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Air Peace and a Story About Poor Nigerian Regulation

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Christopher Ogbonna is not a firebrand revolutionary.

This becomes abundantly clear after speaking with him a couple of times. He is a soft-spoken lawyer who dotes on his wife and talks with a sizeable dose of dad humour. Harmless as he comes across, these are strange times for him. For the best part of 2 years now, he has lived like a cat, slipping quietly in and out of Nigeria and keeping his location secret at all times. In this line of work, I have dealt with sources who have taken several types of precautions when passing information across to me before, but nothing comes close to his level of paranoia.

There have been sources who sent information anonymously via Dropbox. There have been sources who communicated exclusively using self-destructing messages on Signal and Telegram. There was once a source who heard an echo during an encrypted voice conversation and concluded I was recording, which led to the abrupt end of that lead despite my repeated denial of the accusation. There was even a source who only agreed to speak to me provided I could show up in person to a quiet warehouse at Silicon Oasis in Dubai to receive a handwritten note.

Christopher however, is the first source ever to pass documents across using what turns into a complex dead drop involving a flash drive and multiple intermediaries who do not know each other or what the package they are ferrying contains. Using this convoluted method, Christopher’s pen drive finds its way to my [redacted location] abode, where I finally get my hands on it. My 2 Windows PCs have been targeted by Nigerian government-sponsored malware attacks before and may be compromised, so I plug the pen drive into my non-networked Linux PC and hope for the best.

What shows up on the screen is a treasure trove of documents that tell a story about how Nigeria’s busiest commercial airline seemingly has no scruples about telling lies, falsifying records and flagrantly flouting rules in an attempt to score a Pyrrhic victory against its own customer. For almost 2 years, the story of one man’s struggle against this powerful airline owned by a well-connected billionaire entrepreneur has been consigned to the fringes of mainstream coverage. Now for the first time, West Africa Weekly can tell the story of Air Peace and its headscratching mission to squash Christopher and his wife Nneka.

He Said, They Said…

The story starts on December 19, 2019, when Nneka Ogbonna boards Air Peace flight 7210 from Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos to Osubi airstrip in Warri, Delta State. At the door of the aircraft, she is accosted by an air hostess who informs her that her carry-on luggage will have to be checked in. Anyone who is a regular Nigerian Twitter user has likely seen the following account of what happened next, written by her husband Christopher.

 For those who have not seen it already, a cliff notes version:

  • Nneka insists that her carry-on can fit in the overhead locker and that she has traveled with it several times before.
  • The air hostess insists that Nneka must check the bag in and at this point, the Captain of the flight, Horace Miller-Jaja steps in and angrily demands that she should do as she is told, which she does.
  • Captain Miller-Jaja does not stop there however, but continues to shout angry invective and insults at her using the plane’s PS system, despite the fact that she is seated with her seatbelt on at this point.
  • FAAN officials soon arrive and ask her to leave the plane because Captain Miller-Jaja has said that he will not fly if she is on the flight.
  • Nneka refuses to leave her seat which she has paid for, and Captain Miller-Jaja turns off the plane’s engine and cooling system in the late morning heat, effectively using physical and psychological torture against his passengers so they can put pressure on her to deboard.
  • She is eventually forced off the plane by FAAN and CAA officials who physically manhandle her out of her seat. One male official even places his hands in between her buttocks while this is happening.
  • Once she is bundled off the plane, the doors are closed and the flight takes off without her. She is forced to write a statement about what happened and handed over to the police, who then seize her international passport.
  • When Chris later writes a Twitter thread detailing what happened, Air Peace then responds with a very different account of events.

Clearly both accounts cannot be true at the same time, so what actually happened on that day? In developing this story, I have delved not only into the facts of the public battle between Air Peace and the Ogbonna family, but the disturbing reality of important Nigerian regulatory institutions that actively avoid doing their job and place certain individuals and entities literally above the law. It is a story about corporate dishonesty, legal skulduggery, individual shamelessness, regulatory malfeasance, disappearing data and forged documents – the exact things that have traditionally led to disasters in Nigeria’s aviation sector.

