Monday, 24 December 2012 02:56

Some Lessons from the Nigeria’s Navy Augusta 109 Helicopter Accident

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One of the sad characteristics of the leaders and governments in Nigeria is that they never learn from tragedies. This is why preventable tragedies such as the recent Augusta 109 Helicopter crash reoccur frequently, often with greater intensity and costs. Therefore, to minimize the likelihood of re-occurrence of similar tragedies we must discuss the lessons from this recent accident and take appropriate corrective actions. The helicopter accident that claimed the lives of six Nigerians including General Azazi, the former National Security Adviser, and Mr. Yakowa, the Governor of Kaduna state, should trigger a national dialogue of some critical issues relating to funerals and aviation safety in Nigeria. In this article, I will discuss four lessons from the accident.

The first lesson is that we must move away from the culture of conspicuous and extravagant funerals in many parts of the country, particularly in the South-South geopolitical zone. Rather than being solemn and private events, funerals have become occasions for the nouveau riche, especially politicians, to show off their wealth and “connections”.  In some cases, people keep the corpses of their dead parents or relatives in mortuaries for a very long time while they prepare for what they call a “befitting” burial. Due to lack of well-maintained public cemeteries, most burials now take place at homes or family compounds. People go out of their way to build new homes where the dead are buried, even when the deceased never slept in such homes during their life time.  Our newspapers, radio stations and TV channels have literally been overtaken by obituaries, condolence messages, and funeral announcements. Funerals now look like feasts with friends and associates of the “mourners” travelling from far and near to “grace” the occasion. Top government officials abandon their jobs and travel very long distances to attend funerals. The societal expectation of “high profile” funerals puts financial and emotional pressure on the family of the deceased.  The direct and indirect costs of funerals in Nigeria are unimaginable and may rank among the highest in the world in relative terms.

Many deaths would have been avoided if we had a culture of “low profile” funerals. To the families of the deceased, when people die as result of attending the funeral of their loved ones, a "celebration of life" event turns to one of sadness and infamy. Take for instance the emotional burden and guilt Mr. Oronto Douglas and members of his family and community are now carrying because of the helicopter accident that occurred as a result of the funeral of Pa Douglas. They would wish these officials had not come to grace the occasion. In a sense, Saturday, 15 December 2012 has become a "Day of Infamy" for the family and the community. Now therefore is the time for various socio-cultural organizations to start a movement to return us to an era of “low profile” funerals. Government can support this movement in various ways. For instance, our leaders can lead by preventing or limiting the number of government officials attending funerals and by stopping condolence messages in media. The state and local governments, private entrepreneurs, socio-cultural organizations and community-based organizations can work collaboratively to build and maintain modern public cemeteries and funeral homes in all towns and villages to reduce the incidence of burials and funeral ceremonies at homes.

The second lesson is to stop the practice of the using public resources for the funerals (and weddings) of top government officials and their relations (parents, children and even extended family members), except for a few elected and appointed leaders such as the President, Vice President, the Speaker, the Senate President, the Governors and Chief Justice of the Federation. The concept of “state funeral” has been abused by all tiers of government in Nigeria. It has become a common practice to use government vehicles and other public assets for not only the funerals of middle to top government officials and their close relations but also of some other influential members of the public. Government officials travel in government vehicles and collect travel allowances to attend private funerals in “official capacity”. These trips put these officials and members of the public at risk in view of the hazards of our transportation system. What is the intrinsic benefit or value of having so many government officials attend funerals? Is it not vain glory and medicine after death? Will it bring the dead back again? Does it really comfort the families of the deceased or add to their sorrow and grief? Why can't these officials simply send flowers or token gifts to the bereaved family to assist with funeral expenses or to support a community project to honor the deceased, as is the practice in many other countries? Sometimes, government provides "financial assistance" for the funeral of top government officials or their relations as well as some other influential persons. These practices are symptomatic of "bad governance" and are illegitimate in most countries of the world. We need to find ways of taming this practice and save the nation of not only the billions of naira governments spend on funerals annually but also to reduce the deaths associated with travels to funerals.

The third lesson is the urgent need to improve public transportation in the country with focus on road, rail and water transportation as against the increased preference for air transportation by government and the wealthy. The latter is evidenced by the proliferation of airports, helipads and government-owned and private aircrafts even as the country lacks the maintenance culture, discipline and resources to cope with the requirements for aviation safety. For instance, the Nigerian Presidency probably has the more aircrafts in its feet than any other Presidency in the world. The federal and state governments continue to establish new unviable airports throughout the country even as conditions of roads continue to deteriorate. The location of an airport in or near the capital city of a state or other major towns is now seen as a status symbol even when such an airport is not commercially viable. Of the 22 airports in the country, only four are known to be commercially viable. In other words, most of the airports are white elephants. In fact, it is doubtful if cost-benefit analyses of proposed airports are ever conducted before final investment decisions are made. This is why many airports are less than 150 kilometres apart. Take the example of the new airport approved by the federal government for Bayelsa state about two years ago even though Yenagoa is less than 120 kilometers away from both the Port Harcourt and Osubi-Warri airports and the East-West road has remained uncompleted and in a state of disrepair. If we had good interstate expressways (German autobahns), high-speed railways/trains, and safe and comfortable water ferries as in most developed and middle-income countries, the demand for unviable airports, air travel, private jets and use of helicopters will decline considerably. As the helicopter and other recent air crashes have shown, the air is not safe for the rich and top government officials who are running away from the bad and unsafe roads and waterways. In other words, there is no substitute for a good and safe road, rail and water transport system within the country.

