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Kenya’s killer skies: Why country leads East Africa in plane tragedies

Wednesday June 13 2012


As was to be expected, politicians are already alleging there might have been foul play in the helicopter crash that killed Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, and his assistant, Orwa Ojodeh.

Four other people — the helicopter’s two pilots and the ministers’ two bodyguards — also died in the Sunday morning crash.

President Kibaki has set up an inquiry into the accident. At this early point, I can safely speculate that one of the main causes of the accident was geography. Specifically, the size of Kenya.

The accident happened at the end of a bad week for aviation in Africa. On June 2, a Nigerian cargo plane crashed while attempting to land at an airport in Ghana’s capital, Accra, slamming into cars and a bus loaded with passengers on a nearby street and killing at least 10 people.

The very next day, a Nigerian passenger plane crashed into a densely populated residential area in Lagos, killing all 152 passengers on board as well as several other residents on the ground.

Every year, Nigeria has several aviation accidents, followed closely by the Democratic Republic of Congo.


So what do Nigeria, DRC, and Kenya have in common? They are among the bigger African countries. DRC is Africa’s second biggest country. Nigeria is 14th, and Kenya 22nd in size.

The larger a country is, the more likely it is that you need to fly to get around. A country’s history and economy also affect its flying habits, but size is the more important factor.

This becomes more apparent when we make East African comparisons. I like the way the Society for International Development’s State of East Africa 2012 (SoEAR2012) looked at it.

It told us that East Africa’s total land size is 170.24 million hectares. Tanzania is the largest East Africa Community country, and makes up 52 per cent of the bloc’s area.

Kenya is second and makes up 33 per cent of its land area. Uganda is third with 12 per cent, then Burundi in fourth with 2 per cent, and Rwanda fifth, making up just 1 per cent of the EAC’s total land area.

Tanzania is bigger than Kenya, but Kenya has a larger economy, so you would expect the two countries to have about the same number of airports and flying activity.

They don’t. History — especially colonial settlement and the dynamics of the Kenya-Uganda Railway — have left Kenya with more aviation infrastructure.

According to the SoEAR2012, there are 378 airports and airfields in the EAC. Of these 191 (51 per cent) are in Kenya, followed by Tanzania with 124 (33 per cent), Uganda with 46 (12 per cent), then Rwanda with nine and Burundi eight, together making up 4 per cent.

If Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame or Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza chose to, they could walk or ride a bicycle from one district to another because their countries are that tiny.

Since Kibaki became President in 2002, 11 MPs have died in plane crashes. Over the same period, no Ugandan or Rwandan MP has died in an internal plane accident. Kenya’s size also plays out differently than other East African countries.

The variation in terrain and cultural spectrum if you travelled in a loop from Lamu, Moyale and Lokichoggio in the north, down southward into the Rift Valley, western Kenya, Narok, Nairobi, down through Voi and back to the lower coast in Mombasa is far wider and different than if you did a similar journey in Tanzania, Uganda, Tanzania or Burundi.

Which is probably why Kenya is more riven by stereotypes. It is perfectly understandable that a Kenyan should fear that he will run into half-naked angry warriors who might spear him to death, be attacked by a gang of highway robbers, or be eaten by a cannibal community if his car broke down in an isolated place during a long journey across the country, than a Rwandan or Burundian would.

Even though the fear might be misplaced, it still creates a greater incentive to fly than tackle the long road.

The death of Saitoti and Ojodeh yet again underlines the fact that aviation safety will be a bigger existential issue for Kenya than it is for other East African countries for a very long time to come. However, it does little to change the essence of Kenya as a “flying nation”.