One Cargo Plane, Two Helicopters, Five Countries and a Giant Misunderstanding
Russian contractors hauling French cargo get into trouble in Central Africa
The French army should either pay its contractors better or hire a company more qualified to handle Paris’ arms shipments in Africa. That’s the major lesson of a botched transport job in Central Africa the first week of December.
What started out as the seemingly innocent attempt to redeploy two Gazelle helicopters and other military equipment from France’s peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic to its counterterrorism force in Chad quickly devolved into a embarrassing international incident—owing in no small part to the incompetence of the shipping company.
The contractor—a Russian firm—loaded the two diminutive rotorcraft onto a giant Antonov-124 transport plane in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, sometime before Dec. 7.
It’s a relatively short hop from Bangui to N’Djamena airport in Chad. But the Antonov’s flight crew still managed to get into trouble. The four-engine plane couldn’t immediately land in N’Djamena because the airport was too crowded, according to French authorities.
Circling overhead, the plane began to run out of fuel. So the crew rerouted to Kano in northern Nigeria.
There are unanswered questions. For one, the distance from Bangui to N’Djamena is barely a fifth of the An-124’s range. That the plane went dry in the first place probably means the crew didn’t refuel in Bangui, probably because kerosene prices in the strife-torn Central African Republic are higher than in Chad.
And why did the crew, which included two French noncommissioned officers, choose to divert to Kano, which is almost as far away from N’Djamena as Bangui is?
Finally, the Chadian airport isn’t exactly known for its high traffic volume, so why was it so busy that a plane with several hours’ worth of fuel left in its tanks couldn’t wait for an open slot?
Either way, the Antonov routed to Nigeria … and that’s where the story gets even more comical. Instead of letting the Antonov refuel and get back on its way, Nigerian customs inspected the load and, glimpsing the military-grade material, impounded the plane and arrested the crew.
Instantly, the Nigerian rumor mill fired up. People suggested that the plane was part of a Chadian or French scheme to support the Boko Haram insurgency.
Boko Haram recently attacked a mosque in Kano, killing dozens. It was just the latest in a string of atrocities going back years. The Nigerian public is extremely distrustful of outside intervention in the long, bloody conflict.
The Russians didn’t exactly help matters. Moscow’s ambassador to Nigeria publicly declared that Russia had nothing to do with the plane. He retracted the statement only a few hours later, clarifying that the plane was indeed belonged to a Russian company, although the French government had hired it.
France in turn made it clear—through the incredibly-named French ambassador Jacques Champagne De Labriolle—that it had requested diplomatic clearance for the flight … and Nigeria had granted it. And despite earlier rumors, the Antonov carried no actual arms or ammunition, just two helicopters, two armored Land Rovers and other unspecified technical material.
The whole affair led to spontaneous demonstrations by angry Nigerians outside the airport, an unexplained visit to the plane by a former governor of Kano state that the old governor later tried to deny and a lot of diplomatic wrangling—not to mention a field day for the Nigerian press.
After more than two days, Nigerian authorities finally freed the An-124 on Dec. 8.
The French government so far hasn’t said whether the cargo has remained undisturbed. In any case, the French military will probably think twice about paying another sudden visit to a Nigerian airport.