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Horace the Screaming Pilot vs Nneka the Pretty “Hijacker”

Captain Horace Miller-Jaja is a recently retired passenger pilot whose profile looks as prosaic as it is competent. Having spent the best part of 3 decades flying commercially, he recently took charge of his final flight on May 5, 2021. Looking at the few public recordings that exist of him, he is exactly what you would picture an experienced pilot to look like – grey haired, soft spoken and with an apparently calm and gentle demeanour.

When our story begins on December 10, 2019 however, Captain Miller-Jaja is presumably not having a good day. Exactly why this is the case nobody really knows, but what he is about to do will reveal more about Nigeria’s aviation sector than any number of official reports and press statements can. He is standing at the door of the cockpit ahead of a Lagos-Warri flight, and he does not take kindly at all to the sight of a woman arguing about her carry-on luggage with the air hostess. That woman is Nneka Ogbonna.

A legal deposition from the ongoing court case describes what happens next:

Apparently, Captain Miller-Jaja is having a really bad day indeed, because even after being incredibly rude to this passenger, he comes back for more. At this point, when the issue has seemingly been solved and the matter should be over, he launches a verbal tirade at Nneka Ogbonna and keeps on doing so even after she has taken her seat and fastened her seatbelt. The deposition continues:

For reference, the “1st plaintiff” in the deposition is Nneka Ogbonna; the “1st Defendant” is Air Peace; and the “5th Defendant” is Captain Horace Miller-Jaja. Nneka is now seated at her assigned Seat 4A with her seatbelt fastened, and there should no longer be an issue, but it is now apparent that Captain Miller-Jaja must be having the worst day ever, because he completely loses all control and composure after Nneka’s rebuke mentioned in the above deposition.

Where the plane’s passengers are probably used to hearing aircraft PA systems carrying the soothing, slightly boring voice of level-headed, unruffled pilots, something unfolds that most of them have probably never seen before. 63 year-old Captain Miller-Jaja grabs the cockpit PA system and begins to yell insults into it, screaming at Nneka to leave the plane and inciting other passengers to force her off the aircraft if they want him to fly them to their destination.

For good measure, Captain Miller-Jaja then turns off the plane’s engines and air conditioning system in the late morning heat of the Lagos airport tarmac for maximum discomfort to all of his passengers.

Air Peace staff then approach Mrs Ogbonna and inform her that the Captain has ordered her off the plane. They go on to erroneously inform her that Captain Miller-Jaja can decide at will to fly or not to fly anyone as he pleases, and that if she does not leave the plane, she will be charged with a criminal offense.

Air Peace station manager Isa Aminu Suleman further attempts to gaslight Mrs Ogbonna by claiming that she must leave the aircraft because she has brought an overweight bag into the aircraft. She points out that the bag in question is no longer on the aircraft and has been sent for check-in, and Suleman realises that he has no leg to stand on. Staff of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) get involved at the request of Captain Miller-Jaja and the deposition describes what happened next.

Air Peace Counterattacks

The full and unredacted account of what happened next is impossible to reproduce here. Suffice to say that it contains intrigue and skulduggery far too voluminous and sometimes mundane to possibly fit into this newsletter. For brevity sake, here is an abridged version of how it goes:

  • Nneka Ogbonna is forcefully bundled out of her seat and off the flight with so much force that her clothing belt is severed, causing her jeans to fall and her underwear to become exposed.
  • NCAA and FAAN staff hand her over to the police and she is forced to write a criminal suspect statement after being accused of “hijacking” the plane by Captain Miller-Jaja.
  • Air Peace staffers convince the police to seize Nneka Ogbonna’s international passport.
  • When Nneka eventually gets back to Warri and reunites with her husband, they hire a lawyer who writes to the management of Air Peace requesting a settlement meeting. A presumed understanding is reached and the meeting is fixed for January 9, 2020 at the DPO’s office of the Domestic Air Division, Ikeja, Lagos.
  • They show up at the meeting only to discover that it is a ruse by Air Peace to bully them and extort money from them. Air Peace lawyers Deborah Bazuaye and Adedoyin Adeniji present a demand notice for N3,070,000, allegedly as “compensation for making the flight take off late.”
  • The police proceed to hold on to Nneka’s passport for a further 8 months until they eventually return it to the immense chagrin of Air Peace.
  • The Ogbonnas write to the NCAA and FAAN. The NCAA responds with a letter that reads like a middle finger to them. The letter refuses to acknowledge their concerns and it infers that Captain Miller-Jaja is not subject to any oversight. It also denies that the clearly-identified NCAA staff wearing a name tag who was involved in the incident is actually employed by the NCAA and even suggests that the agency should not be joined in the lawsuit.
  • When Christopher Ogbonna uploads video evidence of Captain Miller-Jaja’s unprofessional behaviour and his wife’s mistreatment on his social media pages, Air Peace deletes its version of the story from its social media handles. As the true details of the case start to make their way into the court process and Air Peace stares at an impending humiliating loss of face, the airline changes tack and turns to legal dark arts to frustrate the Ogbonnas out of seeking justice. Company lawyers file a fresh accusation against Nneka Ogbonna, alleging that she carried a “dangerous or explosive substance” into the aircraft.

