West Africa Weekly Aviation Special [Part 1]
A 'briefcase airline.' Unreported accidents. Bitter boardroom disputes. Cameroonian migrants drowning in the Caribbean. A journey into the crazy world of Nigerian civil aviation in 2023.
Nov 7, 2022, 9:52 PM
Good day, Mr Hundeyin. My name is Robert Emmanuel and I am a journalist from Antigua and Barbuda working at the Antigua Observer. I am messaging you today seeking some information on a company that has reportedly established an airline in collaboration with our government in Antigua called Antigua Airlines. […] I am trying to find out who owns this company, how are they able, or how do they plan to afford the cost of maintaining such an airline from Nigeria to Antigua, and what the facts on the ground in Nigeria are about this airline. If you have any information that could be helpful, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Nigerian Migrant Smugglers And A Quiet Caribbean Island
Like many residents of the beautiful East Caribbean island nation of Antigua & Barbuda, Robert Emmanuel woke up one morning in July 2022 to news about a new airline whose very existence was an already an issue of some controversy. Antigua Airways according to the news, would operate scheduled direct flights linking Ghana, Nigeria, Antigua and Canada. This however, was not the first time that an airline had made noises about establishing a direct flight link between Africa and the only part of its diaspora that is still inaccessible from the motherland by a direct flight. Robert was understandably skeptical.
For many in Africa and the Caribbean, the establishment of direct scheduled flights between Africa and the largest African diaspora outside of South America has long been a deeply symbolic issue. So symbolic in fact, that when a Boeing 767 carrying out the first-ever direct scheduled service between Nigeria and Antigua landed in November 2022 after a 12-hour flight from Lagos, Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne was among those who hailed the emergence of a new era in Afro-Caribbean economic cooperation.
Robert was not convinced. As a journalist at the Antigua Observer, he had covered many a promise of game-changing collaborations and investment from wealthy Nigerians who invariably never seemed to follow through. Something about the arrangement did not pass the smell test for him, so he reached out to me in November 2022 seeking to understand who exactly was behind the “Pride of the Caribbean”.
[The entire story only goes downhill from here. This is your last opportunity to click the ‘x’ button if you’re not in the mood to read something that is unexpectedly disturbing.]
The only publicly available information about Antigua Airways at the time was that it was some sort of partnership involving the Africa-focused aviation consultancy Aerostatus, the online travel agency Wakanow, and a little-known entity called ‘Marvelous Mike Press’. A glance at this entity’s website showed that it was apparently a successful printing company whose clients included the Nigerian government and the UN
A little more digging showed that the person behind the company was one Michael Bayo Akinola and one Christiana Akinola, presumably his wife. Exactly what nexus existed between owning a printing company and running an intercontinental airline remained unclear at the time, but this would all be revealed a few months later.
In the meantime, even putting aside the sketchy ownership and motivation behind Antigua Airways, its cover story was starting to fail the smell test in one important way. You see the picture up there with “Antigua Air: Pride of the Caribbean” painted on the side of the plane? As it turned out, while Antigua Airways had a legitimate aircraft lease agreement for the Boeing 767, unlike a certain ‘Nigeria Air’ (more on that later), the lease lasted for the grand period of one month. More importantly, it had not fulfilled the regulatory requirements to call itself an airline or to operate scheduled services in Antigua.
The 12-hour Lagos - Antigua flight was in fact registered as a charter service operated by euroAtlantic Airways of Portugal - the airline that owns the aircraft. It flew in once to Antigua, and back again to Lagos. The following month, the lease on the Boeing 767-300 with the registration number CS-TSU came to an end. Subsequently it is unclear how the airline sourced aircraft for its intercontinental charter service, but what is known for sure is that it continued to ferry several hundred passengers from Africa to Antigua & Barbuda between November 2022 and January 2023. The majority of these passengers did not return - more on that shortly.
In any case in January 2023, just 2 months after launch, Antigua’s government officially suspended the airline, citing its non-compliance with Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA) regulations.
To all intents and purposes that was the end of Antigua Airways as a going concern, and as bad as it is, the story should ordinarily end here.
So of course, it doesn’t.
In March 2023, a boat from Antigua carrying dozens of passengers capsized off the coast of nearby St. Kitts and Nevis. The majority of these passengers it turned out, were Cameroonian refugees who had fled the ongoing civil war in Ambazonia.
