BY DR. WOLFGANG H. THOME
ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire (eTN) – ETN journalist Wolfgang H. Thome was a guest on the maiden RwandAir flight from Kigali to Abidjan, when he, along with government dignitaries, and the entire crew were held by a government mob at gunpoint. Here is his personal account:
As the RwandAir special flight made its final approach into Abidjan International Airport, the landscape beneath was fueling my imagination of what a proper visit to the Ivory Coast might yield and what I might discover traveling along the shores and across the country in terms of scenic beauty. Tropical coastal forests gave way to palm oil plantations and then some more tropical coastal forests, as the city of Abidjan came into sight from the aircraft, which lined up for its landing.
We touched down and were redirected from the main passenger terminal to the official side of the airport. This was of no concern at the time; after all, this was a special flight with a sizeable government delegation on board, led by two of Rwanda’s ministers and a number of senior officials, including RwandAir’s CEO John Mirenge.
We had all traveled to Lagos and Abuja together for the celebration of establishing regular air links between Rwanda and Nigeria and were now delivering a number of our fellow inaugural flight passengers for the second part of their journey, with us expected to then leave for Kigali again. Receiving our official delegation was swift, and soon we were taxiing back to the main terminal for refueling to then commence our journey back to Rwanda.
Here, the misfortunes commenced, and this correspondent, who thought he had by and large seen it all in his frequent travels across the continent, was taken aback to say the least by the events that were about to unfold.
RwandAir, which I say, of course, does have a handling agent appointed in Abidjan, is a company which takes care of ground handling, including provision of equipment, such as stairs, along with crucial refueling.
The cockpit crew, including the engineer on board, disembarked and no handling agent representative was spotted, although the information at landing time had been transmitted well ahead, I later on established.
Instead of the handling agent, a band of armed soldiers approached the aircraft and demanded cash for the fuel and handling transaction, for the latter at a cool US$5,000. For the fuel, they quoted an initial figure, which could have bought an oil field, or else taken care of their pension for life.
RwandAir’s remaining senior official on board, Michael Otieno, the Corporate Communications Manager, also got involved in the ensuing argument, which swiftly turned into the “ABC” of African officials – Arrogant behavior, Blackmail demands, and Corruption – visible for all to see. Little did he know what was in store for him, as one of the goons then put his gun on him, clearly hoping that this “little persuasion” would help to extract the extortionate amounts of money they demanded.
Our two captains, include RwandAir’s Chief Pilot and the engineer who had traveled on the flight, were seen busily making phone calls as the situation threatened to quickly get out of hand and turn into a potential diplomatic incident, as the aircraft had delivered a duly invited official government delegation, only to be then ambushed and extorted and with a senior RwandAir staff held at gunpoint.
Thankfully, at that very moment, a representative of the handling company finally appeared, prompting the rogue soldiers deployed at the international airport to swiftly beat a retreat, and business was then finally, an hour and a half later, conducted at agreed rates with no cash changing hands, leaving the goons in uniform clearly fuming at their misfortunes as they stood by a short distance away, seen gesturing and clearly disappointed that their scheme had failed.
The delay, among other consequences, could have forced our crew out of maximum permitted duty hours, and as it so happened, they beat the deadline with only some bare minutes to spare. A sigh of relief went through those of us on board, who saw what had transpired and knew how close we had come to a major incident. Finally getting to taxi and take off was met with great relief, along with seeing the figures of our tormentors getting smaller in the distance, guns still strapped to their chests and gripped with both hands.
Once airborne again and at initial cruising altitude, Capt. Babis then narrated the story for all to hear, including the willingness of fellow passengers to “bail out” the aircraft and take up a cash collection, which would have been enough to satisfy the broad robbery attempt by some of the troops stationed at the international airport, ostensibly for protection and security, but who turned their assignment on the head and sought a ready cash dispenser, likely stealing the fuel in the process, as that money would arguably not have been turned over to the fuel company, causing them a major loss, too.
Fellow passengers applauded the crew involved in the incident, the other RwandAir staff on board, and those willing to part with their cash reserves, but it left a sour taste of bile and vomit in our all throats. Considering that the former “hang on to the bitter end” President Gbagbo is now in the Hague facing charges by the International Criminal Court, and considering that the international community supported the claims of the now President of Ivory Coast and assisted him to turn his election victory into a move to State House, this incident puts the country to shame. It is hoped that those responsible will swiftly be identified and taken to court, and that the government of the Ivory Coast will see it fit to issue a formal apology to the government of Rwanda, and to RwandAir, for the ordeal described.
Landing in Kigali was at 20 past midnight and applauded by everyone on board this special flight. The “red carpet” was once again rolled out and much in evidence, with smiling officials welcoming comments at immigration, and customs officials generously waving all of us through. I thought, “home at last,” although technically, of course, my own patch is at the lake shores outside Kampala in Uganda, but home to East Africa at least it was and what a change to what we saw and experienced in West Africa.
For now, though, I hasten to put this story out for all to read and get a feel of what the dark side of our festive inaugural flight suffered at the hand of armed goons in Abidjan.
As to going back to fulfill my ambition to see that country “for real” and write about it, this is very unlikely now, unless the Ivory Coast tourism board would see it fit to give me a formal invitation, minders and all, but that I do not expect to happen in a month of Sundays, so do not hold your breath just yet – there will be no good news about Ivory Coast any time soon from me.