By U.K. Uwadinobi

A close Nigerian relative of mine, Ohio State University industrial engineering grad and system analyst who does consulting work for the oil industry in Nigeria, brilliantly summed up what led to the horrific plane crash in the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria last weekend. “It’s a sad manifestation of system failure in Nigeria,” he wrote in his email to me in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. “How did an aircraft take to the sky without an air worthiness certificate?” he asked, adding: “The Indian operators of the airline are masters in bribery and shady business. Instead of maintaining their aircraft, they bribe the regulatory authorities to look the other way while they order unworthy aircraft to the sky.”Indeed a sad commentary to say the least, which is why I sometimes feel it’s pointless getting offended when people in Western nations refer to Nigeria as a Third World country. If not, why would government officials in cahoots with unscrupulous foreign nationals doing business in the country, sell their souls to undermine the safety of the public and the rule of law (if any exists at all) for nefarious motives? A country incredibly endowed with rich natural resources both in material and human assets. You wonder why. A country blessed with some of the most intelligent people on earth that has produced a Nobel Laureate, a former managing director of the World Bank highly respected as a voice to be reckoned with in matters of international finance and development. You wonder why. A country that has produced world class scientists, physicians, engineers, academics, artists and athletes. You fold your hands and wonder why the perplexing dichotomy and why it has not risen beyond the level of Third World status.

Back in the 80s, it was horrifying to learn that a foreign-owned vessel carrying a container-load of toxic materials disguised as consumer goods had sailed to the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and delivered its cargo to a Nigerian businessman. The businessman reportedly was paid to have the toxic materials dumped in the creeks and estuaries of the Delta, with utter disregard for the harmful effects on the environment, marine life and local residents. How could the vessel have eluded Nigerian maritime authorities and sailed to its destination? Authorities clearly must have been paid off to look the other way.

On a trip to Nigeria a few years ago with my wife for my mother’s burial, we were standing on the tarmac of the local wing of Murtala Mohammed International Airport at Ikeja, Lagos with other passengers waiting to board a local flight to Enugu in the eastern part of the country, when my attention was drawn to the tires of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 aircraft. As passengers started boarding the aircraft, I quickly bent closer to the landing gear and rubbed my hands over the tires. Oh-my-God! They were smooth. No ridges. All six ply had been completely worn off. I was petrified and my heart sank to my stomach. This is a potential disaster waiting to happen, I murmured to myself staring blankly at the completely worn out tires. With no ridges to give the tires traction, a slippery runway due to rainfall could cause the plane to skid dangerously out of control on landing. It became obvious to me that the aircraft must have been operating without certification of airworthiness. Luckily, we flew from Lagos to Enugu and landed safely.

Since the news of last weekend’s horrific plane crash sent shockwaves rippling through Nigerian communities across the globe, the blogosphere has been ablaze with criticism for United States aviation authorities for their removal of Nigeria from the black list of countries with poor aviation facilities that don’t meet international standards. Many will recall that Nigeria Airways, the country’s national airline, for several years was banned from operating international flights to the United States. Similarly, U.S. carriers were restricted from operating flights to Nigeria for safety reasons. It amounted to a significant loss in revenue for the Nigerian commercial aviation sector ostensibly because of the high demand for the popular Ikeja, Lagos-Nigeria to New York’s JFK air route. The weekend crash has fueled numerous calls on the U.S. aviation authorities to reinstate the ban.

What I find quite befuddling is what goes through the minds of unscrupulous government officials, when they knowingly take bribes from despicable morons, like the alleged operators of the airline, to compromise safety standards and endanger the lives of unsuspecting travelers. It begs the question if the officials don’t even know that they too, or members of their families, could easily be victims of air disaster due to their shameless acts?

A major air disaster was averted in New York City a couple of years ago, when the Hudson River along the West Side Highway became an emergency runway for the landing of a Boeing 747 commercial jetliner. It was U.S. Airways Flight 1549 bound for Charlotte, North Carolina with 155 people on board. The plane had taken off from LaGuardia airport, New York and was airborne when a flock of geese strayed into its flight path. The resulting collision killed the birds and stopped the engines of the Boeing 747 jetliner. The pilot of the disabled plane, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, had only three options in that tense moment of crisis: rely on his many years of flying experience in military and commercial aviation, chance and God! As the powerless plane began to succumb to the force of gravity, Captain Sullenberger literally steered the 747 Airbus with his hands and feet toward the Hudson River for a water landing. Within minutes the plane was seen splashing onto the Hudson and gliding to a stop. All 155 people on board survived. Captain Sullenberger and his crew, scores of rescuers–from the Coast Guard to New York Fire and Police Departments to ordinary folks–were hailed as heroes. The monumental aviation crisis that was seen live on television by millions of viewers as it happened ended with no loss of human lives and was dubbed “Miracle on the Hudson!” Since then, Captain Sully Sullenberger has been a leading voice to use legislative means through the city government in the effort to solve the problem of geese infestation around New York’s airports as they put planes and the lives of passengers at enormous risk during take-off and landing.

Just recently in China Town in New York City, a team of government safety officials swooped down on some luxury bus companies for multiple safety violations and revoked their operating licenses. It was a major crackdown on the industry after ordinary citizens who care about public safety tipped off authorities. That is the kind of response one would expect from regulatory authorities, when they become aware of illegal practices that undermine operational regulations and compromise safety standards.

In Nigeria or anywhere else, crewmembers and/or passengers who are directly at risk due to shady practices perpetrated by owners of bus companies or commercial airlines, could make a difference by reporting wrong doing that they observe.

The most searing image of this tragedy, which would be on the minds of many for a long time, is the Connecticut-based family lost in moment in one day. It mirrors the vulnerability of Nigerians abroad who travel home and must depend on local or regional flights in the country to get to their destinations. What else will it take to end bribery and corruption of regulatory authorities, which allegedly made the Dana Airline tragedy a sad manifestation of system failure in Nigeria?

Ukachi Uwadinobi, a freelance journalist living in New York is Op-ed contributor to Amandla Newspaper in New Jersey.



Posted by on Jun 16 2012. Filed under Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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