Africa: Stowaways and Their Desperation to Leave Nigeria

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Many Nigerians have died in their attempt to stowaway from the country, but despite the deaths, others still struggle to get out through such precarious means. Chinedu Eze writes on this obsession and the country’s porous airports

Despite the gory experiences, tragedies and deaths of Nigerians who tried to get to Europe by land, Nigerians have not stopped the attempt to go to the West through Niger Republic and Libya. There are pictures of how they died in the desert, roasted by the sun; yet some people still yearn to travel through that way in their desperate bid to leave Nigeria.

This explains why despite the death toll, more Nigerians still attempt to stow away from Nigeria through flights and out of the many persons that attempted to stow away, almost all of them died, except the recent one who hid himself in the spares and tools compartment of a Boeing B747 of Medview Airline flight and travelled from Lagos to London.

Although he survived and got to London, but he could not come out of his hiding place in the aircraft.

THISDAY gathered that the compartment in which he hid himself is as pressurised as the aircraft cabin and it is close to the cockpit, but when the stowaway sneaked into that compartment in the night, nobody saw him access the aircraft.

The stowaway later confessed that he accessed the airport terminal through the protocol area and that when he came near the aircraft he watched the security personnel manning the aircraft and waited for him to look the other way before he sneaked into the airplane.
On arrival in London, he thought that the passengers would disembark and the aircraft would stay another night so that he could sneak out into the city, but when he saw that after the passengers who arrived from Lagos had disembarked and passengers travelling to Lagos had started boarding, he decided to stay back and that was how he came back to Lagos in the same spares compartment.

On arrival, he was noticed because he started pushing the door of that compartment and airline officials who were surprised that the door was being pushed from inside went to open it. When they opened the compartment door they were surprised to see somebody there. They arrested him and handed him over to the police.

Travel expert, Ikechi Uko told THISDAY that there are two countries in Africa known for the desperation of their citizens to search for greener pastures elsewhere. One is Nigeria and the other is Eritrea. He observed that in all indices of economic development and stability that Nigeria could be described as being better than Eritrea but the fact that Nigerians are obsessed with the desire to leave the country says so much about the West African nation.
He disclosed that some Nigerians billed for deportation from UK had committed suicide by chocking themselves to death instead of returning to Nigeria.

“Many Nigerians have died in their attempt to leave Nigeria through the Sahara desert. In fact, that route has killed more Nigerians. So these ones have decided that it is either I leave Nigeria or I die trying. It is really a sad commentary on our country.
“I have seen some people choke themselves in order not to come back to Nigeria. That is the biggest statement of our living in Nigeria. The people that have the highest stowaway record are Nigeria and Eritrea. This is something we should chew over,” Uko said.

Industry consultant and CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe speaking in the same vein noted that the desperation of some people to leave Nigeria is in the quest for greener pastures because the country holds no hope for them and they are ready to risk their lives doing that. He noted that the gory picture reflecting the desperation is the even riskier adventure of those who seek to go to Europe by land and most of them dying in the process but the deaths have not stopped new attempts.

For many observers, the obsession to leave Nigeria calls for government’s introspection about the country and how to make it livable for majority of the citizens. They observed that although an average Nigerian wants to travel overseas but most of the ones that stow away are those who cannot cope with the hardship they are going through and who wants to escape to a better life. To many of such people, it doesn’t matter if they lose their lives in the process.

Stowaway Attempts
Many people who wanted to stowaway in the body of an aircraft had died in their attempts but there have been few survivors due to peculiar circumstances. One was the recent one in Lagos because the young man was able to hide in the spares compartment of the aircraft, B747, which is the only aircraft that has such compartment.

Few years ago, there was the story of a teenager in the US who survived over an hour flight in the wheel well of a flight in freezing weather and the boy was described as being lucky to have survived and was unharmed after flying from California to Hawaii while he stowed away in a plane’s wheel well, surviving cold temperature at 38,000 feet and a lack of oxygen.

