Last Sunday afternoon, an American McDonnell-Douglas MD-83 plane fell out of the sky above Iju-Ishaga, a low-income neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria. All 147 passengers perished alongside 2 pilots (one of whom was American), a flight engineer, 4 cabin crew members and several residents of Iju-Ishaga.
President Goodluck Jonathan immediately declared a 3-day mourning period during which the flag would be flown at half-mast, then hurried to the site to inspect the devastation and personally offer condolences to victims’ families.
Simultaneously, Stella Oduah, the Minister of Aviation, wept copiously when the news was conveyed to her, as did Mrs Ruqayattu Ahmed Rufa’i, the Minister of Education (5 of her senior staffers died in the crash). And the company that owned the doomed plane – Dana Air – had its license suspended before any questions about the cause of the crash were answered.
But these empathetic and rapid responses from the authorities haven’t placated a grieving and outraged public, that has witnessed too many aviation disasters.
Over 1,000 foreigners and natives have died in at least 10 different accidents since 1992. And the public mood is particularly ugly on this occasion because though Dana has some Nigerian shareholders, it is essentially Indian-owned.
Nigerians and Indians have had complex relationships for decades. On the one hand, there is mutual economic dependency, a fair amount of cordial social interaction between enlightened individuals on both sides and the fact that their countries have quite a lot in common (British colonial pasts, for example).
On the other hand, many Nigerians feel that Indians are racists who exploit and despise them; and the crash has led to a disturbing emphasis on the nationality of Dana’s main proprietors and to bitter complaints against Indian businesspeople in general (interestingly, I haven’t noticed any fury so far about the plane being US-made or the possibility that the pilot was a US citizen).
Rumors abound about who and/or what caused this disaster. Until Mrs Patience Jonathan, the First Lady, pointed out that she wasn’t even in the air when the accident occurred, some were saying that the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel while it was being subjected to a lengthy delay caused by the fact that normal flights are not allowed to share airspace with presidential jets in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, a source close to the Minister assured me yesterday that “pilot error” was the problem. But none of the other people I’ve spoken to are buying this story, not least because a female Dana employee anonymously granted an interview to Channels, a local TV station, and said the plane should have been grounded because it had a serious hydraulics fault before it took off.
It is of course possible for disgruntled employees to tell lies that are calculated to embarrass their employers. But I’m told that this woman’s claims have been corroborated by others who supposedly have access to privileged information and that an expert said (on a British Broadcasting Corporation program) that MD-83s are no longer used in advanced countries because they are obsolete.
And, given the notorious ineffectiveness of Nigerian regulatory agencies and the chronic corruption that permeates all aspects of life in this so-called “Giant Of Africa,” it is understandable that most folks are convinced that “greedy” airline executives, in a bid to minimize costs and maximize profits, routinely bribe government officials to provide unsafe planes with clean bills of health.
So, yet again, we are being subjected to harrowing, sensational newspaper headlines such as: “WIPED OUT…10 MEMBERS OF THE SAME FAMILY!!!” (this family, by the way, lived in Connecticut, and was only vacationing in Nigeria).
And, yet again, we are saying “Not Again!”
And, yes, there are widespread calls for the Minister to resign and for the Civil Aviation Authority boss to be sacked. And, yes, National Assembly legislators are insisting that ALL airline companies’ fleets be scrutinized to avoid future tragedies. And, yes, highly skilled American National Air Transportation Safety Board personnel have been invited to spearhead an in-depth investigation.
But it remains to be seen whether any heads will roll in an Anything Goes country where criminal or negligent acts are rarely punished. Or whether every single potential flying coffin will have its airworthiness certificate withdrawn.
If President Jonathan is in any doubt about the level of anti-establishment venom that this calamity is generating, he might be interested to hear that I have received a number of calls and emails in which people have clearly stated that they wish the plane had been full of government officials, including him.
Donu Kogbara is a Nigerian journalist based in London, England and Port Harcourt, Nigeria.