Two planes forever bound in pain and infamy. Of that, there can be no doubt, if experts conclude that Indonesia’s Lion Air (JT) 610 and Ethiopian Airlines (ET) 302 were doomed by the same software glitch in the Boeing 737 Max’s anti-stall system.
A tempest on an unbearable end to hundreds of lives. Lost on two continents, an ocean apart, within five months.
Tragedy on this scale always invites reflection. One dissimilarity caught my eye. All 181 passengers lost on the Lion Air flight except one – an Italian – were Indonesian. The 149 passengers who perished on the Ethiopian flight a month ago hailed from 35 countries.
Media were quick to expound on “35” in the aftermath of the crash. A grisly index for the global expansion of air travel; an emblem for our interconnected world. With so many Westerners on board, predictably ET 302 was front page news longer than JT 610. On what “35” might reveal about Africa, not much was said.
Flights between neighbouring capitals in Asia or Europe – say between Madrid and Paris, roughly the same flying time as Addis Ababa to Nairobi, the route ET 302 never completed – do not have passenger lists quite so diverse. Where do commercial jets fly with three-quarters of their seats occupied by citizens of neither the country of departure or destination?
Africa, the world grimly discovered.
Plane crashes stir feelings across borders as almost no other event. Our subconscious is adept at creating a protective distance from tragedy by othering its victims: a different class, culture, geography. It wobbles on news of a plane going down. In part, because the experience of flying is becoming the same everywhere.
Airlines in Sub-Saharan Africa were once derided as “flying coffins”. In the three years prior to 2019, they experienced zero fatalities in jet operations. Standardisation has made us all safer. The downside is that we are more attuned to bad luck. If you fly, it is getting harder not to imagine yourself on that flight.
Regular travellers across the continent will not have been surprised by “35”. The medley in the skies above Africa often bears scant resemblance to the one on the ground. When flying between capital cities, especially so. Which helps explain why so few passengers, other than Kenyans and Ethiopians, were from Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2017 Boeing’s CEO averred that less than 20% of people worldwide have ever taken a flight. Neither Boeing, the International Civil Aviation Organisation or the International Air Transport Association were able to provide a figure for Africans (I asked). Something less than 1% would be my guess. On market share, data is available: Africa represents 16% of the world’s population but the smallest chunk of global air travel at just over 2%.
The Economist’s latest meta-opinion on Africa (after “hopeless” in 2000 and “rising” in 2011) has settled on “the new scramble”. Vast commercial opportunities and an exploding population are driving a worldwide surge of interest in Africa, argues the newspaper. Unlike previous scrambles, this time “the main winners will be Africans themselves” if they play their cards right. In practice, this means a better governed and more integrated continent, where trade and investment flows increase prosperity and deepen people-to-people links.
In a crude way, “35” implies that the metaphor is apt. All the big powers described as rushing into Africa had multiple victims. When one considers what so many of the passengers did for a living, it works less well.
Seated among family members returning home, students and educators, a nun renewing her passport, were dozens of men and women who worked in international development. Broadly speaking, they comprised the largest group of passengers. Their vocations ran the gamut: migration and refugee support; food and water initiatives; disaster relief; post-conflict assistance; health care; development finance; aid to children; faith-based organisations; and cultural protection. Nineteen passengers were en-route to a United Nations environment conference in Nairobi. It is striking how many others were affiliated in some way to the UN.
Each was remembered as dedicated and passionate. In my experience, they usually are.
Richard Falk, a former UN Special Rapporteur, recently called for a stronger UN presence in international life, lamenting the organisation’s decline almost to “the vanishing point with respect to overarching challenges that states acting on their own cannot hope to overcome”.
One modest inference that can be drawn from ET 302 is that Falk wasn’t talking about Africa.
Seemingly plain from this tragedy: the UN’s tentacles reach deeper into Africa than is commonly realised. Few Africans know what it actually does or how it operates; relatively few people anywhere do. That matters more here because the UN is so ubiquitous. And Africans still have comparatively little say over how it works.
Threats to sovereignty can come in many guises. Being at the margins of global politics, African states have to balance their need for help against usurpations (real or perceived) of their authority. For some governments, “35” might be a sign of strength or pride. For most, it probably stirs unease.
One of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s cri de coeurs, which echoes various post-colonial African thinkers who have said much the same, comes readily to mind: “Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story.”
Last week the African Development Bank boasted that Africa’s economic growth was at a seven-year high, with East Africa once again leading the way. By rights, there should have been plenty of business people shuttling between the region’s main hubs on that Sunday morning. There was only a handful.
A cabin loaded with investors and executive types has a particular din. The bustle inside ET 302 before take-off was almost certainly different. Less suggestive of “Africa rising”, perhaps, than “back to the future”: conversations about challenges, and more challenges. That’s what brought so many passengers to Africa, after all.
A month on from the crash, Boeing finds itself in a near-existential crisis. The company will no doubt survive but the damage has been colossal. Corporate America is now in the firing line, too. ET 302 and JT 610 are increasingly portrayed as symptomatic of Washington’s soft-pedalling on abuses by big business. Some have even blamed Donald Trump.
In the grand sweep, ET 302 – an African plane lost on African soil – will probably be remembered that way: a part of another story. Not an African one.
If a small mercy can be found in the fate of its crew and passengers, maybe it is in simply knowing something of their lives. Their own stories would never have been known outside their work, family and friends. Now they are legion. Every life lived fully, every smile captured in a photograph somehow perfect. That’s how it seems, now that they are gone without warning.
By Terence McNamee