A well-written riposte to the BA-bashers from Tolu Ogunlesi:
BEFORE WE BOYCOTT BRITISH AIRWAYS
I should start by saying I do not work for the British Airways. I am simply a Nigerian asking questions that I think we all should ask ourselves before we, in our collective rage, consign an airline to the (dust)bin of boycott.
The story has been repeated time without number, so the details are clear to most of us. A Nigerian citizen, concerned about the manner in which another Nigerian citizen was being deported, voiced his displeasure to the policemen carrying out the deportation, and ended up being bundled out of the plane. Other Nigerians on the flight protested vehemently, things got unruly [BA claims its crew was "subjected to both verbal abuse and physical assault"], and 133 passengers were ejected by police from that flight. 64 were allowed to re-board before take-off, while the others were later put on other plane[s]. The man at the centre of the protest, was arrested, detained for hours, had his money and luggage confiscated, and was banned from flying BA.
This is where I have to ask my first question. Was the deportee actually maltreated by the British police officers or not? None of the accounts or newspaper reports I have read have implied in any way that the unnamed deportee was maltreated in the deportation process. The only pointer to that fact, or the only plank upon which we may nail such an allegation is the “I go die o” that the man was said to have been screaming repeatedly as he was being put onto the plane. But I want to ask, is the screaming of “I go die” sufficient proof upon which to come to a conclusion of maltreatment? Does anyone honestly believe that a man (or woman) being deported will sit quietly, and smile through the entire repatriation process? Certainly not. Deportation is to be instinctively resisted, because of what it signifies: The suddenness, the shame, the blacklisting. So the fact that a man being deported is screaming that he will die is not proof that he is anywhere near death.
At this point, let’s listen to the account of the man at the centre of it all, Ayodeji Omotade: “I pleaded with the officers not to kill him and my exact words were ‘please don’t kill him.’ The British Airways staff said the officers were doing their jobs and that nothing was going to happen. The noise became louder and other passengers started getting concerned and were complaining especially about their safety.”
Why am I demonstrating this brand of skepticism? A number of people must have read the letter sent to Dele Momodu (and published in the This Day newspaper of Sunday, May 11, 2008) by Olu Ayodeji, a Nigerian who works as a Cabin Services Director with the British Airways in London. I read it and immediately came to the conclusion that Nigerians should pause and do a bit of soul-searching before hanging British Airways (after all we’ve already given this dog a bad name). And it is Mr. Ayodeji’s article that has emboldened me to share my own perspective on the matter. Mr. Ayodeji is quick to point out that he is not writing as an official spokesperson for the airline. (Whether he is to be believed or not is each reader’s individual choice.)
In the last few weeks much of what we have heard has been muddled up in the noise of Nigerian protest – mostly accusations of racism targeted at the “white establishment” that is British Airways. Much of which, very sadly, may be true. I must confess that I have not heard much that would endear anyone to British Airways. Perhaps in reality they are the cut-and-dried racist behemoth that their attackers would want us to believe they are; filled with stiff-upper-lipped ex-colonialists still mourning the demise of the transatlantic slave trade. Just last month they banned super-model, Naomi Campbell from flying with them, for spitting in a policeman’s face. Two years ago they banned the rapper, Snoop Dogg from their flights – for life – after his entourage smashed bottles and behaved violently at Heathrow.
But surely they do not hold a monopoly on “racism”, do they? In the organised maltreatment of Nigerians by foreign organisations, BA must come a distant second, behind the Embassies and High Commissions, which collect thousands of naira as application fees, ask us to queue up in the sun, harass us with overzealous NIGERIAN security-men, and then turn down our visa applications. Yet not once has any group of Nigerians called for a boycott of a foreign embassy. Why? Is it because we can’t do without their visas and work permits and green cards? Shame on us.
I don’t know how this may sound, and it will probably not earn me any cheers from this side of the divide, but I can’t shake off the feeling that, instead of stepping back to weigh the issues at hand, Nigerians have resorted to a defence mechanism whose deployment we have perfected over the years: namely, to wield the “Identity” Card. Don’t we all know that, by Nigerian standards, corrupt politicians are not tried or jailed because they have stolen money, but because they are from a certain ethnic group? This is the same card we have played in this case: BA has maltreated us because we are Nigerians - and we MUST fight back. (At this point though I must quickly add a caveat: that none of this is to in any way minimize the reality or extent of racism in high and low places.) In this fighting back, has anyone bothered to ask if the 133 passengers initially thrown off the flight were ALL Nigerians?