Facing legal bullying and threats in this David vs Goliath situation, Christopher and Nneka flee to the USA, while Christopher continues pursuing justice through the Nigerian legal system. The case remains in court to date as Air Peace inexplicably digs its heels in defending the most bizarre of lost causes.

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Incredibly, none of this is even the most absurd part of this story. That would be what comes next.

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Booking

Like most airlines, Air Peace uses an Airline Reservation System (ARS) which simplifies the process of managing seat inventory and allocating it to passengers. When a customer goes to the Air Peace website and makes a paid booking, the ARS automatically generates a unique booking reference code that is permanently tied to their booking.

When a customer enters this booking reference and their surname on the “Manage My Booking” tab on the website homepage, the ARS instantly pulls up all information related to that booking including the flight itinerary, check-in status, seat number and so on. For example, in August 2020 I bought an Air Peace Lagos-Asaba return ticket with the booking reference ALPMHF.

When I hit “OK,” the following details come up:

Now at this point, it is established fact that Nneka Ogbonna bought an Air Peace Lagos-Warri one-way ticket for December 10, 2019. For good measure, I even got my hands on her GT Bank debit alert email, her electronic and physical boarding passes, and her hand luggage tags.

So we know without a shadow of doubt that Nneka bought a ticket, showed up for her flight, checked in successfully, got her boarding pass and boarded the aircraft before Captain Miller-Jaja had his meltdown. Her booking reference was AKGK5P. Sometime last year, Christopher happened to put her booking reference into the Air Peace ARS and this was what came up.

The implication of this brazen piece of data tampering by Air Peace is that the flight which Nneka boarded on December 10, 2019 supposedly does not have her on the passenger manifest. The clearly checked-in passenger is suddenly marked as “Not Checked In.” This screenshot is among the documents Christopher gets across to me, and I decide to see for myself what comes up when I put her booking details into the Air Peace ARS. So that is exactly what I do – and this is what I see:

Instead of taking me to her (already fraudulently edited) booking reference page, Air Peace has now apparently decided that Nneka Ogbonna’s booking never existed in the first place. The record showing that she bought a ticket for that flight has been scrubbed from the company’s ARS back end. As far as Air Peace is concerned, reality is now whatever it wants it to be.

Even more concerning is the revelation that to date, Air Peace has not submitted the recording from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) to the relevant authorities. This would easily be the most accurate way of establishing what actually happened on December 10, 2019. If indeed Nneka Ogbonna is a terrorist hijacker who somehow boarded an Air Peace flight with an explosive or dangerous item without a valid ticket; and Captain Horace Miller-Jaja was heroically protecting the other passengers from Nneka the Terrorist, the data from the CVR should clear all doubts.

Unfortunately, the letter below provides an unpleasant clue as to what the fate of that recording might have been.

In other words, it is common practice for Nigerian airlines to illegally overwrite CVR recordings, which makes it all but impossible to establish the facts of incidents like that of December 10, 2019. Has Air Peace overwritten the CVR data from that day and hidden crucial evidence? It is impossible to say, and the company has not responded to my questions at press time. However based on the foregoing, it is hard not to conclude that there is certainly precedent for this kind of behaviour at Nigeria’s busiest commercial airline.

It also bears mentioning that Air Peace founder Allen Onyema has an indictment in the US District Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia. The indictment, which is for money laundering and bank fraud, contains several recurring charges of concealment of information and forgery of key documents.

