What's the Beef?

John Ighodaro, Port Harcourt
Posted to the Web: Sunday, July 10, 2005

IT was in the early hours of last Wednesday, precisely, 4.30am. On its way from Paris, Air-France Airbus 330 lowered its huge and bulky frame like an eagle about to perch, not on a branch of a tree or on a rugged mountain, but negotiating a touchdown at the Port Harcourt International Airport after hours of a smooth flight, across seas and large swaths of land.

As it approached the runway, with the front parts of the big bird raised up, and as its rear parts was lowered for its big rear tyres to land on the tarmac, the pilot, Mr. Cambus Patrick, had no idea he was landing, not exactly on a regular tarmac but on a herd of fifty cows.

There was a crash of sounds emanating from the violent impact of steel, bloated and heavy tyres with the sturdy and rugged bones and muscles of heavy and strong animals followed by intermittent clap of sounds like the roar of distant thunder.

Frightening speed

Seven of the fifty cows died immediately and for a moment, the Airbus 330 veered slightly, over a considerable distance at that frightening speed, from the runway.

The twenty years of flying experience by Mr. Patrick was brought to bear on those crucial seconds and he was able to bring the big bird fully on its course on the runway and eventually to a successful landing.

According to the Minister of Aviation, Mallam Isa Yuguda, the "near-accident" was so expertly handled by the pilot who had flown 12,000 hours in his career that even the passengers in the bowels of the plane had no idea that something unusual had happened.

Nigerians were outraged at the incident, saying they felt scandalized that cows could be roaming, at night, the tarmac of one of the top international airports in the country.

How did it happen?

Yuguda offered a glimpse last Thursday when he and top officials of his ministry paid a visit to the Port Harcourt International Airport in a bid to inspect the extent of damage on account of the incident.

"The International Airport Port Harcourt here, as you are all aware, is a very good airport but needs improvement. And one of the major improvements that this airport requires, apart from having a second runway, most importantly, in compliance with international standards, is that the parameter fencing must be there. Infact, it is a requirement that even before an airport is constructed, the whole place has to be secured, " the minster added.

He however assured that government was making spirited efforts "to fence all our airports so that we can comply with the deadline of December 2006. And Port Harcourt Airport happens to be one of our topmost priority airport because the fence has gone down, everywhere is porous unlike other airports that we have in Kano, Lagos and other places. We have to find a means of constructing the parameter fence before the December 2006 deadline".

Sunday Vanguard gathered that a nomadic community of Fulani cattle rearers lives some considerable distance from the airport and it was their herd of cattle that strayed into the runway that caused the "near-accident" with the Air-France Airbus.

Airport authorities disclosed that not quite long ago, delegates from the senior management team of the airport met with leaders of the cattle rearers association in the area and the cattle rearers gave a pledge that they would exercise effective control over their cattle and would not allow the cows to roam the airport’s runway.

It was gathered that the airport authorities made the move after a series of incidents where cows were found roaming the airport grounds.

Yuguda explained: "As an interim measure (before the parameter fence is built) in the airport, we have alerted the state government on the development. We have also alerted the local Government Area on that, that is, the local government area on which this airport is located. We have also got in touch with community leaders, and most importantly, the head of the cattle rearers association.

"From what I gathered, there was a recent meeting between the management of the airport and the cattle rearers and the cattle rearers were said to have given a pledge that they will control their cattle and would no longer allow them to wander into the runway of the airport", he stated.

The minister, however noted, "That assurance happened to have been betrayed and I am afraid, I have now given orders that any cow, any animal that is seen on the runway henceforth should be shot. I have also directed that the hourly inspection of the runway by airport security be reduced to thirty minutes and by the time a night flight is supposed to be touching down, five minutes before the time, security officials should put their eye on the tarmac. I believe with all this, we will be able to manage the situation pending the construction of the parameter fence"

The minister’s order for cows found on the runway to be shot at sight was immediately put to test. About 400 metres from the Government Lounge of the airport where he was addressing newsmen, two cows were lying on the ground. They had been shot dead by airport security men. And one could observe during the inspection exercise at the airport that one of the dead cows was being skinned …… Perhaps, whoever was skinning the robust cow got wind that the Minister of Aviation was in the premises and hurriedly left his "post mortem" to continue the exercise immediately a whistle is blown that Yagudu had left Port Harcourt.

