Lagosand Abuja — The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Tuesday explained that it could not have denied the flight chartered by some Southern leaders to take them to Makurdi, the capital of Benue State on Monday, landing permit, since it did not receive any application for the facility.
The President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nwodo, had at a press conference in Abuja on Monday, claimed that he and some other Southern Nigeria leaders, who were on their way to Makurdi from Abuja to attend a rally on restructuring by the Middle Belt Forum, were denied landing permit, effectively aborting their trip.
Billed to attend the rally were Nwodo, Afenifere chieftain, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, and South-south leader, Chief Edwin Clark, among others.
But the NAF's Director of Public Relations and Information (DOPRI), Air Vice Marshal Olatokunbo Adesanya, in a statement in Abuja, denied the allegation, saying the air force did not receive any application for the use of the facility.
However, a Yoruba socio-cultural organisation, Afenifere, whose leaders were part of the aborted trip, faulted the claim of the NAF, insisting that they duly applied for the permit in line with the directive of the airport authorities.
Adesanya stated that the runway at NAF Base was not a dual-user facility but one constructed strictly for military purpose, which requires that potential users should apply before landing at the base.
He stressed that in line with global best practices, there was a clearly established procedure for non-NAF aircraft to operate into and out of the runway in Makurdi, and that procedure was well known to all pilots in Nigeria.
The DOPRI also noted that many airlines had in the past adhered to the stipulated procedure and successfully landed and took off from the NAF runway in Makurdi.
According to him, 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 the passengers and other necessary details.
He explained: "In this case, there was indeed a request for permit by the Benue State Government, dated July 16, 2018, for an aircraft with registration number 5N-FCT to land at the NAF Base Makurdi on July 16, 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 the aircraft with registration number 5N-FCT to land at NAF Base Makurdi on July 16, 2018.
"However, at about 5p.m on July 16, 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."
Adesanya said the NAF did not concern itself with political or religious affiliations of individuals/organisations in granting landing rights at its airfields.
He maintained that the issue of security and safety remained uppermost, noting that the ongoing Operation Whirl Stroke was largely being coordinated from NAF Base Makurdi, with fighter aircraft flying in and out of the base.
He also assured Nigerians that NAF remains a highly professional and apolitical organisation that would rather focus on its military duties.
We Applied, Counters Afenifere
Meanwhile, Afenifere Tuesday disagreed with NAF, insisting that the landing permit was duly applied for in line with the directive of the airport authorities.
The group's National Treasurer, Chief Olasupo Shonibare, and its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, gave their accounts of what transpired in separate telephone interviews with THISDAY Tuesday, lamenting that they were kept waiting at the Abuja Airport for hours on Monday.
In his conversation with THISDAY, Shonibare explained that the southern leaders approached two different airlines before they eventually knew that the airport authorities were acting on the instruction from the above.
He said: "The first airline knew there was already an order that we should not be allowed to Makurdi, Benue State. As a result, the airline claimed there was bad weather. But the airline was already aware that we would be denied landing permit.
"Unknowingly, we approached the second airline. Immediately, its staff started processing our request to fly to Makurdi on chartered flight. But midway, the airline management called Makurdi Airport, perhaps to get clearance.
"After the call, the airline management directed that we should write an application for landing permit. At first, we protest the demand for an application for landing permit.
"We protested because we had been flying the chartered flight on the same route without writing an application for landing permit. One of us, a veteran ex-soldier, who was head of Nigerian military forces in Sudan, went to the commandant in Abuja.
"The commandant told us that it was part of new security measures in all Nigerian airports. Eventually, we agreed to write an application for landing permit. We immediately applied to the Airport Commandant in Makurdi.
"But the commandant told us that it was part of new security measures. He later told us that even if we wrote the application, it was not a guarantee for an approval. We then made further inquiry."
At that point, the national treasurer noted that the answer they got obviously showed that the power-that-be "has given an order not to allow us fly to Makurdi on Monday. That is how we could not attend the Middle Belt Conference".
In a separate interview, Odumakin faulted the claims of the airport authorities, noting that it "is not true we did not apply for landing permit. We applied for it".
Also speaking to THISDAY, Adebanjo said: "They are just finding excuses. This is not the first time we are going there. They are just finding excuses. We have been there before. When they were massacred, we were the first delegation to visit them. That is why they are finding this untenable excuses, and thinking they are talking to school children.
"It is unfortunate for people like us. It is a sad story that the country is going back. To people like me, it is a sad story. We never thought we will ever go back to it again."