Some Broken Hearts Never Mend By Simon Kolawole
Some memories never end. Some tears will never dry. These words of legendary country singer, Don Williams, ring true all over again as we remember the Sosoliso air crash of December 10, 2005. What a loss. Darkness descended on the Saturday afternoon at the Port Harcourt International Airport when the aircraft crash-landed and caught fire before the very eyes of the loved ones of the passengers. They watched helplessly, haplessly. There were seven crew members and 103 passengers on board. All but two died instantly or shortly after. The celebrated survival of the amiable Pastor Bimbo Odukoya was short-lived.
But the story that shook us the most was that of the 60 secondary school students on board. Aged between 10 and 16, they were pupils of the Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja. They were on their way home for the Christmas holiday. It was one Christmas they would never see. You cannot imagine the agony of their parents at the arrival hall of the airport as the aircraft crash-landed and caught fire. They could do nothing to rescue their children. A woman lost all her three children. You are forced to wonder what the children could have become today. Many would have graduated and even earned their master’s — and some would have married and had children.
If you have never lost a loved one before, you would never really understand the pains, the agonies, the heartaches of their parents, friends and relatives. How do you console a woman who lost all her children? Tell her it is the will of God? Tell her it is destiny? Start waving the Bible in her face? She would listen to you more attentively if you’ve been there before. The children’s schoolmates were inconsolable. A whole class was virtually empty when the school resumed in January 2006. The then principal of the school, Father Roselli, reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. It was one tale of woe after the other. It was more than a nightmare.
As aggrieved parents pursued legal options to make sure someone was brought to book for the tragedy, a judge, devoid of human feelings, allegedly accused them of trying to make money from their children’s death. That is the story of Nigeria.
Ten years after the tragedy, nobody has been punished. Although the crash was blamed on pilot’s error, it was aided by crass incompetence and endemic negligence on the part of the airport managers and the federal government. There was poor visibility. The runway lights were off and the generators were not yet switched on despite the dark weather — because the airport authorities were rationing diesel. What a country.
With poor visibility and an inclement weather, the captain made the mistake of deciding to land against all odds, failing to reckon with the concrete drainage located at a dangerous spot close to the runway.
You can argue that if the lights were on, he would have seen the inappropriately located drainage, but you also have to wonder what manner of engineer approved such a structure at such a location. As the aircraft hit the concrete, crash-landed and burst into flames, there was nothing the fire service could do. The truck was old and tired, and had no water. The truck was just there for decoration. Fire truck without water! What a country.
Those who managed to escape with burns could not be saved because there were no emergency services. There were no ambulances, nothing. Whichever way, the victims were doomed. Concrete drainage, blackout, no diesel, useless fire truck, no ambulance, no emergency services. That is the story of Nigeria. In government books, everything was available and in perfect shape, and some group of people would have collected and shared money meant for the smooth running of operations at the airports.
Nobody was called to account. Nobody was sacked. Nobody was jailed. That is what happens in backward societies: there is crime but there is no punishment.
Meanwhile, same year — August 2 to be specific — at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, Canada, Air France Flight 358 landed in turbulent weather that had grounded over 400 flights. As soon as it landed, it crashed into the Etobicoke creek beyond the runway and later caught fire.
There were 309 passengers on board. Not a soul died. All the passengers and crew were rescued. Although 12 persons sustained serious injuries, they received treatment at the airport in the first instance. So you just have to ask: why did a similar incident produce different outcomes? Why did one country have lights on the runway and another didn’t even have diesel to power generators?
Sosoliso came on air with a promise to “adequately” compensate the families of the victims.
Really? By bringing back their dead fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunties, friends and relatives? Or by giving them money? How does giving money even begin to compensate Pastor Taiwo Odukoya for the loss of his wife? Or Mrs Grace Ilabor, the woman who lost all her three children in the mishap? Even on the compensation, victims’ families complained that the airline did not take a proper insurance policy. In place of $200,000 per victim, they got $25,000. A country with weak regulations will inevitably be ravaged by corruption, negligence and impunity.
