Why Does Our Nation Have A Rendezvous With Death


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Why Does Our Nation Have A Rendezvous With Death In The Skies On Saturdays? 


Kasirim Nwuke 



December 15, 2005


My niece Ms. Chisom Awaji was killed on Saturday December, 10, 2005 at Port Harcourt International Airport.  My nephew Master Uzoma Awaji was killed on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005 at Port Harcourt International Airport.  Chisom was number 14 on the passenger manifest.   Uzoma was number 15 on the passenger manifest.  They were returning home for Christmas, along with many of their schoolmates from Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja.  They died together on Saturday December 10, 2005.   

I last saw them in June.  They were both full of life.  Uzoma and Chisom were very promising kids.  Uzoma was preparing to take the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and was naturally inquisitive about studying in the USA.  Chisom had just finished one of those SS exams.  Killed by a negligent nation, their potentials untested and their promise unrealized, we will never know what they would have turned out to be, what contributions they would have made to our country and perhaps to humanity.  At the home of my sister and her husband, from this December forward, there will be two empty bedrooms upstairs, two empty chairs at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  And there will not be any more shopping for a daughter because Chisom was their only daughter.  For my family this is a repeat experience, one that we prayed fervently thirteen years ago to never again to through because thirteen years ago, on Saturday, September 26, 1992, my older brother, Major Ikechi K. Nwuke of the Nigerian Army Corps of Signals was killed in plane crash.  He was among the more than 160 officers of the Nigerian Army killed in the C-130 crash in Ejigbo, near Lagos.  

The purpose of this essay is not to invite you to share my grief neither is it to elicit your sympathy.  My aim is to contribute to our national search for ideas to minimize the epidemic of death in our skies.  Too many lives have been needlessly lost.  For the sake of these families for the sake of all of us who travel by air, who have loved ones who travel by air, and for the sake of our country, it is extremely important that we, the people and Government of Nigeria, take urgent, really, really, really, urgent, action. We cannot continue to inflict devastatingly preventable pain on ourselves and then cocoon ourselves in the belief that everything happens because God so willed it. This is an unfortunate and annoyingly fatalistic view quite common in our deeply religious country, a view most eloquently articulated by the President during his condolence visit to Loyola College where he is quoted as having said "Some people may attribute it (the plane crash) to superstition. I will not like to think that way because I believe that any thing that happened, God allowed it.  Otherwise it would not happen."  This is almost the same thing that General Sani Abacha said to grieving families in October 2002.  

I beg to differ with Mr. President.  Not because I do not believe in God, I do; Not because I do not accept the basic tenet of Christianity and Islam that it is only by dying that we can reach the Kingdom of God, I do. I differ with the President because in the Ten Commandments, God commanded us not to kill, yet we as a nation have been killing ourn people so wantonly on our roads and in our skies.  I differ with the President because a "God's will" attitude is such an unremittingly and unrelievedly defeatist view that it cannot possibly be a proper foundation for public policy.  I do not accept that belief in God provides a tableau sufficiently rich to guide public policy.  An approach to public policy substantially dependent – as the public pronouncements of our leaders suggest – on God falls regrettably short of its potentials because it restricts itself to too narrow an understanding of what is needed to correct the errors in our system and to minimize re-occurrence of tragedies.   

We did not hear born-again President George Bush ascribing the death and devastation caused by hurricane Katrina to God, did we?  I doubt that our President, our Senate and our other high officials are any stronger in their faith in God than George Bush.  Our President, our legislative leaders, should be outraged by the Port Harcourt disaster it is one too many.  The President more so because three – one in 2002, and two in 2005 - of the deadliest air mishaps in our nation's aviation history have happened on his watch. He should be livid at those he entrusted the aviation sector to because he took an Oath to protect the lives of Nigerians. He should be seriously concerned because the decisions he has made with respect to the management of the aviation sector are in large part responsible for the carnage.  

The actions announced by the President following the stakeholders' meeting in Abuja are – with due respect to the President – tepid, shallow regurgitated stuff.  They are not sufficiently original ideas and do not, in my view, appear to emanate from a comprehensive understanding of what ails the aviation sector. They are neither innovative nor far-reaching enough and cannot possibly address the concerns of the Nigerian public or assuage their fears in a meaningful way. The President's advisers can do better.  The President has set up a Committee to tackle the short term needs of the aviation sector without telling us whether the resources have been provided for the Committee to do its work.  He has ordered a safety inspection of all airliners in the country without telling us if our country has the resources and capacity to undertake a meaningful and re-assuring inspection because if we did there will not be this epidemic of death in our skies in the first place.  He has indefinitely suspended two senior officials of the Ministry of Aviation without telling us their degree of culpability.  

