In Africa, Aviation Woes Defeat a Zealous Watchdog
Gambian Aviation Reform Effort Stalled by an Arrest;
BANJUL, Gambia -- As aviation watchdog of this tiny country between 2003 and 2005, Maimuna Taal-Ndure helped make
Africa's dangerous skies a little safer.
She tightened aircraft inspections on a continent where many planes fly without adequate maintenance checks. She ordered repairs to rutted airport runways and grounded decrepit jumbo jets linked to suspected weapons smugglers.
What it brought her, however, was trouble. She clashed with local airlines, state intelligence agents searched her office, and she was accused of sabotaging Gambian flights to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. In November 2005, Gambian prosecutors had her arrested, and later charged her with embezzlement. After 18 months of trial, her case was dismissed. She left The Gambia earlier this year for fear of being rearrested.
Ms. Taal's travails raise questions about how serious African governments are about fixing the continent's troubled aviation industry. Across much of Africa -- and in many other parts of the developing world -- the safety picture is bleak. Poorly funded air regulators exert little authority. Struggling carriers cut costs by skimping on aircraft upkeep, safety equipment and staff training. Geriatric planes operate long past their recommended retirement dates.
Africa's skies are the world's most dangerous. Between 2004 and 2006, Africa averaged 2.49 deaths annually per million passengers carried, compared to 0.03 deaths per million in North America, according to Ascend Worldwide Ltd., a London aviation-consulting firm. Gambia hasn't had any horrific airline crashes in recent years. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority, which assesses how well foreign countries enforce basic air-safety standards, has certified only five African nations -- and Gambia isn't one of them.
In some countries, war and disease take higher priorities. But often, politicians with financial ties to dodgy carriers profit from lax oversight. Nigerian officials say that a key reason for a spate of deadly crashes in that country was that local politicians with stakes in airlines prevented watchdogs from grounding unsafe operators. Several international air-safety specialists who worked with Gambia's Ms. Taal contend she was forced out because she refused to bend to the desires of politicians.
WSJ's Dan Michaels interviews Maimuna Taal-Ndure, former director general of Civil Aviation of The Gambia, about the obstacles to making air travel in Africa safer.
Marion Blakey, former head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority, says Ms. Taal was a "courageous voice for improving safety on a continent that has struggled mightily with the issue."
In an interview earlier this month, Gambian Solicitor General Henry Carrol described Ms. Taal's indictment as an "action of the government in fighting corruption." Ms. Taal, he added, "was fighting with everyone and being very arrogant. Women in high offices do that a lot. They tend to be arrogant and bully men."
Ms. Taal, who is 38 years old, categorically denied during a recent interview in London that she did anything wrong. She says her experience points to a bigger scourge facing Africa. "There's a serious lack of political will in our regions," she told an international gathering of top aviation-safety officials in Washington three weeks before her arrest. Many African regulators "want to do the right thing...but they don't get support."
Flying in Africa, long treacherous, has grown more so over the past two decades after international attention to the continent waned following the Cold War. Illicit trade in gold, diamonds and guns has thrived, and much of the merchandise is carried on dilapidated planes registered in countries known for lax oversight.
Gambia, a peaceful country of 1.5 million on Africa's Atlantic coast, exemplified the continent's weak system of aviation regulation. In 1993, Britain banned Gambian planes from landing in the United Kingdom due to fears about their safety. In 1996, Gambia's Civil Aviation Authority failed to meet minimal air-safety standards set by the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization, which further isolated the country from international air traffic.
Ms. Taal arrived in the Gambian capital, Banjul, in 1998. She was 28, an idealistic aeronautical engineer. Born in London to Gambian parents, she had wanted to become an airline pilot, but poor eyesight ended that dream. When she arrived, the wave of optimism that followed the 1994 coup staged by current President Yahya Jammeh was dwindling. Corruption scandals were plaguing the president's inner circle, and the economy was slowing due to failed development policies.
