THE fatal crash of a Dana Air plane in the suburb of Lagos, eight days ago, is one disaster too many. It is pathetic for its gruesomeness; and for throwing the entire country into mourning. As it were, the tragedy has added to Nigeria’s unenviable air safety record, making it imperative for the authorities to investigate fully the cause, and to take measures aimed at preventing a recurrence.
The plane, on a routine domestic flight from Abuja, came down in clear weather into a crowded suburb of Lagos minutes before landing. The crash killed all 153 passengers and crew on board, and many on the ground. It is particularly disheartening that a day before the Dana Air crash, a Nigerian Boeing 727 cargo airliner belonging to Allied Air crashed in Accra, killing 10 Ghanaians in a bus. The Lagos crash was the worst air accident since September 1992, when a military transport plane crashed into a swamp shortly after take-off from Lagos, killing all 163 military officers, relatives and crew members on board.
It is hardly surprising that the past week has featured the world media and the Internet, broadcasting the mystery crash of the Boeing MD-83 aircraft on Sunday June 3, 2012, which has further dented the country’s poor aviation image, sharply against what it used to be prior to the 90s. Between 1992 and 2012, there have been 10 major air disasters (an average of one in two years) with hundreds of lives lost. In 1995 alone, the nation recorded five plane crashes in which 453 people died. Sadly, Nigeria is becoming known to the world for all the wrong reasons. When it is not for mind-boggling corruption, it is for unbridled insecurity and terrorism, or crisis in education, or even inability to eradicate polio.
Typical of the country’s emergency apparatus, rescue teams were slow in arriving. When they eventually came, there was not enough water and other facilities to fight the blazing fire that engulfed the plane. Hapless sympathisers in a desperate but futile bid to help out brought plastic buckets of water. By the time the victims or their remains were salvaged, the harm had been completed. Even the identification of victims became a nightmare.
Following the tragedy, President Goodluck Jonathan declared three days of mourning. He visited the scene of the crash and promised Nigerians that a thorough investigation would be conducted to bring to book all those whose action or inaction contributed to the disaster. ‘There will be no sacred cows’, he assured. In the meantime, the Federal Government has suspended the operating licence of Dana Air and set up an investigative committee whose report is expected in six months.
The president is obviously touched about the incident. But Nigerians have learned through painful experience that after the initial outpouring of grief and the promise of an enquiry, as is the case now, nothing more would be heard. The safety and security of air travelers is covered up in officialdom, so that nobody knows what lessons have been learned from previous accidents. A former Minister of Aviation lamented in the media only a few days ago that, “despite 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.” The promises of President Jonathan should not go the way of previous assurances.
It is reported that the crashed plane was already 22 years old. Nigerian law, according to some reports, prohibits aircraft older than 20 years from flying. Nigerians deserve to know why this law was breached, if indeed it was circumvented, by Dana Air or any other airline. In a country where corruption among government officials has become endemic, it is conceivable that cost-cutting aviation companies might unduly influence the behaviour of the regulators. With regard to the crashed plane, it will be worthwhile to know its state of airworthiness, and who gave the necessary approvals for it to fly. Did it have enough fuel in its tanks? How many times had it flown on the day in question? Many things can go wrong with an aircraft. The investigators should do a thorough job and their findings made public. Six months is too long to investigate the Dana Air accident, as it suggests a lack of urgency and the possibility of an extensively massaged final report.
This accident occurred in the first place mostly because the country has no working railway, Abuja being almost alone among the world’s great capitals that has no commuter train. Nigerians travel by air because the roads are neither good nor safe. It is elementary logic to link the nation’s official capital to its commercial capital. As a learning point from Dana Air disaster, an Abuja-Lagos rail line should be constructed without delay.
The Federal Government must save air passengers from the danger of using antiquated aircraft. Available information indicates that there are many old aircraft flying in the airspace. A complete audit should be carried out on all airlines currently operating in the country. Only those who make the grade should be allowed to fly. The investigation must go beyond Dana Air and extend to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). The main regulator of the country’s airline industry will need to face some tough questions on its performance or lack of it.
The regulators have most probably lost concentration of their grave assignment. This is evident from the fact that improvements in aviation safety following a string of disasters in 2005 have been slackening over time with observable weaknesses now manifest even to passengers. It is the culmination of seemingly minor incidents that has led to a major air crash. Elsewhere, some senior officials would have immediately resigned their jobs in the wake of this horrible accident. But Nigerians do not resign. To improve on safety standards, the Federal Government, among other measures, should flush out all those responsible for this tragedy.
THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER