Aircraft crew in ‘protective custody’
Security begins investigation
By Senator Iroegbu in Abuja and Ibrahim Shuaibu in Kano
Security operatives at Malam Aminu Kano International Airport in the early hours of Saturday intercepted and impounded
a suspicious Russian-made Antonov cargo plane and its French-speaking crew.
A security source told THISDAY in Kano under condition of anonymity that the plane, bound for the Chadian capital N’djamena, was loaded with military hardware including AK- 47 rifles and two helicopters. “I was at a duty post last [Friday] night; I was informed by my boss immediately after the seizure of the plane loaded with various categories of arms,” he said.
“Inside the plane, there were two helicopters apart from the military hard wares and rifles loaded inside the plane. The plane is right now parked within the airport under heavy security guard.”
The plane, according to a report by Reuters, was travelling from Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, to N’Djamena but was forced to make an emergency landing in Kano because N’Djamena airport was closed.
The Reuters report also said that after the five crew members were detained, inspectors found two helicopters, a bullet-proof jeep and boxes of what were suspected to be military hardware.
Confirming the seizure of the plane to THISDAY, the General Manager Communication of Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Yakubu Datti said, “The pilot sought for permission to land at the airport following a technical problem with the aircraft.”
Mr Datti declined to disclose the content of the aircraft, but said the security agencies have since commenced investigations on the issue.
Another intelligence source, who confirmed the incidence, said there were on-going investigations, which included the use of diplomatic channels to unravel the mission of the aircraft, its origin and destination.
Responding to THISDAY inquiry, a top military source said that all necessary investigations were being carried out to ascertain those behind the impounded aircraft and its contents.
“Yes an aircraft was impounded,” he said. “We learnt of the arrest and I have contacted the Commander on ground in Kano for further findings. We will get back to you very soon as investigation is on-going. We will surely get back to you when we have good information for you.”
In another twist to the developing story, a source within the Office of National Security Adviser (ONSA) has viewed the incident as an American-orchestrated plan to scuttle the new growing rapprochement between Nigeria and Russia.
“This is only propaganda as there is nothing like that (Russian involvement) rather American container seized in Nigeria en route Chad,” he alleged.
In the same vein, PRNigeria quoting a competent security sources confirmed that the aircraft and crew were under protective custody pending conclusion of the investigations.
The Russian embassy in Abuja did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, what the shipment was meant for remains shrouded in mystery, as Chad has in recent times been infamously linked to insurgency plaguing Nigeria. Also, Chadian troops, albeit operating under the auspices of an African Union peacekeepers, have been drawn into Central African Republic’s conflict since the rebel Muslim Seleka seized the capital Bangui and ousted the former president François Bozizé in 2013.
Yet, this would not be the first time seizure of arms shipments would cause controversy in Nigeria. The most recent was the sentencing of an alleged member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard alongside a Nigerian accomplice to five years in prison in May last year over an illegal shipment of mortars and rockets seized in the main port of Lagos in 2010.
Meanwhile, more facts have emerged on why Nigeria cancelled training of its Army battalions by the US military. Investigations revealed that this cancellation has since been followed up with an advanced arms deal with Russia and a strategic move towards the East for Nigeria’s future security ties.
The sudden reversal of security arrangement, which was confirmed in a statement by the US Diplomatic Mission to Nigeria, Public Affairs Section in Abuja, surprised the American experts who have expressed regret by the decision of the Federal Government to cancel further training of the military by the Americans.
The statement had noted that at the request of the Nigerian government, the US would discontinue its training of a Nigerian Army battalion.
According to the US, the first two phases of training were conducted between April and August 2014, and had provided previously untrained civilian personnel with basic soldiering skills.
In a swift reaction, the former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell said the move was puzzling, given the Nigerian military’s struggles to defeat the terrorist groups, which had taken control of parts of the country’s North-east.
Campbell said Nigeria’s move to cut the training short was baffling, wondering; “what on earth were the Nigerians thinking of to simply cancel a training programme.
“And to me that is a complete mystery, because I do not see how it advances their own interests in any way.”
He noted that since April, US soldiers have been training a battalion of about 600 Nigerian troops on how to take on Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram.
He added that the Americans have also provided non-lethal equipment like vehicles and uniforms.
Also, the acting Defence and Army Attaché at the US Embassy in Abuja, Lieutenant Colonel John Cantwell, told the Voice of America (VOA) last week he was not clear why the Nigerians decided to stop the training.
“No, we did not receive any specific reason as to why they wanted to cancel the training. But their notification was in response to a request that we had sent to them requesting their intention regarding moving forward with the third phase of training,” he said.
Responding, the Director of Defence Information (DDI), Maj-Gen. Chris Olukolade, declined to comment on the issue, but was reported to have in a text message called the cancellation a “purely strategic action,” but did not explain further.
However, the Federal Government through the Coordinator of the National Information Centre, Mr. Mike Omeri, explained that it pulled out of the final phase of the US training for Nigerian soldiers because it did not cover equipment component.
Omeri, who stated this at the security briefing in Abuja last week, revealed that the FG could not afford to withdraw the equipment needed for the training from the field because Nigerian soldiers were currently using it in the war against Boko Haram in the Northeast.
He said: “The training that is being mentioned is supposed to be in three phases. Two phases have been concluded. The next phase requires some logistical components and I don’t think it’s wise to take equipment from the field and keep them in Jaji for training, when our soldiers out there need the equipment.
He added that every other aspects of its bilateral cooperation with the US were “still on-going and strong”.
Nevertheless, THISDAY investigations have revealed that the major reasons for the cancellation has more to do with the impact of the military training on the troops, the botched arms deals, and overall strategic interest of the US in the on-going counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fight in the North-east, which according to security sources are at variance with that of the Nigerian Armed Forces.