By Chris Aligbe
Civil Aviation regulation in Nigeria became the function of the National Government in the immediate post-colonial period. Nigeria had bought over the equities of Elder Dempstar and other stakeholders in West African Airways Corporation – WAAC following the withdrawal of Ghana in 1958 after independence; it became imperative that the new nation put in place a regulatory system that will underpin Airline Operations in Nigeria in accordance with ICAO sets of Standard And Recommended Practices (SARP) issued in 1944/45. As at then, Aviation oversight and development functions were domiciled in the Civil Aviation Department of the Federal Ministry of Aviation headed Dr. Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe. It was a self-regulatory regime that lasted for almost three decades. In 1988 a seminar was held for the purpose of developing an Aviation Policy for the country. One of the recommendations that was accepted was the need to create a statutory regulatory agency under the Federal Ministry of Aviation which will be charged with safety and economic regulation of the aviation sector as well as partly handle the provision of Air Traffic Services.
Following this, by the last quarter of 1989, a new Agency called “Federal Civil Aviation Authority” (FCAA) was created to carry out the Industry Oversight and regulation with Air Cdr Falope, a retired Air Force Officer as its first Chief Executive. With Falope, were younger industry professionals like Agbabiaka, Obadofin and Demuren. The FCAA, from onset, began earnestly to build a foundation that would host a sound regulatory system in keeping with ICAO SARP. Manpower Development based on training and exposure was a major component in the efforts of the new management. In spite of the efforts to build this system, the whole idea of regulatory independence was an anathema to the Government as the Minister/Ministry still exercised a tight control over the Authority even on safety issues, let alone Economic ones which of course, as at that time, were undeveloped. Critical safety and Airworthiness decisions and approvals, requiring inspection by professionals before being arrived at, were taken and given by Ministers without recourse to the relevant desk officers in FCAA for input or advice. This unfortunate situation hallmarked the regulatory regimes between 1990 to 2006 straddling periods of military and democratic dispensations.
Over this sixteen-year period, we saw three transformations of the regulatory Authority from FCAA (Federal Civil Aviation Authority 1989-1995) to DSRAM and DERAM (Directorate of Safety Regulations And Monitoring and Directorate of Economic Regulation and Monitoring 1995-1999) respectively and finally to an NCAA (Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority) whose framework was somewhat weak, incomprehensive and, ipso facto, limited in mandate. In the record of each period, can be found many cases of ministerial inferences in safety regulation. These include the following classic cases: In 1991, the then Minister of Aviation allegedly at the foyer of Hyatt Regency in Jeddah stunned FCAA CEO, the Director of Airworthiness and Safety that he had given clearance to Hold trade Airline, one of Nigeria’s Hajj Operators, to use a Canadian registered DC8 for Hajj operations.
The FCAA CEO was said to have raised issues of FCAA having not certified the airworthiness of the aircraft but got the retort “what other certification do you require”? That aircraft during that operation lost its tyres on take-off, retracted its bare hot nose wheel into its hole close to a hydraulic laden compartment, thus igniting fire. By now, it was airborne and passengers were reportedly falling out of the aircraft and in seconds, the aircraft turned into a flying inferno before crashing, killing all the 262 pilgrims and the crew. In the period between 1995 and 2006, there were at least 26 extensions of overdue maintenance, and reversal, by external forces, of groundings due to safety concerns by NCAA. Two classic cases of this period include: The issuance of an AOC by NCAA to a non-existent airline called ‘Air Nigeria’ in response to ministerial directive in 2002. This never-heard-of-before professional goof was condemned by ICAO. The next was the Presidential pronouncement grounding operations of Sososliso and Chanchangi in the aftermath of the Sosoliso, Bellview and ADC fatal crashes of 2005/2006. The President’s action was, acceptably politically expedient but technically incompetent and an unwarranted interference in safety regulation.
