OPINION

East African Airways: A Theatre of self -The Rise and Fall of a Transnational Airline

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As surely as her aircraft took to the sky, East African Airways rode the winds of change to carry with it a Pan-African tale. A story which, in its unfolding, not only mirrored but also fell casualty to an equally volatile political climate.

 

Setting the stage.

The British Colonial government realized the benefit of shared services as early as 1890 ergo established the Uganda railway by 1896-1901 in the protectorate of Uganda and colony of Kenya, with gradual Tanzanian (then Tanganyika) integration after World War 1. The next frontier at this point, was the air. With the post-war period setting into motion economic reconstruction, there surfaced a need to establish communication links within a vast empire. Perforce, a committee was established, towards the end of World War 2 (in 1943) featuring aviation and railroad experts, businessmen, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), and amongst other Territorial Governors; Philip Mitchell, Governor of the Uganda Protectorate who is credited with the establishment of Entebbe Airport. Their mandate was to deliberated upon and arrive at a setup through which the reality of civil aviation in the region could materialise.

As hoped, proceedings resulted into the East African (Air Transport) order-in-CounciI of 1945 which set up the East African Air Transport Authority and the East African Airways Corporation (EAAC). The BOAC was then instructed to ensure that the East African Airways (EAA) remained profitable and was up to international standards but targeting a local market.

The Airline was designed to operate feeder services in tandem with the BOAC services into East Africa.  A fleet of six DH 89’s were hired from the British Ministry of Civil Aviation upon operationalization on 3rd April 1946 but were upgraded to the De Havilland Dave and the even larger fourteen passenger Lockheed Lodstar, in a bid to match growth in traffic. More upscaling came in with the Douglas DC-3’s in 1949.

East African Airways crew

While the Airline could not compete with Central African Airways and South African Airways who both offered non-stop services with faster equipment, it was growing steadily. By 1953, the fleet had been standardized to nine DC-3’s and two De Havilland Dominies.

In 954 the airline began to schedule air freight services with delivery of vegetables, eggs and meat at especially low rates. In 1955, it was finally able to operate on its own without government subsidies which enabled the airline expand operations outside the East African territory; launching a route to London via Khartoum and Rome, in operation with BOA alongside a service to Karachi and Bombay via Aden, operated with Air India.

 

Cabin Services aboard East African Airways

Into the limelight.

Happening almost simultaneously, was the intensification of African nationalism. World War 2 ex-servicemen some of whom had been flown out to fight for the colonising powers were edified to the myth of racial superiority, the realities of colonial exploitation and the mistreatment being executed in their homelands. They thus took part in the staging of, in Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion in agitation for freedom. The rebellion wounded the colonial government economically, registering unprecedented success in forcing the colonial government to compromise. Arrangements thus were made to increase African involvement in government, though marginally. But these moves, cumulatively, signaled that freedom lay not too far beyond the horizon.

And as freedom rose, so too did EAA which reached its peak in the early 60s, purchasing from BOAC, three Canadairs, Four Argonàuts (DC-4M) and two De Havilland comet 4’s to keep up with an exponential growth in markets. The international services were so successful at the time that they accounted for as much as seventy percent (70%) of total transport revenue, enabling the subsidization of what was proving to be a failing local service.

VP-KNY at London Airport. East African Airways commenced its service between Nairobi and London in October 1957 using former BOAC Argonauts. Touch downs were made at Rome (Ciampino), Benghazi (Benina), Khartoum and Entebbe. The Argonaut was the fleet name given by BOAC to the Canadair DC4M2 or Canadair C4 which East African Airways referred to as the Canadair – PHOTO David Banham

In February 1952 the Airline made history by becoming the first commercial airline to carry a reigning British monarch. King George VI passed on while Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were in Kenya on a royal tour. With immediacy, arrangements were made for the royal couple to return to England by air. The Queen thus flew from Nanyuki in a Dakota VP-KHK named ‘Sagana’ (a nod in the direction of the lodge she occupied when the sad news was broken) to Entebbe where she and the Duke boarded a BOAC Argonaut (Canadair) bound for London. That same year, the airline commenced the flying of pilgrims to and from Mecca in conjunction with Aden Airways. EAA also made a Hollywood appearance in the 1953 adventure/romantic drama film, ‘Mogambo’ with one of its aircrafts being used for the filming. It appeared as though things for this airline could only go up.