Behind the cover story of boosting tourism in Antigua and fostering economic cooperation between Africa and the Caribbean, Antigua Airways was doing something else entirely. The airline was in fact running an exploitation racket where it promised Cameroonian refugees easy access to Antigua via a visa-on-arrival scheme. From there they could - at least in theory - travel by boat to the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico so as to claim asylum on American soil.
The airline of course, did not openly say any of this, but it did not need to. The nudge-wink arrangement allowed it to financially exploit desperate people fleeing from war by charging them to facilitate their illegal movement into another jurisdiction - which by the way, fits Interpol’s definition of “migrant smuggling.” It may not be human trafficking, but it is definitely in the same neighbourhood.
The Antiguan public was understandably incensed. In addition to the economic strain caused by 637 destitute migrants in what is a tiny island economy, locals found the mental image of Africans drowning in the Caribbean especially offensive. In a region whose history is intertwined with the Transatlantic slave trade, the idea of African destitutes meeting a watery death in Caribbean waters carries severe historical and psychological resonance.
Which brings us back to Michael Bayo Akinola a.k.a ‘Marvelous Mike.
According to Antiguan PM Gaston Browne, not only is the airline “defunct,” but its erstwhile owners are apparently fighting a bitter legal battle against each other back home in Abuja. Apparently, 2 unnamed investors are suing ‘Marvelous Mike,’ Antigua Airways, the Antigua-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce and its president Emmanuel Samson for being allegedly “cut out” of the arrangement. Not for the last time in this story, a messy Nigerian lawsuit takes centre stage at an airline. More on that later.
If you are wondering why anyone would want to fight over ownership of a failed airline with an image problem and no assets, here is PM Browne answering that question in his own words:
"What we did is we listed Antigua Airways as a CIP investment, and in that case, they could have gotten up to 10 CID files of investment, and that meant that would have given the government a 20% share.”
“CIP” for the uninitiated, means “Citizenship-by-Investment Program.” Caribbean nations such as Antigua and Barbuda are known to offer citizenship to wealthy foreigners who invest a significant amount - usually at least $100,000 - under a CIP program. An Antiguan passport holder has visa-free access to over 140 jurisdictions worldwide including the UK, the European Schengen area, Hong Kong and Singapore.
By “10 files of investment,” what Antiguan PM Browne meant in plain English was that “Antigua Airways” was meant to be investment vehicle by which 10 rich Nigerians obtained Antiguan passports. In return, the Antiguan government was supposed to receive a 20 percent stake in the airline. It was a sweet deal on paper.
What he and the Antiguan authorities probably did not expect was that Antigua Airways would also turn out to be the vehicle by which said 10 rich Nigerians effectively recouped their Antiguan passport investment from the pockets of over 900 desperate Cameroonian refugees - effectively selling fellow Africans into Caribbean destitution for a buck.
The more things change…
“A Keg Of Gunpowder”: An Inside Peek At Nigeria’s Civil Aviation Authority and the Federal Airports Authority
Good morning, David. I am an insider. The post made by Sahara Reporters a few days ago regarding secret employment going on in the NCAA was provided by me. However, I do not understand why Sahara reporters chose to post only 4 out of the 12 page documents I revealed and also made analysis based on those 4. When Sahara made the Twitter post, I commented under it and provided the rest of the documents. Few days later, I realised that not even a single person saw my comment. I copied out the link to my comment, and used another twitter account to try accessing it. To my surprise, I discovered that my comment could not be seen and accessed through another account. I do not know whether this was done by Sahara or by Twitter. Whatever be the case, the effects and the intents of the exposé was doused. People do not know that we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder as far as flight operations are concerned in Nigeria.
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is the regulatory body overseeing all nonmilitary aviation in Nigeria. To summarise its duties, think of it this way - if you work in any kind of nonmilitary aviation in Nigeria - as a pilot, flight attendant, aircraft engineer, air traffic controller as so on - you are regulated by the NCAA. Its job is to ensure that Nigeria does not witness any of these scenes ever again.
The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) is the public institution that provides operational support to Nigeria’s 21 local and international airports. If you think of Nigerian civil aviation as a water bottling factory, the NCAA’s job is to ensure high quality standards for the water and zero contamination for the plastic bottles, while the FAAN’s job is to make sure that the machines are running adequately and power is constant so that production does not stop. If either of these agencies fail consistently or badly enough, people will die.
