Abidjan International Airport: Rwandair flight faces extortion, at gunpoint

I have been to Abidjan's International Airport en-route to Dakar on a Kenya Airways flight and one thing that lingered in my mind was the thought of some of the unprofessional and untrained goons who swept Ouattara to power now controlling the airport. Abidjan Airport crew looked lost and brutalized but Kenya Airways has been serving Abidjan for some time and my 45 minutes in Abidjan was without incident. However,a  RwandaAir plane that landed in Abidjan recently had its fair share of trouble. Read the account by Wolfgang H Thome :::

As our RwandAir special flight made its final approach into Abidjan's international airport, the landscapes beneath were fueling my imagination of what a proper visit to the Ivory Coast might yield and what I might discover travelling 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.

Touchdown it was and while being 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 Rwandan ministers and a number of senior officials, including RwandAir CEO John Mirenge. We had all travelled 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 their 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.

And here the misfortunes commenced and in a way few would have expected, not the least this correspondent who thought he had by and large seen it all in his frequent travels across the continent.
RwandAir, and I say of course, does have a handling agent appointed in Abidjan, a company which takes care of ground handling, provision of equipment like stairs and crucially the refueling.

The cockpit crew, including the engineer on board, disembarked and no handling agent representative was spotted, though the information on landing time had been transmitted well ahead I could later on establish.
Instead, a band of armed soldiers approached the aircraft and demanded cash for the fuel and handling transaction, for the latter a cool 5.000 US Dollars and 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 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 behaviour, 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 Chief Pilot and the engineer who had travelled on the flight, were seen busy making phone calls as the situation threatened to get out of hand quickly 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 stage 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 late, 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, amongst 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 and taxiing and take off was a great relief, seeing the figures of our tormentors getting smaller in the distance, guns still strapped to their chests and gripped with both hands, and 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 give 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 and it is hoped that those responsible will swiftly be identified and taken to court, and that the government of 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 and the red carpet was once again rolled out and much in evidence, 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 / 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, what dark side our festive inaugural flight suffered at the hand of armed goons in Abidjan.

As to going back and 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.

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