by Hauwa Gambo
To listen to Femi Fani-Kayode raise hell over ethnic wars and sovereign national conferences these days, you will be forgiven if you forgot that he was once the main responsible for our aircrafts and airports.
The former minister of aviation speaks candidly about safety and the industry in this interview with Vanguard.
For about 6 years now we had no cases of air crashes in the country and now we have this. What does it say about air safety in Nigeria?
What it tells you is that our skies are no longer safe and that we have gone back to the pre-2006 level of degeneration and rot when it comes to aviation and air safety in Nigeria. It tells you that since 2007 something has gone very wrong and there has been a slow but systemic dismantling of all the standards, reforms and measures that we put in place to save the lives of our fellow Nigerians and to improve the quality of aviation and flying in our country when we were there. It tells you that someone is not doing his or her job in the way that it should be done or with the firmness, discipline and commitment that is needed for Nigerian aviation.
It also tells you that things will get far worse unless there is an attitudinal change from those that are charged to run aviation and protect our skies and our air travelers. It tells you that that change has to come at all levels of the sector from the top to the bottom and that the whole place needs to be overhauled. It tells you that the mafia and the cartel that had controlled aviation for many years before and that always cut corners and cover up evil and wrongdoing in the sector have crept back in, have been given a free hand again and are operating with impunity behind the scenes.
It tells you that the airline operators themselves have not been adequately kept on their toes and they, once again, are putting profit before safety. It tells you that we need to rededicate the sector to the Living God, to work hard and to pray hard. It tells you that we need to ensure that every single person in that sector, including the Minister, the parastatal chiefs, the regulators, the aviation officials and the airline operators themselves do their job properly.
The whole thing is so painful to me. Last Sunday 153 people had their lives cut short just like that in the Dana crash and I am sure that it could have been avoided. It reminds me of the darker days of just a few years ago in 2005. This is how it all started then. It was evil and it was frightening and everyone was scared to fly throughout that period. It is just that Nigerians have such short memories otherwise they would be thanking God everyday for what He delivered us from then.
Just before you were re-deployed to the aviation ministry, there had been five air crashes in just one year?
Yes! We had a total of 5 plane crashes in just one year and no less than 453 people died in those crashes before I came on board. After the 5th crash, which took place in Abuja and in which the Sultan of Sokoto, his son and grandson together with over 150 other poor souls perished, I was redeployed by my boss, President Olusegun Obasanjo, from the Ministry of Culture where I had been serving as Minister, to the Ministry of Aviation. What I met at Aviation was a demoralised and traumatised sector which reeked of death, destruction, corruption, blood and evil.
What was the specific charge of Mr. President?
My job was to turn things around with a very firm hand, put a stop to those crashes, introduce a series of far-reaching and long term reforms, return the light of God to that sector and restore sanity, law and order to the place. My team and I worked hard, prayed hard and took on the powers that be in that sector and, by God’s grace, we achieved all those objectives. Throughout our tenure there was not one crash of either a large or a small plane. Sadly though when we left power in 2007 things immediately started to change for the worse and by 2008/ 2009 they had completely degenerated again and the evil was back. Unfortunately and predictably after we left and after the rot and indiscipline had completely returned to the sector there were three more plane crashes and two helicopter crashes.
The three plane crashes were all light aircraft and there was loss of life in each one of them. This was the same with the two helicopter crashes. All this took place under President Yar’adua’s tenure. Sadly it didn’t stop there though.
There was another helicopter crash just a few weeks ago in which my friend, AIG John Haruna, and a number of others died and then there was the huge plane crash of last Sunday which constituted the 7th crash since we left in 2007. I have purposely not included the Nigerian cargo plane that crashed in Ghana last Saturday killing 10 innocent Ghanaians. that were driving past the airport in a bus because that crash did not take place on our soil. Nevertheless lives were lost there too.
