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Nigerian Authorities Investigate Deadly Plane Crash; Interview With Liberia`s President-Elect

Aired December 17, 2005 - 12:30:00   ET


ZAIN VERJEE, GUEST HOST (voice-over): Cries of a mother amidst a tragedy that some say could have been prevented. We'll hear how this woman is dealing with her pain after losing her three children.

Liberia's President-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf reacts to claims by her rival, George Weah, that he is the rightful winner of last month's election.

And the path to stardom in a poor South African township leads some to a ballet academy. Alphonso Van Marsh goes one-on-one with the star pupil. These stories and more up next on INSIDE AFRICA.


VERJEE: Hello and welcome to the program, where we take a look at news and life on the continent. I'm Zain Verjee, in this week for Femi Oke.

We begin in Nigeria, where people are still trying to make sense of last weekend's tragedy, a plane crash that killed 107 people, many of them children. Just what was responsible for the accident is still a subject of debate. The government's begun an investigation, grounding the airline involved, Sosoliso, and one other carrier. This as grieving families demand answers. Here is Jeff Koinange with the story of how one mother is dealing with her grief.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The grief of a mother who has lost not one, not two, but all three of her children. Fifteen-year old Chuke (ph), 14-year old Ukemi (ph) and 11-year old Mbuso (ph) were students at the prestigious Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja. They were heading home for the Christmas holidays aboard the ill-fated Sosoliso Flight 1145. The plane burst into flames after crash landing at Port Harcourt's international airport last Saturday. As investigators pulled together clues about what caused the crash, Iffy Ilabor struggles to put her life, her future back together again.

IFFY ILABOR, LOST ALL THREE CHILDREN: Look at this princess. She would be 12. Every second, mommy, I love you. Every of her e-mail, mommy, I appreciate all you are doing for me and my brother and sister, to go to a good school.

KOINANGE: Ilabor recalls how her only son, Chuke (ph), liked to talk of becoming a man.

ILABOR: "When I grow up, mama, we'll reward you." It is not that reward (INAUDIBLE).

KOINANGE: Her household, she says, will never be the same.

ILABOR: House is empty. Nobody to stay there. This is my husband lying down on the floor. Nobody in our house again. Nobody.

KOINANGE: And Ilabor isn't alone. According to local officials, there were several families who lost more than one member on the tragic flight.

PETER ODILI, RIVERS STATE GOVERNOR: It is tough. Because for some families, all the kids died, and last of the youngest is about 12. So you can imagine that family planning may have set in, and so hopes for future become a problem. Now, that is the most difficult part to handle.

KOINANGE: But as some families grieve, one man is struggling with the guilt of his good fortune. Dipo Calistas Uche purchased a ticket for Sosoliso Flight 1145. He lined up on the tarmac with the rest of the passengers.

DIPO CALISTAS UCHE, WOULD-BE PASSENGER: After some minutes to warn, we're asked to come to (INAUDIBLE). There were so many people there, especially the schoolchildren. So we get there. It was about (INAUDIBLE) crowd, only for demand to come down. They say that aircraft is filled, that we should go, that there are no available sitting.

KOINANGE: Uche says if he could trade places with one of Ilabor's children, he'd gladly do it. But Ilabor knows only too well that nothing anyone says or does can bring back her children. She calls them the three flames.

ILABOR: (INAUDIBLE) completely.

KOINANGE: Jeff Koinange, CNN, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.


VERJEE: Nearly all of the children who died in last weekend's crash were from Loyola Jesuit College, a secondary school in Abuja. The principal, Father Marc Roselli, immediately flew to Port Harcourt, where Jeff Koinange caught up with him.


KOINANGE: Father Marc Roselli says he's facing the biggest test of faith in his nearly 30 years as a Jesuit priest. He is the principal of Loyola Jesuit College, and he's just lost 62 students, killed in the Sosoliso crash that claimed 107 lives.

FATHER MARC ROSELLI, PRINCIPAL: I was just stunned. I mean, I - I was numb. I was like, you don't believe it, you have like this instinct - it's like a self-preservation mechanism that denies. I said, Sister, are you sure that they were -- that that happened, it wasn't something else or, are you sure it was a flight our children were on? And she said, no, it's verified. And I said, oh, my God. I just - I said what are we going to do? I said -- and the phone started ringing, and then we didn't even have time to think what we were going to do.

