Security operatives allegedly swooped on a private jet conveying the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Abubakar Atiku yesterday. The aircraft, which touched down at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja at 1:30 a.m. from Dubai, was said to have been boarded by the armed personnel in a search operation.
Describing the event on his Twitter handle, Atiku wrote: "I arrived Abuja this morning to a search by agents of the state aimed at intimidating my staff and me. I am committed to building a Nigeria where no citizen is intimidated by agents of state who are paid to protect them."He was joined on the social media platform by Senator Ben Murray-Bruce, who "totally condemned this reckless harassment of @atiku, the candidate of the @OfficialPDPNig as he landed in Abuja. Nigeria is not a fascist state. We will not return to a jackboot dictatorship. This government should face Atiku at the polls, not with force."
His criticism was re-echoed by Reno Omokri, an aide of former President Goodluck Jonathan: "@Atiku just returned to Nigeria and @MBujari sent a team of army, police, customs and immigration officers to surround, then search his plane. What were they hoping to find? What is Buhari afraid of? Why this harassment? If Buhari performed, would he be afraid of losing?"
Timi Frank, a former deputy national publicity secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), issued a statement alleging that the operatives confessed they were directed by the presidency to embarrass the former vice president.He claimed the squad had recording gadgets and wanted to see if Atiku returned to the country with foreign currencies or any other incriminating items. They were disappointed when nothing of such was found on Atiku or the aircraft, he said. He added that privileged information showed the presidential candidate was not safe under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
In its denunciation, the PDP faulted "the unleashing of a special security squad of army, police and paramilitary agencies by the Muhammadu Buhari presidency to physically harass our presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar."
The party, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said: "It was shocking when the deadly squad, in a Gestapo style attack, and acting on 'orders from above', rushed at our candidate immediately he landed and attempted to physically manhandle him before invading his aircraft with dangerous weapons to conduct a violent search. This deadly squad violently tampered with certain personal documents and gadgets belonging to him, including some of his campaign documents."
According to the party, "this is an attack on our democracy and the collective sensibility of the overwhelming majority of Nigerians, across board, who have accepted the choice of Atiku Abubakar as Nigeria's next president and they will vigorously deploy every means available in a democracy to defend him and our democratic process."
It added: "We invite Buhari to recall that as a presidential candidate, he had occasions to travel out of the country and the government in power never besieged or harassed him in any way. His administration should therefore not introduce such violence in our democratic space."
But an authoritative source at the presidency told The Guardian that Buhari, being of a discreet character, would never have been party to an attempt to harass Atiku. "You should ask all those involved to mention who sent them because the president of Nigeria cannot be dragged into this kind of a thing," the source said.
Also, Minister of State for Aviation Hadi Sirika said: "This is a mischievous attempt to grab the headlines. 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. This is one of such."
In a signed statement, he said: "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."
The Police, meanwhile, said they were not involved in the raid on Atiku's jet. Spokesman Jimoh Moshood, told The Guardian in an interview in Abuja that although the police have a right to ensure that individuals do not bring explosive devices into the country, it was not aware of any search on the aircraft. He added he had been in touch with the divisional police officer at the airport who claimed that nothing of the sort was reported.