Aeroplane thriller flies close to Nigeria’s reality

It is perhaps an unlikely theme for a blockbuster film in a country with a dire air safety record: a near miss in which a pilot steers a smoke-filled aeroplane to safety.

In Nigeria, Last Flight to Abuja has become the first home-grown production to outsell Hollywood films this year. Crowds have been packing ­cinemas to see how the Nollywood fiction matches the reality of taking an internal flight in West Africa's most populous country.

The film took a record-breaking eight million naira ($50 400) in its first week of release in Lagos. It has toppled this year's box-office hits The Amazing Spider-Man and Ice Age: Continental Drift and has grossed  the ­second-highest income in West Africa after The Dark Knight Rises.

"Each time I fly in Nigeria, it's a nervy experience. All the shaking, the bumpy landings, the unexplained noises as the aeroplane starts off five hours after you're supposed to have arrived at your destination," said the director, Obi Emelonye. "The film was an accumulation of all those ­stories."

The timing of the film's release coincided with a Dana Air aeroplane smashing into a Lagos slum, killing 163 people. Relatives of the dead encouraged the director not to ­cancel the film's opening so as to keep aviation safety in the spotlight.

"The timing was spooky because it was supposed to be an era [that was] behind us. I felt I had a social responsibility to show [improvements] we could make with just a little change of attitude – being proactive," Eme-lonye said.

Bad experience
Audiences have given the fictional white-knuckle ride a positive reception. "When I watched it I thought that's how a country with big dreams like Nigeria should be able to handle an aviation disaster," said cinemagoer Daye Sola, who has spurned domestic carriers since a "bad experience" 12 years ago.

Yet not everybody is convinced by the fairy-tale ending in which emergency workers are at the scene before the aeroplane's dramatic touchdown.

Femi Alade, whose house is within sight of the spot where the Dana aeroplane crashed, is a rare person from the slum who has watched the film. "Someone like me, I have never entered an aeroplane and I will not do so. I enjoyed the film, but afterwards I remembered how people were looting and police were beating the crowds," he said.

"The emergency reaction wasn't realistic; it was just too prompt," said another filmgoer, Ohimide.

The reality is undoubtedly grimmer. June's accident marked the start of a tumultuous period in which half of Nigeria's domestic airlines have been grounded. Africa accounts for 14% of the world's aeroplane crashes, although it has only 3% of global traffic.

Whistle-blowers have claimed that heavy debts in the aviation sector routinely compromise safety. In some cases, insiders say, aeroplanes have been dangerously overloaded with fuel to avoid paying refuelling fees in each country.

David Kolawole's seven-month-old daughter survived the initial Dana Air impact. But emergency services took 45 minutes to push through the crowds thronging the slum's narrow mud roads. At the local hospital, staff members were unable to save her amid electricity blackouts. "In a country where people are prepared she could have been saved," Kolawole said.

An inquest revealed other failings, including emergency staff who had not been trained to put out an aircraft fire with chemical foam rather than water. The aviation ministry has cleared Dana Air to fly again, although an inquiry continues.

Safety in Nigeria improved after two aircraft crashed within two months in 2005. But public distrust has returned since the country's most popular airline, Arik Air, was briefly grounded when aviation workers raided its offices, saying they had not been paid. Hailed for its fleet of new aeroplanes in a creaking industry, Arik had mopped up passengers in West Africa's thriving market as competitors floundered.

Accusations of financial mismanagement have threatened to engulf the sector, which has grown as air travel has become an alternative to being transported along the region's often poorly maintained roads.

"We had situations where some of our aircraft were flying with only one engine working rather than pay[ing] for the cost of maintaining two," said a former employee at the suspended Air Nigeria airline. – © Guardian News & Media 2012 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The Portfolio: Antony Kaminju

Antony Kaminju shares his experience of making a photo of the Roving Bantu Kitchen’s Sifiso Ntuli

African science fiction: rereading the The Palm-Wine Drinkard

Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola wields language as the ultimate form of technology

Extract from ‘The Journey’: Responses to the archive

This sequence of texts was written in response to various photographs of Nigeria made between 1920 and 1929 that form part of the Colonial Office photographic collection

The world’s warriors are under attack, but we must keep on fighting

The murder of Fikile Ntshangase in KwaZulu-Natal was not an isolated incident. Around the globe, from Nigeria to Brazil, environmental activists are similarly being silenced, and it is our duty to continue this struggle

Nigeria’s queers say ‘enough’

Notorious police unit that harassed LGBTQ+ community disbanded after widespread protests.

Meet Donald Trump’s Nigerian cheerleaders

If Nigerians got to choose the next US president, Donald Trump would be the clear favourite

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

More top stories

Hope grows on Durban beachfront

Ten homeless men who turned a vacant lot into an organic vegetable garden are now reaping the rewards of their toil

Shabnim Ismail bowls her way into the record books Down...

The night before Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) final, fiery South African fast bowler Shabnim Ismail lay awake pondering how...

Hawks make arrest in matric maths paper leak

Themba Daniel Shikwambana, who works at a printing company, was granted bail and is due to return to court in January

Andile Lungisa: Early parole for the house of truth

Disgraced Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa calls for a change of leadership in the ANC immediately after being released on parole

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…