Monday, January 14, 2013

January 14th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

‘Identity theft’ is a major challenge in many parts of the world, and yet here in West Africa we seem to be experiencing a different challenge – hidden-identity!

In aviation we work hard to ensure that people’s identities are well defined and blatantly obvious. Hi-visibility vests/clothing just to be visible, as well as defined uniforms, identity cards, name badges, fingerprint checking, iris and retina checks, handprint checks, biometric passports, and the list goes on. Knowing ‘who-is-who’, and ‘who is responsible for what’ and ‘identifiable at-a-distance personnel’ is a major part of the success story that aviation holds world-wide. It is a must of any large organisation and any public service organisation. Just visit ‘Game’, or any another large store, and you can see in an instant who works there, who is a security guard, and who is a customer – it is a necessary part of their existence.

However, when I visit many organisations/operations in this part of the world, I have no idea who is a member of staff, who is security, who is a visitor, who is meant to be there, who is not meant to be there. Frankly, the lack of simple signage often means that I don’t even know where I am or where I should go. (Again the large stores even put signs above the aisles to help you find you way around!)

There is one particular outfit that I was sent to recently. Upon parking in the shabby car park, I saw an office marked ‘information’. I was thrilled, and went to the window. There was nobody there. Disappointedly, I walked around the corner. The door to this ‘office’ was open. I noticed that the desk inside had collapsed, papers strewn around, chair in pieces, and there was nobody to be seen.

I walked around the building looking for a sign or a responsible person. Nothing. Then I spotted a soldier, in uniform. I approached him, knowing exactly who I was approaching; he had his name marked on a badge. He ‘snapped too’ as he saw me approach. We exchanged the usual introductory pleasantries and I asked ‘Where is the Directors office?’, he shrugged his shoulders, and explained that he too was bemused at the layout of this important building, but thought it may be ‘out-back’. So, wandering ‘out-back’, I was stopped by a man, in regular clothes, I asked the same question. He responded by asking me for help to get him ‘out of Ghana’. I walked away, assuming that he was NOT a person who was supposed to be at a Government building!

Finally, twenty minutes later, finding nobody who appeared, nor admitted, to working in the place, I stood in the car-park and ‘loud-hailed’, ‘CAN ANYBODY TELL ME WHERE THE DIRECTOR’S OFFICE IS?’ On the third calling, a well-dressed man walked out and asked me ‘what do you want?’, it turned out, after discussion, that HE was the director I was looking for! No badge, no uniform, no identity, just his word.

As walked away, I was grabbed by the arm. A burly, red T-shirt clad man, menaced me with a hand-held radio. He told me that I must leave immediately, since I have no permission to be at ‘his’ office. Intrigued, I asked for his identity. Waving the hand-held radio he told me ‘National Security’. I asked for his identity card, and was told that his radio was his identity. I couldn’t help but guffaw and walk away.

Later, the same person approached me and told me that he could arrest me if he wanted to. I asked ‘What for? Where is your identity?’ as I stood my ground. He angered, gesticulated, waved his precious radio threateningly, and then, finally walked away. Another, tall, clearly and calmly spoken man politely came along with an identity card and we exchanged pleasantries, both of us confused at the scene and the clear lack of understanding around us. In true Ghanaian style I was reassured. I love the Ghanaian expressions such as ‘no worries’, ‘don’t mind him/her’ (or even ‘never mind you wife chop bar!’). ‘it will be fine’, ‘bor bor bor’, ‘kra-kra kra-kra’, ‘vii vii vii’, and the ubiquitous ‘sorry-oo’. This culture is full of reassurance and support – and it, so it seems, needs to be!

Clearly, some security personnel work in plain clothes, this is perfectly understandable, but they must show proof of their identity and position if they challenge you – or they simply lack identity and authority. If personnel, in an establishment receiving the public, are not required to wear a uniform, they should at least have some identification – even as simple as a name badge. Sadly, that is widely missing. Staff lacking identity, makes them invisible, takes away their authority, and makes it a mission for the public or clients to work out who they should speak to, even for simply asking directions. If, for example, security personnel wear a uniform, they are easily identified, and gain instant respect, or so we would like to think. However, if they lack ‘personal identification’ they lack accountability.

The great thing about my interaction with the soldier, was that I was able to initiate communication with him, using his name, and if I so desired, his rank. It was clear – nothing hidden; position, duty, purpose. Clear, factual, no hiding. If he did the wrong thing at any point (which he did not), he was easily identifiable by profession, unit, rank and name. He wore his uniform with pride, and in my opinion, did a great job. Sadly, that is not the case with all of our uniformed protectors.

In a separate event, I was stopped by the police on the road. Nothing new. The usual exchange of pleasantries took place. Then, the sad ‘intimidation phase’, that a few of our officers of the law still practice, began. As I scanned the uniform, the name badge was missing. A supposed police officer, without identity. It could easily be a stolen uniform. Being told by an officer ‘I do not need to identify myself’ does not wash with me. Upon the suggestion that we should go to the police station together, the matter was settled, and I continued on my way.

Identity is important. Topically, if you wish to vote, you must identify yourself as an eligible voter in advance of the election, and be verified ‘that same person’ on the day of voting. How much more must our civil servants and officers who protect us and our freedoms be identifiable?

One organisation that I work with did not have any ‘identification policy’ and I was always at a loss to know ‘who’s who’ and ‘who does what’. Then a new Director who, with so many staff, could not always be expected to remember each and every name and position, insisted on large identity tags on each person – A6 size! At first, there was a little resistance, then, there was the acceptance stage, and today all wear their designated tags with pride. It makes life easier, reduces stress, it builds accountability and it has made the place more pleasant in many ways.

I am currently reviewing our ‘personnel identity’ programme, and hope that you will review yours. Clear identity of individuals, their organisation, designation and name is a must for the development, safety and protection of all of our operations. Personnel Identity must become a corporate responsibility for all of us.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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