In violation of a court order, one of the two disputed Bombardier Dash 8 Q300 aircraft allegedly stolen by some interested parties last year has been reregistered with Canadian number and flown out of Lagos Airport en route France.
At exactly 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, the aircraft flew out in violation of the substantive court orders in an ongoing suit at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos.
Sources confirmed to The Guardian that the disputed aircraft was released to one of the interested parties by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and its sister agency, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), on the verbal instruction of the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika.
The Guardian had reported that the two Bombardier aircraft, formerly used by Topbrass Aviation Services Limited, a local operator, were allegedly stolen in Lagos. The airplanes with registration numbers 5N-TBB and 5N-TBC have been the substance of a legal tussle between the lessor, Seagold Investment Limited, and Topbrass Aviation Services.
Some interested parties in the sector, on the side of Seagold Investment Limited, had allegedly taken possession of the aircraft and relocated them, contrary to the orders of the Federal High Court that none of the parties should access the asset.
The planes were removed from their lots at the General Aviation Terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) and stationed at the Aero Contractors' Maintenance and Overhaul (AMO) hanger, but with their registration numbers already wiped off, prompting Topbrass to file for contempt.
Already held in contempt are the NCAA, its Director General, Capt. Muktar Usman, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Aero Contractors, its Managing Director, Capt. Ado Sanusi and a pilot in the Presidential Fleet, Capt. Baba Mohammed. The case was last heard on May 6 and adjourned to June 26.
The flight plan obtained by The Guardian yesterday, showed that the disputed plane has acquired a new registration number C-GIXF and routed through N'Djamena in Chad, where it was due to have a technical stopover, before the long stretch to France. The aircraft was flown by Captain Nelson, having obtained clearance from an Ibrahim Adegbite of the NCAA.
It was learnt that some concerned operators, citing movements around the aircraft, had alerted the enforcement unit of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) at the Lagos Airport. The officials arrived at the airport, only to be told by the control tower that the plane had departed 15 minutes earlier.
The counsel to Topbrass Aviation, Chukwuma Adiukwu, also confirmed the new development yesterday, saying one of the aircraft had "been stolen and brazenly taken out, showing that the other party has no regard for the law or for the court as well."
Adiukwu said the last that was heard about the plane was that it was around the Chad Republic, but no one could say where it has been taken.
He said he would alert the court to the new twist, probably for it to order the party to return the aircraft and, or put them in custody until the asset is returned to Nigeria.
The Guardian had reported that contrary to the court orders that no one should touch the disputed aircraft, they had since September been moved to the Aero Contractors' hanger for maintenance ahead of departure. Engines of the departed aircraft had been replaced as at February.
One of the engineers at Aero's Aircraft Maintenance Organisation (AMO) confirmed that they painted the new Canadian registration number C-GIXF on the airplane, which formerly carried Nigerian registration - 5N-TBB.
The General Manager, Public Affairs at the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, in reaction to inquiries, said "the matter is still in court, and whatever complaint anyone has should be directed to the court."
Adurogboye, however, said the Cape Town Convention empowered the apex regulator to register and deregister any aircraft as necessary.
Some stakeholders, however, faulted the position of the NCAA on the powers to reregister an aircraft, especially one carrying a foreign number.
Aviation Security Consultant, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), explained that the procedure for clearing foreign registered aircraft for operations - either within or outside the country - demands that a flight plan must have the security clearance and NCAA's approval attached to it.
But the concern in this matter is the legality of NCAA deregistering and reregistering a disputed aircraft without first resolving the controversies involved.
"NCAA doesn't have the authority to give a Canadian registration to aircraft in Nigeria. To get a country's registration, that aircraft must be flown to the country to first certify it before giving the registration. We don't have the authority to deregister a Nigerian registered airline and give the same a foreign number.
"We need to find out if NCAA got the approval of Canada to give the plane the new number. For them to do that, it means someone must have bought the aircraft and taken the whole documents of the aircraft to Canada to get it registered. Without that, it is not just possible to get it registered.
"If any of our airlines goes out to buy an aircraft, NCAA will not register it until they have gone there to certify it. The worst that can happen is to give it clearance to bring the aircraft in, but not until they have gone there to certify it," Ojikutu said.
Apparently suspecting illegality in the processes, the captain said the situation was a reminiscence of many past cases of flying foreign aircraft in and out of the country without a proper registration procedure.
Another stakeholder described the development as "a serious security matter that could implicate the Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) and Nigeria as a whole."
He expressed doubt that the minister could have given approval to anyone to bolt with a disputed airplane.
"More so, it is not the responsibility of the minister to give the clearance but that of the NCAA. The minister can only direct the responsible authority and that is the NCAA to do so. The minister I know would not clear an aircraft in dispute to take off with a registration number that is foreign.
"My main worry is the security implication for us. We will not know the implication now until the aircraft commits an offence against civil aviation. I hope not, but if it does, then it will be traced back to Nigeria to embarrass all of us. The NCAA must address all these issues before it is too late," he said.