Since 2021, multiple whistleblowers have reached out out with different stories about malfeasance, mismanagement and fraud within the NCAA and FAAN. The stories varied, but they all had one central theme - there is nobody in charge, and the subsequent law of the jungle within these agencies is rapidly creating dangerous conditions that should worry every Nigerian. This includes people who have never entered an aeroplane and are just minding their business on the ground, since in 2 of the above 4 air disasters (EAS Airlines Flight 4226 in Kano and Dana Air Flight 992 in Lagos), such people were not spared.
Multiple allegations of ethnic bias in place of meritocracy at the FAAN and NCAA under the tenure of past Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika have been made, but until recently it was impossible to lay hands on the paperwork to prove any of this. Multiple allegations of bribery and corruption within the NCAA licencing process - the very last place where you want to see bribery and corruption in Nigeria - have also come up, but by and large, it was mostly just talk.
Until very recently.
The urgent message that came in on Friday May 26, 2023 from a whistleblower at Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu, made it clear that Nigeria is once again at real risk of witnessing another one of those horrible images up there. This time around, it was not a complaint about a skewed and opaque hiring process within the NCAA and FAAN, or a tipoff about Hadi Sirika transferring multiple FAAN assets to himself (more on that later). This was a message that set the proverbial alarm bells ringing because it showed that hundreds - maybe thousands - of Nigerian lives are at risk.
Before jumping into that, here is a cliff notes version of the multiple complaints against the NCAA alongside some of the evidence to back up these claims.
Under the immediate past Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika, the NCAA has been turned into an employment program for sketchily qualified candidates from Northern Nigerian states, especially Katsina where he is from.
In 2023 alone, at least 150 new hires were brought in during the last few months of Hadi Sirika’s tenure. The ratio of technical staff to non-technical staff at the NCAA is now something in the region of 1:8, making its overheads budget unreasonably top-heavy even as the agency fails to keep hold of experienced Aviation Safety Inspectors who are leaving the agency to work for airlines or outside the country.
Due to Sirika’s ethno-tribal politics and constant political interference, the NCAA no longer ensures that only qualified technical personnel are employed to the parastatal through lawful means. Insiders are increasingly fearing another era of large passenger jet accidents in Nigerian airspace.
The NCAA regularly employs unqualified personnel without putting them through an interview process, placing them on high salary grades in violation of the Scheme of Service which dictates minimum entry requirements. As one whistleblower put in plainly:
“Some [NCAA] personnel are so unqualified that they cannot even identify parts of an aircraft, describe their functions; and write a simple report (to the standard expected of an elementary school graduate) have filled the regulatory agency. This is prevalent in the Directorate of Airworthiness. These are people that are expected to carry out safety inspections on aircraft, determine among other things, whether to issue Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A) or make recommendations whether an airline is safe enough to carry passengers with their aircraft. You can imagine the consequences.”
The NCAA’s Director of Airworthiness, Engr. Kayode Isiaka Ajiboye, who is also doubles the Chairman of the agency’s Flight Standards Group (FSG) submitted his 1-month resignation notice on March 31, 2023, having grown tired of being forced to take in dozens of unqualified fresh hires as Aviation Safety Inspectors without being involved in the interview process to determine their qualifications. He is still listed on the NCAA website as Director of Airworthiness. Referring to Engr. Ajiboye, this particular whistleblower said:
“He knows that the present employment will remove any last strings still holding the bag of air safety in the country. That should tell you something. I dare the government to bring in external persons that are subject matter experts in aviation in Nigeria to carry out knowledge and skill tests on all the people employment into NCAA and paraded as Aviation Safety Inspectors.”
One whistleblower spotlighted the NCAA’s licencing exam process with a lengthy testimony that I have reproduced below in full.
This might seem like a lot of accusation and little more, but what made this testimony so intriguing was that the whistleblower actually provided evidence, in form of a recorded phone call between a fellow NCAA exam candidate and himself. In the call recording below, which I have digitally distorted to conceal both identities, the exam candidate recounts his ordeal with one “Ebi Erioluwa,” an official at the agency whom he said, implicitly threatened him. Upon demanding a bribe and not receiving it from this candidate, Mr. Erioluwa was recounted as telling him “We will meet at the oral exam.”
Interestingly, a little research shows that there is indeed an official at the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority who goes by that name. Even more interestingly, he is a senior licensing officer - the exact rank and responsibility profile described by the candidate in the recorded phone call.