African nationalism followed the same trend, reaching a majestic crest, also in the early 60s. Several Africans who too had flown out in pursuit of further education returned with exposure to life outside colonies, realisation of how their countrymen were being marginalised, an unrelenting drive to liberate their people and in most cases, the technical know-how (to upset the colonial system). Ignatius Kangave Musaazi of Uganda, Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya are notable nationalists amongst a myriad other legislative reform agitators who either formed or were charged members of political parties. They laboured to increase African representation in government and convince the colonial regime to withdraw the talons of imposed rule and hand over power to a self-governing people. Eventually, freedom rung true; first in Tanganyika (1961), then in Uganda (1962) and finally, in Kenya and Zanzibar (1963).

DC3 VP-KJU (above) was called Sagana II and was used by the British Queen during her visit to Uganda in 1954. It was in the original Sagana (also a DC3) that the Queen flew from Nanyuki (Kenya) to Entebbe to board the Royal Argonaut in which she hurriedly flew back to London on the death of her father King George VI. Thus East African Airways became the first airline to carry a reigning British monarch.

 

Enter the post-independence era.

In post-independence euphoria, member states sought to frame EAA to the times and thus pursued its Africanization.  One such manifestation was the painting of all four national flags on the tail of a recently leased DC-7F from BOAC. The flags then became three after Zanzibar’s revolt in 1964 which led to its unification with Tanzania. In the same year, the first four Africans were sent off to an Airwork school in Perth, Australia for pilot training. And to cap that year off, Corporation Chairman, Alfred Vincent retired, handing over office to Abdullah Said Fundikira, Ntemi (Chief) of Unyanyembe in Tanzania. The airline also participated in a stand against the apartheid regime, alongside several African countries (states with territorial sovereignty) and nations (communities with shared ethnicity, culture and location), in a ban against South African Airways’ landing rights. The post-colonial era at this point, looked unified and promising.

Now for a dramatic reversal, structural concerns that had not been ironed out prior to independence, regarding the relationship between the Airways corporation and the national governments festered. Concerns like composition of the board proved to be particularly problematic. Naturally, the airline’s operations were designed to flow in accordance with singular interests which a single overall colonial authority could readily manage.

However, each East African country was subject to a hierarchy of needs and endowment. So Africanisation also presented an opportunity for the ascent to senior posts, of low calibre staff with little or inadequate training, who were to now advance and ruberstamp their appointing country’s agenda. Governments reserved the right to dismiss those whom they felt were ineffective (so in essence, the only accountability was to self and morality was determined by national interests which the government of the day in most cases, dictated.). Case in point being Uganda’s recall and dismissal of several appointees to the Airline board during the 70s which caused a lacuna in key leadership positions during the Airline’s most crucial years.

Concerns of equity intensified when the Airline decided to expand international services since this meant an increase in funding from the national governments. Hesitation and skepticism grew rife, with Kenya declaring discomfort; insisting that she had been toeing more than her own portion of the financial burden. Tanzania and Uganda countered with the argument that they were not benefiting from the airline as much as would warrant an increase in contribution.

As such, they were now open to investment by their former coloniser’s BOAC to keep the airline afloat. The sought after investment was not in the least bit philanthropic, but rather, a calculated move by BOAC to channel more traffic to its trunking operations. Nonetheless, the agreement seemed mutually beneficial.

 

The plot thickens.

Criticism of the pre-independence era intensified and in pursuit of Africanisation, there was agitation for the removal of non-Europeans from the EAA board and this included the slot for a BOAC member. BOAC ascented to it but, in view of the fact that they would be stripped of a say in the affairs of the Airways, they now required a premature redemption of their £11million investment from 1965 (worth £227,964,157.71 in 2020). This, they did, knowing that the airline would not have the capacity for it, till at least 1968.

