* Legal Experts X-Ray The Position of The Law

By Celestine Okafor

The Buhari Media Organization (BMO), on Sunday, claimed that contrary to media reports that President Muhammadu Buhari's daughter, Hanaan, flew a presidential aircraft for private purposes, the president's daughter actually did not fly the official jet on a private visit to Bauchi state.

Rather, the group claimed she was on an official assignment to represent her father, the President, at an event in Bauchi town. The clarification was contained in a press statement by the Buhari Media Organisation (BMO), stating that in the circumstance of her official visit, convention and protocol allowed her to use the presidential aircraft. The group however asserted that this scenario had happened in the past.

The use of an official jet in the presidential fleet by President Muhammadu Buhari’s daughter, Hanaan, had generated controversy in the media on Thursday last week. It was reported that Ms Hanaan Buhari, a Master's Degree student in Photography at a University in the United Kingdom, flew in the jet to Bauchi on a “study tour” of Bauchi Emirate as part of her fieldwork for her ongoing Master’s programme in Photography. However, in the statement signed by its Chairman, Niyi Akinsiju and Secretary, Cassidy Madueke, BMO said the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was only playing politics in its comment on the matter. "Even if the opposition party did not fully admit it, members of the First Family are not barred from travelling in a Presidential jet, especially to an official function.

"In any case, PDP lacks the moral right to make this accusation because the party has a record of outright abuse and misuse of Presidential jets in its sixteen years in power at the centre". "There was hardly any time in the PDP years that aircraft in the Presidential fleet were not used like charter jets, contrary to laid down regulations. There were instances in the past where friends and members of the extended family of past Presidents were given access to aircraft in the Presidential fleet. "One instance that easily comes to mind was when some of the aircraft were used to ferry guests for a wedding.

This is aside from when a certain First Lady used planes in the fleet for shopping sprees with her friends. "Now we have a situation where one of the daughters of President Buhari was running an official errand for her father but PDP chose to spin it as a private photography trip. This is a very irresponsible act meant to score cheap political points." BMO said it was laughable that PDP, in an attempt to obfuscate recent history, argued that allowing Hanan to travel in one of the planes in the fleet amounts to 'the worst form of corruption'. "After years of a fruitless search for dirt on the President, to the extent of making unfounded allegations against President Buhari, PDP now believes it has a smoking gun on corruption in an awkward place.

" Is it not amusing that a party whose officials and members are standing trial on sundry charges of corruption has opted to describe travelling in a Presidential jet as 'worst case of corruption'? "Several leading lights of the last administration are standing trial, some have even returned funds that were shared among party members in the run-up to the 2015 election from the $2.1bn arms procurement fund. "Some electoral officials have also been convicted for benefiting from slush funds shared by former minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke.

"The jury is still out on the $16bn spent on non-existent power projects between 1999 and 2007, yet PDP wants Nigerians to see President Buhari's daughter travelling to Bauchi in a Presidential jet as 'the worst form of corruption'. "Nigerians have not forgotten that one of the phrases that characterized the PDP years is the belief that stealing is not corruption!", the statement added. However, despite several public criticisms of the use of the presidential aircraft by president Buhari's daughter and the opposition in some quarters to this development, legal experts have offered opinions on the legality of the use of the jet by a citizen said to be one of those not authorized by law to fly the aircraft, particularly in an alleged private circumstance.

A constitutional lawyer and civil rights activist, Barrister Jiti Ogunye, in an interview with the Premium Times, opines that the Constitution of Nigeria as amended was not categorical on the use of a presidential aircraft by any member of the president's family. He, however, noted that as an appurtenance of the Office of the President, there are provisions of Nigeria’s criminal law that criminalizes the use of the seal of the president or governor for anyone other than those elected into the offices. Said Jiti Ogunye: “For the daughter of the president to use presidential jet on a private tour is an abuse. But as I have said, I’m not aware of any law regulating it". “However, there should be protocols for such purpose.

For example, will it be permissible for children of the president to be moving around with the presidential limousines or cars? That will not be permissible due to security implications and for the dignity of that office. “You must be aware that even the presidential jet has the seal of the president on it. So does it mean the daughter should be using a facility dedicated to the president without the president on board?”. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and one of the virulent critic of the Buhari government especially in recent times, Barrister Femi Falana, claimed that the so-called “normal practice” mentioned by the presidency's spokesmen of using the aircraft in the presidential fleet for members of the first family to attend to alleged private engagements, is not backed by any extant law or official policy.

Falana argued that “Even the use of the aircraft in the presidential fleet by the Senate President, House Speaker and Chief Justice of Nigeria has not been approved by the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission which is the statutory body empowered by the Constitution and the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission Act to determine the remuneration and allowances of all political office holders in Nigeria". He further argued that “a country that is said to be the headquarters of the greatest number of poverty-stricken people in the world cannot afford to waste billions of Naira on the use of presidential aircraft and hiring of commercial jets by state governors that are owing workers several months of unpaid salaries.

” He maintains that no official policy authorises “the children of the president to use the presidential jets to attend to private social functions.” Contrary to the earlier claims in this report by the Buhari Media Organization (BMO) that there were instances during the regime of the opposition PDP where family members and individuals close to the president used presidential jet indiscriminately without restriction or criticism by the then opposition APC, Falana claims that “In fact, there is no precedent whatsoever for such privatisation of the presidency of Nigeria".

The activist lawyer continued: "Having publicly declared that his administration would maintain a compact and reliable aircraft for the safe airlift of the President, the Vice President and other government officials that go on special missions, President Buhari is estopped from allowing members of the first family to use the jets for their private affairs,” he said. Another critical lawyer of the Buhari administration and also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Barrister Mike Ozekhome, argued that by virtue of the name given to the jet, it is strictly for official duties and not frivolities.

He queries: “Now tell me, what official function is the president’s daughter using the jet for. I don’t know if the girl captured with the jet is now an official working with government without the notice of Nigerians. She’s not a staff and this is simply an abuse of office to be cruising with the country’s official jet,” said Ozekhome. Also, a lawyer and former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Professor Chidi Odinkalu, was however very condemnatory in his own reaction.

Odinkalu accused the Buhari administration of always acting outside the lines of integrity. “For an administration that sold itself on a ticket of integrity, these guys are acting to the point of criminality". He adds that the government should apologize to Nigerians for the action.