The regulatory function suffered one of its greatest violence in 1995 when the then Minister of Aviation, a serving air force officer, Air Cdr. Nsikak Eduok, stunned aviation stakeholders with his reform. Eduok said that he had carried out global studies and consultations which convinced him that the concept of “Autonomous Airport System” was the best for Nigeria. To achieve this new fangled nebulous concept, the Minister wound up the young FCAA, transferred its airspace management schedule to the then NAA (Nigeria Airport Authority), which he re-christened FAAN (Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria). In the place of the two regulatory arms of FCAA: Safety and Economic, Eduok created two Directorates – DSRAM and DERAM, which he put directly in the Ministry of Aviation. Thus, Eduok’s reform took the industry ten years back to the dying days of the post-colonial regulatory period. This reform which we have code-named “Eduokian Legacy” has remained the most regressive step in the annals of our civil aviation regulation development.
More so, as an analysis of Eduok’s reform clearly indicate, the Minister did not seem to have a clear grasp of his reform as can be seen in the appointments he made as well as the unclear structure and profiles of the critical planks of his “Autonomous Airport System”. One visible evidence of this position is that, having fired Agbabiaka, Demuren and their colleagues, then outstanding regulators, he transferred one of the most experienced airport managers of the time, Engineer Mamman, then MD of NAA, to DSRAM, which fundamentally dealt with safety oversight, worthiness certification, issuance of AOC and licensing, among other things. Mamman had neither training, exposure nor experience in the above functions. And because there is no relationship between his background and distinguished career in airport management and regulatory schedule, he could therefore not validly extrapolate his widely accepted competence in airport management to safety regulation and monitoring. So, try as much as he did, the regulatory profile of Nigeria in the Aviation Sector began to show a steep decline. Competence receded at an alarming rate. The UK aeronautical authorities banned certain operations from Nigeria which affected Nigeria Airways and a private cargo airline on account of airworthiness and poor regulatory oversight.
Also, throughout this period, the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA) at various forums declared the Nigerian airspace unsafe. All these constituted the profile of Nigeria’s aviation profile dating from Eduok’s reform of 1995 to 1999. It is a fact that though in 1999, the then Minister of Aviation, Capt. Benoni Briggs had recreated, in his reform, a new Civil Aviation Authority – the NCAA with an Airspace Management Agency – NAMA; the rot and decadence which Eduok’s reform set in motion continued to dog the industry and, as industry analysts opine, is the remote cause that culminated in the devastating air crashes of 2005/2006 of ADC, Sosoliso and Bellview, in which over 400 lives were lost. In fact, the AIB final reports on ADC and Bellview seem largely to give credence to this industry opinion. The Capt. Briggs reform that recreated NCAA and NAMA became the nucleus of a new regulatory body. However, it must be noted that the 1999 Act was quite inadequate to police, drive the development and advance regulatory practices. It needed extensive rejigging and ramping. It needed freedom from ministerial interference in technical matters. It needed stability in management and indeed some teeth to bite.
It needed flexibility of a sort to be able to address emerging trends and to be able to align and conform to new global standards as set by ICAO. These were the challenges Demuren faced when, in 2006, in response to the mournful mood of a beleaguered nation that just lost over 400 lives in three air crashes; he was appointed as the new helmsman at NCAA; thus replacing Engr. Fidelis Onyeyiri. With a mission, with a passion and a sense of history of our ignoble past as well as a commitment to irreversibly reverse our unedifying profile, Dr. Demuren began his tenure by deftly attacking the underbelly of the problem which of course was the weak regulatory framework encapsulated in the NCAA Act of 1999 which contained so many lacunas that allowed interference of all sorts even on vital safety issues. By 2006, Demuren’s administration succeeded, with like-minded patriotic legislators and stakeholders, in getting the new “Civil Aviation Act” 2006 enacted. Armed with this Act, Demuren applied himself to building a new regulatory system that would launch Nigeria back into a global reckoning. This, to a far-reaching extent, he did by galvanizing the industry, using all professional and technical competences drawn from within and, largely from outside NCAA. Demuren stayed in NCAA for six years from 2006 to 2012 and within the period, Nigeria attained FAA Category 1 and passed ICAO Safety Audit. For five of the six years, the industry was accident-free and Nigeria came under reckoning when Demuren’s-led NCAA was asked to help some other African States grow strong regulatory system akin to NCAA.
