Ayodeji Omotade vs. British Airways

Ayodeji Omotade vs. British Airways
By Reuben Abati

On one or two internet sites, particularly Nigerian Village Square, , Nigerians are up in arms against the airline, British Airways over the maltreatment of 135 Nigerian passengers and one Ayodeji Omotade on a March 27, 2008, BA flight to Lagos from Heathrow, London. Readers of Omotade's story, which he tells with transparent pain and agony have been asked to send protest comments to the CEO of British Airways, amid nationalistic calls for the boycott of British Airways by Nigerian passengers. It is strange that more than a week later, there has been no response from British Airways to this public relations crisis on its Lagos route. It is either the public relations managers of British Airways are asleep, or they have chosen to treat this as a piece of irritation, or they are assured that since the protesters are angry internet commentators, their indignation would soon pass unnoticed.

If the latter reason explains the seeming arrogance of British Airways and its CEO, then it clearly underestimates the influence of internet journalism. With increasing ICT penetration and access to interconnectivity, more persons are spending more time daily on the world wide web, which they now rely on for a broad range of activities including conversation, romance, therapy and education. The number of Nigerians, especially in diaspora, who falls into this category continues to increase, the same with internet sites on Nigerian affairs, with the most active and the most interactive being in my estimation, the Nigeria Village Square.

No serious business should take any debate about its affairs on the internet lightly. Nor should it underestimate the increasing power and influence of citizen journalists, those ordinary men and women who practice journalism simply because they have a story to tell, and they are so moved by events they cannot afford to keep quiet. But the story of Omotade's agony is told not just in Nigeria Village Square, it was also reported in The Mirror of London as follows:

"A British Airways captain ordered 136 passengers off his plane in chaotic scenes after they all started complaining to cabin crew.

As the flight waited to take off at Heathrow the row was sparked by the restraint of a man being forcibly deported.

Many were distressed by his pitiful cries of "I go die" and one passenger, Ayodeji Omotade, 39, spoke up on his behalf.

The deportee was taken off the Lagos bound jet by immigration staff and police.

But five officers returned and arrested Mr Omotade. This outraged the other 135 passengers in the economy class section and they complained to cabin crew.

Amid riotous scenes in the aisles, 20 police officers boarded to calm everything down.

Then the BA pilot took the extraordinary decision to boot off everyone who had witnessed the arrest of Mr Omotade, an IT consultant from Chatham, Kent.

The captain took the view they were all guilty of disturbing the flight, although no more passengers were arrested.

After the economy class section was virtually cleared, the deportee, aged about 30, was brought back on and the flight left.

The passengers were booked on to later flights but Mr Omotade was told by BA staff he was banned by the airline for life.

English-born Mr Omotade, married with a daughter aged four, was handcuffed and kept in police custody for eight hours after his arrest. He has not been charged and is seeking an apology from BA.

He was travelling from Heathrow's Terminal 4 to Lagos for his brother's marriage and had in his luggage the groom's wedding ring, shirt and suit. He missed the ceremony.

He told the Mirror: "There were agonising noises from an individual being restrained. It went on for 20 minutes.

"I pleaded with the officers and my exact words were, 'Please don't kill him.'

"I was not swearing or threatening. BA staff said the officers were doing their jobs and nothing was going to happen. When he was removed we thought it was the end of the matter.

"But police officers came back and I was handcuffed and dragged off the plane."

He claims his luggage has been lost and �1,600 cash he had for relatives has been taken and not returned.

Scotland Yard confirmed: "A man was arrested for affray and causing a disturbance and was bailed."

Ba said: "Police were called to the BA75 service to Lagos on March 27 after a large number of passengers became disruptive.

Many were removed.

"We take any threats against our crew or passengers very seriously and this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated."

What is missing in The Mirror report, but which Omotade provides in his own account is the ordeal which he, Omotade, is now undergoing in the hands of the British authorities. He has been charged to a Magistrate court. Investigators are asking him to provide pay slips and bank statements to enable them establish the source of the money that was found in his possession. British Airways kept his luggage for more than a week; when it was returned, one of the bags was damaged. Omotade was not a Naomi Campbell, playing the prima donna and slapping policemen at the airport, his only offence was that he dared to speak up for a compatriot in distress who was being deported back to Nigeria and who was screaming: "I go die". He is being punished and victimized, he has now been banned from flying British Airways for life (!), for being outspoken. The other 135 passengers had also protested, but Omotade had to be singled out by British Airways as a scapegoat. Omotade may at the end of the day get the apology and the compensation that he seeks, but to get to that point, he should assert his rights beyond mere complaints on the internet, send a formal complaint to BA, go to court, but it is the mindset, the sociology of air travel, the politics, that has informed his maltreatment that should be addressed.

