Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Coping with power

By a Correspondent

Very few persons can cope with power without it getting into their heads. The only real protection that the society has against such abuse of power is a press that is free to expose such incidents and even to poke fun at government.
When the Director of Zambian Civil Aviation arrived at Lusaka Airport to catch a plane for the United Kingdom, he found that the Zambia Airways plane was fully booked.

That really was not news, that flight is often heavily booked. The Director was told that the flight was full and he could not get on, for the very elementary reason that he had not bothered to make a booking.

Well, he was not about to accept such impertinence from some airways official, did he not realise he was a VIP and anyway his trip to the UK was important. He was due to attend the Farnborough Air Show and nothing was going to stand in his way. He tried to bluff his way out as he had undoubtedly done on countless occasions. Somehow this time it did not work, the ticket clerk, the small insignificant official; did he not realise he was a VIP sed by the VIP - he had not booked, the flight was full, he was not getting on it that was the rule and what was more, other people who had taken the trouble to make reservations all deserved to travel.

The Director decided, as they say in the Ghanaian jargon, to show the official "where power lies." If he was not going on that flight, then nobody else would, in fact, not only would nobody go, that plane and all other planes would not move from the airport.

He made good his threat, he turned off the landing lights at the entire airport, went up to the tower and closed down the airport for good measure. No planes could land and none could take off.

The Zambia Airways officials know when they are beaten and after two hours of confrontation of nerves, they caved in, removed one of their confirmed passengers and told the Director he could get a seat. He then switched the landing lights back on and opened the airport again. The Zambian Airways flight to London then departed with the Director of Civil Aviation on it and back in Lusaka, one would-be passenger with a boarding ticket was left.

So what is new? Someone might ask: aren't these scenes enacted all over Africa every day? This time the story did not end there. After the VIP had left, the story found its way into the newspapers and a public outcry ensued. So loudly, in fact, that the Government could not ignore it and the VIP was ordered back from the Farnborough Air Show to Lusaka with President Kaunda promising to 'look into the matter."

Last week, the President announced the outcome of the investigations and fired the Director!

This incident has been recounted in great detail here because it exemplifies in many ways the root of the problem that bedevils the inability of African countries to govern their societies in an orderly manner.

He made good his threat, he turned the landing lights off at the entire airport, went up into the tower and closed down the airport for good measure. No of it. planes could take off and none could land.

The popular wisdom for travellers on Nigerian Airways flights is that neither the confirmation of a seat nor even the possession of a boarding pass guarantees a seat on the flight.

The normal procedure is for the Airways officials to seat all the VIPs and their friends and then open the doors for the rest to struggle over the remaining seats which are always guaranteed to be less in number than the people trying to get on the plane.

Everybody who has ever travelled on Nigeria Airways has his favourite horror story ranging from the totally bizarre to the tragic.

This writer recalls only two. A Nigeria Airways flight from London to Lagos which was delayed on the ground for 30 minutes because a lady had decided she will sit by a friend of hers whom she had seen on the plane, and when another lady who had been given that seat and whose boarding card bore that number came on to the plane insisting on her alloted seat and none other.

There ensued a spectacle which might have been entertaining if the rest of us passengers had not had to sit in our seats and look on helplessly while stewards and stewardesses came to plead with the ladies in vain. Even the captain came to see what was happening and to try and sort out the problem.

On this occasion, there were some empty seats on the plane which were offered to the lady whose alloted seat had been taken, but she was unmoved This stalemate continued for half an hour and then ended in classic King Solomon adjudication manner.

The man who was at the centre of the row, the one that both ladies wanted to sit by, was persuaded to yield his seat and take another one leaving the two ladies to settle their differences side by side while the by-now thoroughly bemused and angry passengers finally got on with their journey.

One thing stuck in the mind - he helpless shrug that every Nigerian Airways official made when they made the feeble attempts to break the deadlock. Was it because they rather suspected that they had in fact allocated the same seat to two different people? That has been known to happen quite frequently.

The other incident was one of those scenes that are better experienced than recounted because even the best story teller will find it difficult to make sense

Anyway, this was on the tarmac at the Murtala Mohamed Airport on an internal flight. Four would-be passengers entered the plane through the cargo hold (if you think the idea of putting human beings into crates and the cargo is new...) while a crowd fought and almost wrenched the door off the aircraft. That flight was delayed for an hour and forty-five minutes. On take-off 35 people with boarding cards were left at the airport, a junior Minister on the flight ranted and complained throughout the flight because his ADC had not been found a seat, and was dissatisfied that the airline officials had promised to put him on a later flight that day. There had been no reservations for the junior minister, nor his lady friend nor the ADC.

Similar stories can be told about Ghana Airways where an Accra-bound plane once spent forty minutes on the tarmac after passengers had embarked without a word of explanation from the flight crew. In the end a 'big man (at the time, a high official in the ruling party) breezed in carrying four hat cases, followed by two grinning stewardesses also carrying flowers, booze and more shopping bags. He announced to whoever would listen that there was going to be a big wedding in Accra at the weekend and he was taking hats to four ladies....

During the two and a half years of curfew in Ghana (only recently lifted) the possession of curfew passes became a status symbol. People were given curfew passes not on the basis of their work requiring them to be about in the curfew hours but because they knew somebody in power or they claimed to 'support the revolution'.

Before very soon, the curfew had become a punishment for those who either did not proclaim their support from roof tops and two classes had emerged in the country. Those who had to go to bed by 10pm. or whichever hour that was the decreed hour at that particular point in time and those who roamed the streets at night just to prove that they had power.

Most people in Ghana or Nigeria or Sierra Leone or Liberia have their favourite stories of various encounters with petty tyranny and the abuse of power. Very often such encounters simply become the stories that enter the folkloric collection and with the passage of time, lose credibility.

It is important therefore to return to the recent Zambian case. Obviously the Director of the Civil Aviation knew from experience that he could get a seat on the state airline without bothering to make reservations; he must have done it on countless occasions. Things went wrong, from his perspective, only because there was an 'insignificant' airline official who decided to stick to the rules this time.

And that must have taken some doing, for the lonely clerk must have known that by refusing to remove somebody from his list and giving theseat to the Director, he ran the risk of losing his job if not a worse fate.

The Director must also not have been used to having his orders disobeyed by mere officials and lost his senses temporarily by closing the airport. All praise of course to the airline official who stood up to the Director but there was no question but that if the incident had not been taken up by the Zambian press, it would have become one of those impossible-to-verify stories that western newspapers are so fond of quoting in their African reports.

There is General Buhari in Nigeria who is quite determined that his country cannot be ruled without Decree 4 which puts a journalist in jail for two years if he should publish a report which puts an official of the government into ridicule, never mind if that report is true.

Simply by publishing the incident at the Lusaka Airport, an important member of the Zambian government had been exposed to the whole world as a petty tyrant and power-drunk person, in Decree 4 terms, he had been ridiculed.

But that is the only way to keep officialdom in check. Very few persons can cope with power without it getting into their heads. While it will be admirable if all workers in their little corners will be as brave as the Zambian airline official who stood up to the Director, the only real protection that the society has against such abuse of power is a press that is free to express such incidents and even to poke fun.

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