13 May 2008

Nigeria: The Sins of British Airways


Abuja — British Airways cuts the image of a lawless, racist airline. Ironically, its lawlessness begins and ends with its treatment of Nigeria and Nigerians because Nigeria itself is a lawless country run by men who do not care a hoot about what treatment foreigners met out to their subjects. The BA crew involved in the ugly incident of March 27, 2008, where 136 Nigerian passengers were ordered out of the airline's plane are quoted as telling their victims that nothing would happen. They apparently were speaking from a position of strength given their experience in the past.

They would have recalled the fact that when Spanish immigration officials murdered a Nigerian in a brutal deportation process, it was the mass protest organised by Nigerian human rights organisations –not the actions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that compelled the government of Spain to even investigate the matter. In fact, at a crowded press briefing on the incident, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spent most of his time and energy listing the sins of the deceased deportee which, in his opinion, justified the high handedness of the Spanish immigration officials. He did not care to chase away the hawk before blaming the chicken.

In Nigeria, BA does just about anything because anything goes in the land. Sometime in 2006, BA was so defiant of the regulatory authorities of the Nigerian aviation industry that for several days, it over-shot its flight frequency on the London-Lagos route despite repeated warnings from the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). The act of lawlessness was only halted when NCAA compelled BA to fly an empty plane back to London. Sometime in the early 1990s, a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the late Abdulkadir Ahmed, bought a first class return ticket of BA for a trip to London with members of his family.

On the return leg of the journey, BA downgraded the ticket to economy class without recourse to the august Nigerian traveler whose duty it was at the time to authorise the foreign currency remittance of the racist airline's loot in Nigeria to Britain. When the CBN governor protested, the explanation from BA was that his ticket was paid in naira and that the airline had to give priority to passengers with foreign currency denominated tickets. Ahmed lost. The CBN governor was so frustrated by the treatment of BA staff that as soon as he returned to Nigeria, he demanded a position paper from the management of Nigeria Airways on how to resuscitate the flagging national flag carrier as a way of calling the bluff of the foreign airline.

BA has notoriety for discriminatory treatment of Nigerian passengers. Its ingrained act of disdain and crass racism culminated in the show of shame at Heathrow Airport Terminal-4 on March 27, 2008 when the airline bared its fangs on defenceless Nigerian passengers. For a recap of the ugly incident, I would like to quote the account of the incident published by The Mirror, a leading British newspaper: "A British Airways captain ordered 136 passengers off his plane in chaotic scenes after they all started complaining to cabin crew. As the flight waited to take off at Heathrow the row was sparked by the restraint of a man being forcibly deported. Many were distressed by his pitiful cries of "I go die" and one passenger, Ayodeji Omotade, 39, spoke up on his behalf. The deportee was taken off the Lagos-bound jet by immigration staff and police. But five officers returned and arrested Mr. Omotade.

"This outraged the other 135 passengers in the economy class section and they complained to cabin crew. Amid riotous scenes in the aisles, 20 police officers boarded to calm everything down. Then the BA pilot took the extraordinary decision to boot off everyone who had witnessed the arrest of Mr. Omotade, an IT consultant from Chatham, Kent. The captain took the view they were all guilty of disturbing the flight, although no more passengers were arrested. After the economy class section was virtually cleared, the deportee, aged about 30, was brought back on and the flight left."

That is the story from The Mirror. More than one month after the contemptuous treatment of Nigerian passengers by obdurate BA crew members, the airline has only managed to push out a dispassionate statement through a media consultant labouring to justify its uncivilised behaviour while distancing itself from the highhandedness of London police. As usual, BA remains recalcitrant, impenitent and bullish. President Umar Yar'Adua from his sick bed in Germany ordered the Ministry of Transportation to investigate the incident. NCAA responded to the directive by summoning BA officials in Nigeria to its office. On the day the airline grudgingly honoured the directive by NCAA to explain its 15th century gunboat business tactics, none of its European staff in Nigeria showed up for the meeting.

BA's primitive treatment of Nigerian passengers stems from the fact that Nigerians have nothing to fall back on in terms of a national carrier. Virgin Nigeria, the airline contemptuously flying Nigerian flag on a predominantly foreign logo, is unfortunately a British airline with the toga of a national carrier. Its equity structure makes it something of a boxer taken into the ring with two hands tied to the back. It is bound to fail and it is sliding precipitously. Recently, it added yet another chapter to its string of air returns which has taken its safety record perilously close to that of Korean Airlines of the 1980s. The following is an unedited account of a passenger in one of its flights who signed his e-mail message to me as Momodu: "On Friday 2nd May, Virgin Nigeria scheduled to fly Lagos-Accra-Dakar took off but could not land after 40 minutes in Accra and had to return to Nigeria. Passengers were off-loaded and flight rescheduled for Saturday 3rd May night. Flight took off after long delay and landed in Accra but could not continue to Dakar. Passengers were offloaded and plane returned to Lagos for exchange after a long delay. Flight eventually returned and took off to land in Dakar on Sunday morning. Even

if na road! This latest can be confirmed from Virgin Nigeria. Who will save Nigerians from this virgin contraption???" Momodu was reacting to my column last week entitled "Saving Nigeria from Virgin Nigeria". Virgin Nigeria, as presently constituted, cannot help Nigerian air travelers to call the bluff of British Airways. The crew of BA has this fact at their finger tips and the arrogance in them tells them that Nigerians could be kicked around with impunity. The airline cannot treat Kenyans or Ethiopians the way it treated Nigerians on that day because the two African countries, though impoverished, boast of reputable airlines as flag carrier.

Until Nigeria establishes a national carrier of its own, the event of March 28 would continue to repeat itself. The other factor behind the shabby treatment of Nigerians by foreign airlines and BA in particular, is the common knowledge that the Nigerian aviation industry lacks a proactive consumer protection outfit. The NCCA has such a unit, but it is something of a toothless bulldog. BA has tested the potency of the consumer protection unit of NCAA and probably found it wanting in terms of the capacity to bark and bite.

That probably explains the remark by the crew that 'nothing would happen'. And as a matter of fact, one month has rolled by and nothing has happened. The deadline that NCAA gave BA to feed it with plans to compensate the humiliated passengers has come and gone without the airline uttering a word. Harold Demuren, the respected director-general of NCAA told me in a telephone interview last week that his agency had investigated the matter and made its recommendations to the Federal Government on the issue. He insisted that the Federal Government is pursuing the matter at the highest level and that BA would have to pay compensation for its shabby treatment of Nigerian passengers.

Demuren is a man of integrity and I have no reason to doubt his statement. My worry, however, is that given its heavy connection in the corridors of power, BA may end up with a slap on the wrist for the crime against Nigeria and Nigerians. The truth is that Nigeria is already sending the wrong signals to the British on the matter. Ojo Maduekwe, the minister of foreign affairs recently had a meeting with Bob Dewar, the new British High Commissioner in Nigeria on the issue and spent most of the time pontificating on the need to maintain the friendship between Nigeria and Britain. That in my opinion is a very docile response to the kind of treatment British Airways meted out to Nigerians.

In fact, I expected someone to impound the aircraft that operated the flight which Nigerian passengers were barred from boarding. That is the only language that BA understands. But then, the Nigerian High Commission was in its typical behaviour, too slow to brief the home government on the gravity of what happened on March 27. In the final analysis, the encounter with BA should teach Nigeria a lesson on the need to codify air passengers' rights and get them passed into law by the National Assembly. Right now, even as everybody is vehemently indignant with BA, the nation's aviation industry is not on solid legal ground to pursue the right of the humiliated passengers because they are not codified.

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