The House of Representatives’ committees on Justice and Aviation on Thursday submitted a 12-page report on the grounding of Bombardier B700 Global Express (N565RS) said to belong to the Rivers State Government. Those looking for a neutral and objective report on this highly politicized issue should look elsewhere. Otherwise, they will be thoroughly disappointed. Instead of providing clarity and closure, the report throws up critical questions, especially on the motives and the credibility of the committees and the House itself.
The first give-away of possible partisanship and of a potentially predictable outcome was embedded in the motion that gave rise to the mandate of the committees. In his motion of 30 April 2013, Hon. Ahmed Idris urged the House to investigate the grounding of the aircraft because the House was concerned that: “this incident raises serious concerns as to the abuse of powers by the Executive and the use of state machinery to witch-hunt perceived political opponents which is extremely dangerous and detrimental to any democracy and tends towards dictatorship and draconian tendencies typical of military era.” (Emphasis mine).
The failure to qualify and even disguise words such “abuse of powers by the Executive,” “use of state machinery to witch-hunt perceived political opponents” clearly foreshadowed the outcome that was delivered on Thursday. One should be forgiven for thinking that a motion that proceeded with such a prejudiced mindset could be nothing else but a choreographed attempt to work to a preferred answer.
If one wants to be charitable, this failure to properly clothe the hidden agenda could be excused on the grounds of inelegance in wording. But the way some members of the committee conducted themselves during the public hearing and the serial damage done to fairness and logic in their final report suggested that the report itself could have been written at the same time with the motion, and that the public hearing was just a tendentious shopping for details, a thinly veiled attempt at fulfilling all righteousness.
At this point some disclosure is in order. I have followed this issue closely and I attended the hearing organized by the committees on 14 May 2013 as a consultant to one of the invited parties, Caverton Helicopters. Despite my initial misgivings but more on account of the huge respect I used to have for some principal officers of the House, I was ready to give the committees the benefit of the doubt. But the proceedings gave little ground for such optimism as it was clear that some of the members had made up their minds even before listening to the invited parties.
One member kept interrupting invitees whose testimonies did not further the sexed-up narrative of political prosecution. Another member famously staged a walkout on account of being angry. And yet another member kept making side remarks and issuing veiled and open threats of possible prosecution. Meanwhile, no one posed any tough question to the Rivers’ delegation or asked any member of the delegation to substantiate any of their claims. It was more than an easy ride for the Rivers’ crew.
Now that the committees have done their job, it is time to ask them some questions based on the simple premise that as our representatives they are, in theory at least, put in that position to act on behalf of their individual constituencies and all Nigerian citizens, not just for themselves and their allies.
How come Rivers State Government was given a clean bill of health on all issues, including the egregious one of flying a plane with expired flight clearance? The last and disputed clearance that the plane secured had expired on 2 April 2013. Because foreign planes are allowed two days of grace, this means it was illegal for the plane to fly the Nigerian airspace from 4 April 2013.
Throughout the hearing no one asked the Rivers State delegation why a state government (a custodian of law) was flying a plane illegally a clear two weeks after expiration of its flight permit. Rather, the committee turned the heat on the regulators for not doing their jobs properly.
But if such allegation of regulatory laxity could be treated as fair, wait for item #10 under Observations and Conclusions on page 10 of the report: “Rivers State operated its aircraft with expired clearance between 2nd and 26th of April 2013; but several other aircraft are suspected to be in similar situation; isolation of Rivers State Government for reprimand becomes difficult to deny.” (Emphasis mine).
Wow, wow, wow! This is not even the excuse by the Rivers State Government. It doesn’t have to bother: the committees will shop for excuses for it. If we break this apologia down for people who went to night school like myself, this is what it means: someone caught committing a crime can claim s/he is being witch-hunted because others have not been caught. If you need a lame justification for impunity, you can’t get a worse one. And to think that such justification for breaking laws is coming from an institution that is charged with making laws for society. What?
On a related matter, the pilot failed to write all the names of the occupants of the plane when its take-off was delayed in Akure on 26 April 2013. The pilot wrote only the name of the governor, the titles of his aides and “five others.” During the hearing, the pilot of the plane Capt. Tosin Odulaja agreed his co-pilot erred. But what do the committees have to say about this infraction? “This is clearly contrary to the regulation.
However the committee established that several other manifests previously filed by the captain constantly mentioned one name only, “Rotimi Amaechi,” and there was never a recorded delayed start up on that account before the Akure event.”(Emphasis mine).
In desperate pursuit of the persecution narrative, the committee seems unable to make up its mind. After stating that failure to fill out manifest with all names in full is contrary to regulation, the committees supplants itself by vending an excuse that what is contrary to regulation shouldn’t be a big issue because it wasn’t objected to in the past. God Almighty, what kind of logic is that?
In the second of their five recommendations, the committees called on the Attorney-General of the Federation to consider prosecuting Caverton Helicopters “for providing information that led the authorities to believe that Rivers State Government falsified documents thereby leading to grounding of its aircraft.” Even when this call is merely advisory, it is important to know how the committee arrived at such a weighty recommendation.
For the purpose of those who have not been following this issue closely, Caverton Helicopters was contacted by ACASS, a Canadian firm, to apply for permission to import a plane for Rivers State Government in 2012. On the basis of this, the company sent a request to the Minister of Aviation on 27th August 2012. However, ACASS later informed Caverton Helicopters to stay action since it was no longer in charge of the aircraft.
Caverton Helicopters said that was the last dealing it has on the aircraft. However, the company later discovered that since January this year several applications had been filed in its name to request for flight permits for the foreign registered aircraft to fly within Nigeria, the last of which expired on 2 April 2013.
The company insists that these requests for flight permits for the aircraft were forged. Rivers State Government insists it was Caverton that the requests were not forged.
There have been spirited attempts to create a side narrative as an adjunct to the persecution narrative by saying pressure was put on Caverton Helicopters to deny the Rivers State Government and to conflate request for importation with request for flight permits.
The two are not, and cannot be, the same. As far back as February this year, the pilot of the aircraft confirmed to Eurocontol, an over-flight agency, that Caverton Helicopters had nothing to do with the aircraft and that all bills should be sent to him.
A clear two months after, the pilot and his employers are changing their story. Despite all the information made available to it, the committees through their report claim that there is agency relationship between Caverton Helicopters and Rivers State, without any shred of evidence, and giving the impression that if the company wrote a letter of request on 27 August 2012, it also wrote the subsequent ones.
The company has challenged the Rivers State Government to provide evidence of any contract, any mandate, and any payment to it for the said services. Or would a private company have provided services to it for free and without documentation?
Essentially this is an issue of claim and counter-claim by two parties, and one that warrants thorough investigation. But without doing more than listening to two opposing accounts, without conducting independent investigations, without calling in forensic experts and security agencies to examine the issue of forgery, the committees declare, ex-cathedra: “if there was falsification, it was indeed not carried out by Rivers State Government….” (Emphasis mine). The Rivers State Government couldn’t have written it better! Pray, except by special oracular insight, how did the committees arrive at this conclusion upon which they built their recommendation for prosecution? Can partisanship descend to lower depths?
*Mr. Adio is the lead consultant at Think-Tank Consult and Publisher of Metropole magazine