These crashes were all terrible but the Dana one of last Sunday was particularly horrific and really was a tragedy of monuemental proportions simply because so many people died in it and because many were killed when the plane dropped from the skies and unto their homes. Can you imagine anything more horrific than that? A plane dropping from nowhere on your house! My heart goes out to all those who lost their loved ones and to those that died in that crash and all the other crashes and my prayer is that their souls rest in peace and that the Lord, who is the great Comforter of all, forgives them of their sins and welcomes them into heaven’.
Are you satisfied with the response to the Dana air crash?
Well like everyone else I feel a sense of deep outrage about all this and that is why I am speaking out. When something as terrible as this happens I just will not keep quiet and sit in my room and say ‘’it is well’. That is because it is not ‘’well’’. It is not well at all. If it is not Boko Haram bombing people in their churches today then it is plane crashes tomorrow. This is just not good enough. Specifically to your question I must tell you that I am not satisfied with the fact that the rescue efforts were not properly co-ordinated, that ordinary people were forced to use sachets of ’’pure water’’ to try to put out the raging fire of a crashed plane.
I believe that the government did the right and proper thing by quickly declaring its intention about an investigation into the crash; by grounding Dana Airlines immediately and by declaring three days of mourning for the souls that were lost. This breeds confidence and encourages the people. I am not pleased that the Minister of Aviation gave a press conference after the crash.
Why are you not pleased? If she didn’t speak Nigerians would say she kept quiet because her ministry messed up? Now she has spoken you say you are not pleased, why?
Once the President visited the site and a strong team accompanied him that was it.
My understanding of the procedure and the way we set it up when we were there was that in the event of a crash it is the Accident Investigation Bureau that is meant to speak to the public and feed members of the public with the details of the crash. Everyone else, including the Minister and the D-G of NCAA are meant to remove their hands from the whole matter and allow the AIB to take charge, begin its investigation, communicate with and relate to the public and the media and take full control of the situation. From the minute there is a crash the AIB should become the only relevant organisation to discuss the issue publicly. Obviously the Minister can express her condolences and express her regrets about what happened publicly but other than that he or she is meant to keep quiet, step aside and allow the AIB to do its job, to investigate the matter thoroughly and to tell the public what is going on.
That is what we created AIB for and it was for such a time as this that I established it in 2007. It was meant to have a high level of independence from the Ministry and everyone else, in the event of a crisis or a crash. May be all that has changed now! Other than that I stand by the Minister at this difficult time. I could see from her press conference that she was very badly shaken by these events and frankly I felt sorry for her. No one would want this sort of thing to happen under their watch. I believe that we should pray for her too and do our very best to assist her and her team to do the right thing and expose the truth. This is not the time to point fingers but to assist and encourage them all. However there must be no cover-ups, no scapegoating and no deceit from any quarters about what has happened. The truth must be allowed to prevail and anyone that is found to be in the least bit wanting must lose their job, resign and/or face criminal proceedings. I say this because human blood and life is involved in this matter and such speak to the very throneroom of God and it cries for revenge. And if it is not avenged and justice is not done it brings curses on the land. Another thing that encourages me is the fact that the black box was found. The contents of that black box will answer a lot of questions.
The euphoria about finding the black box almost always dies down after a while. In the past the black boxes were found yet members of the public never really get to know how the investigation went and what the findings are; why is this so?
I must tell you that in practice what has happened since 2005 is that the contents of and information in the black boxes of the various planes that crashed have either been kept away from the Nigerian public or the black box itself has just disappeared or been stolen. The result is that no-one really gets to know the truth about what really happened in these crashes except for those in the corridors of power at the Ministry of Aviation.
Yes! People in the corridors of power like you as aviation minister?
Wait. Let me tell you what happened in the past. This is done in an attempt to hide that truth and manipulate the report. I sincerely hope that this does not happen in this case. I am also hoping that the government will allow the American National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB, which is the agency that is charged to investigate all air crashes all over the world, a free reign and a free hand to do its job to help in establishing what really happened.
