Civil Aviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Governance, Security, and Safety Challenges

Sub-Saharan Africa’s civil aviation industry represents a potential bright spot in a region facing several economic challenges. Already supporting 6.9 million jobs and USD 80 billion in economic activity across the continent, according to the IATA, an airline trade association, the sector could expand by five percent per annum over the next twenty years, representing a valuable source of trade, tourism, and jobs. However, regional policymakers, airline carriers, and international aviation regulators must address numerous security, safety, and governance challenges if this potential is to be more fully realized. While not unique to the region, the extent to which these issues converge to hold back civil aviation requires greater efforts from these parties, including work on market liberalization, counterterrorism, and compliance with regulation, if growth targets are to be met.

Governance Challenges

Protectionism, high taxation, and political interference ensure the majority of African airlines are unprofitable, with the sector suffering collective losses of around USD 1.5 billion since 2008. Most large African airlines remain state owned and are shielded from competition, both locally and internationally, by restrictive local ownership regulations. These regulations hold back efforts by international carriers to establish local services and require host governments to negotiate bilateral air service agreements before airlines can establish new routes, limiting interconnectivity. As a result, while north-south connections are more convenient, many passengers flying from east to west are forced to travel via the Gulf or Europe.

Regulations also make life difficult for smaller airlines attempting to access the market, particularly given the costly delays associated with legal disputes. For example, as it is regulated by a national authority and is registered in the country, Tanzanian officials view low-cost carrier FastJet as a Tanzanian entity. However, as it is not majority-owned by Tanzanian nationals, other governments have disagreed. Subsequent negotiations ensured it took over a year for the airline to secure its first international route, to Johannesburg, and three to obtain its first operating certificate outside of Tanzania, with the launch of FastJet Zimbabwe in October 2015.

Inadequate infrastructure and taxation are also holding back growth. A lack of affordable transport helps to ensure airline fuel prices exceed international averages by as much as 20 percent. Seen as an easy source of government revenue, airlines are also subject to high taxes, which account for up to 60 percent of ticket prices. The relative lack of competition means many of these costs are passed on to consumers, making fares less affordable. A 2014 study by the Infrastructure Consortium of Africa suggested the average intra-African fare was around a third higher per kilometer when compared to intra-European fares.

International carriers are not immune from regional governance challenges. Central bank efforts to stem foreign currency losses have previously made it more difficult for these airlines to repatriate profits. In early June, Nigeria, Sudan, and Angola were estimated to collectively owe foreign airlines almost USD 1.2 billion in unpaid fees. While this is less than a third of the amount owed by the most indebted nation, Venezuela, these restrictions do little to attract the foreign investment capable of boosting growth.

Security & Safety Challenges

A number of recent events highlight the security challenges faced by sub-Saharan Africa’s aviation industry. Events in Brussels and Istanbul show airport security challenges are universal. To focus on those in sub-Saharan Africa at the expense of those in other regions is to ignore this point. However, if the industry’s potential to boost regional economic growth is to be realized policymakers and regulators must confront those terrorist groups in sub-Saharan Africa who possess the intent and capability to target civil aviation interests directly.

A one-meter hole in a Daallo Airlines aircraft, created by an explosion shortly after taking off from Mogadishu enroute to Djibouti. (AP Photo)

The Nigerian affiliate of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, Al-Shabaab, are alleged to have plotted or conducted attacks against civil aviation targets in the region in August 2015, twice in February 2016, and again in March and July. In April, a ministerial conference in Windhoek, Namibia attributed a lack of adequate or continuous vetting as the potential cause of several such incidents. Vetting played a substantial role in the in the attacks on Daallo Airlines 159 in February and on Metrojet 9268 in October. In both instances, airport workers’ ties to terrorist organisations were uncovered only after they had exploited privileged access rights to place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) aboard planes. Despite the importance of vetting, officials at Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International largely focused on the provision of new security technology in response to the attacks. This focus was mirrored in recent aviation security legislation passed by the U.S. Congress.

Better equipment alone is not a panacea, particularly when used incorrectly or paired with poorly trained personnel. Investigations by Nigerian journalists in March suggested security personnel at Lagos airport were using the long queues for newly installed x-ray machines as an opportunity to extort passengers rushing to catch their flights. Guards had also allegedly turned a drop-off zone outside the international terminal into a car park for VIPs. This is particularly concerning given terrorist groups have previously demonstrated a capability and intent to use car bombs in Nigeria. Journalists also suggested Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe airport lacked explosive detection dogs and adequate security staff, despite the fact authorities claimed to have uncovered a plot to target the facility in August. Historical trends also suggest better screening equipment is only part of the struggle.