KOINANGE: We caught up with Father Roselli at ground zero, the spot where Sosoliso flight 1145 rode off the runway and burst into flames.

ROSELLI: The extent of this wreckage, and you know, some probably died instantly, some were watching the others. You don't want to - you wouldn't want to see a movie of this in your mind.

KOINANGE: You don`t.

ROSELLI: You just pray that God took them right away. There was a priest with them, Father Peter mentioned that at the mass, and I, you know, the kids were not chaperoned by any parents, but they had that priest there, and I'm sure that as they were crying out, he probably prayed right to God for them. And he was with them, because children can't - can't deal with something like this. When their lives - when their lives are about to be taken from them, they're just terrified.

The other thing that I heard, Jeff, was that someone had been on that plane coming up to Abuja, and had said, you know, that plane needs to be serviced, it can't - and he couldn't believe it when he saw that they were re-boarding -- boarding people for another flight.


ROSELLI: And then when he saw schoolchildren, I -- I just - I'm sure the man is thinking now, why didn't I run to the - the head of the airline?

KOINANGE: The native of New York City says he sees all children at his school as his own.

ROSELLI: I don't have any children, I'm not married, I don't have any children, but these are my children, they're the sister's children. Every teacher - if they have their own families, but they - we're human beings, and it's not a question of what part of Nigeria you are from, or even if you're not from this country, you know. I'm happy to be at that school, and school has been a blessing in my life.

KOINANGE: But he is also aware that he's the one who has to help the school pick up the pieces after losing nearly one-tenth of its student body.

ROSELLI: Their classmates will not be the same. In fact, I think their classmates will be better people for this awful tragedy. It's a shame that that's - that's what it takes sometimes, for us to finally wake up and to be the people we're - we were created to be.

KOINANGE: The healing process, he says, will no doubt take some time, but he's hoping many students can put the past behind them when school resumes in the new year. As for himself .

ROSELLI: I feel like I'm - I'm losing my sanity at times. I'm not losing my faith, but I think I'm losing my mind. My - my mind is going to be the first thing that goes. My faith is what I'll hang on to.

KOINANGE: Jeff Koinange, CNN, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.


VERJEE: Last weekend's crash was the second airline accident in Nigeria in the last two months. The government's now set up a 10-man team to work on improving the airline sector, though a spokesman denies that the industry is in a crisis.


FEMI FANI-KAYODE, NIGERIAN GOVT. SPOKESMAN: I wouldn't say we're in a state of crisis, because a number of domestic airlines -- a very large number of domestic airlines, operate in our sky every day, even into the night, and you don't hear about tragedies, thank God, on a daily basis.

But what I would say is that we have a lot to do, and Mr. President has taken the initiative, and he's doing the right thing. He's set up a high-powered committee, which is made up of private individuals who are experts in that area, to look into the problems associated with this industry.


VERJEE: Earlier in the week, President Olusegun Obasanjo said corruption was largely responsible for the problem in the airline industry. The president was reportedly furious that a February report, which detailed safety concerns at Sosoliso and another airline was just brought to his attention.


FANI-KAYODE: The intelligence agency, the air security agencies passed relevant information on to the secretary to the federal government, who now, in a very responsible and responsive manner, did the right thing by bringing these matters to the attention of the former minister of the aviation.

Now, that is where the problem now came: The information wasn't passed onto Mr. President, and as a consequence, nothing was done about it.


VERJEE: Nigerian government's spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode.

Still ahead on the program, Liberia's president-elect on the transition to democracy, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's plans to rebuild the West African nation. Stay with us.


VERJEE: Welcome back. In Liberia, the elections commissioners dismissed claims by the former presidential candidate George Weah that fraud robbed him of last month's election. After a one-month investigation, the commission said the evidence provided by Weah wasn't enough to constitute massive fraud. But Weah is not giving up. Earlier in the week, he declared himself the winner of the election.

