Rivers State was accused of lying about its ownership of the controversial airplane.
A House of Representatives report has accused federal aviation authorities of deliberately lying to “witch-hunt” the Rivers State Government, providing the clearest evidence yet, in support of wide belief that the recent grounding of the state’s aircraft was instigated by the presidency, likely, over President Goodluck Jonathan’s rift with the state governor, Rotimi Amaechi.
The report, submitted Thursday, lambasted the ministry of aviation and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, for refusing to acknowledge that the airplane belongs to the state government, even when records show same.
The ministry claimed the plane was registered to the Bank of Utah in the United States, and accused Rivers State of lying about its ownership. It also claimed the plane was grounded due to the expiration of its flight permit.
The House committees on aviation and justice said the understanding between Rivers State and the bank was a well-known practice in the sector and was backed by documented evidences.
“It is distressing that NCAA and the ministry still fails or refuse to appreciate this simple fact (Utah trusteeship); but since the authorities did not raise ownership issue with several other aircraft having the same Bank of Utah Trustees, this allegation is in bad faith and grossly unprofessional,” the report says.
The report also rejected the allegation by the ministry that several application for permits purportedly made on Rivers State behalf by Caverton Helicopters, were falsified.
Caverton had denied ever acting on behalf of the state government- a move the Rivers State government said was instigated by the federal government. The state said Caverton was pressured by the ministry of aviation to deny the transaction.
The House report upheld that argument, saying evidences showed clearly the company acted for the state either directly, or through its staff.
“As owner and operator of the aircraft, neither the Rivers state government nor its officials forged or falsified any document toward securing flight clearances or any other license,” the report states.
“Should the top management of Caverton deny transacting business with Rivers state government despite its acquiescence of contract between its member of staff and the government, then its behaviour smacks of administrative laxity or negligence; alternatively, its behaviour lends credence to the assertion that it was pressured to deny the relationship.”
The lawmakers also said while it was true Rivers operated with expired license, federal authorities failed, or refused to sanction the state for too long not to raise concern about the propriety of its action; more so, when several other private jet owners were guilty of the same offence and had not been punished.
“Isolation of Rivers state government for reprimand becomes difficult to deny,” the report said.
Details of the findings will be considered for approval by the whole House on a later date.
The controversy, which led to the grounding of the aircraft, is widely seen as a face of a political feud between Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, and President Goodluck Jonathan over the 2015 presidential election. Mr. Amaechi has criticized the government’s policies, and is reportedly against Mr. Jonathan’s plan to seek a fresh term.
The row began after the state’s aircraft was disallowed from taking off from the Akure airport on claims the pilot failed to declare the full manifest of the passengers. Days after, the plane was indefinitely grounded on allegations involving discrepancies in ownership details and permit expiration.
The presidency has repeatedly denied having a hand in the controversy.
During investigations, lawmakers ordered the list of all private jets and owners and documentations to be submitted by the Ministry of Aviation to enable the committees examine whether the Rivers State treatment was any different, particularly as it regards ownership and expiration of license.
The committees said the ministry and its departments blatantly refused to send in the required materials despite promising to do same.
“This attitude may be interpreted as an attempt to hide the suspected fact that many aircraft are being operated with expired permits or licenses,” the committees said; a likelihood which would nullify one of the government’s allegations that Rivers state operated the aircraft on an expired permit.
The Nigerian Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah, on Wednesday admitted that her ministry did not have clearly stated regulations guiding the ownership and operatorship of private jets in Nigeria. She said the Federal Executive Council at its Wednesday meeting approved new guidelines for private jets.