There were accusations and reports that soon after the Airbus crashed into the herd of 50 cows, killing seven of the cows, airport workers rushed over to the scene of the incident and began to help themselves to lumps of cow meat.

"There is no truth in that", said the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria’s (FAAN) head of public affairs, Christyne Nwoke. "You know that soon after the incident, flights in and out of the airport were suspended and the airport security proceeded to remove the dead cows from the tarmac. An onlooker from a distance might read meanings to that," she added.

Mammoth cow meat

A source at the airport said the mammoth cow meat from the seven cows were thrown into the surrounding bushes!

The aviation minister was unconcerned about what happened to the meat and in his directive to airport security officials to shoot at sight any cow or animal found roaming the runway, he did not bother to prescribe what should be done to the meat of such unlucky animals.

Perhaps being a cattle rearer himself, Yuguda would have no use for the meat of mere seven cows or nine cows, he being in possession of abundant cow meat. But while giving the directive to shoot at sight, he made sure he drummed it into the ears of the security personnel that the animals to be shot at sight should be those "seen on the runway," because it was not confirmed that the two cows that were shot dead Thursday morning (hours before the minister’s visit) were found on the runway. At the time of the minister’s visit to the airport the two dead cows were lying on the ground about 400 metres away from the tarmac, close to a road outside the airport, but within the airport grounds nonetheless.

"This incident was caused as result of having some stray animals, to be precise, cows, that found their way into the, runway at about 4.30 am yesterday (Wednesday) which is a very unusual time for cows particularly to be moving around" he said and explained that cattle rearers are supposed to tie their cows together at night, not only for the safety of other people but the safety of the cattle rearers themselves.

"Perhaps, the cattle rearers tied those cows together before falling asleep and while the cattle rearers slept, the cows got loose and wandered away," he said.

Asked if it will be out of place for the cattle rearers to pay compensation to Air-France the minister said, "I may not be able to answer this question because in the first instance I don’’t even know the cost of repairing the aircraft. It may take probably 200 to 300 cattle and I don’t know if about 300 cattle can be found around here. Maybe you know better than me. Secondly, the animals that are being reared by this people are for your own benefit and my own benefit because we are the people who eat the meat, so if you scare then away and make it impossible for them to have pasture and feed the animals well to have very good meat for you to eat, you have yet another problem of protein deficiency. So the whole idea of getting them to pay for it………….and let me assure you, I am a cattle rearer myself and it is strange because the whole problem like you said is with the cattle rearers because this part of the country is evergreen throughout the year.

It is only in an environment where you have dry land that animals get loose in the night and then go to seek for what to eat. But where they feed throughout the night, the next two..., three…… metres, they may still have some good grasses to eat. The ideal thing that a farmer should do is that in the night, they should tie them to one another and it is mandatory for them to do that not only for their own security but also for the security of the neighbourhood.

Absolute carelessness

So there is absolute carelessness on the part of the owners of those herd of cattle. The owners did not tie up their cattle in the night and if you don’’t tie them, these are animals, they are not human beings because at 3.00 am, human beings would be sleeping. If you don’t tie the animals, they would wander away. Also, there could be a probability that they were tied at night and the rope got loose and the animals wandered away".

While admitting that "it is really strange that animals can be crossing the runway, " the aviation minister however said it is not scandalous.

His words: "It is not unusual that this thing is happening. We have so many accidents happening all over the world, in America, the U.K perhaps as a result of traffic controller error or such things. It does happen, so it is not unusual that these things are happening".

He commended the pilot of the Airbus saying, "There was no accident because there was no carelessness on the part of the pilot. The pilot must be one of the most experienced pilots on the Air France fleet for him to have successfully maneuvered the aircraft, you know, he got the aircraft back to the tarmac without running into the bush and without any panic or injury because I heard from Air France that the landing and control of the aircraft was such that, the passengers never knew that something happened. Only that some of them did comment that the pilot had a very rough landing; they didn’t know it was a more serious thing than just a rough landing".

The minister assured that as soon as funds were made available, the perimeter fence would be put in place and also explained that any official found culpable in the mishap would be sanctioned.