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THE BIG CONSPIRACY
THE TRAVAILS OF A PROGRESSIVE SAFETY REGULATOR IN A NOT-SO-PROGRESSIVE AVIATION INDUSTRY
By Folasade Odutola
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Folasade Odutola
All rights reserved.
AND THE CHICKEN CAME HOME TO ROOST
Although I'd been hearing about the book entitled Flying Blind, Flying Safe for some time after it was published in 1997, it was not until May 2001 that I had the privilege of laying my hands on it. Incidentally, when I first set my eyes on it, it was in the possession of the first chief executive officer of the very first (pseudo) autonomous civil aviation authority to be created in Nigeria, and that, of course, refers to the FCAA. I pleaded for him to lend me the book there and then, and he obliged me.
The book's author was none other than Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the US Department of Transportation, a position she held between 1990 and 1996. She was, at the time she left office, reputedly the longest serving officer in that post, and she had been nicknamed "Maximum Mary" on account of the fearless manner in which she carried out her undoubtedly sensitive duties.
As if I knew that the clock was ticking furiously for me as it approached the hour of destiny, I devoted whatever little time I could squeeze from my extremely tight schedule to reading Schiavo's story. As I devoured that book, I could not help seeing myself in precisely the same situation as she had found herself, and I could not help but have a deep appreciation of the feelings that had prompted her to write about her experience. By the time I finished consuming the text, I was totally convinced that—as I had often declared jocularly during my numerous moments of exasperation—I must write my own memoirs as soon as possible. Our experiences in the regulatory field were so uncannily similar, I thought. However, I never envisaged that I would have cause to embark upon the project as soon as I did, although its completion was halted due to later developments that would become apparent herein.
It was 18th July 2001, and I was conducting a workshop on OpSpecs for the safety inspectors in my directorate when I received a message from the DG—Engineer Zakari Haruna. In deference to him, I promptly wrapped up the point I was making at the time and instructed the officers to carry on the discussion without me while I went over to the DG's office. The events that followed were to change the course of my life and leave a forever indelible mark on my psyche.
Upon being seated, the DG, in his characteristic manner of picking words carefully and slowly whenever he found himself in uncomfortable situations as that about to unfold, gave an elaborate narrative of his encounter that day with the permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Aviation, Mr Robert Audu. He (the DG) had gone over to one of the other aviation parastatals, he said, and had met the permanent secretary, who was wearing a glum look, as if he had just had a quarrel with someone. On enquiry, Audu explained that he was there to hand letters of retirement to the managing director/chief executive officer of the Nigerian Airspace Management Authority, Alhaji I.U. Auyo; and to one of its directors, Engr. T. Okunoren. The DG went on to state that he was later given an envelope and upon opening it, he discovered that it contained a letter of retirement from service addressed to me through himself. I believe that was the reason he had opened the envelope. Perhaps to make me feel there was nothing strange in what was happening to me, he then recapitulated the events that led to his own retirement from Nigeria Airways in 1988.
I took from him the original of the letter of my retirement from service and declared, "I suppose I have to sign a copy of this". He had apparently made a copy before calling me over. Using a pen I picked up from his table, I endorsed on it the comment "original received by me". Having signed and dated this copy of his, I returned it to him and kept the original. I later asked for and collected the envelope from him.
Throughout his above narrative, I sat in front of him, as cool as a cucumber, watching his every gesticulation and absorbing his words in total amazement. Maybe it was this reaction of mine that prompted him to proclaim "I did not know you would take it so coolly", to which I replied, "No problem". I couldn't help but wonder whether he'd expected me to start jumping up and down or knocking my head against the wall, perhaps while renting my garment and crying. Lest I forget, he'd also told me thus: "I know you are a very prayerful woman; you will take it as God's wish". I kept quiet.
Then he asked what I was going to do next, and I told him that I was in the middle of a workshop—as if he didn't know that! I would go back to that workshop, I added, and finish it, and then I would go home. He requested that I meet with him again before going home. Although I was able to mutter, "Okay", I must confess that I had absolutely no intention of seeing him before leaving or probably ever again in my life, as unfortunately it turned out to be (within a couple of years thereafter, he was no more).
