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11 Nov 2018

Why airport security searched Atiku, Aviation Minister Breaks Silence

The Nigerian government on Sunday dismissed the allegations of improper airport security checks raised by the opposition presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar.

Mr Abubakar, candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), said on Sunday afternoon he was made to go through security search shortly after arriving at the international airport in Abuja from a holiday in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Abubakar said both himself and his staff members on-board his private jet were searched by security agencies, whom he did not specifically mention. He condemned the search as an attempt to intimidate him for his politics and said he would ensure no Nigerian citizen is subjected to such harrowing experience if he is elected president.

Mr Abubakar’s claims sparked a flurry of commentaries amongst Nigerians online. While some see the screening as unnecessary and politically-motivated; others chastised Mr Abubakar for failing to show respect towards security protocols, adding that he is not above the law.

Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika issued a statement Sunday evening about the development, debunking Mr Abubakar’s account as “a mischievous attempt to grab the headlines” before proceeding to explain take-off and landing procedures at the international airport in Abuja.

“For the records, all incoming passengers on international flights go through customs, Immìgration, health and security screening. Where the aircraft is using the private, charter wing, as the PDP Candidate did, such arrivals are met by a team of the Immìgration, customs and other security agencies.

“They go to the arriving aircraft as a team. The airport authorities confirm that this is a routine process, applying to all international arrivals, including the minister unless the passenger is the President of Nigeria.

“The President, the Vice President and passengers aboard planes on the Presidential air fleet use the Presidential wing of the airport. It is also important to state that even in the Presidential Wing of the airport the President of Nigeria uses, there is the presence of Immìgration and other security officials who must stamp his or her passport on arrival.

“By standard procedure, all aircraft on international arrivals must first of all park at the international wing of the aircraft. They can move to the domestic terminal only upon the completion of the arrival processes.

“While it is true that the Task Force on Currency at the airport did the routine action of checking the former Vice President’s travel bag, he was accorded full respect as a senior citizen. These checks are mandatory, conventional, internationally applied and routine. No one is excused from them under our laws.

“These checks are carried out on all international arrivals and President Buhari does not get involved in them. Law-abiding citizens are encouraged to respect the laws of the country and our VIPs should not seek to be treated over and above the citizens they wish to serve,” Mr Sirika said.

The aviation minister also suggested that Mr Abubakar’s claims had been hatched from Dubai to deface the Buhari administration as intolerant of opposition ahead of a competitive general election.

“Nigerians need to know that one of the resolutions of the Atiku team at their recently-concluded, opulently-held Dubai retreat was to embark on scaremongering,” Mr Sirika said. “This is one of such.”

Mr Abubakar arrived at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday from Dubai, where he had been on a vacation since mid-October and held several political consultations.

His return had been anticipated for several days, amidst growing concerns that he was being too slow to set up his campaign team in earnest. Top campaign officials, like the director-general and zonal coordinators, have been named, but other departments and directorates like strategy, mobilisation and publicity are still left largely uncoordinated, campaign insiders say.

Paul Ibe, a spokesperson for Mr Abubakar, said it was not the right way they expected Mr Abubakar to return from his holidays, but desperate efforts by supporters of the president to cast the opposition candidate in a bad light had to be occasionally slapped down

“All what they want to do is to embarrass the former vice president,” Mr Ibe said. “They searched his plane hoping to find incriminating items that could use to disgrace him, but their searched turned up nothing. Not even a dime in illegal currency was found on him.”

Mr Ibe, who had served as Mr Abubakar’s top aide for several years, said Sunday’s incident was not routine and entirely strange by every account.

“Usually we have the immigration, customs and health officials come in to check people on board when we want to fly out and when we return into the country,” Mr Ibe said. “But today’s search was done by plainclothes men who did not identify themselves.”

Mr Ibe was not on the private jet with Mr Abubakar from Dubai today, but said he had learnt sufficient details of what transpired from the former vice president’s protocol.

PREMIUM TIMES could not immediately establish the security agencies responsible for the search on Mr Abubakar’s aircraft. The police did not return requests for comments Sunday night, and a spokesperson for the State Security Service said he was not aware of the development.

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