The parents of the dead students met and agreed on a four-point plan: to pursue and bring to book individuals and parastatals culpable in the crash; to forestall a reoccurrence of such an incident; to seek adequate and timely redress to all persons concerned unconditionally; and to set up a memorial and legacy in honour of the children. They are still bitter that their court case was frustrated by the federal government whose main tactic was to keep seeking adjournment. This is a country where they slap you, dispossess you of your belongings, rub your face in the ground, stuff sand into your mouth and then sit on your head. No justice. No redress.
We have to be thankful, though, that air mishaps are not commonplace again. In 2005-06 alone, we lost 322 lives in three crashes: 117 in Bellview, 108 in Sosoliso and 97 in ADC crashes. In May 2002, 72 passengers died in the EAS crash. I flew the same aircraft the previous evening from Abuja to Lagos and it almost dropped. I was mightily scared. The following day, it crashed and killed my dear friend and former classmate at Unilag, Nwachukwu K. U. Nwachukwu. He was someone I was cocksure would rise to a prominent political position in Nigeria someday, but such is life. Another former classmate, Bolaji Laguda, died in the Bellview crash. These were avoidable tragedies.
The campaign by the parents of the students killed in the Sosoliso crash, no doubt, contributed to the seriousness with which the government started taking air safety issues in Nigeria. We now have total radar coverage which enables aircraft to be tracked in the Nigerian air space. Airlines now fly at night in a more secure way than before. Even though we are still using generators, we seem to have mastered how to buy diesel better than 10 years ago. Not funny. A few litres of diesel could have saved the lives of those kids and other passengers in 2005. It is not as if we are totally out of the woods, though. I understand the standards are falling again. What a country.
They say time heals wounds. Not all wounds can be healed by time. For some, time only dulls the pain. And even though scars do not hurt, seeing the scars can still hurt. They bring back memories of pain. They remind you of your tears, your heartaches, your heartbreak, your sorrows. I commiserate with those who lost loved ones in the crash as they remember the tragedy yet again, but the best commiseration is to put this country right. The budget for aviation must end up in aviation, not in Dubai. The budget for health must end up in health, not in India. If we put this country right, we won’t have to be commiserating with people over avoidable tragedies all the time.
“I commiserate with those who lost loved ones in the Sosoliso crash as they remember the tragedy yet again, but the best commiseration is to put this country right. The budget for aviation must end up in aviation, not in Dubai”
And Four Other Things
The federal government has resolved not to allow the naira to depreciate, so it is officially N197 to one dollar. But it is N260 in the parallel market — where it is more realistic to get the hard currency. Foreign airlines are crying as over N500bn from ticket sales is stuck at the CBN which is yet to make the dollar equivalent available to them. Foreign investors who have the money to pump into the economy are discouraged. Meanwhile, where is the parallel market getting forex? The “chosen few” buy at N197 from CBN and sell at street corners for N260. Sharp.
SLIP OF TONGUE
Many Nigerians have been asking President Buhari to publish the names of those who returned their “loot”. He has replied them. “In due course, the Central Bank of Nigeria will make information available to the public on the surrendered funds, but… any disclosure now may jeopardize the possibility of bigger recoveries,” he said at the Anyiam-Osigwe Foundation Lecture on Friday. Well, he has finally jeopardised it! Many of those planning to return their loot Nicodemusly may now have a rethink, knowing that the CBN will soon publish their names. Buhari may have to settle for the EFCC option then. Realistically.
Can government officials please celebrate less about how we have won the war against Boko Haram when we know the reality? Speaking during the week, Lai Mohammed, the minister of information, even said the military had virtually met the December deadline! “Winning the war against insurgency is about sufficiently degrading the insurgents’ capacity for action. This the military has substantially done. The rest is mop-up actions. The military has largely met the deadline issued by the president, and would have done so totally by December,” he said jubilantly. A few days later, the insurgents ambushed and killed several soldiers. Deathline.
BROUGHT IN DEAD
The frivolous bill aka Bill to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions aka anti-social media bill is dead. President Buhari has promised not to sign it. Senate President Bukola Saraki has opposed it. The bill was apparently conceived for censorship purposes; this was barely concealed in the wording. Nevertheless, we must find legitimate ways to regulate social media. People are being fined or jailed in advanced countries for abuse of social media. In the UK, police have investigated over 20,000 social media offences in the last three years; convictions are on the rise. I oppose censorship the same way I loathe anarchy. Responsibility.