Since 1999, the Nigerian government has been making efforts to work on Nigeria's image abroad, to transform the country from being regarded as one of the last outposts of military dictatorship into an open, democratic society, but whatever has been done and gained in this regard has been hobbled by the grand failure of domestic policy, and the failure, also, of national character. Nigeria remains in the eyes of the world, a country that is badly run, badly led and whose citizens in desperation have taken to a life of constant emigration and crime. Every Nigerian that shows up in a foreign land, including African countries, is immediately regarded as a security risk. We have this strange image out there of a loud, ungovernable people, in whose inner recesses exists a craving for the short cut and disdain for rules and standards. It is the likes of that deportee on that British Airways flight who have brought this opprobrium on our heads, it is the likes of Obasanjo, godfathers like Adedibu and all the thieving Governors and Ministers, whose stories are well known in Europe and the United States who have brought us so much undeserved shame. The deportee kept shouting: "I go die"

Even in his distress, it was probably simulated, his compatriots felt for him and tried to defend his right to live. But the British flight crew must have stretched the situation into the hall of prejudices: the pilot had to evict the Nigerian passengers because he had imagined that their complaints could have ended up as "a hijack operation". "Can't put anything past these Nigerians", he must have concluded. We are the victims of some of the worst stereotypes, and profiling systems, in the world. A young lady travelled to Mauritius recently only to discover that every Nigerian is referred to suspiciously as "the Green Passport" by the people of Mauritius. We are not the only country in the world using a green passport, but ours is the only green passport that carries a stigma.

It is not only the British Airways that is guilty. Hotels, restaurants, super markets, foreign government authorities all treat Nigerians suspiciously. A credit card originating from Nigeria is subjected to more than ordinary scrutiny. Ayodeji Omotade is a British citizen but that did not stop the BA and the British police from treating him shabbily. If he is Nigerian, then there must be something about him. So, they refused to listen to his pleas that he had not committed any crime or disrupted the activities of the almighty British Airways. They had to investigate the source of the one thousand six hundred pounds (about $3, 200) that they found on him. They probably thought he could be a money laundering agent for one of those corrupt Nigerian public officials. They have seen so many in the recent past, they would rather not take any chances. But there was a curious class dimension to the politics of the British Airways flight. Only the passengers in the economy cabin were evicted. Now, economy passengers on Nigerian routes have quite a reputation with all airlines. They are loud, they carry excess luggage, and when you pry into that luggage, they are either transporting cray fish and snails into England or they are going back into their country with bagfuls of toothpaste, chocolate, toilet rolls, and so on. This kind of behaviour sends signals of poverty and underdevelopment, and so those funny hostesses treat economy passengers on Nigerian routes snobbishly, sometimes, they spray disinfectants straight into your face! Often times, I suspect they think we are bringing lice aboard the flight.

We must link all of this to the unusual vigilance that any flight to or from Nigeria generates at foreign airports. All the dogs are brought out, all the guns are cocked, all eyes are on us. We are treated like terrorists, but terrorists of a different kind. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Ojo Maduekwe has been talking about citizen diplomacy. This is a major area of assignment for Ojo and his team. The ordinary Nigerian citizen out there in the world, be he a crook or a gentleman is entitled to the protection of the Nigerian government, insisting on his right to human dignity. But the best way to earn the respect of the world, for the country and its citizens is to run a country where things work, a country that is truly deserving of respect. Much of what goes into human relations is visual. We have a continuing challenge to turn Nigeria into a visual delight not the eyesore that it is at the moment.

Having dealt with the internal dimension of the problem, let me now add that the arrogance of the British Airways authorities is insufferable. This arrogance derives in part from the unusual dominance that BA enjoys on the Lagos-London -Lagos route, making this route one of the most profitable worldwide for the airline. This has not translated into due courtesy to Nigerian travellers, rather it has encouraged contempt on the part of the airline. The Nigerian aviation authorities must take a second look at the London route, and open it up a bit more, make it more competitive and offer Nigerians a wider range of choices. Would BA ban anybody for life on its airline, just for expressing an opinion, if it did not think we are still in the era of British imperialism?

In specific terms, the Bilateral Aviation Services Agreement (BASA) between Nigeria and Britain allows 21 frequencies for British airlines and 21 frequencies for Nigerian airlines on the Lagos-London route. But at the moment, the British Airways enjoys more frequencies than other airlines, it flies into Lagos and into Abuja, and sometimes it does so more than seven times in a week. Why? The 21 frequencies for Nigerian airlines is shared by Bellview, Arik Nigeria and Bellview.

The 21 frequencies for British airlines is meant to be shared by Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, and British Midlands. But British Midlands is not on the route. British Airways currently uses its frequency, granting it an undue advantage and even when it exceeds its quota, Nigerian aviation authorities look the other way. The British Airways authorities need to be reminded that when General Sani Abacha banned the British Airways in the recent past, and BA had to relocate to Ghana, the airline almost bled to death. Also, in the post-9/11 season when BA scaled down n its trans-Atlantic operations, it was sustained largely by its Lagos-London route and the ever traveling crowd of Nigerians. All Nigerian customers of British Airways deserve more respect than they seem to be currently getting.