As I left the DG's office with the original letter of retirement in my hand, head held high and maintaining a facial expression that betrayed no emotion whatsoever, I couldn't help but ponder a peculiar item of information this man had given me in the course of our one-on-one discussion: he had told me that when Okunoren was leaving NAMA premises, he (well, his vehicle actually) was searched! Why he (the DG) decided to tell me that, especially under the circumstance, only God knows—as well as himself, of course. If he thought he was doing me a favour, perhaps to save me from the likely embarrassment of being searched, I couldn't help but feel insulted. To me, it was like hinting that I had better not take anything that I shouldn't, or anything that didn't belong to me, when I left. I felt insulted, as such an act would be out of character for me. What I would ever think of taking away from my office were my most-valued possessions which were my books and documents.
As serious as the situation was, I could not help but chuckle over something else he had told me. It concerned something he claimed to have said on the previous day, to one of the main character in my case, and it was evidence of the fact that he knew beforehand what was going to happen (contrary to his earlier assertion with regard to the meeting with Audu).
The character in question was none other than Mohammed Joji MD, Express Airways and (life?) General Secretary of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON). Joji was among the AON members who came over to the NCAA for a meeting (as "ordered" by the incumbent almighty minister of aviation) to be held with us, mainly on the issue of how to implement our new set of Air Navigation Regulationsi (ANRs). According to Zak Haruna, he, the DG, had told Joji on that day—Tuesday, 17th July 2001—that what they, the "operators", did in respect of my case was "monafichi". This word, he graciously informed me, means "evil" in Hausa language.
This actually made me chuckle inwardly, because another version of this word—which has always been known to me, as it has found its way into Yoruba, my own language—is "monafiqi", which has an Arabic origin and means "hypocrisy". Both meanings were fitting as the role some AON members played in the matter at hand was, as would be revealed later, a combination of evil and hypocrisy! My amusement also stemmed from the fact that while the AON plot was thickening, the DG (my boss, who was fully aware of the details) never said a single truthful word to me about it—but that is another tale to be told!
I headed straight for my office and packed all the valuables—passports, other personal items and documents, etc.—that I could think of and lay my hands on at that moment. I asked that my official driver be called and left instructions for him to move the packed items into the official vehicle allocated to me. I said nothing to my office staff about what was going on. Then I went straight back to the conference room. I took my seat, grabbed my own copy of the OpSpecs job aid, and asked, "Gentlemen, where are we?" I opened the page currently under discussion and continued from there. By the time we were through with a few more pages, one or two members of a committee who were scheduled to use the same conference room for another meeting had started to peep in. I told my officers about the situation concerning our use of the venue and hastened to wrap up the workshop. I told them we would continue the next day, though I knew I wouldn't be around the next day, or probably ever again. Some of them, of course, knew about the plot and must have wondered why I said that.
The next thing I did was to make sure that everyone was served a packed lunch I'd ordered for them. Then, as they were going to disperse, I told them to wait a minute because I had some news for them. I then reminded them of my visit to the DG a short while before and added something like, "When I saw him, what he did was to give me a letter of retirement". Pointing at the officer sitting directly opposite me, at the other end of the long conference table, I said, "I have been asked to hand over to Mr Awosika".
Some of the officers were speechless, while others feigned surprise. One asked, perhaps in disbelief, what I meant by "retirement", to which I answered: "Retirement means retirement!" Picking up my handbag which was placed right beside me, I said: "See you later".
I picked up the rest of my working documents and headed straight for my office—for the last time. It was at this point that I told my office staff what was happening. While I was tidying up my table, two of my aviation colleagues came in—one was from NAMA and the other was an ex-boss of mine who had moved into private practice. They were visibly shaken, but as they seemed unable to believe my relaxed state, they wondered aloud if anything had happened at my end. Unruffled, I told them I'd just received a letter of my retirement from service from my boss. They said a few kind words to me and left—presumably for the DG's office, although I never waited to find out.
So it came to pass that on that fateful early afternoon of Wednesday, 18th July 2001, I walked out of my office, only stopping briefly to say a few words to an officer who at the time was my most trusted staff and a very good friend, and who I believed would be shattered if I just left like that without explaining what had happened. I entered my waiting vehicle and went home, never looking back and never to return—at least, that's how I felt and still feel up to the time of writing this.
I'd got home at 5 p.m., or thereabouts—an occurrence that everyone in my household found pretty unusual. I rarely returned home from the office before dusk. On arriving, I was dead quiet—no frowns, no megawatts smiles. Also unusual. Instinctively, my husband knew something was wrong and started asking, "Sade, what is it? What is happening?" I proceeded upstairs to my bedroom with him in tow and just kept on saying there was nothing wrong. It was not until a few moments later that I broke the news to him, upon which he yelled, "Oh my God".
