FG pressures Caverton helicopters to disown Rivers State over controversial aircraft

The federal government denies Rivers State’s claims an helicopter firm received clearance on its behalf.

Federal aviation authorities have accused the Rivers State Government of repeatedly falsifying flight clearances for its airplane operated by Governor Rotimi Amaechi, in a perplexing new twist of what many believe is linked to Mr. Amaechi’s political confrontation with President Goodluck Jonathan over 2015 elections.

An aviation ministry spokesperson, Joe Obi, said on Thursday that reviews of the aircraft document’s showed it has questionable ownership records, and was indeed never cleared to fly in Nigeria.

Joe Obi, speaking for the aviation minister, Stella Oduah, claimed flight clearances received by Rivers State for the aircraft were based on forged documents of Caverton helicopters.

But the Rivers State Government has forcefully refuted the allegations, calling it “embarrassing and preposterous.”

“That’s a criminal activity. Why would a state government do that? Why would the Rivers State Government forge papers for its plane,” Ibim Semenitari, the state commissioner for information and communication, told PREMIUM TIMES on phone before the state issued an official statement.

“No aircraft would fly into Nigerian airspace illegally and land at various airports within the country unchallenged,” she said in the statement early Friday. “The Rivers state government has been flying this aircraft since October 2012 with this same certificate and with the knowledge of the ministry of aviation.”

Ms. Semenitari said the claim the aircraft was owned by any other entity, by virtue of insurance or trust agreement, was “deliberate distortion of facts.”

“An insurance issued ACASS was used for entry into service while flying between Canada and the USA for pre-delivery tests,” she said. “Rivers state government took delivery on 5th October, 2012, and duly insured the aircraft and the certificates of insurance duly state this.”

Amaechi’s dilemma

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The brickbats between the state government and the ministry of aviation, which have gone for days, have fueled speculation that the federal government’s sudden fraud claims against the state, after allowing it to fly a supposedly “illegal” aircraft for seven months, is linked with an ongoing political stand-off between Mr. Amaechi and President Jonathan.

Mr. Amaechi, Chairman of Nigeria’s Governors Forum, has publicly criticised the President on salient issues such as the fraud in the petrol subsidy payments, and the legality of using money meant for the three tiers of government for the payment. He is also said to be opposed to Mr. Jonathan’s planned re-election bid.

The presidency has denied that it is responsible for the governor’s travails.

The Caverton link

PREMIUM TIMES has been briefed of a shocking approach deployed by the federal authorities to ensure the Rivers government is cornered into submission, and finds no respite on the allegations. The official did not say exactly whether the effort was politically linked.

According to a senior aviation official, who refused to be named, the firm that should provide that relief for the state is Caverton helicopters, which the state government claims operated the aircraft, and has, for the past months, entered for, and received clearances on Rivers’ behalf.

PREMIUM TIMES has obtained one of such clearance letters, dated August 2012, from Caverton to the ministry of aviation, seeking permit for the airplane, Bombardier BD-700-1A11. The memo was signed by Adeniyi Makanjuola, the Executive Vice Chairman of Caverton helicopters.

The official said the federal ministry suddenly turned the heat on Caverton helicopters, threatening to withdraw the firm’s license if it failed to dispute the Rivers State account of having drawn clearances on its behalf.

“Aviation officials had threatened Caverton helicopters with withdrawal of their AOC if they do not deny sending in letters for RVSG,” our source said. “One had thought there are basic minimum standards below which people won’t fall. Apparently, we were wrong.”

Not willing to be dragged into the feud, the firm indicated it may oblige, our source said. By Thursday evening, the aviation ministry said in a statement, somewhat predictably, that the firm had disclaimed, “expressly,” ever sourcing for clearance for the Rivers State Government.

“A letter from Messrs. Caverton Helicopters dated 26 April, 2013 expressly disclaimed any knowledge of or involvement with the flight clearances previously obtained in its name for the said aircraft,” the ministry said.

“In view of Caverton’s letter expressly denying its involvement with the said clearances applications, the Ministry has directed the NCAA to commence a full investigation into all the circumstances surrounding the false clearance applications.”

The ministry said the alleged forgery was a serious violation of the Civil Aviation Act, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations and other extant criminal laws in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Attempts to reach Caverton helicopters were unsuccessful as calls made to the company’s official lines were not picked or returned. The company is also yet to respond to an email enquiry on its role in the aircraft squabble.

In what may appear to buttress that claim, Rivers State hinted in its statement that it was getting “worried at what is beginning to seem like a witch-hunt of it, and related parties that have conducted business with it.”

Spokesperson for the state, Ms. Semenitari, would not comment directly.

In its statement, the ministry of aviation said the aircraft in question with Registration Number N565RS is currently listed on the U.S. Department of Transport, Federal Aviation Administration Registry.

The registration, the ministry said, was issued to “Bank of Utah Trustee” of 200 E, South Temple, Suite 210, Salt Lake City, UT 84111-1346 to last from September 28, 2012 and expire on September 30, 2015, and was not transferable.

The ministry also said the aircraft is currently insured with Alliance Global Risks US Insurance Company with the policy holder noted on the Certificate of Insurance as “ACASS Canada limited,” of 6700 Cote de Liesse, Suite 206, Montreal, QC H4T 2B5, Canada.

“Upon conclusion of these internal investigations, the Ministry will take all necessary steps required by law,” it said.

Again PREMIUM TIMES has obtained a letter from the said company, ACASS Canada, to Mr. Amaechi, dated September 25, 2012, advising the governor on the N and 5N registration protocols, and making it clear the airplane belonged to the state and highlighting the controversial trust deal.

“As soon as the bombardier has completed their documentation and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority delivers the type of certification and issues the registration for the aircraft, you can dissolve the trust with Bank of Utah, at your discretion. The Bank of Utah, as owner of trustee, will act at your sole discretion” ACASS Canada president and Chief Executive Officer, Andre Khury, said.

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