There was drama at the Robertsfield International Airport (RIA) mid-day last Friday when, acting on a tip-off, Finance Minister Amara Konneh personally challenged two Lebanese fellow travellers on Arik Air (W3 088) suspecting of carrying on them smuggled gold nuggets. The plane had already moved to the point where it was revving up for take off only to have the pilot announce to the passengers that he had been ordered to get the plane back toward the terminal for “as yet unexplained reasons.” This created considerable anxiety among the many passengers onboard, including senators and some other government officials on their way to Accra, Ghana.
Unbeknown to all on the plane except the Minister, someone had somewhat alerted Minister Konneh, who himself was on his way to Nigeria, about the presence of two Lebanese men on the Arik plane who had reportedly by-passed or bribed their way through the Customs checking procedure with some gold materials.
Minister Amara, who, rather impressively, was flying in Economy Class, got from his seat and confronted the two guys, demanding to have their bags charged. It became clear indeed that the guys involved had gold nuggets in their bags that had not been declared to Customs.
Furious about the discovery, the Minister got the airport security personnel to come onboard and get the two guys concerned to deplane, with the minister in tow.
The incident ignited a flurry of activities inside and outside of the Arik plane and a war of words ensued between the Minister and the RIA authority on the one hand, and thecaptain of Arik Air and the plane’s ground staff on the other.
Once the two Lebanese suspects were taken off the plane and handed over to the airport security for investigation, the captain of the airline (of Indian or Pakistani origin) got infuriated at having the plane delayed for over 45 minutes on the ground. He then declared that he would not accept Minister Konneh to board the plane again as he blamed the Minister for the delay.
This prompted the authorities to insist that if the Minister was not allowed to re-board the plane, then Arik Air itself will not be given clearance from the Air Traffic Control to take off. Theresultingtense standoff went on for quite some time.
Meanwhile a heated argument broke out involving all parties to the incident, including some passengers—with some non-Liberian passengers grumbling over the delay, while some Liberians praised the Minister’s for what they saw as his “patriotic and heroic stance”.
Some Liberians reminded their opponents that the Minister was after all the Chief Revenue Official in the country and therefore was perfectly in his right to take action when the Government was been deprived of legitimate customs duties or taxes—especially at a time when the country’s budget was experiencing a significant budget short-fall.
After some interventions involving some Airline stewardesses and passengers (including this reporter), the recalcitrant Arik Air flight captain finally yielded–to the relief of the passengers. Theplane finally took off for Accra and, subsequently, to Nigeria.
Minister Konneh later went around to some of the passengers explaining his action and apologizing for the delay—with many of those saying they were okay with the Minister’s timely and movie-like action.
Much earlier, while at the terminal waiting for the arrival of the flight, Minister Amara Konneh had fumed over the breakdown of the detector machine at the Customs point that day, and was heard expressing serious concern over the breakdown of the machine, unaware that someone may have in fact either taken advantage of the breakdown or connived with some rogue customs officials to smuggle gold.