The Southern and Middle Belt Forum (southern flank) led by Chief Edwin Clark, said they were stopped from traveling to Makurdi yesterday, to attend the Middle Belt summit on restructuring.
They alleged that the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration was gradually descending into military dictatorship.
Speaking for the group, the Secretary General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, John Nwodo, at a press conference in Abuja, after they were stopped from flying, said even though they had secured a chapter aircraft, which was ready to fly to Makurdi, they were told that for security reasons, they needed clearance to land at the airport.
Nwodo said the elders spent about five hours at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, trying to obtain clearance to make the journey, but were refused by the Commandant of the Makurdi Airport, whose name was given as Lt. Commander A. Audu.
“We consider this fundamental infringement on our democratic right of freedom of movement and freedom of association. There is nothing in our law precluding us from moving to wherever we like, and holding an opinion, insofar as we do not breach any law in Nigeria.
“What has happened to us today expresses a lot of doom for fundamental human rights in our country, for the free exchange of ideas as unavoidable instruments of achieving growth and development of our polity.
“We deprecate the treatment that we were given today, which treatment prevented us from physically joining our brethren in the Middle Belt, in a common view which we all hold, a very patriotic view, which we think will be the only way to guarantee the future of our country.”
Nwodo, who joined other southern leaders to watch the live transmission of the conference in Chief Clark’s residence, said they wanted to show solidarity with the Middle Belt people, who, he said, had supported the forum.
He urged the media: “Please publicise this for many reasons. One, the teeming crowd that you saw on television in the Middle Belt are our brethren, who showed us solidarity in other zonal summits. The fact that we were barred from showing them solidarity is bound to hurt them. Through this press conference, we want to express our solidarity with them. We want them to know we are one and the same in our views of the restructuring of the federation
“Secondly, to deprecate this new tendency. Not too long ago, the president signed into law an Executive order, which gives him the right to seize people’s assets. This is almost like a military government. And, we think this is an intrusion into the principles of separation of powers in our country.
“It is the responsibility of the legislature to make law, of the executive to implement the law and the judiciary to interpret the law. I do not think Section 5 of the Constitution gives the President such Executive authority to make laws.
“The right to property is a fundamental right in a democracy. It cannot be expropriated here without decision of the court. What has happened to us today shows a continuing tendency to slide into a dictatorship in a democratic government. That is condemnable.”
On whether they saw it as an attempt to sabotage their participation at the summit, a member of the forum, Yinka Odumakin, said: “The first jet that was to take us started this funny game of saying that there was a bad weather to Makurdi and that they could not fly until we got to other airlines, and I asked what’s bad about the weather. They said they were ready to take us.
“As we were about to make payments, they now said there was landing permit issues. They called the commandant in Makurdi, who said they should send application.
“The Chief of Staff to the Benue State Governor said we should fax the application to him and to the commandant.
“We waited at the airport for hours. Eventually, the Chief of Staff had to contact the commandant in Makurdi and was told that the landing permit requested by the first airline was still on their table. At that stage, General C. Ariyo Niege, a veteran ex-soldier, who was head of Nigerian military forces in Sudan, went to the commandant in Abuja.”
Narrating what happened Ariyo, who was present at the press briefing said: “I pleaded with him (Commandant) that we were having issues with flying to Makurdi for the summit, and he told me for security reasons civilian aircraft are no longer allowed to fly into Makurdi airport.”
Others at the briefing hosted by Chief Clark, were Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Dr. Chukwueka Ezeife, and Col. Tony Nyam.
Clark, Adebanjo and Ezeife later gave goodwill messages to the Makurdi summit through the telephone that was broadcast on live television.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Air Force said it was not aware of any move to prevent any commercial or charter aircraft from landing in its air field in Makurdi Benue State.
The Spokesman for the Nigerian Air Force, Air Vice Marshal Olatokunbo Adesanya, who denied allegations that the force prevented a commercial charter airplane from landing at its airfield, said the standard procedure was for the airplane to apply for permission in writing and obtain same in writing from the NAF Headquarters, before it could be allowed to take off from its destination to Makurdi.
He told Daily Sun on telephone that the only airport in Makurdi is the airfield, which belongs to the Nigerian Air Force, and there is need for any aircraft which wants to use the facility to obtain permission in writing.
He said: “If it is our own base that is being referred to, you know it is only NAF aircraft that is allowed to land there. Any other aircraft, either of another military or another registration that will land there would have to obtain permission from the Nigerian Air Force and when the NAF discovers that the aircraft will not constitute a security risk, they will give authority to the base in Makurdi to allow the aircraft land.”
He said that what is obtainable worldwide in the aviation industry is that, if the Nigerian Air Force plane wants to travel to Sierra Leone, for instance, it would first obtain landing rights from the Airport in Freetown before taking off from Nigeria.
AVM Adesanya explained that the practice is the standard world wide.