Witnessing a diplomatic incident

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The Umaru Dikko Affair …

I first began experiencing overseas business trips in 1983, working in the training department of British Caledonian Airways. In those far off days I was part of a team that ran training courses on airline fares and ticketing processes, aimed at our own staff, plus travel agents and even staff of other airlines. It was a great role which was responsible for planting the seeds of desire in me for living overseas, which have lead to the expat life I have today.

Back in those days though, my office was at BCAL’s Crawley based training centre, a couple of miles from home. Courses were held at the centre, but a number of courses were also held ‘off-site’, across the BCAL network, or at client locations. So once or twice a month, I would set off to run courses in far off places such as Sana’a (Yemen), Houston (USA), Hong Kong (back when it was British), and Dhahran (Saudi Arabia).

However, it was in July 1984 whilst on one of these training trips, this time to Lagos, Nigeria, that my tale begins. Lagos was a major destination for BCAL, and this was my first trip there; I was conducting a course for local travel agents.

I had been there for the week, staying at the house of one of our Senior airport staff, and was due to leave on the Friday evening, directly after the course – but when I woke on the Friday morning, I was greeted by lots of frantic activity in the house, along with raised voices. My host called to me to get ready quickly, as we needed to go to a Government building, due to a ‘major incident’ that had occurred during the night.

At this stage, I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I hurriedly got myself dressed and jumped into his car, along with our Country Manager. We sped into the city (really that’s poetic licence, I don’t remember being able to ‘speed’ anywhere in Lagos, due to the horrendous traffic conditions), and it was during the trip that I was able to learn about this incident.

More about the cause of the incident later, but the effect was that a BCAL aircraft had been impounded at Lagos Airport, with the crew ‘detained’ by the Nigerian Government. I quickly realised that the government building that we were heading to, was in fact where the crew were being held.

As we drove up to the building we were met by heavily armed soldiers, and guns were pointed in our direction (the first, and thankfully only time that’s happened to me). A ‘discussion’ followed, where it was made clear that admission to the building would only be made possible with the presence of the British Ambassador.

We left straight away and I was dropped at the office to continue with my training course, whilst the senior team went off to the British Embassy to meet with the Ambassador.

It transpired that a prominent, exiled Nigerian politician and critic of the Government, named Umaru Dikko, had been kidnapped outside his home in London. Following the kidnap, he had been drugged, and placed in a large crate, ready to be shipped as cargo from Stansted Airport, back to Nigeria to face various charges. However, the British Government had gotten wind of the plan, and with the help of Customs staff, were able to intercept the crate before it was loaded. They arrested various individuals, and impounded the Nigerian Airways aircraft and crew, hence the BCAL aircraft and crew at Lagos were also impounded, in a tit for tat response.

Back in Lagos, as events proceeded, I was asked to stay an extra day as there was no BCAL flight that night. The crew and aircraft were eventually released, and I was able to fly back to Gatwick the next day, on the same flight operated by the previously detained crew, so it was quite an emotional, and well reported homecoming for the crew.

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So, whilst I was never really personally involved or in any kind of danger, it was quite a unique event, which I was able to witness first hand. Now, as I look back, it’s great to have the ability to ‘google’ the whole thing, as in doing so, I have learnt far more about the incident itself, and the events that followed.

There are some great articles on the web, for which I have added links below, but my favourite is by the BBC, written in 2012 as part of a world service broadcast about the incident. It tells a story of Nigerian and Israeli secret service agents, a British customs officer, prison sentences, and various government denials; I’m surprised the story has never made the big screen!

Links to related articles:

BBC World

Wikipedia

New York Times report from July ’84

2 thoughts on “Witnessing a diplomatic incident

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