Ms. Taal's first job at Gambia's Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, was certifying the safety of aircraft. She was enthusiastic about her job and new life in Gambia, where she adopted an orphaned 4-year-old girl. She recalls working in an office so crammed with desks and filing cabinets that staffers had to squeeze in sideways to reach their seats.
Several months after she arrived, officials from the U.N.'s civil-aviation organization came to inspect Gambia's CAA and raised its safety grade, based in part on improvements already under way. The international vote of confidence energized the government's plans to revamp Banjul Airport, which has one of Africa's longest runways. The idea was to make Banjul like Singapore and Dubai: a tax-free zone and regional cargo hub.
By 2002, the airport-project manager, Musa Jallow, a friend of Ms. Taal's, had secured almost $40 million in foreign aid. The day after he chose a contractor to refurbish the airport, however, he was fired and arrested on corruption charges. He wasn't jailed, but he was questioned repeatedly over two years before the charges were dropped.
Mr. Jallow left Gambia in 2004 and now lives in Britain. In an recent interview, he said he believes he was detained because he ignored pressure from people claiming to be close to the government to choose one particular bidder. "The moment the money is allocated by donors, politicians want to find ways to siphon funds," he said. An official with Gambia's National Intelligence Agency, which conducts criminal investigations, declined to comment on Mr. Jallow's case.
In Sept. 2003, President Jammeh unexpectedly named Ms. Taal the CAA's director general. Confident that she had government support, she began cleaning house. She offered retirement packages to ineffective staffers and fired those who rejected buyouts. She lobbied for a new aviation law granting the CAA statutory independence.
Ms. Taal also cracked down on airlines. Slok Air was a Nigerian carrier that had relocated to Gambia in 2004 after its license was revoked in Nigeria. Ms. Taal forced Slok to retrain its pilots and stick to rigorous and costly plane-maintenance schedules, and fined it for breaking rules on how many hours pilots are allowed to fly.
David Tanaruno, a senior Slok manager, says the carrier asked Ms. Taal three times for leeway on maintenance deadlines, but she never granted any. Ernest BellGam, who first ran Slok in Gambia, says Ms. Taal sometimes "took hasty action." Ms. Taal says she was simply following international safety standards.
She also focused on the CAA's troubled finances. Despite a steady flow of airport charges, passenger duties and air-traffic control fees, the agency was heavily in debt. The reason, Ms. Taal says, was that much of the CAA's income was being redirected to other government offices. She battled to regain control of the funds, she says. She used the money to replace antiquated runway lights and rebuild an airport security fence, and spent $50,000 training aviation inspectors.
International aviation authorities rewarded her efforts. In August 2004, Britain removed Gambia from its blacklist, so its planes could once again land in the U.K. U.S. Federal Aviation Authority officials began the process of assessing whether Gambia now met international safety standards.
Ms. Taal says she now believes that wresting back control of CAA funds created enemies within the government. "It was the beginning of my downfall," she says.
In interviews earlier this month in Banjul, officials at various Gambian government offices, including the CAA, declined to discuss Ms. Taal. Mr. Carrol, the nation's solicitor general, wouldn't discuss the particulars of her case.
In 2005, Ms. Taal says, senior government officials pressed her to hand over more than $1 million of CAA money to another government agency. She says she refused. Soon after, she says, investigators from the National Intelligence Agency, or NIA, began searching her offices. They said they were looking into operational and financial problems plaguing flights connected to the Gambian hajj, the nation's participation in the annual pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca.
Ms. Taal says she noticed that the investigators were digging into files unrelated to the hajj flights, including material on regular operations such as the repairs to the airport fence. CAA staffers were taken to NIA headquarters for questioning, she says.
Ms. Taal says she felt the NIA was using the hajj inquiry to find dirt on her. She complained. "It appears everything is being looked at to find faults where there is no fault," she wrote in a letter to President Jammeh's secretary general. The searches stopped, she says.