And so I decided to do some sleuthing of my own. An undercover reporter working for West Africa Weekly reached out to “Engineer John” from this whistleblower’s testimony, posing as a prospective NCAA licence exam candidate who wanted “help” passing the exam. In the recording below, the reporter’s voice was digitally altered, but that of “Engineer John” was left untouched.
The implication of this conversation is obvious. Rather than reject out of hand what was clearly an offer to assist examination malpractice - in a sector where you definitely do not want examination malpractice - “Engineer John” requested to be contacted by the purported recommender first, before “communicating.”
Which brings us to the alarming message that I received on Friday May 26, 2023. Once again, I have not added or deducted a single comma or full stop from this whistleblower testimony. It is important for those with authority to read and comprehend the frustration brewing underneath them without a filter. Here goes:
“On Friday 26th May, at 15:41 UTC an Ibom Air aircraft CRJ-900 with registration number 5N-BWL taxied to the runway for take-off en-route to Lagos from Akanu Ibiam International Airport Enugu. On the runway, just before take-off the pilot complained about a deep pothole from which a lot of pebbles has come out of and had scattered within the runway. The control tower asked him to wait while he called on the Environment Department of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to go and clear the pebbles so that the aircraft can pass freely.
“The pilot waited for about 20 minutes on the runway before he left. No one came because there was no vehicle to convey the the environment personnel who was on ground and ready to go and clear the pebbles. This scenario is a frequent occurrence at the airport, so there was nothing unusual about it, but it should raise a lot of eyebrows. You will see why.
“Thereafter, at 17:25 UTC, Air Peace aircraft ERJ-145LR with registration number 5N-BXF landed and was ready to take-off at 17:45 UTC with 41 souls on board and 4 crew members en-route to Abuja. The pebbles were still in place so was the pot hole. The pilot positioned and after making same complaints proceeded to take off, unfortunately as it was dark already, one of her tyres hit the pothole at high speed and the tyre burst just as the aircraft was taking off. The pilot reported the incident to the control tower and that the undercarriage wheel assembly refused to close and that he will abort the journey and return to Enugu Airport.
“The control tower advised him not to do that as the Enugu airport is not equipped to take emergency landing just same as Abuja Airport. Instead he was advised to fly to Lagos Airport where he can use the emergency landing facility there and that was what he did, he flew to Lagos airport with the under carriage wheel assembly door open without one of the tyres. The remnants of the tyre was found in several pieces on the runway when FAAN staff went to check. The airport’s ranking staff to whom the incident was reported said that the tyre should be burnt and everyone should leave the scene immediately. At about 00:30 UTC, the brought in labourers with bags of cement and covered the pothole and cleared the pebbles.
“There are two other deep pot holes in the runway as I am typing this, but they have not been attended yet. I has to speak out because of the conspiracy of silence that followed this incident. Now Enugu Airport was closed for major repairs on the runway on August 24 2019 for which the Federal Government budgeted N10 Billion and the work was contracted to PW by Hadi Sirika. The work was completed and flight services resumed on August 31 2020. In June 2022 a part of the taxi way was closed for serious repairs which was completed in August of the same year.
“The last major repairs on the runway was in 2009 by PW, after the work the said the runway has a lifespan of 25 years but barely 6 years after there were so much patches on the runway that labourers were engaged on regular basis to fill up pot holes at nights between the hours of 22:00UTC to 05:00UTC until the complaints from pilots was unbearable in 2019 they had to close the airport. Now the questions:
Why was PW awarded the contract again after messing up the first time?
How is this happening all over again after a 10 billion naira expenditure?
His final chilling paragraph revealed that 45 people were onboard when what should have been reported as a major aviation incident took place. That is, 45 innocent lives that could have been ended by an ongoing conspiracy of silence involving the NCAA, FAAN and at least 2 major airlines.
For reference, this is what runway debris has done in the past. To a Concorde, no less.
“Air Peace is supposed to blame FAAN for the incident but were also silent about the incident. Then the conspiracy of silence and risking of innocent peoples lives. I don’t think that is acceptable. That aircraft had 45 souls on board that night. The Ibom Air before it had 78 souls (74 passengers and 4 crew members) and some others fly out with hundreds of souls on board. All not aware of the danger of using the airport. Anyone can be a victim of this negligence or rather wickedness.”
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