Still feeling unperturbed by the whole matter, I was the one who had to calm him down and advise him that we should not worry about a thing. My next step was to perform ablution and observe my over-due, as usual, obligatory prayers—the prayerful woman submitting herself to the wish of God! In any case, didn't I need to thank my stars for being the one that got away, and relatively unscathed, as it turned out to be? No broken bones, no debilitating mental or physical issues. Thereafter, I made some phone calls to a very few number of persons, all of whom were presumed to be friends and well-wishers. In some cases, however, my presumptions were proved, over time, to be incorrect.
The following morning, I was out of the house like a shot. Firstly, I needed to see my dear parents and break the news to them. They were, as expected, aghast, but like me they took it with philosophical calmness. Secondly, I'd decided to pick up an enrolment form from the local "Computer Academy". Undergoing formal computer training had, hitherto, been an unfulfilled wish, because I'd been ever so busy. For years, I had hardly any spare time for anything personal. Although I picked up the enrolment form, the largely unforeseen circumstances that followed would not allow me to commence the course until a couple of months later.
The chicken had indeed come home to roost! For almost a year, I had to come up with a satisfactory answer every time my youngest child, who was just going to turn twelve when I was retired, enquired, "Mummy, aren't you going to the office today?" At first I waved off his questions, but soon had a ready-made answer thanks to the computer course I had started attending. However, the young lad could not comprehend why I would be going to computer school to the exclusion of the NCAA, so he kept asking me the same question from time to time.
By the time I finished my second set of computer courses in May 2002, I'd run out of excuses. But then, how was mummy going to tell her young, impressionable son that she had been thrown out of her office and place of work—the same work she had given so much time and attention to, to the detriment of herself and her family?
When I was working, practically every morning, as he was being got ready for school, he would chide me "Mummy, I didn't see you last night". And most invariably, I would answer, "Sorry, dear, I came home late from the office and you'd already gone to bed". Even most weekends and public holidays had been more or less as hectic as the other days. And I even hardly have the time to remember my annual vacations!
Eventually, I had no choice but to brace myself and provide my son with as truthful an answer as I could give, so I told him, with an air of finality, something like, "I'm not going back at the NCAA again. I am going to find another place of work". It makes one wonder, doesn't it, why I couldn't have given that to him as an answer several months earlier? But the plain truth is, at the time, I never thought the answer could be that simple! Maybe I'd feared he would probe further and further, and my answers could be embarrassing to both of us, or perhaps I was too distressed at the time to think of so simple an answer. Whatever the reason, I felt so much relieved when, thereafter, he stopped asking so many questions—maybe by then he'd got used to me not going to the NCAA anymore. Most important, he was just happy to have a mum he could see and talk to more often.
Any time I narrate the events of 18th July, 2001, I cannot be done with the episode without baring my mind on a certain issue. I can't help telling my audience that the DG had the nerve to personally give that infernal letter to me. It could be that I get unduly emotional when I talk about this, but I have my reasons for feeling the way I do about the entire matter of my premature retirement—and the role he played in it. I will always advance these reasons as follows, having first of all apologised for being immodest: This DG, I will say, was the same person, who, as head of Airworthiness Division (AWD) in DSRAM, mostly preoccupied himself with making numerous phone calls to whoever, with his legs stretched across his table while half-rotating himself in his swivel chair. He carried on like this while yours truly was working herself to the point of exhaustion to see that the effectiveness and efficiency of the division was improved—despite the fact that I was just the head of a part, while he was the overall head. In the post-FCAA days prior to his taking up his post in DSRAM (in August 1997, if my memory serves me right), I'd started playing the self-imposed role of Atlas, placing the burden of everything on my own very narrow shoulders and minding what wasn't supposed to be my business. After he took up his post, I continued the same way. Not only did I mind his business for him, I in fact, minded the non-financial business of virtually the whole DSRAM, along with my own business. This DG, I will add, had forgotten how I laboured day and night as secretary to those committees whose work led to the creation of the NCAA (and of NAMA as well), on which we both served. With me holding the pen, committee members had absolutely nothing to worry about as far as a timely and satisfactory report was concerned. I slaved away, always at the ready to achieve that aim. I served the way I did, only for the sole reason that I derived immense pleasure from serving and never in the expectation of a reward.
Excerpted from THE BIG CONSPIRACY by Folasade Odutola. Copyright © 2013 Folasade Odutola. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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