Political Interference, Greatest Threat to Air Safety-Demuren
Former Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Dr. Harold Demuren posits that to guaranty the safety of flight operations, the NCAA must be autonomous to enforce regulations without fear or favour.
He spoke to journalists at a breakfast meeting of the Aviation Round Table. Chinedu Eze presents the excerpts:
When you talk of Nigerian aviation policy, I believe the first one was done in 1989 and I can see many faces here who took part. And then it was reviewed again, Kema Chikwe was the Minister then; it was reviewed again then after that. First it was reviewed under Kema Chikwe and then when Professor Babalola Borishade came as Minister of Aviation.
That was after those accidents. We then met and we asked ourselves what are the problems in the industry and how do we solve them one by one? And let me say this there is nothing wrong with Nigeria Civil Aviation Policy; it is just the implementation. It is like Nigeria’s constitution, it just needs implementation, it is still the same thing but we read them differently and we have different interpretation.
But I think it has to be amended from time to time to make sure it serves the need of the people. Things have changes over the time. That is why we are now able to come up with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Act and that became very embracing. It is not easy to get things passed through the government-National Assembly, it takes years but I want to thank God that all of us worked together to get this through.
That became the basic instrument, without legislation you cannot do anything. In fact other countries of Africa still want to know how we were we able to get through our parliament and got this legislation passed.
Many are politicians; don’t forget this, and they will continue to be politicians, but there are professionals. There is difference between politicians and professionals, politicians will say what they want, they will even say what they don’t mean but we should be real enough to explain to them and not be afraid of them, they are human beings, we should let them understand that this is what should be done. If they don’t agree with you openly they will call you back at night and say you are right.
When you talk about NCAA, it was that Civil Aviation Act embellished it and it contains the rest of what you are talking about NCAA autonomy, which include regulations and enforcement. At that time it was agreed that they will create an autonomous civil aviation authority that would regulate aviation without political interference.
And that is the big work and it depends on who is the Minister, it depends on who is in the National Assembly, it depends on them. Sometimes you can have very good ones and they will work with you because they want things to move, sometimes you have another one that from day one with them you are going to quarrel and it doesn’t make any difference.
That behaviour will never change because they are politicians but we work as professionals and stand strong. You must stand strong and be counted when it comes to that. The biggest challenge I have with NCAA, and challenge can lead to opportunities also, was how to secure the autonomy of NCAA. So the major challenge is how to stop the political interference in safety regulations.
In civil aviation, airlines are our biggest number one customer but one of the things there is that you cannot operate an airline unless you have Air Operator Certificate (AOC) and that is basic; the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and everybody agree on that.
But when the minister wants you to issue AOC to an airline which is not qualified and you have to say no, that no should be collective no, it is not enough for one person to say it. But because the bulk stops at the table of the Director General of NCAA you have to be strong enough to say no, I will not issue this.
You are not going to die if you insist on no; however, you are going to die one day; it doesn’t make any difference but you must be strong to say we will not issue this. You will explain to the Minister or whoever it is why you have taken your decision. You will explain to the airline that when you demonstrate compliance with the requirement we will issue you AOC, but if you don’t demonstrate it, then we don’t issue. And that has been the bone of contention.
We have said this over the years. How do you ensure safety? I will say it is by regulation. That safety certificate has to be issued, if you are not a well trained pilot who have done your simulator training and everything, you cannot fly. And if something happens to you and you fail your medical we will not renew you license, and then the DG gets a phone call, “He is my brother.” Oh the President has just called me that we should give you certificate and you say thank you very much. But the correct position is this: when the President calls and ask you to give certificate to a pilot who is not qualified, you tell him, Mr. President, we cannot do it. We will not do it because we don’t want an accident to happen.
Even when you have done the right thing they still blame the authority when accident happens.
I think the question of insisting on NCAA autonomy is important and the officials in NCAA should not be afraid. But let me say this; though it will be very obvious to you, when I was the DG I was lucky for two things, I was much older than most of the politicians in the National Assembly, I was older than the Minster. I was more experienced so they could not tell me anything, I could tell it to their face.
I remember telling an officer who was directed to do something by the Minister, I said to the officer, don’t worry, go back and tell the Minister that you want to do it but I said you should not do it. Let the Minister call me. And I will give him our reasons why we are not doing it.