With this and other achievements, Nigeria attained a peak that put it on global reckoning. Both US and UK gave up their reservations on Nigeria’s unedifying aviation safety status while IFALPA no longer considered Nigeria’s airspace unsafe. Rather, pilots now accepted and applauded the milestones achieved. When Demuren exited in 2013, he left behind a legacy of resoluteness that resisted interference from political quarters, though we are still far away from the Eldorado as subsequent events and the DANA crash would reveal. When Demuren left, Capt. Fola Akinkotun, a pilot and a trainer of aviation professionals, managing one of Nigeria’s two Aviation training institutions based in Ilorin, was named the DG designate. For about six months, Akinkotun’s appointment was on hold by the Senate which had the responsibility to screen and confirm his appointment. This period created a field day for intrigues, inordinate ambition, marauding spin doctors and busy bodies canvassing self-directed interests. Eventually, this harrowing period was over for Akinkotun as he received his Senate confirmation in the third quarter of 2013. Unfortunately, Akinkotun suffered severe emotional violence and indubitable injustice when, for no valid reason, he was booted out at the time he was just about settling into his job. He therefore was allowed no time for any foot-print.
It was sad for the industry for many reasons. In place of Akinkotun, Capt. Murtar Usman, a pilot with a handful of professional certificates and extensive acquitted background in accident investigation was named DG designate in the first quarter of 2014. Like Akinkotun, Usman’s appointment was held down, this time not by the Senate but by forces within the Presidency that sought to reverse the removal of Akinkotun. This attempt created such bad blood among political gladiators involving two executive governors, two ministers and two top and influential political appointees within the Presidency in a Nollywood-type battle royale that left the President in a quagmire. To reverse Akinkotun’s removal would have meant meting out the same emotional violence and injustice to Usman who was transferred from his CEO position in AIB to run NCAA. Again, spin doctors went to work and some industry stakeholders canvassed self interest with intrigues at play. For close to eight months, Usman waited for his letter to be transmitted to the Senate for his screening and confirmation. While this waiting game was going on, another Acting DG, Engr Ben Adeyileka held sway for almost seven months. So, between Demuren’s exit in the first quarter of 2013 and Usman’s assumption of duty in the last quarter of 2014, for a period of almost 18months, NCAA was run on the one hand, by two Acting DGs – Joyce Nkemakolam and Ben Adeyileka, whose mandates were not only limited, but had no legal status and, in consequence, unknown to the Act setting up NCAA and on the other hand, a DG, Akinkotu who was unfortunately not given a chance to perform.
The result was that a decline in performance set in as enforcement and compliance became loose, complacency set in, waivers and extensions became prevalent and the devastating impact of “outside managers” assumed a dimension that brought back memories of varied pains that hallmarked the pre-2006 era. The air crashes and incidents of post-Demuren and pre-Usman period all bear testimony to the regulatory decline from Demuren’s ridge into the lower trough section in our undulating regulatory performance. These were the challenges that confronted Usman on assumption of duty as DG. Armed with his knowledge of how airlines fly below NCAA regulatory radar, having successfully directed and overseen the investigation of airline accidents in Nigeria, particularly Bellview and ADC accidents, both of which he completed during his tenure as AIB Commissioner/CEO, Usman quietly upped the ante in inspection and safety oversight, pushed up enforcement, all of which heightened compliance by airline operators. Recalcitrant operators faced sanctions and over N60million has accrued from sanctions. Now airlines know that it is no longer business as usual as there is no hiding place for malpractices. Airline operation is today safer than yesterday and one can comfortably say that our regulatory profile has now moved away and up from the lower trough of 2012/2014 to another ridge in the undulating performance landscape of our aviation regulation. The successes recorded in ICAO and FAA Audits of 2015 and 2016 respectively are testimonies. In spite of this achievement, it is still not uhuru and it will not be uhuru until the tremendous challenges of training and retraining as well as staff welfare thrown up by new government policies such as TSA and Government ban on foreign training are addressed. It will not be uhuru until the increasing challenges of consumer protection and economic regulation are brought to their minimum with capacitation of relevant personnel. In spite of the challenges, it is irrefragable that NCAA is stronger and more effective in its regulatory function today than yesterday.