The NTSB is an American agency. It is expected to operate independently but in collaboration with local authorities?
Its reports are always factual and accurate and as Minister I relied far more on its reports about what happened in some of the crashes that took place the year before I got there than on the reports filed by my own Ministry.
That’s an indictment! Why do you say so?
The things that I discovered are best left unsaid for now but rest assured that I wrote to the President and told him the truth and asked him to do something about it at that time. For example the NTSB report on the Bellview crash said some very interesting and disturbing things about what actually brought that plane down. It had nothing to do with any failing on the part of Bellview airline but there was definitely another factor which I will not go into here. The American FBI also did a preliminary report in which they confirmed that finding and recommended a criminal investigation into the matter because it was clear that there was more to that crash than met the eye. By way of contrast the reports filed by our own security agencies and the Ministry of Aviation under my predecessor in office omitted all this and contradicted it. There were also issues raised about the ADC and the Sosolisso crash that were kept from the public and I did everything in my power as Minister to have a public hearing on the matter and from there open a criminal investigation. You will recall that 60 children and many adults, including a dear friend and sister, Pastor Bimbo Odukoya, lost their lives in that crash.
I wrote to President Obasanjo expressing my deepest concerns about these matters, including the shabby conduct of the investigation of the Bellview crash and one or two others and in fairness to him he approved my recommendations on the one on Sossolisso. Sadly though a few unscrupoulous civil servants, who had much to lose if that public hearing ever went ahead and who really hated my guts conspired against me and the President and frustrated it. Consequently we never had that public hearing and after we left power in 2007 the agitation and desire for it petered out.
Quite apart from the crashes themselves what made it all the more disturbing was the attitude of some of the airline operators whose planes had crashed. Their nonchalant and arrogant posture and attitude often threw me into a rage. The truth is that apart from Kayode Odukoya’s Bellview Airline, none of the other airline operators that had suffered crashes and that had lost their passengers saw fit to even pay the compensation that was due to the families of those who died under their watch that time at that time. Bellview Airline however, by way of contrast, not only paid up but they also went out of their way to do the very best for the families of the victims and to honour all their obligations to them. That is why till today I have the greatest respect for Odukoya. Some of the other airline operators were not so decent and they worked closely with some ruthless and corrupt elements within the aviation sector to frustrate our efforts to ensure safety and to stop the cutting of corners.
But when you talk of people being powerful and people frustrating efforts, the question to ask is who are they? Who do they work for? Was there no way to check their excesses?
My response to people like that was to set up a new Aviation parastatal called the Accident Investigation Bureau, which President Obasanjo graciously approved and whose job it would be to investigate any plane crash in Nigeria independently of the Ministry of Aviation. We appointed a very experienced and highly recommended individual to head that agency by the name of Dr. Samuel Olukayode Oduselu and when he arrived I told him two things. Firstly I told him that I hoped that he and his agency would not have too much to do because I pray that we don’t have any more crashes but that if we did I would immediately resign as Minister because it would mean that I had failed in my duty. Secondly I told him that in the event of a crash he was not to look to me or anyone else or allow himself to be influenced or corrupted by anyone from the Ministry or amongst the airline operators whilst investigating such a crash. I also urged him that in the event of such a terrible thing happening he should send his reports not just to the Ministry but also directly to the Presidency for necessary action.
This was to avoid any watering down or doctoring of those reports because I was mindful of the fact that unless the truth was established about any given accident or crash we would not be able to learn the lessons that needed to be learnt and we would not be able to prevent future crashes. Oduselu is still alive and well today and he can testify to all that I have said here. Unfortunately he left the AIB just a few months ago after an excellent tenure of office as the pioneer D-G for 5 years.
The fact that he was not asked to stay I think was very unfortunate because the truth is that we need him and people like him now more than ever before to run that place if you want to have an honest, factual and accurate report about what happened in the Dana Airline or any other crash from the Ministry.
