Nigeria: We Arrested Pilots, Passengers for Refusing COVID-19 Checks, Says Rivers Government

Prison. Jail. Cell. Arrested. Imprisonment. Prison Cell.
12 April 2020

TUC urges truce between state, FG over detention

PDP calls for dialogue

Chuks Okocha and Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja, Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt

The Rivers State Government has said it ordered the arrest of two pilots of Caverton Helicopters and their passengers because the company failed to provide the affected persons for tests by the state's health authorities. The Commissioner for Information and Communications, Pastor Paulinus Nsirim, stated this yesterday in Port Harcourt while addressing journalists. Nsirim said Caverton Helicopters had ferried over 220 passengers into the state without allowing health professionals of the state government to ascertain their coronavirus status, despite a health emergency and a lockdown order in the state.

The Caverton pilots had undertaken a trip to Port Harcourt to drop oil workers said to be on essential duty when the state government arrested them for flouting a lockdown order put in place to check the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). Their arrest and detention caused a rift between the state and federal governments, with Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika insisting the Governor Nyesom Wike government acted illegally because the workers had been authorised by the federal government. Sirika, who also spoke yesterday in Abuja at a Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 press briefing, said the pilots were on a national assignment. He stressed that the chairman of the taskforce, Boss Mustapha, had announced the exemption of oil and gas industry workers from the lockdown order in the national interest.

Reacting to the standoff, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) appealed to both the federal and Rivers State governments to moderate their stance on the issue of the arrested pilots and workers of Caverton Helicopters and Shell Petroleum to make for peaceful resolution of the squabble.

Similarly, the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) yesterday called for dialogue between the two parties. PDP National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbondiyan said the party was deeply concerned that the aviation minister, who seemed more interested in politics than the safety of the citizens, was escalating an issue of protocol, which could have been managed through dialogue, to dangerous political dimensions.

Explaining the position of the state, Nsirim said, "Contrary to the view being peddled by the Minister of Aviation, Alhaji Hadi Sirika, the two pilots of Caverton Helicopters and their 10 passengers were not arrested because they operated a permit granted them by the Ministry of Aviation. They were arrested because they constantly contravened the Executive Order issued by the Governor of Rivers State, His Excellency, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, which requires that everyone coming into the state for essential duties subject themselves to mandatory health checks to ascertain their coronavirus status.

"Before their arrests, the Rivers State Government issued several warnings to Caverton and other operators to ensure that their pilots and passengers are tested by Rivers State health authorities. Caverton Helicopters disregarded the warnings.

"At the last count, Caverton Helicopters ferried over 220 passengers into the state without allowing health professionals of the Rivers State Government ascertain their coronavirus status. They also refused to avail the state government their contacts, so they can be traced and tested."

The commissioner restated the administration's commitment to the protection of the over six million citizens of the state, saying, "The Rivers State Government under the leadership of His Excellency, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, remains committed to the protection of the over six million citizens of the state. We are not struggling to issue landing permits to airlines; neither are we contending for the control of the airspace. Therefore, the issue on ground has nothing to do with the Exclusive List.

"The focus of the Rivers State government is to ensure that nobody under the guise of transporting workers on essential services, ferries in persons who will compromise our health system. Therefore, these pilots and passengers must be subjected to health checks before they carry out their responsibilities. That is standard practice.

"From all indications, it is clear that there is a plot to compromise the health of Rivers people. Otherwise, what is the motive for the grandstanding and the sponsorship of false editorials to mislead Nigerians by agents of the federal government?

"The Rivers State government urges the federal government to direct all their business associates to subject themselves to health checks to ascertain their coronavirus status. On this premise, the Rivers State government is not prepared to compromise."

On its part, TUC blamed the federal and state governments for adopting an aggressive attitude to the issue and instigating an avoidable clash. The union said though both tiers of government were working for the national interest, they left a communication gap that deepened into a crisis.

"Communication gap is the reason for this imbroglio. We are in a precarious time. An issue like this should not have arisen if there was synergy. Flexing of muscles will further worsen our situation," TUC said, in a statement by its president, Comrade Quadri Olaleye, and Secretary General, Comrade Musa-Lawal Ozigi.

The union urged the federal and Rivers State governments to avoid unnecessary show of power at this critical time of health emergency, as it could worsen the situation.

The TUC statement said, "As an organisation, we do not want to dwell on who is right or wrong. Agreed, the flight was on a special operation and was duly approved by relevant government agencies, including the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), well and good. But the state government should have been carried along, taking into consideration the federal government's order and restriction of movement following the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The governor, on his part, went to the extreme if the alleged report of invasion into a military base to arrest workers who were on a lawful national assignment is true. Prosecuting, instead of isolating, them is bad. Revenue from oil runs the economy and if the federal government thought it wise to devise a means of sustaining the economy in the midst of this challenge, it is a perfect idea; however, all parties should be carried along to avoid laudable moves being misconstrued.

"The Congress wishes to reiterate here that we do not need flexing of muscles now. It is unnecessary, as it will further create tension in the state, and the country at large. The hunger pang is enough. No body should be taken for granted, no matter what.

"All we need and ask for now is a sane and secure environment that would encourage the needed development after the Covid-19 scourge."

In a similar vein, PDP called on the federal government to refrain from acts, like the one in Rivers State, which portray it as politicising the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement by the PDP national publicity secretary said, "Our party holds that the issue of public health and safety should be of major concern to all actors in government irrespective of the offices they occupy.

"We find it strange that the federal government would be supporting a private business to disobey the extant order of a state. We hold that all decisions and actions of the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wilke, so far, rests on ensuring public safety and protecting the people of Rivers State from the scary wrath of COVID-19."

The party called on the federal government, particularly the Minister of Aviation, to pursue the path of dialogue and stop politicising COVID-19.

PDP asked the federal government to direct Caverton and its workers to subject themselves to health checks and procedures established by the Rivers State Health Surveillance Officials.

It said President Muhammadu Buhari should, as a matter of urgency, provide incentives for Rivers State to enable the state perform its responsibility as the oil and gas hub of the country, particularly at this critical time of COVID-19 pandemic.

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