For the past thirty-six days, I have not had any reason to be angry, raise my voice or contemplate strangling anyone in my mind. My mood has been mostly that of quiet contentment and a feeling of happiness that comes from spirituality.
All that dissipated the day we were scheduled to depart Jeddah to Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA), Kano via Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. The designated aircraft was Azman Air and even though I felt a little apprehension, I counselled myself to be optimistic that all would go well, Insha Allah.
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Wahala started when the flight which was to transport the remainder of all NAHCON officials back to Nigeria was delayed for four hours, twice. As a Nigerian whose stratum corneum is already thickened by layers of mediocrity, corruption and ‘anyhowness’, I was not too worried. In fact, I went prepared with snack bars, juice boxes, travel pillow, praying mat and downloaded movies on Netflix (just in case the internet connection messed up). While waiting, I spread my prayer mat on the floor and took a nap. It was supposed to be an early morning flight and so we did not get much sleep at night.
We finally left Jeddah around 11:30 am and arrived Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport at 2:45pm. An announcement was made for Abuja passengers to disembark and that we would be soon on our way to Kano Via Kaduna in a few minutes.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the few minutes they told us turned out to be six hours.
The first sign of distress was when the engines were turned off and the temperature in the cabin kept climbing higher. People started using the safety manual to fan themselves and after about forty-five minutes, we started grumbling and demanded to find out what was happening. I really believed the cabin crew at first when they said the plane was being refuelled. I had no reason to suspect a lie, but when after another thirty minutes passed with us seated in an increasingly hot and closed plane, our patience started to grow thin and before long demanded that the doors be opened. By this time women had begun to remove their hijabs and I remember smiling when I saw two women removing their scarf completely. They no fit shout, the heat unbearable! All eight doors, including emergency exits were opened and before long we persuaded the cabin crew to allow us to disembark the aircraft. That is when we learned the truth- that there was no aviation fuel, the plane was not being refuelled and that they had no idea when the fuel was coming.
I swear to God, being a Nigerian should be a non-modifiable risk factor for Stroke.
There we were, with no idea when and if, the fuel would come. The crew denied us entry into the airport as we were not ideally in ‘transit’, so instead we had to lounge under the plane, right there on the tarmac. Some things have to be seen to be believed. If someone told me that one day, I would spread my praying mat on the tarmac, while using the airplane wings as shade or that we would be carrying out congregational Zuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha prayers on the tarmac, I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.
Yet here we were, more than 250 NAHCON officials stranded at the Airport with no source of credible information. We finished our snacks and lamented our fate. By 6pm, passengers going to Kaduna had already become agitated as their airport did not allow flights after 6pm due to the insecurity that plagued the road from the airport to town. Hunger and thirst, the foremost catalyst for agitation began to set in. People started to scream and small fights started to break out between passengers and crew members. To be fair, the crew members themselves looked haggard and defeated.
While waiting, we discussed the aviation fuel scarcity with the Azman crew. All jet fuel consumption in Nigeria is imported; this creates pressure on the jet fuel supply chain. Jet fuel supply companies, both indigenous and multinational, are privately owned with no state vested investment. Jet fuel is imported by these companies or by Intermediate Shore Depots (ISD) owners based on their business projections and financial resources. Hence, importation may not be sufficient to meet the national needs. Also, the importation timeline is not very well structured, and this arrangement can easily result in supply disruptions.
More importantly, the process of obtaining jet fuel import licences and other financial and fiduciary documents takes time. Setting up a contractual arrangement with foreign refineries also takes time and resources, as this may require travelling to the location of the refineries for discussions and to finalise the deal.
So why did we not refuel in Saudi Arabia? It is cheaper in Nigeria they said. Why did you not communicate that we would need fuel when we arrive in Nigeria so that the tank would be waiting for us on arrival. It is not that simple doc, they explained. The fuel is simply not available! The company in charge of supplying the fuel have not been able to procure the amount needed as this is a large aircraft. So, I said to them, aviation fuel has now become like petrol? Sometimes it is there, sometimes it disappears? Yes, doc, now you understand.
I shook my head incredulously.
Around 7:30pm, about five hours later the Octane truck arrived and we heaved a sigh of relief. Gone was the fanfare and professionalism of checking our boarding passes and smiling while we boarded; Instead we were rounded up and pushed onto the plane similar to the way cattle are made to board a truck bound for the south.
Nearly six hours on the tarmac and I thought the worst was over. Apparently not.
For the second time, these people held us hostage in a plane, even after refuelling while we roasted in the heat. Suddenly, a woman fainted. Another woman started having an asthmatic attack. A man collapsed and yet another woman went into hypoglycaemic shock. Pandemonium broke everywhere. Luckily, they were more than 80 health workers on board. I also have to add here, that the first aid box on Azman airport was completely useless save for paracetamol and hydrocortisone. No emergency drug was available, fortunately we had ours.
Again, for the second time, I disembarked the aircraft and asked what the problem was.
I swear, when the man replied, I had to ask him to repeat it again. Maybe there was wax in my ear from drinking too much Saudi Laban.
Ladies and gentle men do you know what his reply was?
That the pushback truck responsible for pushing the aircraft from its parking position was nowhere to be found. The Azman staff was even quick to add that it was not their fault, that it was NAHCO’s (Nigerian Aviation Handling Company) fault that the vehicle was not available.
What the hell??
All the spirituality and calmness that comes with hajj, dissipated in that moment. Why? For God’s sake why are we so damn incompetent? How do you keep passengers waiting for more than six hours in an airplane and on the tarmac without food and basic amenities? Men were entering the bushes to relieve themselves while we watched because the toilets on the plane had become ineffectual. Some toilets stank and some had to be closed permanently. Why were we not allowed to enter the airport terminal to wait like civilised individuals?
The four patients were resuscitated and only when the pushback car was sighted did we agree to return to the plane. The engines were promptly switched on and the AC came back on.
We arrived MAKIA at about 11: 40pm; angry, defeated and depressed. There was some drama at the Airport when we arrived as the electricity had gone off, but that is a story for another day.
As I lay my head that night, the painful realization that no one would be held responsible for our suffering hit me.
Nigeria, our home.