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Inside the Mind of A Stowaway

02 Sep 2013

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Daniel Oikhena

Adeola Akinremi explores fundamental questions with sociologists, clinical and social psychologists on the behaviour of a 15-year-old stowaway

He spent the night in rehearsal. He listened to the last words. It didn’t matter whether they were true or not.  He closed his eyes momentarily for fantasy. The illusion of his American dream.  He had his mind made up. The next day was a Saturday.  Time passed, a long time. Finally, Arik Air aircraft landed, and a fanciful mental image that had formed in his head came back to him. He was elated.  Soon, he tunnelled through the wrecked perimeter fence of Benin Airport. He was uneasy, but he enjoyed it. With time, he believed, he would make it to America, but Daniel Oikhena, who hid in the wheel well of Arik Air aircraft flight W3 544 from Benin City in Edo State  didn’t get to America. Instead, his fantasy journey ended abruptly at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, where the flight terminated.

Expectedly, different reactions greeted Oikhena’s action.  For instance, Arik Air and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) started a blame game. Of course, it was not immediately clear the motive behind Arik Air’s statement that blamed the matter on security gap at the airport. However, that  the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) listed Nigeria as one of the 14 countries in Africa that have achieved effective air safety implementation above the global average of 61 per cent suggests a blame game  was not necessary afterwards.

Indeed, the ICAO 2013 Safety Report compiled by ICAO auditors who investigated the compliance with stipulated international safety standards by individual countries across the world, especially its 200 member countries gave Nigeria a clean bill of health.

To boot, Nigeria is not an isolated case in aviation stowaway. So Oikhena was just following a known path. In 1928, 19-year-old American Clarence Terhune became perhaps the first aviation stowaway after he hid himself on board the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin airship, flying from the United States to Germany. According to reports, Zeppelin was discovered, but was embraced by Germany because the Germans were stunned by his bravery act

Roberto Viza Egües managed to flee Cuba on August 12, 2000, after hiding in an Air France cargo container at Havana Airport. He arrived in Paris the following day, suffering from exposure, but otherwise unharmed.

And in 2009, Habib Hussain, a 25-year-old member of staff at Medina Airport in Saudi Arabia, boarded a aircraft bound for Jaipur, India, on the pretence of cleaning it. He hid in the loo, and was only discovered after take off when another passenger attempted to use the facilities

Also, in June 2010, a 20-year-old Romanian hid inside the landing-gear well of a Boeing 747 flight from Vienna to Heathrow and miraculously survived the 90-minute flight. He was reported to have slipped under a perimeter fence at Vienna Airport before climbing into a wheel compartment on board the empty privately-owned aircraft.

And more recently, In July 2012, 11-year-old Liam Corcoran was able to board a Jet2.com flight from Manchester to Rome, despite being on his own, and without a passport or ticket. He had wandered to the airport from his home, three miles away, and evaded five security checks.

Last year also, a man was able to board a Virgin Atlantic flight from New York to Los Angeles successfully using an out-of-date boarding pass.

Over the years, stowaways from Cuba, Guinea, South Africa, China and Russia have all died while trying to hitch a ride to United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere. Most were presumed to have died from the severe cold.  In February, 2010 a man's body was found on a Delta Air Lines flight from Tokyo to New York. He died before reaching destination.

For Oikhena who hid inside the usually cold and cramped wheel well of Arik Air aircraft for a ride to an unknown destination, one single factor cannot adequately account for the behaviour. According to a clinical psychologist at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta, Mr. Olanrewaju Shodeinde, there are complex interactions of a lot of factors.  Shodeinde said Oikhena’s behaviour was abnormal.

He noted that the teenager probably must have been going through a level of deprivation in which he has become stressful.

“In pleasure pain principle which is the underline basis of behaviour, there is a level to which one can tolerate pain. It was obvious that because the boy couldn’t tolerate the pain any longer that he started to seek way out through learned helplessly. At the stage of learned helplessly, fantasy comes in to get out of the pain,” he said.

The clinical psychologist said a film titled passenger 27 may have prompted the behaviour of Oikhena.  “It is a dream world to get out of the problem where the person concerned will start to imagine things. He would start to watch films thinking the act there is real and because of his mental state he would not be able to cognitively decipher it. And that becomes suicidal. He was surely going through a stressful period and he wants to get out of it.”

Shodeinde said though it was hard to see through the mind of the stowaway in his absence, he confirmed that the boy must have experienced temporary mental illness. “He was suffering from mild to moderate level of mental illness. Cognitively, hiding inside the wheel well of an aircraft to get to America was what he felt was the way out.”

According to him, he may also be having a grandious feeling that he has special power to get out of the problem. “There must be a feeling of self importance to become somebody great and in Nigeria there may be no opportunity. So he’s thinking beyond his level of cognition. There is a feeling of hopelessness too,” he affirmed.