Fokker F27 Friendship, 5H-AAI at Embakasi. Other aircraft just visible include an East African Airways Super VC10, a British Caledonian VC10 an East African Airways DC 9 – PHOTO Geoff Pollard

Realising this fix, the East African Nations were forced to increase their contributions to the airline; taking three years to pay up the balance. All previous focus having been placed solely on eliminating BOAC participation, assessment of the airline’s capitalisation was grossly ignored even as it continued to fall short of revenue, more so as the 1970s dawned. The airline resorted to and relied heavily upon borrowing which further aggravated its situation. And as it struggled to pay up the loans, member states once more found their arms twisted into injecting more funds to keep this amorphous project alive.

More still, Tanganyika remonstrated the fact that the faster aircrafts used for international flights terminated in Nairobi, leaving passengers bound for other East African destinations such as Dar-es-Salaam, to travel slow. And this discrimination, they argued, had economic ramifications.

Following the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, Pan American Airlines declared interest in a route from East to West Africa which EAA had initially and successfully opposed. Kenya however, unilaterally provided rights out of Nairobi into West Africa for Pan Am in exchange for the building of an Intercontinental Hotel complex. This naturally generated a lot of resentment against the nation while undermining the ability of EAA to compete favourably in this route. The influences that overrode the East African Community could be seen at work in EAA.

 

Reading between the lines.

The test of transnational unity, in many ways than one, was a reflection of the national turmoil in each of the East African nations. The ‘Ujamaa’ policy was a version of Socialism implemented in Tanzania by then President, Julius Nyerere. The Kiswahili word ‘Ujamaa’ translates directly to ‘familyhood’, which denotes a premise of cooperation; economic development that relied on selflessness; capacity for which, sometimes, human nature falls short. Needless to say, Ujamaa failed and it’s Kenyan equivalent, ‘Harambee’ (collective effort- channeled towards building the nation. Launched by then president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta), was abandoned. Could this have been due to an inherent human inclination towards self advancement before all else or were these leaders’ efforts frustrated by forces of Capitalism from the other end of the Iron Curtain? Either way this ideological failiure forbode a calamitous fate for EAAC that also realied on compromise and cooperation for collective good.

Now onto individual conflict: political temperatures in Kenya were heating up between President Jomo Kenyatta and his Vice, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Kenyatta enjoyed nationwide support but was still perceived to be a Kikuyu leader before all else and Odinga, a Luo leader. This culminated disastrously in the Kisumu massacre on October 25th, 1969 (four months after renowned politician Tom Mboya’s, assassination) when a crowd loyal to Odinga began to taunt Predident Kenyatta during a speech. A verbal exchange between Kenyatta and Odinga escalated the situation and soon, pandemonium was unleashed. The presidential guard shot 11 people dead, indiscriminately, though some media reports claim a much higher number.

At this point, the ‘happily ever after’ that was hoped for, on the day of independence, when now compared to the fight for freedom, seemed like more of the same. Descent, violence, heavy-handedness and all vices we fought to eliminate were now within and amongst us.

 

Amin takes center stage.

In 1971, a faction of the Ugandan army that grew dissatisfied with President Apollo Milton Obote’s style of government which they believed was sectarian and  partial to his ethnic group launched a military coup to install its leader, General Idi Amin Dada into power. Amin’s methods of power consolidation sneered at any consideration of human rights. It was full-blown dictatorship, by whatever metric. Dissidents were forever silenced and their names, bloated from the pages of history. The death toll is estimated at 300,000.

As an individual, he pursued a version of radical nationalism manifest in his expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972, a decision which he rationalised (and some argue; qualified) by highlighting what he believed to be Asian exploitation of natives and the country’s resources. Uganda’s economy slumped following his distribution of essential, formerly Asian-owned businesses, to his unenterprising cronies. In contrast, and contrary to the expectations of many, Jomo Kenyatta, when faced with this decision, opted to enable the incorporation of foreigners who were then allowed to acquire citizenship. Through the lens of economic growth alone, with focus on this period, an accordant, rather than divisive route, was the most strategically sound: In Kenya, 9/10 Doctors, Lawyers and Accountants were Indian and 8/10 Architects and engineers, the same. This, to edify the restraint from what would have been classified as an individual’s miscalculation.