Meanwhile, the official winner, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is in the United States. On Thursday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer spoke with her.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Your opponent, George Weah, the former Liberian presidential candidate, he was quoted in "The Guardian" this week as saying this: "I am the elected president of Liberia, not Ellen Sirleaf. They stole my victory, and I'm here to say loud and clear that I am the winner of the elections." What do you say to him?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF, LIBERIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT: I think that's unfortunate that Mr. Weah has taken a position that's totally incorrect. The election process in Liberia was one that was very transparent, very free, very fair. Observers from the country and international observers, thousands and thousands of them, witnessed what is called a textbook election, one certainly that meets any international test for an African election, one that's exemplary. And Mr. Weah went into the run-off knowing very well that, you know, we were both contesting and we both accepted the fact that we would respect the choice of the Liberian people.

BLITZER: As you know, there's been a recent history of violence in Liberia, unfortunately, a very poor country. Will this be smooth, this transition, your inauguration?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I think so. We do have some pockets of insurgencies and instability right now, but I think the Liberian people have voted their choice. It's a victory for the Liberian people. The majority of them want to move on. They - they want to see the new administration, which I head, take over, and begin to respond to their needs. Certainly it's an exemplary thing for Africa, and we just hope that Mr. Weah and his small pocket of followers who - who are creating disturbances will accept the reality of the people's choice and will find a way to work with us for the interest of our country.

BLITZER: Are you confident the military, the security services will cooperate with you?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: We're not out of the woods yet. We have security concerns, but we're very pleased that the United Nations mission in Liberia, and the United States, and the ECOWAS, our regional leaders, are providing the kind of support for the - for the security, are working on the professionalization of our forces. And we know that the security forces also want to see peace and stability in our country, to enable us to move on with the development agenda. So, we think we can work it.

BLITZER: You will be the first woman president of Liberia, the first woman president of any country in Africa. Are you up to this challenge?

JOHSON-SIRLEAF: I am. The enormity of the challenge humbles us. The responsibilities implied make us know that we have to be reasonable, but I think my long years of experience, some 30 years in African development effort, both at home and abroad, my own political struggle, where I think I've - I've earned my stripes to enable me to be very conscious of the need for - for promoting unity and - and development in our country. I think I bring to it the requisite capacity and courage and commitment.

BLITZER: You're a descendant of American slaves, African slaves in the United States, who left this country to go back to Africa and really established Liberia. And there's been tension between the descendants of the slaves in Liberia over these many, many decades and other Africans in Liberia. Is that tension still there? Is it still part of the fabric of your society?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: One correction, sir. I lay no claim to American fame. I don't come from the American settler class, but that .

BLITZER: You're not a descendant?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: No, no, no. I'm not. I have a 75 percent indigenous background, and a maternal grandfather that - that was a German trader, so, but - but at the same time, the definition of those who led the elitist class and monopolized power and privilege, you know, it's easily caught up in that definition.

And so - but let me put it this way: There has been a long-standing cleavage in the society between the descendants of the settlers and indigenous population. There's been some bridging of that gap over time, through inter-marriages and through the ward (ph) system. But I think Liberia is ready to move on. That group represents a very, very small percentage of the population.


VERJEE: Liberia's President elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf talking to Wolf Blitzer.

Still to come, we go en pointe to show you how ballet is shaping the future of some young South Africans. Then we're going to take a look at some of your letters. Don't go away.


VERJEE: Hello again. In Johannesburg's poverty-stricken Alexandra township, the sport of football is king, its top athletes community heroes. But some township children are redefining South African athletic stereotypes by displaying their fancy footwork in ballet shoes, and not football cleats. More now from Alphonso Van Marsh.


ALPHONSO VAN MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a dank building behind the community pool in impoverished Alexandra township, a select group of children aren't playing outdoors; they're focused on their future.

MARTIN SCHONBERG, BALLET THEATRE AFRICAN: Ballet Theatre African offers a professional dance training. Every one of these kids come two hours a day four days a week.

VAN MARSH: Retired ballet dancer Martin Schonberg is artistic director of South Africa's prestigious ballet Theatre African.