All over the world this is what happens; there is political interference; not only in Nigeria, it is not peculiar to Nigeria. So you have to be autonomous and you have to be honest, you have to be transparent. Politics will never stop and people have their ways in bringing politics into anything, don’t allow that to worry you, this country belong to all of us and all of us have a stake in this place.
Safety Regulation and Enforcement
And we are doing all these for all of us because if you don’t fly, your children will fly, your wife also will fly, you also will fly so it is for all of us. Once you are sure you are doing the right thing, you must always ask yourself what am I doing? Who does it glorify? So politics is going to be there and there is nothing we can do about it, it gets worse.
Sometimes you have good politicians; sometimes you have bad ones, so it depends. I am happy that having done the Civil Aviation Act, we then came back to NCAA and we developed the various sections. And for the first time it didn’t just cover the ICAO Annex one, six and eight but it went further.
We now have the aerodromes , we have done all that, we have the documentation, we also worked on what we call guidance for the surveyors, for the airworthiness safety officer. Everything you do it is documented, how you do it so that if there is a change there is a procedure and it has helped us. We went further than that also, we also have economic regulation for the industry which also led to the consumer protection.
So if you ask for regulation, Nigeria has good solid document and of course it has to be revised from time to time. Enforcement, like I said, you just need to be tough, regulators are usually not very, very popular and you can’t be popular, you are going to be stepping on toes, you are going to offend you friends, your neighbours but you must be seen as, like someone will say, I don’t like him but I will get justice from him. They don’t need to like your face but they know they will get justice. If you are right they will support your procedure.
There was a time I went out to ground an airline, I got there and saw what they were doing and I said, no we can’t ground the airline; they are doing something right , even though they made a mistake. In such a case the mistake can be forgiven. They were doing maintenance, they trained their crew.
Enforcement of regulations is the most important thing. When we were doing audit to earn the US Category One Safety Status, there were eight critical elements you must pass and that involved all those things we have mentioned but you know the last one? Enforcement. They wanted to know how many enforcement decisions were being taken? If something is wrong, if you don’t correct it, it is going to get worse.
Some enforcements are very, very bad, they are very harsh, but you start from the beginning, write a letter of warning, ask them to go for more training ask them to do all that. Sometimes you have to stop an operation, sometimes you have to withdraw the license of the pilot and he can’t fly again.
I have a pilot who had glaucoma in the two eyes and we tried and tried, and tried and I said I am not sure you can do this any longer, I am going to withdraw this license, I said I am going to revoke it now. He was weeping, all the family came but I can’t help, Dr. Bassey (NCAA medical doctor) has gone to every place, we had called for assistance from outside, we had three different opinions, we went to London, UCH, Ibadan; after all these, we came to a stage i said I was going to cancel the pilot certificate when there was no improvement in his sight. I want to help him but I did’t know how to do it.
Sometimes enforcement can be tough, that was what happened to an operator who had bought aeroplanes in millions of dollars. He told me he owed a bank but because we did not meet the regulation we stopped him from flying. We told him, you have done this which is against the law. Thou shall not, you are out. We can’t continue this way that is enforcement. In enforcement you take people’s means of livelihood from them.
But let me tell you, what is happening right now is a great challenge to us. You have all heard about those accidents that occurred, we don’t see the aeroplanes (missing Malaysia Airlines MH370), we are looking for them, if it had happened in Nigeria, they would have said the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) doesn’t know what it is doing, they would have said that NCAA is dead they don’t know what they are doing but it happened outside. These are brand new aeroplanes with the latest technology and years after we have not seen them.
We are working on tracking and these were one of the things we did before we left NCAA. We wanted to have this in-flight tracking system so you know where the aeroplane is. Ladies and gentlemen we have technology, AVR (audio video receiver), we use it in the military why not use it in civil aviation. Another thing that we are working on that is of major importance is drones.
We need to regulate them. And it is becoming a major issue to us, private aeroplane is flying and somebody goes and hit it, everybody is going to die. The third one I want to say is that when accident occurs there is a lot of emotion, there is a lot of anxiety but emotion and crying won’t stop accidents. We still have to clean our eyes and find out what caused that accident? But when you do that in two areas, we need also not to forget those who have lost their loved ones.
