The crisis over an aircraft owned by the Rivers State Government deepened on Thursday, as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission commenced a discreet probe to determine Governor Rotimi Amaechi’s link to the alleged inflation of the cost of the plane by $10m. The aircraft has been the subject of a row between the Rivers State Government and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
It was learnt that the anti-graft agency is looking into the ‘high possibility’ of alleged money laundering in relation to the purchase of the aircraft.
A source said on Thursday that while the state government claimed to have purchased the Bombardier aircraft with $57m, records available to the EFCC showed that it may have been bought for $47m, thereby creating room for suspicion on how $10m was spent.
It was learnt that the state House of Assembly approved the purchase of the controversial aircraft within 24 hours.
It was further gathered that operatives of the EFCC might also be looking into how two aircraft purchased by the Rivers State Government under former Governor Peter Odili were managed.
One of the aircraft was sold to the Cross River State Government while the other aircraft manufactured by a Brazilian firm, an air ambulance, was said to have been phased out.
Investigations further revealed that the company wrote the Rivers State Government to say it was longer manufacturing the spare parts of the aircraft and so it was returned.
A source said the anti-graft agency was probing the management of the aircraft because rather than just phasing it out, it should have been traded in for another aircraft.
It was learnt that a focus of the investigation was to find out if there was any link whatsoever between the new aircraft and the aircraft in the area of cost.
Contacted, EFCC spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren, said he had not been briefed on the matter.
“I’m not aware of this,” he said on the telephone.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority has said that the aircraft it grounded does not belong to the state government.
The General Manager, Public Affairs, NCAA, Mr. Fan Ndubuoke, told our correspondent on Thursday that the aircraft belonged to a private firm, contrary to claims by the Rivers State Government that it owned the controversial plane.
He said, “The document we have does not show Rivers State Government as the owner of the aircraft. The registration is saying that the plane is owned by a company and not Rivers. So it is you people that will ask Amaechi how he came in contact with the aircraft. What is his relationship with the owner of the aircraft? That is his own business and I cannot answer that question for him.
“From the records we have, we have told you the owner of the aircraft. So whether it is from his friend or whoever, is it for me to know? It is not for me to know. Because from our records there is nowhere Rivers State Government is stated as the owner of the aircraft.”
He admitted that the aircraft was registered in the name of Bank of Utah in the United States, stressing that the governor should tell the public what he knows about the controversial plane.
Ndubuoke explained that the plane, before it was grounded, only had approval to move from Accra to Port Harcourt. He wondered why the crew decided to fly to other destinations outside the aircraft’s approved routes.
He said, “The clearance for the aircraft was sought by Caverton Helicopters on March 27. Amaechi did not seek clearance and the Rivers state government did not seek clearance.
The route they were given the clearance to fly was Accra-Port Harcourt-Accra.
“That does not mean it is the only place that they can fly. But that was the route with which they applied for the clearance. So if they now want to fly to Owerri or Akure, they need to reapply for another clearance. That is just the true matter, nothing more, nothing less. Their movement to Akure was illegal because it was not captured in the clearance.”
The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency had last Friday refused to grant approval to the governor’s aircraft to leave Akure airport.
According to NAMA, the development was due to the failure of the pilot of the plane to submit the required manifest of passengers on board. The airspace agency also said it was untrue that the aircraft was grounded by the airspace manager at the Akure airport.
The Managing Director, NAMA, Mr. Nnamdi Udoh, argued that contrary to the politicisation of the incident, the agency carried out its functions in line with the global aviation standard.
He was reported as saying, “By regulation, the manager has no power to clear any aircraft at that time of the day because Akure Airport operates day light operations. Approval must be given through the manager to the tower.”
On Saturday, NCAA had declared that the controversial aircraft operated illegally in the country.
As a result, the civil aviation authority grounded the Bombardier-BD 700 Global Express aircraft with registration number N565RS. It said the plane had an expired clearance approval effective April 2, 2013.
The Director, Airworthiness Standards, NCAA, Mr. Benedict Adeyileka, explained that while the aircraft was still operating illegally, it had been sighted in several places, including Owerri and Akure.
The NCAA also stated that the grounding of the aircraft had nothing to do with the President. Ndubuoke said, “The media always say that government grounded the aircraft because of issues with Amaechi. Reports have it that it was because the President and Amaechi are having problems, and that that was what may have led to the grounding of the aircraft.
“But I don’t know how the President will come from Aso Rock and say ground this airplane. In fact, I don’t how that will happen and I wonder why he will do that in the first place. So what we are trying to say that it is not true.”
Contacted, the governor’s Chief Press Secretary, Mr. David Iyofor, said he would not react to speculations about the state government’s aircraft.
“I have no comment on the issue because I cannot react to speculations,” he stated.
However, the Rivers State Commissioner for Information and Communications, Mrs. Ibim Semenitari, in a statement on Friday faulted claims by the Ministry of Aviation that the aircraft was flown into Nigeria with forged documents.
The statement reads in part, “No aircraft can fly into Nigerian airspace illegally and land at various airports within the country unchallenged. The Rivers State Government-owned aircraft has been in operation since October 2012;
“The allegation that a state government would use the name of Caverton Helicopters to obtain various clearances is preposterous and embarrassing;
“The claim that the aircraft insured is owned by Acass Canada Limited of 6700 Cote de Liesse, Suite 206,Montreal, QC H4T 2B5, Canada is a deliberate distortion of facts. An insurance issued to Acass was used for entry into service while flying between Canada and the USA for pre-delivery tests. Rivers State Government took delivery on 5th October, 2012 and duly insured the aircraft and the certificate of insurance duly states this. Please note below:
“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. The ownership of the aircraft is not in question as we have clearly explained the relationship between the Rivers State Government and the Bank of Utah. “This is a verifiable relationship and is common place in the aviation sector as practitioners and stakeholders know. The Deed of Trust is proof that the aircraft is held in trust by the Bank of Utah on behalf of the Rivers State Government.
“We believe that all administrative procedures should and must be complied with. However, the state government is worried at what is beginning to seem like a witch-hunt of it and related parties that have conducted business with it. We will continue to engage with aviation officials and follow through with all administrative requirements and processes as is most appropriate.”
Also, the Majority Leader in the Rivers State House Assembly, Mr. Chidi Lloyd, explained on Thursday that the current administration traded off two aircraft it met on the ground because they were not durable.
Lloyd added that the state house of assembly approved the purchase of the aircraft based on the durability of the new one.
“When this state government came on board, it met two aircraft on ground. It also discovered that the two planes were not durable. Even the manufacturing company said that particular type had been phased out.
“The current administration decided to trade off the two planes and bought a more durable aircraft currently being used. The aircraft had been on the ground for almost a year, why is it being talked about now?” Lloyd wondered.
JD:The drama unfolds