HEAR OUR VOICES - A Nation's Reaction to Tragedy

On 22 October 2005, the nation experienced one of its darkest days in contemporary Nigeria. 117 passengers on board a Bellview Airlines 210 on its way to Abuja crashed. The effects of this accident shook the nation. Its consequence was one of anguish, frustration and deep-seated despair. The grief caused by the catastrophe was incredibly difficult to measure. The fate of the nation was shaken to its very foundation. Unbeknown to all, worse was to follow. Exactly 49 days later on 10 December 2005, a Sosoliso Aircraft carrying 110 people, over 70 being school children was travelling to rejoin their families crashed at Port Harcourt, River State. It is now understood that 107 people lost their lives in that crash. The grief that this incident has brought about is completely indescribable. Coming so soon after the October 22 crash, it is difficult to generate appropriate description to convey the sentiments of the immediate families appropriately or, for that matter, the anguish and despair that they must be feeling. We extend our most heartfelt sympathies to the families and friends of those affected, in the belief that they would find appropriate access and contact to philosophy that would make it possible to cope with the consequence of this huge tragedy.

This most unfortunate incident joins a long and painful list of aviation incidents in Nigeria. This incident is number 39 recorded in this country since 1960! Several incidents have occurred in this year alone. Barely two weeks ago, an executive Beechraft-200 crashed in Kaduna in which all 3 people on board lost their lives. To this must be added the innumerable near misses that have occurred since then. On 28 October 2005, under the heading Against The Ropes – A Nation’s Response to Adversity, we wrote:-

“….. this historical perspective on aircraft accidents is simply unacceptable. We do not believe that there is anyone who considers these statistics palatable reading and those who do are in the hopeless, depraved minority. The reality is that the aviation industry in Nigeria is in a mess. Aged planes populate the fleet. Airlines are taking risks by the day, undisclosed to innocent passengers and playing “Russian Roulette” with the lives of its patron. Cost and corner-cutting unknown in 1st World countries is rife in the industry. Government-run facilities are even more deplorable. Ministerial efforts continue to be defeated by middle-level sabotage. Minimal resources are so poorly distributed that the emphasis is placed on the wrong or undeserving aspects. Regulatory bodies either do not undertake their functions with desired seriousness or allow internationally acceptable standards to be compromised by ineptitude and greed.”

We further stated that:-

“The nation’s response is that enough is enough. Government should exact from its agencies and provide to the industry’s patrons, the highest possible compliance with standards. It is plain that errors here have lifelong; life threatening and life lost consequences. Offending airlines should be prevented from flying, period! There should be no compromise. Actions that place the life of Nigerians at risk should attract criminal prosecution and commercial ostracism. The aviation market is a fruitful one for its investors. It is despicable that any short cuts should be permitted. We should accept nothing less and encourage our leadership to ruthlessly eliminate these practices. The loss that we have suffered as a nation to aviation accidents must stop. As human beings, we have to accept that accidents occur. The kind of recklessness that occurs should be despatched with undisguised intolerance. Those responsible for bringing about this situation should no longer be allowed to profit from their worthless indiscretion. As patrons of the aviation industry, they should encourage Nigerians to accept no less. These losses are now one time too many”.

For the avoidance of doubt, Nigerians are angry. The injunction that we, and many others, issued to both Government and the private sector in the aviation industry appeared not to have been heeded or attended with despatch. As a responsible organisation, we would not speculate as to the causes of this latest crash. That is a matter in the exclusive preserve of the experts. However, what we cannot allow to pass without comment is the fact that whatever effort that may have been engendered by the 22 October incident, clearly did not operate to affect, significantly or at all, the manner in which services were been provided such that there has now been needless and further loss of lives. Whether the accident could have been avoided or not, is now purely a matter of unfortunate and heartbreaking conjecture, but it is clear that urgent, incisive and direct action must be taken NOW. Every effort must be made to ensure that the safety of Nigerians is assured and guaranteed.

The President has responded. The Presidential Forum of Stakeholders that met on 13 December 2005 gave him ideas, suggestions and impetus that have formed the basis for urgent action. Sosoliso and Chachangi Airlines have been grounded. All aircraft flying and operating in Nigeria’s Airspace are to be checked within a week. The integrity of the inspection is to be ICAO-verified. A committee constituted into a Special Task Force to carry out urgent supplies, repairs and maintenance of all airport facilities to meet international standards has been constituted.

These are far-reaching and hitherto unknown measures and government is to be commended for its swift response. This is not a time for finger-pointing. That time will, no doubt come.

Again, on 20 October 2005, we wrote:-

“whilst it is correct that the airline travel benefits a small majority of the vast Nigerian population, its usage is on the increase. This patronage from Nigerians demands better, safer more efficient service from the industry. This decay must be arrested. NAS demands a Public Inquiry to which interested Nigerians should be welcome to give evidence. The inquiry should be headed by a sitting or retired Supreme Court Judge. Only such a public inquiry comprising technical, commercial and legal experts receiving experts from Nigeria as a whole within a very short period of time can fully ventilate these grave concerns…”

The developments of 10 December 2005 call for significantly more urgent but complimentary action. In addition to the suggestions we made then, we feel that somewhat more urgent, probably radical action, doubtless with significant commercial consequences is required. It expected that the ordered check on all the aircrafts will meet the highest international standards. The kind of risk taking that arises from this type of needless compromise is wholly and entirely unnecessary. Those operators that fail the inspections should be PERMANENTLY prevented from operating in Nigeria. Some of the complaints made by the Airline Operators at the Presidential Forum beggar belief. Airline Services provided to the public is a strictly commercial venture. Those that cannot “stand the heat in the kitchen should get out”. The attention to be paid to the infrastructure and facilities should be correspondingly urgent. Funds should be made available to achieve short term benefits to ameliorate an appalling situation whilst longer term remedies are contemplated. A direct assault on corruption whether it is cutting corners or short-circuiting in the Aviation industry - one of the single most damaging factors - must assume high and urgent proportions. Those culpable should be remorseless pursued by the law enforcement agents. Ineptitude should not be compromised or accepted. As has already happened, there should be more dismissals and retirement, if nothing else, to eliminate the moribund attitudes of management and lack of professionalism that have already, sadly, ossified.

Nigerians deserve better. Government appears to be listening and acting. The people of Nigeria need to be provided an opportunity to contribute to the process of lasting, viable, beneficial and necessary long term reform. Air travellers represent a sizeable proportion of the population as unconfirmed statistics suggest that over 8 million Nigerians fly domestic flights every year. A public inquiry will give Nigerians an opportunity to air these complaints and the airlines an opportunity to defend themselves. This is why our organisation will be at the forefront of a campaign for a public inquiry. We see the public inquiry as the only medium for truly ascertaining the depth of the decay existing in the aviation industry so that true, viable and practical solutions can be found to a problem that is assuming disturbingly alarming proportions.

There is far more that can and should be done. These unfortunate incidents continue to catch us completely unprepared. It is time we took the prevention process more seriously. The viability of a secure and safe transport system has been underscored by the abject lack of options to air travel. Nigerians deserve to have their transport options guaranteed. Consumer confidence in the aviation industry is at its lowest ebb. Both the providers and government agencies responsible for ensuring that these services are delivered are culpable, probably in equal measures. Restoring this confidence is now probably one of the greatest challenges that this Government now faces.

Signed:

ANDREW OBINNA ONYEARU
NAS Capone
National Association of Seadogs (NAS)

15th December 2005

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