He was reported to have jumped a fence to gain access to the airport and that he ran away from his family after an argument. Reports said when he was rescued; he could not even recall what happened.

Two factors made it possible. He escaped the scrutiny of the airport security, including that of Transport Security Agency and the security around the airplane. The airport was also porous to have made it possible for him to gain entry without notice.
The above is a reflection of what happened at the Benin airport in August, 2013, when Daniel Oikhena hid himself in the wheel well of Arik Air aircraft, flight WS 544, and flew from the historical city to Lagos.

Oikhena was the fourth person in the last few years to risk his life that way; the only difference was that like the young American, he survived while the others died due to the fact that they were short distance of maximum of one hour; from Benin to Lagos is less than 40 minutes.

In March 2010, a Nigerian, Okechukwu Okeke was found dead in the nose wheel compartment of the United States carrier, Delta Air Lines, Boeing B777 aircraft parked on the tarmac of the Lagos airport.

Also on September 19, 2010, another Nigerian man was crushed to death in the wheel well of Arik Air flight, which arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa. Prior to Daniel’s incident, another Nigerian was discovered in the undercarriage compartment of Arik Air aircraft, after it returned from a flight to New York.

Ground workers at the international terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, were shocked on Saturday morning of March 14, 2015 when the dead body of a man in his mid-40s dropped from the wheel-well of Arik Air aircraft being prepared for another flight to New York.

According to security officials, the body, which had started decomposing, must have been in the wheel-well for days when the aircraft had its last flight from New York.
This was another stowaway, who sneaked into the wheel-well of the massive Airbus A340-500 aircraft, hoping to hide there and get to New York; but instead of arriving at the JFK Airport, New York alive, it was his dead body that came back and fell at the tarmac.
THISDAY learnt that security operatives at the airport could not say precisely what happened and how the dead man was able to access the airside of the airport and sneaked into the wheel-well of the aircraft.

But, two years ago, a similar tragic incident happened when the dead body of a young man dropped on the tarmac in a similar way from another New York to Lagos flight and it was later learnt that the deceased gave N100, 000 to an airport official to procure US visa for him, but when he could not succeed in doing that, he decided to help himself by sneaking into the wheel-well of the aircraft. His dead body was later returned to Nigeria.

Lax Security
The Chief Executive Officer of Centurion Securities and a former Commandant of Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd) said that the issue over the many stowaway incidents has to do with the laxity of security at the airports.

“The issue is that of breach of aviation security, which involved both the airport security and the airline security that could have been aided by insiders or an insider. The stowaway is most likely to have been an insider, an airport worker, loader, cleaner, etc that has been having regular access into the aircraft acting alone or aided by another insider. He could have been an outsider aided by an insider who has regular access into the aircraft. What the airport authority needs to do is to in addition to security checks begin the conduct regular background checks on all airport staff working in the airport security controlled areas,” Ojikutu said.

He also urged that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) should review the National Civil Aviation Security Programmes (NCASP) and ensure compliant by all operators in view of the threats from various classes of homegrown terrorists.
Ojikutu added that the airport perimeter fences need to be enhanced to security fences, but where this cannot be done, there might be need to build secondary fences to wade off possible threats from nuke terrorists as stowaway that could take advantage of the porous nature of most of our airports perimeter fences.

“One other point left out which is critical is that the airlines too, particularly Medview should review their operational security programmes to meet the challenges posed by rampant stowaway. Within a spade of three to four years we have had about three stowaways, two of which were local. The Medview incident is the second recorded on international flights by this country this year. We recorded one on KLM in 1992; Lagos to Frankfurt. There had been one dead one on a British Airways flight from London to New York on whose body some naira was recovered. That BA aircraft was said to have made a previous return flight to Lagos from where the stowaway could have boarded,” Ojikutu said.

The high number of stowaways encapsulates some of the problems of Nigeria: hard times pushing people to risk their lives stowing out of the country and possible insider threat at the airports.


By Chinedu Eze

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