In 2002, after the crash of the EAS Airlines BAC-1-11, the administration's response was to ban the use of BAC-1-11 and all airliners older than 22 years of age.  But the Sosoliso airliner that crashed in Port Harcourt was acquired in 2002 when it was already 29 years old!  Serbia's state-owned JAT, which in 2002 sold the DC-9 to Sosoliso, said on Monday December 12, that the aircraft was built in 1973 and that it was sold because it did not meet European standards because of loud noise from its two engines. How did it get into the country? Was a waiver granted, if yes, by who and under what circumstances? Chachangi was grounded last year after the nose gear of one of its planes malfunctioned but the grounding was lifted a week later after all its planes had been inspected.  But Chachangi has been involved in at least two air mishaps this year and no regulatory action was reported to have been taken against the airline. It is clear that much of the ban and other airline safety measures announced in 2002 have been implemented in the breach. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a shake up of the industry.  

The carnage in our skies is largely due to human error, a consequence of unbridled corruption and impunity, rank incompetence, inadequate regulatory capacity, poor skills, blasé attitude to work, policy inattention, and lack of professionalism. Government knew that the sector was unsafe and unsound but chose to do nothing. It knew that the problem we had in the air was no different from the problem of fake drugs that Dr. Akunyili and her team have been so valiantly fighting. The administration cannot be absolved of responsibility.  Government cannot be absolved of responsibility because these deadly crashes occurred on his watch.  Consumed by politics, many of the sectors crying for reforms – like road safety, aviation safety - have been paid scant attention. To invite and sustain the attention of our ruling and moneyed elite, it seems something tragic has to happen. No, God did not will the crashes and the deaths; our Government did. By condoning incompetence and negligence. And we, citizens of this country did, by shirking our responsibilities as citizens to protect the commonweal.  

We should not cocoon ourselves or engage in our national past time of always asking God for answers for God has given the answers to us.  All we have to do is to identify the appropriate answers and use them. In this we need government's leadership, not sermons, in seeking answers to the question: what is the matter with our aviation sector and what should we do to fix it?  In seeking to answer that question, it may be helpful to note the pattern to these fatal crashes, a pattern that suggests to me that that Divine intervention is not and cannot be at work.  Practically ALL the mind-bogglingly fatal crashes in our country since 1992 have occurred on a Saturday.  

Consider the evidence: Saturday, December 31, 1983, a Fokker 28 belonging to Nigeria Airways crashed in Enugu killing 103 people; Sunday February 24, 1991 a Bristow Helicopter crashed in Eket killing all onboard; Saturday, Sept. 26, 1992 - Military C-130 crashed in Ejigbo, near Lagos. There was no emergency rescue mission. It took almost 48hrs to get to the crash site.  All 170 or so officers were killed.  Saturday, June 24, 1995, Harka air crash-landed; Saturday, June 22, 1996, a Dornier aircraft crashed in Jos, killing 12; Thursday, November 7, 1996, an airliner owned by ADC crashed near Lagos killing all onboard among who was Prof. Claude Ake died. Saturday, June 16, 2001, Partenia plane crashed in Igbogbo, Ikorodu.  Saturday May 4, 2002, EAS aircraft crashed in Kano killing 148 people, half of them on the ground. Saturday October 22, 2005, Bellview Airline crash in Lissa killing all on board. And Saturday December 10, 2005, Sosoliso DC-9 Flt 1145 with 110 passengers onboard crashed at the PHC International Airport killing about 108 people.  Most of the dead were children.  Our nation appears to have a rendezvous with death in our skies on weekends, especially on Saturdays. Why?  

This observed pattern raises the vitally important and critical question of whether or not the off-duty conduct of pilots, especially on Friday nights, is an important contributor to these tragic killings in our skies.  Is it possible that the pilots who fly us around consume considerable amounts of alcoholic beverages/narcotic substances on when they are off-duty – especially Friday nights - that they report for duty on Saturdays less alert than they otherwise would have been?  We may not know unless the dead pilot and cabin crew are tested for alcohol and drugs. It is also possible that supervisory oversight of our air traffic controllers and emergency response personnel is poor on Saturdays because the supervisors take off to participate in the many exaggerated social and political events that define weekends. Under such circumstances, on-duty staff, unsupervised, amplify their very blasé attitude to work.  

