Politicking with aviation? - The Nation

By The Citizen

•The APC allegation of sabotage in the Gombe Airport landing incident, if true, is worrisome and sinister

Partisan allegations are often like crying wolf, because of politicians' habit of trying to score quick ones. But when such accusations are about air safety, and the aviation authorities had before demonstrated the penchant to politicise official duties, it is better everyone takes notice; and a putative crisis nipped in the bud.

That should be the logical reaction to the All Progressives Congress (APC) allegation that a fire truck was put on the runway of Gombe Airport, Gombe, to prevent its partisans from landing, thus stalling their bid to attend a vital meeting in the Gombe State capital.

Alleging that the incident which forced the aircraft bearing APC partisans to land at Bauchi Airport was plain sabotage, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, APC interim national publicity secretary, in a statement on the incident declared: 'In view of the seriousness of this unprecedented act, the willful endangering of the lives of those on board the aircraft deliberately prevented from landing and the fact that the action contravenes global aviation standards, we call for a comprehensive investigation of the incident by the National Assembly.'

That is hardly an illegitimate request.
But the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has dismissed the APC allegation, insisting the opposition party was playing politics with aviation and air safety.

Yakubu Dati, FAAN spokesperson, countered that the Gombe Airport, which does not operate 24 hours, was on January 2 when the incident happened, closed to check fire tenders, a routine exercise, until a fire truck, belonging to the Gombe State Government, broke down and blocked the runway. Though the truck was removed less than one hour after the incident, it was during efforts to remove the obstacle that the aircraft carrying the APC chieftains arrived; and was diverted to Bauchi to land.

Even then, Mr. Dati could not solve the puzzle surrounding how and why the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), which the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) reportedly despatched immediately, that all flights should stay off the airport until the fire truck was removed, never got to the pilot and his crew, flying the aircraft bearing the APC partisans.

That, Alhaji Mohammed insisted, was the most damning evidence of bad faith and sabotage, which the National Assembly must probe. But even on that, Mr. Dati has countered: the APC was crying wolf where there was none; and reading political motives into strictly aviation safety matters.

That ought to have been fair allegation and counter-allegation, which ought to be left to a detached third party to probe, with each side getting the benefit of the doubt.

Still, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), a FAAN sister Federal Ministry of Aviation parastatal, has at least once fanned partisan issues in purely official matters. Recall: when the Jonathan-Amaechi imbroglio started, NCAA was involved in the Akure Airport detention of the governor's aircraft, with allegations that the Rivers State governor was flying an illegal aircraft in Nigeria's airspace. It would take a House of Representatives probe to uncover the facts and put the governor in the clear.

The same NCAA was neck-deep in the N255 million two bullet-proof BMW cars purchase scandal, involving Stella Oduah, the aviation minister. Given President Goodluck Jonathan's reluctance or inability to move against her, despite damning evidence, and resolutions by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, might the latest FAAN incident be the latest help from the minister's sphere of influence to an embattled president?

It would be too sinister to think that were so!
Still, any hasty conclusion would be premature. That is why the APC requested that the Gombe Airport incident be probed by the National Assembly. That way, the facts would be laid bare and who knows? Nigerians would be reassured that their country's air space is no fatal pawn in the chess of politics.