On his part, a sociologist, Mr. Olorunleke Shodayo described Oikhena action as a deviant behaviour. He said: “There are ideal standards of human behaviour set by society, but in some cases a person might just decide to go against the norm and do something very crazy. This is the kind of behaviour that was portrayed by this boy. It is not a normal behaviour. He deviated from the ideal behaviour which is, if you want to board a plane, you go through the various procedures involved.

“Now, if you want to look at what informed this deviant behaviour, you would realise that the boy wanted to make a better life for himself. He must have looked at his environment and realised there is no hope for him. He must have considered the failing educational system, epileptic power supply, and lack of job opportunities, and come to the conclusion that if he must have a better life, he must move from where he is.

“And from his confession, the boy thought the plane was going to America. So, you can see that his intention was to escape his environment, to escape the gloomy state of things he found himself in order to achieve a better life for himself. That is why I don’t think he should be blamed, despite that what he did was a criminal act. It was his environment that pushed him to act the way he did.

“Also, we don’t know if the boy has a criminal record. That might also explain why he did what he did. But we don’t know that for sure. But what we do know is that the boy wanted to get out of the country and this was as a result of the state of the country itself.”

A sociology lecturer at the University of Benin, Michael Nbriska narrowed the boy’s behaviour down to his family saying, “It is very possible that he had a very poor upbringing. He has been deprived of attention and love, which leaves him to place little value on his own life. I mean look at the kind of risk he took. He was ready to die to fulfill his dreams. This is a reflection of the kind of family he was from and the level of love and attention he was given.

“Other influences are also his peer groups, the kinds of films he was exposed to, everything he must have learned from the society. Everything comes down to how his attitudes and perceptions have been shaped by his contact with the society in which he lives. That was exactly what informed his decision.”

Nbriska added: “I believe it is the environment that he found himself that contributed to the boy’s desperate act. The society that he lives in does not care or provide for him. In his own childish imagination, he believes that it is greener on the other side. He already can relate with his present society, which he understands to be hard and difficult. So he tries to get out of this hard and difficult society to one he believes would be more conducive for him. Societal influences that influenced his decision could be narrowed to the boy’s family and how he was treated.”

THISDAY further investigation at the family house of Oikhena located on No 7 Ehiegba Street, off Goodwill, Off Ekenwan in Benin City, which is about 500 metres away from the Benin Airport airstrip revealed that Oikhena’s father had been bedridden for sometime while the boy who is in Junior Secondary School two had recently been withdrawn from private school to a public school because of incapacity on the side of the family.

Besides, the stowaway was said to be a loner who once confided in his younger brothers that one day, he will fly an airplane and would make the family name popular. According to her mother he has penchant for watching movies.

A psychology lecturer at the University of Benin, Mr. Imatiyan Obarisiagbon confirmed that the boy’s behaviour was a response to needs. He said:  “The home might not have been very stable. Possibly he had issues at home, and so any means of getting out of there would be a motivating factor for him doing that. What is his home background like? What is the relationship between the father and the mother and also his siblings? If it is not a stable environment, then the urge to do what he saw on TV would be there. Because if he had a stable background, he would not have done something like that.

Now, there is a red flag for future stowaways from Nigeria. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria said it has started taking additional security measures to forestall runway incursions at all airports in the country, especially those without perimeter fences, in response to the incident.

First, at every airport without fully functional perimeter fence, a FAAN security vehicle will be deployed to a point within full view of the aircraft as it taxies out to take off and maintain visual scrutiny until every departing aircraft is safely airborne.

Secondly, bushes at all airports are to be cleared to ensure full view of the perimeter, to allow both the control tower, FAAN Fire and Rescue observation posts and aviation security patrol teams have a sweeping view of the entire perimeter of an airport from their duty posts.

Again, static observation posts will be erected at strategic location in all airports to forestall premeditated and inadvertent unauthorised access to the airside. This will be complemented by motorised and foot patrols.

Besides, contract will soon be awarded for the construction of a more formidable perimeter fence at the Benin Airport, to replace the old one which according to FAAN had been vandalised by unscrupulous elements who considered some sections of the airport perimeter as short cuts to different parts of Benin City.

THISDAY findings confirmed that tenders have already been received for the construction of the new perimeter fence “but FAAN is only awaiting the completion of due process before an award is made for the project, which is expected to eliminate any form of further incursion onto the airside of the airport

According to FAAN’s spokesperson, “It is not only at the Benin Airport that contracts would be awarded for the construction of perimeter fences and operational fences but also at other airports across the country. Most of these projects are expected to commence in 2014 while the remaining ones will be executed in 2015, in line with the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan in the aviation industry.

“The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria has taken the issue of security at our airports more seriously in recent times, as shown in the dismantling and removal of abandoned aircraft at all our airports and the relocation of petrol tankers from the access road of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos – feats that had been difficult to accomplish for many years.”


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