Air Peace is clearly no stranger to playing fast and loose with facts, truth and documentation. According to the US District Attorney’s Office, its founder and CEO shares similar values. Even worse, regulators within the aviation sector such as the NCAA appear to think that their job is to “play ball” with powerful airlines instead of regulating them. Under NCAA regulations for example, the penalty for intentional falsehoods and alterations of records such as those outlined in this story is revocation of its operating license. Guess who that will never happen to.

If this airline’s ability to get away with major infractions looks surprising, a little peek behind the curtain might explain why. In May 2019, the airline appointed 7 new directors, some of whom are among the most influential people in Nigeria. Among the directors are Mutiu Sunmonu, former MD of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) Nigeria, and current Chairman of Julius Berger PLC.

Also included is Chief Nnaemeka Ngige (SAN), one of Nigeria’s most influential lawyers and a public figure whose recent birthday celebration elicited official congratulatory statements from Attorney General Abubakar Malami, Secretary General to the Federation Boss Mustapha, and President Muhammdu Buhari. Present in person at the celebration were Ondo State governor Rotimi Akeredolu, former Anambra Governor Peter Obi, and current Nigerian Bar Association president Olumide Akpata.

Also on the list of Air Peace directors is a certain Engr. Benedict Adeyileka, who so happens to be the current Rector of the International Aviation College (IAC), Ilorin, and former Director General of the NCAA – the very agency that supposedly regulates Air Peace.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that consumer protection regulators such as the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) and its chair Tunde Irukera have no interest in picking fights with Air Peace. While the facts of the furious persecution of the Ogbonnas and concealment of evidence by Air Peace have been in the public domain for nearly 2 years, the exchange below is an example of this regulator engaging in insincere shadow-boxing and refusing to engage robustly.

 

In other words, the referees on the field of play in the Nigerian aviation space are wearing the colours of one of the competing teams under their refereeing shirts. As far as Nigerian regulation is concerned, Air Peace and its CEO are quite literally above the law. They can mistreat and physically assault customers, hide and destroy evidence illegally, modify and delete data fraudulently, engage in legal gymnastics to frustrate consumers, and carry out offenses that should ordinarily lose them their operating license – and no such thing will ever happen.

This is an exceedingly dangerous situation for Nigerian air travelers, and here is why.

Deleted Records, Screaming Pilots and Dodgy Maintenance – All Symptoms of the Same Disease

On May 22, 2010, Air India Express flight 812 from Dubai to Mangalore crashed on landing and killed 158 of 166 people onboard. The reason for the crash? Despite 3 calls from the 1st Officer to “Go Around” (abort landing and reattempt), Captain Zlatko Glušica made the decision to land despite having overshot the touchdown point by several hundred metres.

He then worsened the error by attempting to abort the landing after touching down. The plane overshot the runway, fell into a ravine and burst into flames. The subsequent accident investigation revealed that Captain Glušica had slept for over 90 minutes during the flight, and he was likely to be cognitively impaired, or not operating with optimal judgment during the landing. The CVR in fact recorded him snoring loudly in the cockpit.

In a field like aviation, human error due to bad judgment or cognitive impairment has a very high chance of leading to fatal outcomes. The good news is that despite a number of safety incidents and near-misses over the years including burst tires and collapsed nose wheels during landing, Air Peace to its credit, has never registered a fatal accident. The bad news is that it only takes one incident for that record to be wiped. Just one.

One maintenance engineer who might be willing to tick a box saying that something has been done when it hasn’t been done.

One corrupt or compromised regulator who will give an approval that should not be given because Air Peace is too powerful to be regulated.

One ill tempered pilot who reacts to the mild stressor that is a passenger carry-on bag dispute with the screaming tantrums of a 63 year-old man-child.

It only takes one. In 2012, it took one pilot making the decision to press on to Lagos on one engine instead of landing at the nearest possible airfield. Dana Air Flight 992 became one of the worst aviation disasters in Nigeria’s history, and I personally lost a friend and schoolmate, Kunbi Adebiyi.

Between the incredibly defective internal company culture at Air Peace which I have covered before, and the regulators looking the other way as this airline repeatedly breaks the law and acts with impunity, the conditions for another huge Nigerian aviation disaster are mounting.

The signs are already here.

Read more: Nigeria’s “Danfo” Airline And The NCAA’s Dance With Death

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