Eyewitness accounts of reaction to the Port Harcourt crash lend support to this view. The airport had no electricity for six hours prior to the crash. When the crash did occur, there was no fire service, no water, no emergency rescue workers, no ambulances.  This would not have been the case if those entrusted with responsibility for air safety were alive to their responsibilities, if they were self-respecting professionals.  So, it is possible that our well-known poor attitude to work is worse on Saturdays, increasing the likelihood that mistakes, deadly mistakes, mistakes that cost lives, occur much more regularly on weekends or as we approach the weekend.  

I would therefore strongly suggest that any panel set up by Government to investigate this disaster must of necessity look into the off-duty conduct of the pilot, his crew and of civil aviation staff.  The age of the aircraft and the maintenance record must not be the only areas of focus of the investigation.  For much as we can, and justifiably so, blame the disaster on the age of the aircraft, it will be irresponsible if ignore the possibility that the crash could have been caused by the unsafe behaviour and conduct of the pilots. The cadavers of the pilot and cabin crew should be tested for alcohol and drugs.  And even if no evidence of alcohol or drugs is found in their body, it would not be inappropriate for government to enact as policy, random, mandatory alcohol and drug testing of pilots and cabin crew.  

In addition to the off-duty conduct of airlines staff and traffic controllers, it is probably time for government to reconsider the pace of liberalization of the aviation sector.  It is now clear that the sector has been liberalized at a pace much faster than the rate of growth of our regulatory capacity, after controlling for endemic corruption.  The liberalization program has arguably promoted competition in the sector, made it easier, though not safer as we now know, to fly.  But, perhaps in this lies one of the main problems of the sector.  Many of the operators have not achieved economies of scale.  Profit margins are low and exit is impossible because there is probably no outside interest in the discarded airliners owned by our domestic airlines. To recoup their investment and make some profit, the airlines resort to maximizing the number of flights, minimizing on maintenance and perhaps permitting pilots very little degree of discretion to decide whether or not to operate a flight even if the flight controllers say it is safe to do so - with of course the approving and conniving nod of the regulators.  

Many of us, including the most senior officials of our government, who have flown on these aircrafts, cannot claim not to know the poor state in which almost all of them are. Government cannot therefore in good faith claim to be unaware of the advanced age of the aircrafts and their poor maintenance records.  They have seen the loose panels of the overhead bin, the broken arm rests.  They know that it is impossible to use the toilets because they don't flush.  They know that oxygen masks do not work.  They heard the thundering noises of the engines.  They have flown in airliners that failed to reach cruising altitude and just hugged the coastline from Port Harcourt to Lagos.  They did not care.  And we, the rest of us did not care. Few among those of us sufficiently blessed to afford air travel, cared. Yet it was and is in their best interest to care because they and their loved ones are most vulnerable. The rest of us powerless citizens fly because the alternative – road travel - could be worse, confident, albeit foolishly so, that the flight we are on will not be the unfortunate one.  In many cases, fortune smiles on us. But not always.  

We know from simple common-sense that the cost of regulation is increasing in the number of actors, institutions, organizations regulated.  This is why governments with limited regulatory capacity create or encourage monopolies or at least oligopolies.  This is why governments seeking to control crime increase policing. But not so in Nigeria.  For even as the number of operators in our aviation sector has grown, there has been no appreciable and demonstrable increase in our regulatory capacity.  The appropriate and necessary regulatory infrastructure and capacity do not exist. This probably explains why, after controlling for corruption, our air safety regulations are much more likely to be violated than observed.  

There is probably no quick and easy fix to the regulatory lag or to build up regulatory capacity but there are some actions that government can take in the short term – in addition to the exaggerated official reactions to the Port Harcourt crash that we have seen so conspicuously displayed.  Government should slow the pace of liberalization in and of the sector.  There should be an embargo on the entry of new airlines until at least the minimum regulatory capacity has been built or until other –demonstrable - measures have been implemented to plug the regulatory loopholes and to bridge capacity gaps. A crash-course, jointly financed by Governments (Federal and States) and the aviation sector, should be provided to airline controllers and officials of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.  There should be mandatory refresher courses for pilots and their crew and annual tests to determine their understanding and familiarity with the regulations.  

Government should induce consolidation in the aviation sector in order to reduce the cost of regulation and encourage operators to achieve scale economies. It can do this in a very intelligent manner by using a combination of carrots and sticks.  It can, for example, use a graduated tax rebate mechanism, granting for instance, airlines willing to merge within 6 months of the announcement of the policy a 5 year tax-rebate; those that merge within 9 months a 3-year tax rebate, and those that merge within 1 year a 1-year that rebate.  Airlines that do not merge will be asked to cease operation because their failure to merge with others can best be interpreted as evidence of the low confidence other operators have in them.  