Let’s hear what Mr. Ayodeji (who speaks as someone who has “witnessed at close quarters the attitude of fellow Nigerians on BA flights”) has to say: “When I first joined BA, I used to stand up to my colleagues, at the risk of losing my job, to defend fellow Nigerians' integrity. Sadly, over the years, I've since abandoned that attitude having witnessed and experienced firsthand the embarrassing attitude of Nigerians.” He gives examples; examples which many of us as Nigerians, if we were honest enough to admit to ourselves, would admit are more often the rule than the exception. He speaks of a “generation of Nigerians who see every shortcoming on the part of BA as a basis for confrontation, verbal or physical assault.”
We don’t need to hire psychologists to officially diagnose us as a country at home with unruliness. Yes, we are the happiest people on earth, but we have also learned to match every ounce of happiness with two ounces of brashness. It is a collective brashness, a loudness and argumentativeness that must intimidate other nationalities when they encounter us. Next time you fly (domestic or international), watch out for how we treat cabin crew. Watch how we flaunt our sense of entitlement – for airline food and wine. How we rush onto planes whose seats are numbered because our “hand-luggage” is in actual fact “arm-and-leg” luggage that needs infinite space in the overhead compartments.
But the most interesting part of it all is this: what I call the Grand Irony: Everyday Nigerian airlines treat Nigerians worse than animals – overbook flights and reduce boarding to a Darwinian-cum-100m-dash; cancel flights and divert planes to other routes with reckless abandon; hoard tickets and hand over sales to touts; hike prices in a way that would make air travel the envy of Sotheby's. Time after time our honourable politicians shut down the airspace so their executive and chartered flights can land undisturbed; our Big Men delay flights (even international ones) for hours in order not to be late for their shopping binges; and our runways admit cows to graze merrily and watch planes land up close and personal. A few years ago an entire plane-load of Nigerian citizens was consumed by flames while a crowd (parents, relatives, and friends) watched, helpless, because an airport had insufficient fire-fighting capability. And life went on. It didn’t occur to us to boycott our airports until basic facilities were put in place. How I wish that (we) Nigerians were as vocal in our protestations against the inhuman treatments meted out to us by domestic airlines, as we now are against BA.
But no. When we are made to fly in engined coffins manned by overworked pilots, and given permission to land on runways bustling with cows, touts and potholes, all we do is whimper, perhaps grumble, and life goes on. We dey kampe! Nothing dey happen! No shaking! But when an international airline, concerned about the commotion aboard a flight that was their responsibility, chooses to take steps they deem necessary to safeguard the flight, before you can say “control tower”, an entire nation has risen and whipped out the race card. We have done it the way we have learnt to do it – the “Do You Know Who I Am”? Way.
It is our nature. We will continue to spurn the “organized” route, because things work faster that way – at least within our country. The Rule of Gra-gra makes things happen, and makes them happen fast. But we fail to learn that things may not always work that way outside our borders. We get away with a lot within Nigeria, so perhaps we think we get away outside as well.
Again I say it, I do not attempt to minimize the import and the gravity of the punishment and embarrassment meted out to Mr. Omotade. Nothing will ever justify that. I sympathise with him. BA should apologise, genuinely, and overhaul their crisis management response system. But we (Nigerians) should also step back and be at least a bit more dispassionate in our evaluation. The ranting and the calls for boycott will not do us any good. A country without its own international airline has no business making the kind of noise we are currently making, ordering the world to "respect" us. We should instead keep our mouths sealed and wallow in our collective shame of airline-lessness. And of course, we should enroll in International Diplomacy 101 – and learn to more often than not, temper our abrasive quest for justice with some measure of reason. It’s the season of the rule of law, after all.
Tolu Ogunlesi (c) May 2008
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
A well-written riposte to the BA-bashers from Tolu Ogunlesi: