DANA AIR CRASH: Presidential probe panel tainted by questionable characters, activists say

Civil society groups have slammed the presidency and the minister of aviation over the constitution of the presidential panel set up to audit  the aviation sector following last Sunday’s Dana Air crash that killed more than 160 persons.

The activists say the panel has been tainted by persons ‘with questionable characters’, accusing President Goodluck Jonathan and the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, of not being sincere in the much touted plan to clean up the aviation sector. 

The groups who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday raised concerns over the inclusion of Fidelis Onyeriri, a former Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in the nine-member “technical and administrative panel” set up by President Jonathan.  

Mr. Onyeriri, who is expected to work with other panel members to “perform a comprehensive assessment of all domestic airlines…make bold recommendations on actions to be taken to improve the overall safety net of aviation sector”, was sacked by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005. 

The aviation sector’s regulatory body, NCAA, under Mr. Onyeriri’s leadership, had overseen at least two major air disasters, Sosoliso and Bellview, leading to the death of at least 224 persons within the space of three months.

Two other members of the panel were top officials of the defunct Aviation Development Company (ADC) which recorded two air crashes leading to the death of about 230 persons before it had its license revoked in 2006. They are Mfon Udom, the former Managing Director/Chief Executive Officers of the defunct airline and Austin Omame, also a former top official of the ADC family.

Failure of the regulator:

However, aviation experts say the challenge is still one of defining the true role of a competent regulator for the industry. Reports available at the American Federal Aviation Administration regarding investigations on the cause of the crash of Bellview [October 2005], Sosoliso [December 2005], and ADC [October 2006] air crashes that killed about 300 passengers raise queries that the Nigerian government is notorious for hiding formal records surrounding the fatal crashes between 2005-2006.

The report discounts claims by the NCAA that air travel is much safer in the country, citing Nigeria’s worrying record of graft and incompetence that have contributed to air disasters.

The report referenced the Oct. 22, 2005 crash of Bellview Airlines flight killing 177 people and said the plane’s captain, a 49-year-old former pilot, had been hired by Bellview from working at a dairy for about 14 years. It added that the pilot has also been “shot in the head during a robbery attempt” when he took a break from flying.

“Interestingly, the Nigerian medical records do not contain any medical or hospitalization history of this event,” the report read adding in a caustic tone that Nigerian officials have offered conflicting reasons for the three major crashes in 2005-2006, never releasing full reports on what happened.

With respect to the Dec. 10, 2005 crash of a Sosoliso Airlines flight full of schoolchildren from Abuja to Port Harcourt, which killed 107 people, the report hinted at both pilot error and weather.

The pilot was “reportedly racing a thunderstorm” nearing the airport, the FAA claimed, adding that weather forced the pilot to make an instrument landing, breaking apart and catching fire upon impact.

Just before the crash of the Oct. 29, 2006 ADC flight from Abuja to Sokoto less than two minutes after going airborne, the report indicated that alarms began sounding in the cockpit and the pilots’ incorrect actions stalled the plane, “Although bad weather may have created the situation, which the pilots reacted to inappropriately,” the report read.

The report also drew attention to airline’s operation manual for pilots and cockpit staff, which it claimed was more disturbing for investigators beause it “did not contain any information on adverse weather condition as that section was blank.”

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority despite containing the blank section duly approved the manual, the report hinted, adding that “The deficiency in the operation manual would probably make it difficult for pilots to take appropriate decision on when to go or not to go in (an) adverse weather condition.”

The report reference a 2009 study by the World Bank which concluded that the aviation authority spends more than 90 percent of its budget on salaries and cannot fund training or equipment needs.

The authority “is still struggling to enforce quality, safety, and security standards on federal agencies operating Nigeria’s airport and airspace systems,” the study said.

Activists say that with the inclusion of these persons in the panel, Nigerians should not expect a credible report.

Shehu Sani, the president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, says that the appointment is an indication of the entrenchment of dark characters in the sector.

“If there are questionable characters in the panel, then it is clear that there is a mafia in the aviation sector who will insert their persons to protect their interests.

“You cannot get an objective and honest report from a committee that has questionable characters,” he said.  

According to Debo Adeniran, the Executive Chair of Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), a human rights group concerned with anti-corruption, the presidency is on a scheme to deceive Nigerians. 

“From time, we have always said that the Jonathan administration is not sincere with any probe. Corruption pervades every agency of the government. Because the government is corrupt, it cannot set up a panel that is honest. 

“The panel is to hoodwink Nigerians and International public to think that they are doing what a responsible government is supposed to do.

“Because they don’t want any real report to come out, they want those who will write a deceitful report, that is why they’ve gone to gather those who have skeletons in their cupboard, who they can blackmail into writing what they want,” Mr. Adeniran said. 

Blaming the presidency

While the Civil Society Groups say that the presidency must be blamed for appointing people with less than clean portfolios, Aviation Roundtable, a group made up of professionals in the aviation sector, say they cannot question the government’s action while conceding that the panel’s result would be a result of the individual competence of its members.

“The quality of the result depends on the quality of the members of the panel. The presidency set up the body. If they believe that the people there can get the job done, who are we to question them,” the president of the group, Dele Ore, said in a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

Contrariwise, Mr. Sani of CRCN opined that the presidency and Ms. Oduah must take the blame for the selecting persons without a clean track record.

“It is the fault of the presidency and the minister of aviation, who are supposed to carry out a background check on the members of the panel,” he said.

Mr. Adeniran of CACOL urged the presidency to reconstitute the committee and insert more credible persons.

“Both the presidency and the minister should cooperate with Nigerians to gather aviation professionals who do not have integrity challenges and who have an image and family name to protect.” 

The presidency did not respond to enquiries regarding the constitution of the committee. Reuben Abati, the presidential spokesperson did not respond to telephone calls or messages put across to him.  

Spokesperson of the aviation ministry, Joe Obi, could not be reached for comments. His mobile telephone was switched for most part of Thursday.

The panel is headed by John Obakpolor, an aeronautical engineer. Other members of the committee are Dele Sasegbon, OB Aliu, Muhtar Usman, Tony Anuforom and A Mshelia.

 


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