SCHONBERG: We get a lot of glue-sniffing, we get a lot of prostitution, we get a lot of crime, we get of lot of very, very sad stories in what we call the locations, the ghettos. And these children have got something positive - to - to do with their afternoons.

VAN MARSH: Schonberg started the township ballet class during South Africa's racist apartheid days after some dinner party guess set him off.

SCHONBERG: And they said, you know, politely, you know, it's a pity about the blacks, they got wonderful rhythm, but unfortunately they really can't do classical ballet. And I'm going, what? At the time, South Africa was burning, it was a very, very angry place, and there were lots of barricades in the townships. It was a dangerous place to go, and I was guided in by friends, and I taught ballet. It was something I needed to do, and it was something that the children yearned for. They loved it.

VAN MARSH: Fifteen years later, the kids are still yearning.

SCHONBERG: Also, from many thousand children, we chose 30.

VAN MARSH: Thirty per a year. Schonberg says many have gone on to dance internationally, but in the townships, there is some resistance to the art sometimes perceived as too euro-centric for black youth. And in this macho culture, Thabang Silepe says his classmates rib him for wearing ballet shoes instead of soccer cleats.


VAN MARSH: So, what do you say?

SILEPE: I shushed and go away.

VAN MARSH: You shushed them and go away.

This project isn't a day care center, or some place parents can dump their children if they have a passing interest in the ballet. Organizers say they're willing to put up to 10years of training into each one of this children, giving them every opportunity to become professional dancers.

But that's a challenge. Schonberg says he hardly has the funding or the government support to plan six months in advance. Classes held in a rundown community center where the power is spotty. He has two teachers, including one who came here from Russia, to pay, and there is also a budget for food.

SCHONBERG: So we give them fruit and sandwiches daily, and since we've been feeding them, the concentration, everything has improved.

VAN MARSH: In a neighborhood where deaths from HIV/AIDS are gaining on those blamed on gun violence and drugs, Schonberg says his township ballet gives kids discipline and toughness.

SCHONBERG: And for two hours in their day, everything is in order, and everything is well in the world.

VAN MARSH: Alphonso Van Marsh, CNN, Alexandra township, Johannesburg.


VERJEE: And finally, we dip into our mailbag for a look at your letters.

A story on allegations of labor problems at Firestone rubber plantation in the Harbel, Liberia struck a cord with many of you. The president of Firestone Natural Rubber, Dan Adomitis, said our report: ". failed to explain the difficult and complicated situation on the ground in Liberia." He went on, "I'm especially disappointed that you seemed to dismiss the significant infrastructure rebuilding and social support programs our company is instituting as a part of our new concession agreement with Liberia."

We also heard from many viewers. Thato Toko of South Africa wrote to say: "The situation is beyond infuriating," but he added, "Africa has only itself to blame to its sustained woes, wars, corruption, dictatorship and poverty. We shall always serve to enrich imperialistic nations, as we fail to reason beyond master-slave mentality."

In his e-mail, Videmio Onabanjo also said, "The Liberian government must be taken to task for the problems of Firestone." He noted, "I didn't really blame the management of the company, Firestone, but the leaders of the country, Liberia, who have abandoned their duty to protect the citizens of their country." He said the leaders ". allowed greed to becloud their sense of reasoning, an act common to most African leaders."

Another issue which caught your attention was our show on African influences in the Americas. Gagar K wrote from Germany to say: "I was very impressed by your showing of Africans in the Diaspora in the Americas. He went on: ". notwithstanding the evil that slavery did to us, we Africans are still proud and can still raise our heads and culture, no matter what."

From Spain, Johselle Cunningham wrote "Excellent! I was thrilled about the INSIDE AFRICA episode on the Diaspora in Latin America. It's such an important topic to talk about, because people don't identify Africans and Latin Americans together."

And finally, Surita Banni wrote from the Philippines to take issue with some of the images in INSIDE AFRICA'S promotional video. "I just do not understand your program, in which you show bad pictures on Africa, for example a small boy holding an AK-47 assault rifle, and you comment on it by saying, "this is Africa." Can you show something better?" Surita asks.

And please keep those letters coming. The address is

That's our show for this week. I'm Zain Verjee. Thanks for watching.



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