lockdown: How VIPs are violating COVID-19 flight restriction order

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•Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika

ABUJA – The restriction on flights imposed by the Federal Government in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic to curtail its spread in the country is being observed in the breach investigation reveals.

Despite the restriction, first imposed on March 21, some commercial and private airlines have continued to ferry un-exempted passengers, mostly VIPS, within and outside the country in clear violation of the Quarantine Act signed by President Muhammadu Buhari.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s daughters, his chief of staff, other aides and many state governors were among those found to have violated the inter-state travel restrictions.

Investigations also show that airlines that obtain the necessary permits to convey VIPs take undue advantage to ferry family members, associates and other passengers not included in the exemption category.

Our reporters who spent some time in the past few days at the Murtala Mohammed and Nnamdi Azikiwe airports in Lagos and Abuja found that aircraft belonging to security agencies, particularly the Nigerian Air force and the Police were being used to convey un-exempted passengers.

Multiple sources told our reporters that the security agencies use their privileges to convey family members, associates and friends of top security personnel while ordinary Nigerians are being arrested and charged across the country for violating interstate travel restrictions.

The presidency has also denied that the first family have violated the travel restriction, while, the federal ministry of Aviation, Nigerian Air Force and the Police have not responded to our requests for comment.

Buhari’s daughters, govs among violators

Asides other private and commercial airlines, state governors have also been embarking on air travels in clear violation of interstate travel which they agreed on as a measure to mitigate community transmission of COVID-19.

The governors, under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) had on Wednesday, April 22, “unanimously” agreed to the implementation of an interstate lockdown in the country to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 from state to state, giving permission to only essential services.

However, some of the governors have been violating the travel restrictions with several trips to Abuja and Lagos undertaken by flight.

On Monday, June 1, Gov. Godwin Obaseki of Edo State flew into Abuja to visit President Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, to formally inform him of his intention to seek re-election for a second term.

The same day, the Chairman of the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF) and Governor of Kebbi State, Atiku Bagudu, led six of his colleagues to meet with the Comrade Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee (NWC) of the APC on what was believed to be a last-minute effort to save Obaseki’s candidacy ahead of the APC primary election in Edo.

Many aviation stakeholders and the general public have raised eyebrows over the violation of the ban by some VIPs who were not on essential flights.

For instance not a few tongues wagged recently following the controversy generated when the Special Assistant to the President, Sabiu Tunde Yusuf, was asked by the wife of the President, Mrs Aisha Buhari, to respect the COVID-19 guidelines, following his alleged refusal to go on self-isolation after returning from an air trip to Lagos.

“So far, what we have seen is the violation of this restriction by some VIPs. The other day, the governors flew into Lagos State and back to Abuja, there was also the case of the President’s aide which caused rumbles recently in the villa,” said a Lagos-based operator who wouldn’t want to be named.

Another source at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, alleged that some aircraft registered as private non-commercial jets were being used for commercial services. “There was never a day you would not see one private jet or the other taking off and landing at this airport despite the restriction. You then wonder if all were special or exempted flights,” the source said.

It was also revealed that the President’s daughters, Zahra and Halima, had also travelled out of the villa by flight to visit their in-laws when Halima’s husband’s uncle died recently. Similar trips were said to have been undertaken by President Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, who went to Lagos.

There was also public outrage recently when a private airline operator, Executive Jets Services Ltd, conveyed a popular musician Naira Marley and ex-BBNaija housemate, Kim Oprah, to Abuja for a concert at the Jabi Lake Mall in Abuja last weekend.

Although the flight was said to have been approved to convey a serving judge from Lagos to Abuja and back, on official assignment, the flight operator violated the approval by conveying the musician.

The Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika later announced that Executive Jets Services Ltd, the flight company that conveyed musician Naira Marley and ex-BBNaija housemate, Kim Oprah, to Abuja for a concert has been suspended indefinitely.

When contacted, Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman, said he was not aware that some members of the First Family have undertaken inter-State journeys.

“But what I want you to understand is that while all forms of air travel are not allowed-international, interstate and intrastate and remain suspended, such flights are cleared to operate by the Ministry of aviation for all services adjudged as essential.

“So if members of the First Family fly, do you know the essential nature of such trips? Can you, where you are sitting, determine what is essential for the First Family or the Chief of Staff?”

“The Ministry determines what is essential service before they give authorization. Members of the first family can be on essential service.

“Judges are being moved around as are doctors. As I write, the Country Representative of the Wold Health Organisation, WHO and the Director-General of the National Center for Disease Control, NCDC are in Delta State and will be returning to Abuja, Shehu said.

Air Force, Police Aircraft ferry un-exempted passengers

Investigations further revealed that aircraft belonging to security agencies, particularly the Nigerian Air force and the Police were being used to convey un-exempted passengers.

Multiple sources said that although the necessary permits were obtained for the security aircraft, they were used to convey un-exempted persons, mostly family members, associates and friends of top security personnel.

A source who was ferried in an Air Force aircraft from Lagos to Abuja in March revealed how ‘connections’ are used to violate the travel restriction order.

“On that day, we arrived Abuja from Lagos on a C-130 aircraft mostly used for cargo. We were about 60-70 persons on the flight. Our temperatures were checked and our hands sanitized, but we didn’t have face masks aboard the flight.

The source, who wouldn’t want to be identified for security reasons, disclosed that the majority of the passengers were family members of Air force personnel who were going back to Abuja.

On how access was granted, the source said, “You have to have contact with someone high up there to get a pass. Your name has to be on the list to be given a pass to board the aircraft.