Having said all these, we still need to wait and see how the matter is handled by the Minister and the government, whether anyone will resign, whether anyone will be fired, whether anyone will be brought to justice or whether they will just try and put the entire blame on the head of Dana Airlines and brush all the relevant facts under the carpet.
Dana is the Airline so where else would the blame go? May be the ministry officials or those at NCAA?
Good! The question is if indeed the Dana plane was faulty or if it had a history of problems as is being suggested in some quarters who were those meant to inspect it and watch it closely from the Ministry and how come it was still flying? Who is the regulator? Who was meant to be in charge and who was supposed to be monitoring all the aircraft and airline operators including Dana? We can blame Dana for not maintaining its fleet properly, yes, but that is not good enough. It should not stop there.
Other heads have to role too. They could not have done it all alone. They could not have got away with lowering their standards without some element of official collusion, encouragement, assurance and support. We must blame others in the Ministry too and those others must resign and be brought to justice otherwise you are going to have more problems in the future. I pray that I am wrong but I am speaking from experience and from a position of knowledge.
You claimed to have achieved a lot while in office as aviation minister yet there are suggestions in some quarters that …?
I believe that we did far more than was expected of us and that it was a very successful tenure. My legacy at aviation speaks for itself and needless to say I am very proud of it. I am also very proud of each and every member of my team from those that worked directly with me at the Ministry to my parastatal chiefs and their respective teams. We installed radar in our airspace for the first time since 1979, restored the TRACON full radar coverage contract and paid for it in full (which is what Nigeria is using for full radar coverage today), curbed the excesses of the few airline operators that were giving the rest a bad name and stopped them from cutting corners, established a ‘’full compliance’’ rule of all the regulations, guided and watched the parastatals closely to ensure that they were doing their jobs properly and keeping the safety standards high, won respect for Nigerian carriers and airline operators in the international community and won many international routes for them; consolidated and increased the asset base of airlines and banned all the small old ones so that they could no longer ply our skies, banned old aircraft and stopped them from flying, commissioned the Bicourtnay MM2 airport in Lagos, supported Nigerian carriers and fought for them to be treated fairly by the international aviation community and ensured that they won many lucrative foreign routes to ply, ensured that some carriers were allowed to fly directly to Heathrow even though the British government resisted it, put the international carriers in their place, insisted that they operated within our laws and ensured that they treated Nigerians with respect and decency; stopped the spraying of Nigerians with strange aerosol sprays like animals on all international carriers, restored and repaired Port Harcourt runway, restored and repaired the second runway (18LR) at Lagos Airport, investigated and exposed corruption at all levels and reported such matters to the President and the security agencies; appointed excellent technocrats from the private sector to take key positions in the parastatals and Ministry; ensured that ICAO placed us on the ’’Category One’’ level which meant that we could fly directly to America and other countries and that we were recertified as being ‘’risk-free’’ after being designated as a ’’death trap’’ for international air travelers for a number of years, leaving N7.2 billion of the Aviation Intervention Fund in the account when we left in 2007 and properly utilising the N3.8 billion that we spent before leaving on two runways and one other project at the time that we left in 2007 and so much more. I grounded more planes and withdrew the licences of more airline operators than any other Minister of Aviation in the history of Nigeria. We prayed hard too and I literally had an army of prayer warriors praying for the aviation sector and in all of our major airports on a twenty four hour basis.
