There was tension twice yesterday at the Maiduguri airport in Borno State as the Nigerian military barred 278 Islamic pilgrims headed for the Umrah pilgrimage from boarding a flight. In a separate development, the military also stopped Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume from taking a flight out of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.

Our correspondent gathered that the military prohibited the senator and other pilgrims from boarding the chartered aircraft and forced both flights to take off from the Maiduguri airport with empty seats.                                                             

One of the frustrated pilgrims told our correspondent that he and the others intended to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah. Another source disclosed that Governor Kashim Shettima had intervened to enable the pilgrims to fly, but his efforts yielded no results.

“There was raised tension at the airport,” one of the sources said.

Skynet International Limited, a hajj and Umrah operator, had chartered an airline to convey the pilgrims to their destination. But as the 278 pilgrims, who had undergone security checks, waited to board the plane, the military issued what one source described as “a strange orders” directing the plane to take off empty. The military then directed the pilgrims to travel five hours by road to the Kano airport through the often-unsafe Maiduguri-Damaturu-Potiskum Road.  

Military officials at the airport cited orders from the chief of air staff to immediately close the Maiduguri airport to commercial aircraft. The military said the action was for security reasons. Its officials ignored explanations by officials of Borno State Government, including Governor Shettima, that it was risky for the pilgrims to travel by road to Kano, especially given past instances of attacks along the route.

The military also waved off explanations by the management of Skynet, which chartered the airline, that it had written to Nigeria’s aviation officials as well as military and other security authorities about its flight arrangements, and had received proper authorization. The firm also reportedly reminded the military officials that the firm’s previous operations went hitch-free, even in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when Boko Haram insurgency in Maiduguri was intense. “In past years, our flights landed and took off to Saudi Arabia hitch-free,” a company representative told our correspondent.

As tension rose, Governor Shettima sent the secretary to the state government, Baba Ahmed Jidda, to address the pilgrims and calm them down. Afterwards, the pilgrims left in numerous buses driving through the night in order not to miss the inaugural from Kano to Saudi Arabia.

A Borno State government official said he was perturbed that the military might be playing a script to frustrate the Borno pilgrims because the opposition APC controls the state.

The dust had hardly settled down when the military also barred Senator Ndume, who represents Borno South Senatorial District, from boarding an aircraft chartered by the Borno State government. The 8-seater aircraft had arrived in Maiduguri with some state government officials from Abuja.‎ It was supposed to take off to Abuja with eight passengers, including the senator and a member of the House of Representatives. “The military ordered the plane to take off empty, leaving behind all eight persons, including the two lawmakers who were scheduled ‎to board the flight to Abuja.

A few months ago, the ‎Maiduguri airport was reopened by the Nigerian Air Space Management Agency after the airport’s temporary closure following an attack by insurgents on an air force base near the airport. Following an appeal by NAMA, the Borno State government had donated a high-powered electricity generator as well as other equipment that were installed in January to make the resumption of flights possible.

Since January, flights have been landing and taking off from the Maiduguri airport without any incident, leading a source to question the military’s actions yesterday. 

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