A lot of secrecy shrouds the sector. It is imperative that government should encourage transparency in the sector.  And it should begin with itself.  Consider the following: the Aviation Minister, according to press reports, revealed at the Stakeholders' meeting that eighteen aircrafts have been certified as not airworthy but refused to reveal which.  Why? Are we not citizens of this country entitled to know?  Seldom has government released the outcome of investigations into previous air disasters in the country.  Thirteen years after the Ejigbo C-130 crash, we still does not know why the plane went down, why there was no emergency response, and what corrective measures were taken in the wake of the crash.  And 49 weeks after the Bellview crash, the voice data recorder is yet to be recovered and we do not know why.  Was there ever one on the aircraft? The shroud of secrecy in the industry makes it impossible to benchmark government's corrective actions, assess how far they have been implemented and their contributions to enhanced aviation safety if any in the country.  One useful action that government can therefore take in the wake of the Port Harcourt disaster could be to release the findings of investigations into past airline disasters to the Nigerian public.  This will empower the traveling public to make informed choices between modes of transport.  

There is also enormous of asymmetry of information between passengers and airlines which should be reduced through mandated actions.  The average airline passenger has no idea of the average of the airliners in the fleet of the domestic airlines. If they knew, they probably will be much selective in their choice. We exercise blind choice because only the owners of the aircrafts, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, and perhaps aviation experts know have information on the age and maintenance record of the airliners.  If the average traveling passenger is given access to information on the airliners, the average age of each airline's fleet, the maintenance records look like, perhaps more informed choices on which airline to fly will be made.  By voting with their wallets, consumers could force change in the conduct of the operators.  So one measure that the President could take could be to issue an Executive Order instructing all airlines operating domestic routes and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority to publish on a regular basis, on their websites and in newspapers, the age of the airliners in their fleet, the composition of the fleet etc, the average of their pilots, and their accident history.  

It is vitally important for our country that Government urgently address epidemic of death in our skies.  Apart from the devastation to peoples' lives that these unplanned rendezvous with death in our skies cause, there are also enormous economic implications.  It is in government's economic and political interest to overhaul and reform the aviation sector in an intelligent manner.  The economic and political costs of failure to do so could be enormous. The aviation sector is now a considerable contributor to employment growth.  It is crucial for on-going efforts to promote the tourism industry.  Foreign investors and tourists will be scared away from regions of our country into where there are no direct international flights. This will reinforce the current pattern of industrial concentration in our country – since it can be argued that our unsafe skies and unsafe roads have contributed to the observed concentration of industries and businesses in the Lagos area.  In this sense, the aviation sector is implicated in the geography of production and the spatial distribution of poverty. (Which is one reason why State Governments should have an interest in ensuring deep and far-reaching reform of the aviation sector.) Without a doubt the cost of aviation insurance will go up and with it the cost of air travel.  This could further squeeze profit out of the sector and encourage and sustain the corner-cutting and corruption that have contributed to the deadly crashes.  

The announcement of reforms, the introduction of stricter regulations, and a change of personnel are not necessary but not sufficient for change.  The ultimate responsibility for ensuring that needed reforms are not only undertaken but seen to be undertaken lies with us, the traveling public, and especially those of us who have lost loved ones in these tragic plane crashes.  We who have been – in the words of James Baldwin – betrayed by too much hoping in our governments must be involved.  What happened at Port Harcourt International Airport on Saturday December 10 was not an accident.  An accident, in my opinion, occurs when the unexpected happens in spite of the exercise of due care. Let us wipe our tears, dry our eyes, console ourselves and then channel our anger and energy into ensuring that no family in our country needlessly suffers as we are needlessly suffering.  Let us be the change agents that the sector sorely needs.  Let us consider the offer of pro bono legal assistance from the Nigerian Bar Association. Let us organize ourselves to monitor the implementation of the set of actions that the President announced at the end of the "stakeholders' meeting" in Abuja and those that he will find necessary to announce in due course.  Let us mobilize to force legislative action, for it is in working to end the carnage in our skies, minimize our nation's rendezvous with death in the skies on weekends, that we will best immortalize our loved ones.  Ultimately though, responsibility for ensuring the safety of our skies lies with all of us, so let us act.  For me, this is how best I believe I can understand and reconcile with the deaths of Chisom, Uzoma, and IK.  


Kasirim Nwuke is in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.  He can be reached by email at o.kasirim.nwuke@gmail.com 



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