It was not long till Amin’s personality rubbed off on his neighbours the wrong way. A war of words ensued between him and Julius Nyerere, a close friend to the overthrown Milton Obote, in which many insults were flung. In 1976, he lay claim to large tracts of land in Kenya and threatened to go to war over them which caused Kenya to implement an economic blockade that suffocated Uganda into abandoning the idea altogether. The relationships between these states greatly suffered and so did East African Airways which became a political gambit. Domestic flights to Uganda and all transit flights through Entebbe were suspended. Also, Kenya laid off 123 Ugandan engineers employed by EAA at Embakasi airport which they purported, was a move to create more jobs for Kenyans. Also, Ugandan pilots were not allowed to command aircraft while in Kenyan airspace. The signing of a memorandum of understanding in August that year poured cold water on the tensions but this was too little, too late. Uganda had already (in June) created Uganda Airlines which in itself, spoke volumes.

 

President Idi Amin walks off a Uganda Airlines aircraft

By 1977, political goodwill had long been eroded. In the airline’s dying month there were rows over an exhorbitant imposition of landing fees, warnings sounded and directed towards Kenya, a Kenyan response complaining about a series of systemic frustrations and unfair sums that only she, amongst the other East African nations, was labouring to pay. At the time, local dailies were already declaring the end of EAA. Kenya and Tanzania’s unveiling of Kenya Airways and Air Tanzania respectively, within weeks of each other, while EAA struggled to regain footing and respond to Kenya’s complaint of unfairness, dealt the final blow. East African Airways sputter-coughed weakly, into a curtsey. At the point of liquidation, the airline was $120,000,000 (the equivalent of $538,011,881.19 in 2021) in debt.

 

The curtain falls on an era.

The EAA soared a trajectory in parallel to the Pan-African journey: taking on the runway of need, elevating into agitation, legislation, realisation, participation and then sadly, disintegration.

Right at the time it was decided that the affairs of African Nations would be run for them (not as a benevolent undertaking but one from which colonialists could reap, having exploited lands that possessed virgin opportunity), the wheels of change were set in motion and they stirred up a clamour for self governance, realisation of which was unstoppable.

However, when independence was finally delivered, it remained hard to tell whether the new regime had been aptly prepared to execute or instead, they were strategically dealt the shorter end of the stick. In so much as the ‘founding fathers’ can be held accountable, ‘Ujamaa’ might have failed economically but to a significant degree, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere had succeeded in creating a nation out of a country/state. A feat that few of his compatriots could claim for themselves, in consideration of the tribal fragmentation that had began and continues till today, to plague Kenya (having also played a part in causing the 2007 post-election skirmishes which showed how far back disunity can push economic advancement). The authoritarian regimes imposed by Idi Amin and (in part, by) Milton Obote in Uganda (arguably reminiscent of colonial rule) stripped the citizenry of several essential freedoms. And with so many Elephants going unaddressed, the East Africa Airline would inevitably be the grass to these conflicting forces.

But it must be discussed whether the splits drawn to mark territory had proven too deep (in the mind) to navigate or alternatively, the airline in itself was unavoidably calamitous. Whether its success was thoroughly frustrated or rather, the airline’s failures were a thorough frustration…that had to be dealt away with.

The Late Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere spoke to this failiure with almost prophetic concision: “Although the spirit of co-operation can be a very effective lubricant for organisational machinery, it is not itself a substitute for machinery. And just as no machine can run without oil, so a bad machine uses up and wastes large quantities of it and still breaks down so frequently that it is finally abandoned.” One can only hope that the ideals we once championed, we do not abandon as we did, East African Airways.

 

Sourced in part from the academic thesis, “East African Airways: A case study of problems of a transnational aviation enterprise” by Frederick Ochieng-Obbo

 

 by Nelson Rotino

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting narrative. Lakini this “thesis” article has a lot of holes and dwells to much on authors’ politically biased viewpoints against Idi Amin and whatever he disagrees with. Its almost like a hit piece.
    By the way, Ujamaa did not “fail” and to characterize it as such while failing to see the hunger, poverty and wars in capitalist nations is simply cherry picking. Stick to the airlines and you will do better.
    The current trend is for airlines to form alliances and code-share one another’s operations. In that light EAA was light years ahead and we are simply coming back full circle to it with KQ and Congo sharing ops, training and routes. Many other regional airlines are linking to partner with others so I would question this narrative of a demise of this formula

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