Unnecessary Tug of War in Rivers

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Davidson Iriekpen writes that at a time when the Federal Government was supposed to be putting heads together with the Rivers State government to curb the spread of COVID-19, both governments are engaged in an unnecessary tug of war

After much ado, the Federal Government has disclosed that it has commenced talks with the Rivers State government to release Caverton Helicopters pilots who were arrested in Port Harcourt on the orders of the state government for flouting its lockdown order put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

Giving an update on the controversy at the daily briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 on Tuesday, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Aviation, Mr. Hassan Musa, said there was a need to fast track their release considering threats by various unions in the aviation sector to embark on strike.

Musa said, “The Federal Government is in consultation with the Rivers State government to have them released as soon as possible because their arrest is taking a different dimension as Air Traffic Union and other unions in the aviation sector are threatening to go on strike. We hope that this misunderstanding will soon be resolved so that we can have them out as their operation was legal.”

To many people in Rivers State, this route of reconciliation is what expected of the Federal Government instead of its earlier controversial step. It was surprising that at a time when the two governments were supposed to be putting heads together on how to curb the spread of COVID-19, they were engaging in an unnecessary tug of war.

Recall that two pilots working with Caverton Helicopters and 10 passengers were arrested and arraigned before a Chief Magistrate’s Court in Port Harcourt. The arrest was sequel to the Executive Order RVSG – 01 2020 Pursuant to Sections 2, 4 And 8 of Quarantine Act, Cap. Q2 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 and Regulation 11 of the Quarantine (Coronavirus (Covid-19) and Other Infectious Diseases) Regulations 2020 signed into law by Governor Nyesom Wike recently, as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 in the state. The order, among others, bars vehicles and flights from entering the state during the period the state is trying to curtail the deadly virus.

The state government had said that during the lockdown, Caverton Helicopters illegally flew in over 220 passengers to the state without allowing health professionals from the state to ascertain their Coronavirus status.

The state Commissioner for Information and Communication, Mr. Paulinus Nsirim, said that the firm also refused to avail the state government of the contacts of the passengers so that they could be traced and tested. He urged the Federal Government to direct its business associates to subject themselves to health checks to ascertain their COVID-19 status, pointing out that before the arrest of the two pilots and 10 passengers, the state government had warned Caverton Helicopters and other operators to make sure that their pilots and passengers were tested by Rivers State health officials, adding that the company (Caverton) disregarded the warning.

“Before their arrests, the Rivers State Government issued several warnings to Caverton and other operators to ensure that their pilots and passengers were tested by Rivers State health authorities. It disregarded the warnings.

“They were arrested because they constantly contravened the Executive Order issued by the Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, which requires that everyone coming into the state for essential duties subject themselves to mandatory health checks to ascertain their Coronavirus status. At the last count, Caverton Helicopters ferried over 220 passengers into the state without allowing health professionals of the Rivers State Government ascertain their coronavirus status. They also refused to avail the state government their contacts; so, they can be traced and tested,” he said.

But the Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika, had vehemently rejected the arrest and detention of the pilots, chiding Wike for indulging in illegality. He said Caverton Helicopters which provides support services for oil and gas companies in Nigeria, including the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Total, Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, had permission to fly to the state.

Speaking in Abuja, the minister argued that civil aviation was on the exclusive list as was the Nigerian Air Force and Armed Forces, adding that besides the Federal Government, no other person has the legal right to legislate on civil aviation.

According to him, the exemption was part of strategies put in place by the Federal Government to rake in some revenue at this time of global oil price crisis, of which the Rivers State was a beneficiary.

“Civil aviation is on exclusive list item number three there. So no other person but the federal government has authority to legislated upon. The air force officer who jumped the Commander in Chief (President) also jumped the chief of defense staff, also jumped the chief of air staff and ignored him, to call a governor to come into the property of the federal government of Nigeria to make an arrest, exhibited dangerous ignorance and incompetence grossly.

“The police that followed the governor to go in there, exhibited dangerous ignorance from our perspective in civil aviation,” he said.

He also said permission was granted to the pilots “as a matter of national interest,” adding that “Whether we have approval for the flight, yes we did and we did in national interest. All of these flights are for the purposes of improving the national revenue to which Rivers State is the greatest beneficiary.

“Those flights by Caverton, Aero Contractor, Arik, Bristow were for national interest and improved national revenue. At a time when oil has gone below $30 per barrel and the cost of production is $30. In the wisdom of President Muhammadu Buhari, he thought that this be allowed so that the nation will not be crippled and national revenue will not be lost. It was against the background that we have the authority and being on the exclusive list and we have the powers in civil aviation, guided by the civil aviation act 2016 to approve such flights,” Sirika said.