That was the key- hard work, due diligence, the manifestation of power and strength from the top. I also had the backing of the Living God who deemed it fit to use me and my team at that terribly traumatic time in our nation’s aviation history. Sadly as from 2008 things started to fall apart again at the aviation sector. I must say that Diezeani Allison Maduekwe tried her very best and so did Architect Felix Hyatt who came after her but after that, things fell apart. All the others were interested in was nailing Fani-Kayode and his team for some imaginary wrongdoing after that and using that to embarass Obasanjo who by that time was their perceived as being their greatest enemy. They forgot about providing safety and protecting the skies and instead they focused on me. I see plenty of cosmetic work and refurbishments going on at the airports which seem to be never-ending. I have immense confidence in Nnamdi Udoh who is the D-G of NAMA, and one or two others that are still in aviation today because they are experienced, knowledgeable and highly skilled. I know this because they both worked under me when I was Minister.
Some of the things that you have said here are pretty alarming? Why are you saying all this now only after a plane crash? Why couldn’t you have said all this before and perhaps it would have helped us to avoid a crash? The vehemence with which you’re speaking now makes me ask, more like self glorification
There is nothing in this interview that I haven’t said before. I didn’t just say all this on the pages of newspapers in 2008 but I said it at a public hearing before the Senate Aviation Committee headed by Senator Anyim Ude. It was broadcast live on all the TV stations then and you can still watch it from beginning to end on Youtube today. It was also carried in all the newspapers 3 and a half years ago and we took a four page advert in every single Nigerian newspaper to publish the full text of what I said at that public hearing at my own expense.
I don’t know what more I could have done. I told the committee and the Nigerian public everything I knew then. I told them about the challenges we faced, the giants that we saw in the land and that we had to contend with, the dangers and inevitability of more crashes if the momentum that we had established was not sustained and about the vicious ’’blood cult’’ that existed in the aviation sector at that time which needed to be forcefully confronted with courage, dedication, vigour, discipline, prayer and hard work.
Most of them understood and appreciated what we were saying though one or two of them were skeptical and they could not fully comprehend or understand it. Well now, seven crashes later and with many more people dead they are beginning to open their eyes and ask the pertinent questions that should have been asked and answered many years ago. As I said earlier, Nigerians have very short memories.
What I have said here is not new and I have said it over and over again even after 2008 Senate Aviation Commitee Public Hearing. Please find the time to go to my website at www.femifanikayode.org and read the document titled ‘’My Mandate at the Ministry of Aviation’’ (which is a copy of the presentation that I made at the Senate Aviation Committee Public Hearing in 2008) or follow the discussions on my facebook page since 2009 and you will see all these things there.
I made my contributions, did my bit and I spoke out when I felt that it was necessary to do so at the risk of my life, my family and my reputation. Sadly not many people are listening or are interested in this matter. Even after the tragic events of last Sunday I assure you that after a while Nigerians will forget again until there is yet another crash and then they will just loudly express their horror and pain again and they will lament, moan, cry and talk about it for a few weeks.
After that everyone will forget about it and it will be back to business as usual. Little will change in the sector. For me that is the biggest tragedy of all.
And yet I hope that I am proved wrong because I fly as well and so do my loved ones. It is so sad but that is the truth. No one really cares unless it affects one of their own directly and that is why we are in this terrible mess. Despite all the rubbish that has been going on and all the lives that have been lost in the 12 fatal crashes that we have had since 2005 not one person from the Ministry of Aviation has been publicly queried, reprimanded, sacked, resigned or brought to justice as a consequence of any of them. Does that not seem strange to you? Can anything really change if that continues to be the order of the day? There is no deterrent and there is no fear of any sanction so everyone just keeps misbehaving.
That is essentially the problem of the Nigerian Aviation sector. May God help and deliver us all and may He ensure that we do not have anymore of these horrific crashes. Curiously every single one of these crashes took place on a weekend. On either a Saturday or a Sunday. Why is that? Is it a mere coincidence? Is there not more to this and is God not trying to tell us all something? The truth is that it is time for drastic change and for the watchers of Christendom to rise up in prayer. The Muslims must pray too. Sanity must be restored. This blood bank that some have turned the aviation sector into has to be completely destroyed and dismantled before more people are killed in mindless and avoidable accidents like the one we witnessed last Sunday. May God help us all!