In the fall of 2005, Ms. Taal received a request from state-owned Gambia International Airlines for permission to lease two Boeing 747 jetliners for flights to Mecca. The 30-year-old jumbos were registered in Sierra Leone, a war-torn country that repeatedly failed to enforce safety standards and whose planes were already banned in Gambia. Global authorities had linked the two 747s to people suspected of weapons and diamond trafficking, according to William Voss, then a top official at the U.N.'s civil-aviation organization. Mr. Voss says he told Ms. Taal about that.
Ms. Taal says she knew that grounding the two planes, which she calls "flying coffins," would be politically risky, because she could be accused of thwarting the hajj. She demanded instead that the planes undergo expensive maintenance. Gambia Airlines dropped its leasing plan. Later, Nigeria also rejected the two jets on safety grounds, and they were eventually sold for scrap.
Within weeks of Ms. Taal's decision, in November 2005, NIA agents showed up at her office and demanded her office keys and her Gambian passport. She says they took her to NIA headquarters, but didn't tell her why she was being arrested.
An NIA official who returned a call seeking comment, but declined to give his name, said he could not comment on Ms. Taal's case. "NIA administrations come and go," he said. "We don't know about past investigations."
Ms. Taal says she was locked in an NIA conference room. She was asthmatic and too frightened to eat, she says. She slept on chairs for five days until her parents flew in from London and paid her bail. Soon after her release, an article about her arrest appeared in the International Herald Tribune. She was arrested again the next day.
Ms. Taal says that Daba Marena, then director general of the NIA, told her that President Jammeh was angry about Gambia's negative portrayal in the article and had assumed she was behind it. Mr. Marena also told her that her arrest had been ordered in part because blocking the jumbo-jet leasing had "sabotaged the hajj," Ms. Taal says. (Mr. Marena was arrested in March 2006 for allegedly taking part in a coup attempt, and has not been seen in Gambia since. Amnesty International has said it believes he may have been "extra-judicially executed.")
International aviation officials were outraged by Ms. Taal's arrest, and lobbied Western governments to monitor the case. "We realized that to support reform in Africa, we had to stand up for the star," says Mr. Voss, an American who now runs the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group in Virginia. If Ms. Taal were jailed on trumped-up charges, he says, "we'd never get anyone in Africa to stand up and enforce the standards."
On Jan. 13, 2006, Ms. Taal was arraigned on seven criminal counts of "economic crime," mostly related to the Banjul airport-hub improvement project. During the trial, which stretched intermittently over 18 months, prosecutors argued that Ms. Taal had violated government contract procedures, had inappropriately received a $500 monthly stipend connected to her service on a CAA committee, and had broken other rules. Ms. Taal denies that she improperly enriched herself.
Some prosecution witnesses offered testimony that appeared to support her. "She was a very good director general," CAA chairman August Prom testified, according to a transcript of the trial. In May, the judge dismissed the case.
Mr. Carrol, Gambia's solicitor general, insists that Ms. Taal was corrupt and the government simply "didn't have the evidence to convict her....Lawyers are very clever and find technicalities to get their clients off."
Others saw Ms. Taal's case as an attempt to intimidate her into scaling back her regulatory efforts. "There's a tendency to arrest first and build a case after" in Gambia, says Sam Sarr, publisher of Foroyaa, one of Gambia's few opposition newspapers.
After her case was dismissed, Ms. Taal climbed into a car with friends, who drove her across the border into Senegal. She flew on to London.
Since then, aviation reforms in Gambia have slowed. One international organization that was planning to give Gambia's aviation industry $4 million in aid diverted the funds to another country after Ms. Taal's arrest, according to a person familiar with the matter. The FAA's examination of whether Gambia now meets international safety standards has stalled. That could make it tougher for Gambia to expanded foreign trade and tourism.
Ms. Taal, now living in another African country, says she is eager to resume air-safety work on the continent. But she does not intend to return to Gambia because she's concerned about her safety.
"There was so much more we could have achieved," she says.
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