And that is what we are talking about, it is very important that we start to address that. People are always worried where are they going to get the money from, we are focusing on that right now, it is very important to us. It is assistance to that family victims, those who are alive how do you help them.
The question is who pays for those things? Right now I think 99 per cent of the work is done by NCAA, when I was there we spent most of our time sending people out to see the families, Christians, Muslims all over Nigeria; that was what we were doing. But it is not really our job, it is in between NEMA (National Emergency National Agency) but mainly accident investigation; they need to create those sides but it has to be funded and it can even come from insurance.
When an accident occurs within a month they get all insurance paid, they make sure that the operator gets its money back to buy an aeroplane but they don’t pay the rest, they don’t pay the crew family. Those are three things that is very clear on our mind, that is what I am working on right now and I think it is very important.
Finally I want to say this, you know there is a topic going on in Nigeria about national airline, we have gone through that many times and there are people who have tried to do it also. I just want to say one word, it is not that it is impossible but there is one point, if you know you won’t do it right, don’t do it. There is need for good corporate governance. If you don’t have good corporate governance, don’t even do it. You can take all your money, go to the toilet and flush it away you have lost nothing.
If you try it you will waste all your money. What is killing us is that we just have bad corporate governance in the aviation system, in the government and political interference. You can say I am a Minister therefore that airline must employ my sister. Your sister is a feeding bottle lawyer, you made her the director of legal, we don’t operate that way, you won’t get it right. And that happens every day in Nigeria. The key word is that you cannot run business without good corporate governance.
At the same time if you want to buy 20 aeroplanes maybe you just buy that, and if you haven’t got the money you have to borrow the money. It is not impossible, it is not an impossible task, we can make it work but if you want to do that you must also have a maintenance facility first class, you must have flight training with simulator, because that is what takes your money away. And you must have a good technical partner who will bring his expertise, knowledge, systems and also fund into the system. If you do that you can make it.
It is good politics to sign Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) with countries and their airlines will be operating into Nigeria while your own do not operate into theirs. It is a very good politics but in most cases they are bad economics. The numbers don’t tally because your airlines cannot compete and BASA is between two nations, you must have that in mind. They did it in Nigerian Airways, they tried to fly from Lagos to Kinshasa that time, it is good politics but bad economics. Another one I want to mention again, we also should help, there are too many constraints, when you are running an airline people must come in and go, the visa regime in Nigeria is bad, there is no reason why we cannot have visa on arrival.
After all, ECOWAS people come to Nigeria they don’t get visa. Many people who want to travel are not allowed to travel. We need to remove all these. I am saying it because we don’t know how things may occur, there are lots of agitations, a lot of people keep coming from outside Nigeria. Ethiopian Airlines is making it, but they made it because there was no political interference. What NNPC is to Nigeria that is what Ethiopian Airlines is to its country, so if you do it well you can make money from it. In the entire Africa who travel most? Nigerians.
When I was DG, I will look at the numbers then, because the man from Ethiopian airlines kept coming to my office saying please we need another route and I said which route again, we have given you Lagos. He said no we need Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and I said no. And every time they come to me that is what they ask for.
Why? Because that is what you get, they are doing very well, but when you give those routes out, do you know what you are doing?
All the BASA you signed you do not know they are recorded in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and they are recorded as invisible trade. You know we don’t have money now, no dollars but they have to take that money out in dollars, Nigeria must produce money. Each time you buy a ticket from a foreign airline that money will be taken out in dollars but you don’t know that it is going to occur.
So each time you sign your BASA to increase frequency you are committing your foreign exchange also ticket sales tax should be enforced, but it was reduced to five per cent, maybe we should take that to 10 per cent so that the additional five per cent should go to government coffers as part of return. You may not understand what I am saying. How do you get money for government? Our Nigerian airlines are going through hell to survive, high fuel price, all the business they do they have to pay in dollars, their sales are in naira, they have to use that naira to get dollar, at what rate? Our airlines are suffering.
You generate the money in naira but you have to pay that in dollars. But you know what I want to challenge the government for, we should turn the West African to domestic operation so that any Nigerian airline can go anywhere in West Africa. Push that across this area where we have dominance, we are the strongest airlines, we have the airlines that can do it, they don’t have to go anywhere, they can make that happen tomorrow, so we start getting some returns back to this country. So every time you open more routes for them it is a commitment on foreign exchange.