The fourth lesson is the need to faithfully implement the recommendations of the investigations of air accidents, and to comply with safety requirements of aircrafts. There is no doubt that Nigeria has one of the worst records of air accidents in the world. The list and human cost of air accidents in the country is terrifying.  Here are a few examples: On 22 January 1973, a Boeing 707 aircraft chartered by Nigeria Airways to fly pilgrims crashed while attempting to land at Kano International Airport killing 176 passengers and crew. On 7 November 1996, 143 people were killed when an ADC’s Boeing 727 aircraft crashed at Ejirin near Lagos. About ten year later, on 29 October 2006, another ADC’s Boeing 737 plane (flight 53)  crashed in Abuja immediately after takeoff  killing 95 people including the Sultan of Sokoto (Muhammadu Maccido), his son (Senator Badamasi Maccido), Abdulrahman Shehu Shagari (son of former president Shehu Shagari) and Dr Nnennia Mgbor, the first ever female West African E.N.T. Surgeon. On 10 December 2005, Sosoliso’s MD DC-9 aircraft (flight 1145) crashed at the Port Harcourt International Airport killing 108 people including 61 secondary school students from Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja.  It is important to note that Loyola Jesuit College students from Port Harcourt used to travel to and from Abuja by buses but the bad and unsafe condition of the roads made parents to opt to use Sosoliso Airlines to convey their children.  On 3 June, 2012,  Dana’s MD-83 aircraft (flight 992) crashed into a building in Iju-Ishaga area of Lagos killing all153 people on board and six persons on the ground, including NNPC’s Public Affairs Group General Manager (Dr. Levi Ajuonuma) and Alhaji Ibrahim Damcida, the Under-Secretary of Ministry of Industries.  There have also been countless helicopter crashes.

Investigations are normally carried out after each accident and recommendations are made to avert similar accidents in future. However, there are strong indications that most of the recommendations are hardly implemented. There are also doubts about the thoroughness, credibility and objectivity of the investigations. This may explain why the governors have demanded to hire the services of an independent consultant and play a role in the investigation of the Navy Augusta 190 Helicopter accident.  Furthermore, it is also a fact that some of these air tragedies can be traced to non-adherence of safety requirements. Some aircrafts are overused far beyond their mechanical limit. For instance, it has been reported that the Augusta 190 helicopter was on its 15th trip of the day it crashed. It means that the helicopter was being used as a “taxi” that day, and possibly the previous day. It is doubtful if the helicopter was designed to be used in that manner. In many cases, a pilot is compelled to fly an aircraft because of “orders” from above even when he knows it may be unsafe to do so.  Therefore, as demanded by the Senate, it is very important for the government to make public past aircraft accident investigations reports and actions taken by government to address the recommendations. Furthermore, pilots should be protected from loosing their jobs if they choose to disobey orders to fly on technical or health grounds.

In conclusion, the recent Nigeria’s Navy Augusta 109 Helicopter accident must serve as a wake-up call for a national discourse of, and corrective action on,  some critical issues relating to the “conspicuous-consumption” nature of funerals, use and abuse of government resources for private funerals, the focus of investment in modes of transportation and the investigations of air crashes in Nigeria. We must follow the example of the recent Sandy Hook School shooting in the United States that claimed the lives of six teachers and 20 children. This incident has ignited the much-avoided gun-control debate and President Obama is already poised to take on concrete actions to reduce shooting incidents in public places throughout in the United States. Therefore, the best tribute we can pay to victims of the helicopter accident is to take concrete corrective actions to prevent or minimize a reoccurrence of similar accidents in future. For instance, the National Assembly should develop a bill named after the victims of the helicopter crash to minimize the involvement of government officials in private funerals and the use of government resources in funerals. We should also return to a culture of solemn and low-key funerals which will save lives of people killed on their way to and from funerals. 

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Emmanuel Ojameruaye Ph.D

Dr. Emmanuel O. Ojameruaye is President/CEO of Capacity Development International, LLC based in Phoenix, Arizona State, USA. He was Vice-Resident for Research & Program Development with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), an NGO based in Scottsdale, Arizona State until 2013 when that organization closed its operations. He joined IFESH in 2002, first on loan from Shell International Oil Company until 2008 when he retired from Shell. He worked for the with Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) from 1992 to 2002, as Head Community Development (Western Division) from 1997 to 2002, Head Community and Environmental Issues Management (1995-96) and Head Government and Community Affairs in the Lagos Office. Before joining Shell, he was a National Consultant (appointed by the UNDP) for Nigeria’s National Data Bank Project in the Federal Ministry of Budget and Planning in Lagos (1989-1992) and a Lecturer in Economics and Statistics at the University of Benin in Nigeria (1982-1989). He was also the National Secretary of the Nigerian Economic Society (1986-1990). He holds a PhD degree in economics and has several publications to his credit including three books, Political Economy of Oil and other Topical Issues in Nigeria, A First Course in Econometrics and A Second Course in Econometrics (both coauthored), and several articles on energy economics and community development in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. He is married with five children.