The Director-General of the Nigerian Safety Investigation Bureau, Akin Olateru, in this interview with FUNMI FABUNMI, speaks on the expanded scope of the bureau’s functions
Some people believe that Nigerian Safety Investigation Bureau does not have investigators that cover other modes of transportation, since was formerly focused on the aviation sector. What is your reaction to this?
I am telling you authoritatively. More than half of all our investigators in NSIB have been trained in air, rail and maritime investigations from Cranfield University. You have to understand that training is an ongoing thing. As I said, we need some specific manpower to support our investigations.
Like the rail, it is ongoing. That is what is delaying the report. We have done our own, but we are waiting for the Nigerian Railway Corporation because the knowledge of railway workers still resides in them and we rely on them to get the facts. Of course, different agencies have their own speed and mode of work. We have to respect their own jurisdiction, but they are cooperating with us. Hopefully, we will get the data we are asking for. Once we get that data, we are ready to release the report.
Could you tell us how the journey has been so far since NSIB was created and how have the maritime agencies been responding?
Change is something that is permanent. You can’t avoid change in life. It is something that will always occur and happen. All these agencies are owned by the Federal Government. So, the Federal Government, in its wisdom, decided to centralise all accident investigations. The Act has been passed. It is a law. I don’t think any institution will refuse to abide by the law. We don’t have any pushback from any of them and we are doing what we are supposed to do.
When the rail accident happened, I met with the railway team and their managing director and director for operations and engineering. Their reception was good. Even the railway police, we met with all of them. The cooperation has been excellent so far. What we are just a little bit worried about is the speed of work, but we will get there because, from the air, we work with speed. I hope over time, we will get used to it. We are at the infant stage. People will get used to us taking charge fully. But one thing I have to say is that people forget things easily in Nigeria.
There was a time in this country when Nigerians were scared to fly. People would fly only when it was absolutely necessary to do so. I had people tell me that they can’t fly local flights and that they don’t have issues with international flights. That is perception. We came in and one thing I will give the All Progressives Congress government since they came in 2015 is that they have stabilised the air sector. We have reduced the fatal crashes to almost zero. Since 2016, we only lost three souls to civil aviation transportation. We have done very well in that area. To me, I think we need to give that credit to this government because it is a major achievement.
A lot of countries don’t have the kind of safety records we have in Nigeria today. And people just take it for granted. Safety is not an accident. It didn’t just happen. Some people worked for it. There were a lot of collaborations between the investigators and regulators. So, many safety recommendations were issued.
Let’s take the most fatal crash that happened in this country in 2012, for instance. The report was never released. There were no safety recommendations issued until 2017, five years later. So, what is the essence of investigation? It is to prevent reoccurrence and the by-product is the safety recommendation. So, if you don’t issue the right safety recommendations, how do you prevent reoccurrence? Full implementation of safety recommendations is key. Without that, you will be wasting your time doing any investigation. That is one thing we have achieved. We have one of the best implementation ratings in the world today. We have over 86 per cent of safety recommendation implementation. And every month, we have a joint meeting between the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority and NSIB that constantly evaluates all the safety recommendations to ensure implementation.
Another thing is that we have gone a step further, which is beyond the International Civil Aviation Organisation Annex 13 Annex 13 on Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation. Not just the implementation, we look at the effectiveness of the implementation. Has it actually solved the problem? This is because we are constantly monitoring the trend and events within the sector. That is one thing we have been doing in the last few years.
Behind the scenes, we are measuring the trend. We are watching. Gone are the days when events will happen and they will go unnoticed. I think we need to give it to this administration. The APC government has done excellently well in this area because the safety of life is critical to the business. It is not just about spending money.
The expansion of the scope of your responsibilities comes with the need for more facilities. How have you been tackling this challenge?
To deliver on the mandate, which has just been given to us, four things are very critical. One is equipment. Some of our equipment today is compatible with other modes of transportation. In today’s world, you have ships that have recorders that can be downloaded in our facility. Some fast trains around the world today have recorders as well. In terms of the recorders, I think we are good, but there is some specific equipment that will be required for us to carry out this mandate in other modes of transportation. In terms of human capital, I can say we are 70 per cent.