“On three different occasions, I went there but was not able to board because there were many passengers. If you can’t board, your name is put on the waiting list, and on our fourth try, I was able to board.

“We landed at the Air force terminal in Abuja and exited through the back door.”

The source also confirmed that apart from the C-130, smaller aircraft, like the size of a private jet, which takes about eight passengers were also transporting passengers.

A worker at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said the Ministry of Aviation has been approving a lot of flights, adding that the Air Force has been doing a lot of flights.

According to the source, aircraft obtain permission to fly but the passengers are mostly the un-exempted category.

“I don’t know if they are all operational flights or Air Force family members. But everyone at the airport is surprised at the number of flights they perform.

The intriguing part is that even when the airports were not closed, the Air Force didn’t operate this number of flights.

He, however, said for private jets, there were a lot of approvals, adding that some of the approvals were for VIPs, governors, some on humanitarian services, Ministers and some United Nations missions.

“But the issue is that when an aircraft is approved for a certain individual, the person carries with him, several other unapproved passengers. So, the issue is that when the minister approves the aircraft, why not also request for details of all of the passengers on the aircraft,” the source said.

“Every day, people come to the private jet terminal seeking spaces on chartered aircraft to go to various destinations. Once an aircraft is flying empty and you are willing to pay, they will fly you. Even last week when I worked, aviation agencies directors were looking for free spaces to fly to Lagos. Six different aircraft airlifted some directors of an agency. The private airline station managers fix these deals,” another source said.

Air travel restrictions

On March 21, the Federal Government announced the closure of its two main international airports in Lagos and Abuja for one month, following confirmation by the Federal Ministry of Health of additional cases of the dreaded virus in the country.

The restriction on commercial flights took effect on March 27 and was later extended by two weeks.

On May 6, it was further extended by four weeks based on the assessment and advice from experts in the aviation industry to contain the spread of the virus.

On Thursday last week, the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Musa Nuhu, said the June 21 date earlier fixed for the resumption of domestic flights was no longer feasible.

“The NCAA will not approve the start of operations until we’re sure and we confirm we’re ready to start in a safe, secure and organized manner. To do otherwise would be disastrous for all of us.

“We’re going to go to operators to verify what they’ve given to us as their restart plan. A lot of the service providers have provided very good documents, while some provided inadequate documents which were sent back to them,” Nuhu said.

While announcing the flight restrictions, the government had listed exemptions which include flights for humanitarian delivery, medical, technical and safety reason which must be approved by the Minister of Aviation.

The essential flights as listed by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) are Aircraft in State of emergency; Overflights; Operations related to humanitarian aid, medical and relief flights; Alternate aerodromes identified in the flight plan (including those being used for extended diversion time operations; Technical stop where passengers do not disembark; Cargo flights and other safety-related operations.

Unlucky operators

Although only emergency and essential flights were allowed to operate from any of the airports within the period of restriction, some commercial and private airlines have continued to ferry passengers, especially VIPs within and outside the country.

For instance, on May 23, an aircraft belonging to Flairjet, a United Kingdom-based aviation company violated the flight ban into the country. The airline was given the approval to operate humanitarian operations to Nigeria but indulged in commercial flights.

Flairjet was, however, impounded and made to pay a fine of N1million by the Federal Government.

The Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, who made this known reportedly said: “Flairjet was found guilty of violating our Civil Aviation Regulations IS 1.3.3 (a) Table 2 (iv) 7 (a)time and IS 1.3.3 Table 2 (viii ) (4). The maximum penalty for each is 500,000 naira. We caused them to pay and reported their callous misdemeanour to UK CAA, MFA, and the UK High Commission.”

Compliance level total – NCAA

Spokesman of the NCAA, Mr Sam Adurogboye, said the level of compliance since the commencement of restriction has been ‘total’, adding, “There is no way flights can land or take off without our approval.”

He, however, pointed out some violations which included the Flairjet, a British airliner, that was sanctioned recently and Executive Jet Services which ferried Azeez Fashola popularly known as Naira Marley to Abuja from Lagos.

While saying appropriate sanctions have been served on the airlines which violated the restrictions, Adurogboye further directed our correspondent to the Minister of Aviation, saying in an emergency period, the minister usually takes charge.

However, attempts to get the ministry of aviation to comment were unsuccessful.

When contacted, the Director, Public Affairs, Federal Ministry of Aviation, Mr James Odaudu, said he would forward our inquiry to the relevant authorities to provide him with the information and revert as soon as he gets a response.

But as at press time, he had not reverted despite several reminders.

Air force, Police decline comment

The Nigerian Air force and the Police have declined to respond to the alleged use of their aircraft to convey unauthorized passengers in violation of the flight restriction order.

Spokesman of the Air Force, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, refused to comment on the matter when contacted by our reporter.

Similarly, the spokesman of the Nigeria Police Force, DCP Frank Mba, also declined to comment on the issue when contacted by our reporter.

Authorities must take responsibility

Aviation analyst, Group Capt. John Ojikutu rtd, called for more probing into the circumstances surrounding the flight which conveyed Naira Marley to Abuja, as according to him, what happened was a breach of aviation and national security.

“Any special flight in the type of emergency we are in requires security clearance even if approved by the Minister of Aviation. Did the flight get such clearance? If there are breaches, the respective responsible authorities must take responsibility.

“In this emergency period, the statutory responsibility is that of the minister. What are the procedures established for clearing special flights and who are the responsible authorities or officials,” he queried?  (Daily Trust)


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