But Wike who would have none of that, countered the minister, saying that while nobody said the Federal Government cannot come to the state, due process must be properly followed in order not to compound the spread of the deadly COVID-19 disease.
“If they come to Rivers without us knowing their status, what will be the implication assuming they have the virus?,” he asked.

Though the governor admitted that he does not have the right to close the airport in Rivers, he said it was his duty to prevent people from entering the state under the circumstance.

He also contended that the state government did not know the health status of the pilots and those who were aboard the flight, if they were positive or negative of the COVID-19 disease, noting that his administration is duty-bound to protect the lives of Rivers people.
“Nobody says that you can’t go to any state but now we are in a war situation. This COVID-19 is even worse than a conventional war. We want to know who are those people you brought in, so that we have to trace them to know their identity and status. Luckily we have seen the pilot and the co-pilot. They will assist the police in identifying them.

“The company wrote to us about bringing people which I forwarded to Commissioner of Police to perform security checks and the health officials to perform their duties before allowing them to come on. That is for those performing essential duties. But they decided to violate the regulations,” Wike said.

While some Nigerians have joined the minister in bashing Wike, others have equally described his outburst as an attempt to blackmail the state government by bringing in national interest and improved national revenue as a reason for flouting the directive of the state government. They averred that if the minister had followed due process by informing the state government or subjecting the passengers to COVID-19 tests, the feud would have been averted.

They further imagined the spiral effect if one or two of the passengers ferried to the state were carrying the deadly virus, adding that while working on oil facilities in the state, the passengers could have infected other, leading to community transmission of the virus.

To show that the federal government deliberately wanted to undermine Wike, those who spoke with THISDAY referred to a similar scenario in Cross River State where the state government stopped 35 American expatriates working with the NNPC from entering the state except they show evidence of the COVID-19 test and nothing happened.

The 35 Americans who were billed to carry out repair works on Bonga Oil platform, were stopped from coming into the state following the flight and land movement restrictions imposed on the state and advised them to either remain in Lagos or move to Abuja without much ado.

THISDAY gathered that the Americans landed from the US in a chartered flight at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos with 35 passengers. After their screening by officials of the Port Health Services, the Americans were billed to depart with Air Peace chartered flight to Calabar with the permission of the Federal Government but the state government refused, insisting that the passengers must present their COVID-19 tests and when they could not present the tests, they stopped only to be airlifted to Abuja.

Responding to why the American oil workers were denied entry into the state, the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State, Christian Ita, said, “We insisted that they should go back and be properly tested before they could come in. We have blocked our boundaries; so, if they must come in because the federal government wants them to come in and do one or two things, they have to be sure that they are free of infections, because prevention, they say, is better than cure.”

This is why many analysts have argued that as country which operates a federal constitution, the central government cannot undermine the effectiveness of state and state government cannot nullify the exercise of federal power once each is acting within its statutory and constitutional powers. They believe that considering the way COVID-19 entered the country, the federal government should have followed basic procedure by supporting state governments in helping to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

Observers have equally argued that the action of the Federal Government amounted to encouraging private businesses to compromise the health security system of Rivers State at this critical time. They also pointed to how Federal Government had quarantined the Chinese experts that are in the country to carry out medical outreach in the country.

“When three crew members of airline escaped from quarantine a joint team of the federal government apprehended them for the overall safety with neither the airline raising the alarm nor the federal government shouting exclusive list. But when it comes to Rivers State, the operators of exclusive list are willing to risk the lives of over six million Rivers people and Nigerians just to drill barrels of oil.”

“It is sad that the Federal Government will engage in this needless game of double standards. Introducing politics into the fight against the spread of coronavirus is counterproductive. It makes the entire country vulnerable and weakens the health defence mechanism of all 36 states. The objective of the fight against coronavirus is to stop the virus from killing the Nigerian population. In this fight, all established health protocols must be respected whether in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt or Enugu. Undermining health protocols in Port Harcourt because the state is on another political path, is dangerous and would undermine the national struggle.

“This double standard is deadly. It is unnecessary and it is unfortunate. Nobody should fuel the spread of the virus in one part of the country because of the irregular application of exclusive list.

“It is in our national interest for the Federal Government to discard the politicisation of the fight against coronavirus and enthrone national respect for the operation of the established health protocols agreed by all tiers of government. What is exclusive list in the face of national ill-health?,” one of the observers who spoke with THISDAY on account of anonymity said.

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Observers have equally argued that the action of the federal government amounted to encouraging private businesses to compromise the health security system of Rivers State at this critical time. They also pointed to how Federal Government had quarantined the Chinese experts that are in the country to carry out medical outreach in the country