Since 2018, we have started training all our investigators on the three modes of transportation. Even myself, I have been trained at Cranfield University in air, rail and maritime accidents. It was a combined course because in accident investigation, basically, the techniques are the same. There are just a few things that are different.
Also, some personnel will be required because if you are talking of training, rail, for instance, there are some specific personnel that would be required to join our investigators. In maritime as well, we need some specific hands in that area. Basically, in human capital, yes; in equipment, yes. In terms of infrastructure, we have to definitely look into getting more offices because when you look at maritime, you have to go with the water and ask where we have water in Nigeria. You have in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Calabar. So, we need to be closer in those areas. We need to restrategise our programmes in terms of infrastructure. And then, rail as well.
In terms of regulation, we are currently reviewing our regulations to capture all three modes of transportation. By the Act of August 2022, AIB-N transformed into NSIB. Before then, NSIB was a mono investigator of air accidents. But now it is a multi-modal investigator. Definitely, you will need more facilities.
What review are you doing and at what stage is it now?
We are doing a review of the entire regulation. Our regulation before now was only air transport. Now, we are multi-modal. We must come up with a regulation that would cover all.
The NSIB was not called to investigate the recent boat mishap in Calabar, despite its new status.
On the Calabar occurrence, we are at the infancy stage and we need to be clear as to what we can take on and what we can’t take on. The National Transportation Safety Board in America doesn’t investigate every occurrence. They decide what it is they want to take on or not. There are a few issues that will be resolved over time. When you talk of maritime investigation, you need a lot of public engagement. Yes, we dispatched people to the site of the crash, but the place had been shut down by the government. All my people that went there couldn’t see anybody to talk with. So, how do you launch an investigation or start when there is no reference point? But all these teething challenges will be a story of the past over time because we need strong and serious public enlightenment and sensitisation for people to get awareness and for them to know the procedures.
Is the NSIB self-regulating? If yes, what is the assurance that it will not be compromised?
One thing I love about aviation is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We are guided by the ICAO annexes. That is what we do. It is just like the regulator. Who regulates the regulator? Who regulates the investigator? Technically, you do self-regulation. That is why there is an audit and there is ICAO that comes to see what you are doing. They will come in August this year and we are going to be audited by ICAO to ensure we are doing things the way they are supposed to be done. It is not just that you are left alone to do what you like. From time to time, the world policeman, which is ICAO that sets the standards, comes in and they do evaluations and checks to see what your procedures are. Do you have the right manpower level? Are you following these processes? Yes, in your manual, you say AYB, XYZ, and show me that you are following them. The same goes for the civil aviation authority, the NCAA. If you look at the whole setup, NSIB represents the state as an investigator while the NCAA represents the state as a regulator. That is the way it is set up.
The NCAA doesn’t regulate NSIB. NCAA regulates all the service providers in the industry. NSIB is not a service provider. The regulator is not a service provider. We don’t regulate civil aviation, but the only thing is that we are empowered to investigate civil aviation and issue safety recommendations where we feel they are not up to what they are doing.
NSIB does not have an office in Lagos. Your ultra-modern office was demolished sometime last year. What are you doing about this?
Unfortunately, our Abuja office cannot accommodate everybody. You have to be mindful of one fact. AIB/NSIB is owned by the government. So, if in the wisdom of the government, they decide to vacate where you are, you don’t have a choice. We left when the office was demolished. We took the people that could be taken to Abuja to work. But the rest of the staff members are still working from home because there is still no office in Lagos for them to work. That doesn’t mean they are not working. They are working and that is why once in a while we meet.
I have had meetings with a few of my staff here in Lagos. The railway team working on the accident are from Lagos and not even Abuja. So, work is ongoing, but not as it should be. Lagos is like a hub. It has the highest traffic in terms of aircraft landing and takeoff. Lagos has the highest movement of maritime traffic in Nigeria. Lagos has the highest movement of railways in Nigeria. So, it is a no-brainer; we definitely need an office in Lagos to be able to deliver on this mandate.
If you look at where you have accident investigation in the United Kingdom, it is not in Central London, the seat of power. It is closer to the airport because that response time is important. You don’t have to be in the seat of power to work. In my own opinion, it is to ensure you are kitted and that you have the right equipment, and infrastructure to deliver on your mandate and that is what we are doing.