Political instability, the presence of armed groups and the proliferation of small arms have long presented security challenges emanating from outside airport perimeters. U.S. State Department data shows 28 of the 43 attacks on civil aviation using MANPADS, portable surface-to-air missile launchers, between 1975 and 2011 occurred on the African continent, more than in any other part of the world. A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration statement in May 2015 suggests MANPADS remain a primary security concern, particularly in Somalia.

Aside from security issues, air safety concerns must also be tackled if the region’s aviation sector is to expand. Despite marked improvements over the last decade, sub-Saharan Africa’s accident rate remained the highest of any region last year. On average, African fleets are also older than their counterparts elsewhere. Locally-registered carriers have therefore struggled to break into overseas markets governed by more stringent safety standards. African airlines accounted for just two percent of international traffic last year and currently make up 46 percent of those banned from operating within the E.U. Improvements are underway but progress is slow. E.U. restrictions on airlines registered in Zambia were lifted in June only after a seven-year certification process.

Closer to home, safety improvements are hampered by a lack of adequate infrastructure, particularly in the interior. The Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo lack radar coverage and radio communication is patchy. Unable to rely on air traffic control, aircraft must report their positions to each other to avoid collisions in these areas. South Sudan provides an example of how this problem is compounded by the presence of conflict zones. Fearful of anti-government groups being supplied weapons by air, in December the South Sudanese military warned any unidentified aircraft in its airspace would be shot down. While it’s unlikely the military would intentionally destroy commercial airliners the lack of communications infrastructure raises the possibility of accidental targeting.

Policy Recommendations

If Africa’s aviation industry is to more fully realize its potential regional policymakers and international aviation regulators must address the above governance, security, and safety challenges. First, regional governments and international regulators should encourage market liberalization. Even small changes in this area would make a big difference. For example, a 2014 study by management consultants InterVISTAS suggested liberalizing the aviation sector in just twelve African states would create an additional 155,000 jobs and boost regional GDP by USD 1.3 billion. Lowering the barriers to market entry would also force large, unprofitable carriers to compete, reducing prices for customers. This has been shown to work in the region. The introduction of low cost carrier services between South Africa and Zambia led to a 38 percent decrease in fares and a matching 38 percent increase in passenger traffic.

Second, the various methods of attack adopted by terrorist groups in sub-Saharan Africa suggest a more balanced approach is required between technical and non-technical aspects of aviation security. In instances where military personnel provide airport security, government support is required to boost accountability and clamp down on corruption and malpractice. Given the transnational capabilities of groups like Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State, regulatory bodies should support these efforts by encouraging greater information and intelligence sharing between regional governments, an effort the U.N. already supports regarding conflict zones.

Third, carriers and regional governments must work more closely with international regulators to ensure compliance with global aviation standards. The evidence on this front is compelling. According to the IATA, the thirty-two sub-Saharan airlines on its Operating Safety Audit (IOSA) registry, a programme designed to assess operational management and control systems, are performing 3.5 times better than their non-IOSA counterparts in terms of accidents. There is much room for progress in this area. As of January, only twenty-one African states had met at least 60 percent of the safety-related standards and recommended practices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a U.N. body.

By helping boost intra-African trade and tourism, a more liberalized aviation market would provide sub-Saharan Africa with growth, jobs and tax revenues at a time when sustained low commodity prices have highlighted the fragility of unbalanced economies, including in Zambia, Angola, and Nigeria. Not only is greater economic freedom therefore an imperative for regional policymakers and international regulators, but it also aligns with U.S. objectives in Africa. Greater intelligence sharing and a more balanced approach away from solely technical countermeasures would help reduce the threat the industry faces from terrorist groups capable of adopting novel means to attack their targets, including Al-Shabaab. Not only would this improve safety, but it would help starve these groups of the propaganda windfalls that typically follow successful attacks against civil aviation interests. Finally, greater cooperation between regulators, carriers, and regional governments over safety issues is required to improve passenger confidence. This would also improve access to profitable overseas markets, a priority for the continent’s sixteen landlocked countries.

John Still is an intelligence analyst for a large corporate organisation. He is focused on security and political issues, including terrorism, civil unrest and organised crime in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. His research interests include organisational learning, with a specific focus on isomorphism and hierarchy. The views and opinions expressed by the author herein do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or any of its subsidiaries.

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