When news broke last October that the Liberian government had signed a strategic partnership with Ghanaian carrier Goldstar Air to revive the National Airline of the country, Lonestar AIR, there was a general state of euphoria amongst the citizenry whose flickering hopes, already dimmed by the bad economic downturn, suddenly got ignited by the promise of new employment and livelihood opportunities which the establishment of a new national airline would bring, thirty years after the old national airline went bust. But weeks following the signing of the partnership between Lonestar Air (Wings of Liberia) and Goldstar Air, and with the Friday October 30 presidential dedication of the new Wings of Liberia Airline being a mere showcase of cake-cutting without sight of any carrier, many Liberians, at home and abroad, have started to raise key questions behind the new deal.
Grave Mounting Concerns
All of a sudden, questions are being raised that yield more suspicions about a deal that has left the public in doubt over its lack of details, as neither the government nor Goldstar Air has tried to shed much light on some of the burning queries.
“Who are the pilots, the mechanics and the cabin crew? Are the crew members Liberians or foreigners? Where are the hangars? What is in the deal? What does Liberia stand to benefit? What will Liberians benefit? Is this a special presidential project, and if not, did it meet the approval of the national legislature?” are some of the questions Liberians are jockeying around regarding the Lonestar AIR and Goldstar Air deal.
Moreover, concerns have started mounting as to why a Liberian-owned airline cannot operate and land in all parts of the country, especially where there are no roads or where there are deplorable road conditions, and people are constantly stranded. “Are we, the Liberian people, and our government owners, part owners or token spectators in an airline deal that bears our name?” some are beginning to wonder.
The failure of the Government of Liberia to disclose much details about the new national carrier has even caused some observers to opine that President Weah is buying a personal plane to transform into a national carrier because Goldstar doesn’t have a carrier of its own.
Issuing a presser minutes following the Friday dedicatory ceremony, the International Justice Group (IJG) wondered what is the urgent state interest vested in the purchase of a plane.
“Whose idea and what state policy supports this decision? Was it a cabinet decision or a policy recommendation of the security sector, the transport sector, defense establishment or the trade and commerce sectors? What’s the transparency informing this decision and which governmental agency was involved in this decision making? Is it the PPCC or any other agency of government or is it just the decision of MrWeah implemented by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Mr. Samuel Tweah?” the IJG queried.
Who is Goldstar Air CEO Eric Bannerman?
The world probably would not had known about Eric Bannerman in any unfavorable light if not for the 2008 incident when his Seasons Travel and Tours Agency got involved in the infamous Ghana-Barbados human trafficking incident that left 159 West African “tourists” stranded in Barbados without a plane to return to Ghana.
According to the story which made the headlines of the BBC, the Barbados Free Press and Ghanaweb at the time, Bannerman’s Seasons Travel and Tours Agency had struck a deal with Ghana International Airlines (GIA) on January 29, 2008 under which the Charterer (in this case, Bannerman’s Seasons Travel and Tours Agency) contracted the services of the airline to transport its customers (“the tourists”) to and from Barbados.
The account goes that, although the return journey was scheduled for February 15, 2008, GIA refused to carry out the duty because it did not receive the agreed consideration from the Season’s Travel and Tours owing to an ongoing difference in position between the Charterer and the authorities in Barbados.
“In a statement signed by Gifty Annan-Myers, acting Chief Executive Officer of GIA and Eric Bannerman, Managing Director of Seasons Travels and Tours, GIA said the responsibility for the repatriation of the tourists rests solely with the charterer but was ready to undertake the return journey if it receives the agreed consideration from the Charterer. Over the last week or so, the Charterer has been trying to procure another permit from the Ministry of Transport, Works and International Transport in Barbados to enable it to transport a second batch of tourists to Barbados. However, the Ministry insists it would not allow the Charterer to bring in additional tourists unless the first batch is repatriated to Accra, thus the Ministry would only permit the Charterer to bring an aircraft without passengers. The Ministry of Transport, Works and International Transport in Barbados on February 1, 2008 granted a permit to GIA on behalf of the Charterer to operate one rotation- Ghana/Barbados/Ghana- but the ongoing dissimilarity in position between the Charterer and the authorities in Barbados prevented the repatriation of the tourists to Ghana,” the joint GIA and Seasons Travel and Tours statement said at the time.
To make a long story short, our investigations unearthed that Goldstar Air’s CEO Eric Bannerman who signed a partnership agreement with the Liberian government to operate the country’s national carrier, Wings of Liberia, was arrested in Accra for running a human trafficking scam in 2008. Information has also filtered to this outlet that a good number of the “tourists” had been in on a scam to seek greener pastures in the Caribbean, to which they made payments to representatives of Seasons Travel and Tours.
Sean Mendis lists himself on social media as Chief Operating Officer at Africa World Airlines, based in Accra Ghana. Mendis and Bannerman go a long way, a path that has, however, left a bitter taste in Mendis’ mouth.
“I have had prior dealings with this group. The last time I met Eric Bannerman was at Accra police headquarters where I had to give a statement and identify him in a police cell as he was charged with human trafficking and fraud. But I was never charged and completely cleared after investigation. Eric and Goldstar are about as legitimate as a $3 bill. Eric Bannerman and Seasons Travel and Tours were the organizers of the infamous Ghana-Barbados human trafficking scam in 2008. It was something that unfortunately I got dragged into (my signature was on the application for the charter operator permit in Barbados on behalf of Ghana International Airlines), but managed to avoid being charged/prosecuted over in either Ghana or Barbados. Eric was not so lucky and the last time I saw him was at Accra Police Headquarters on the wrong side of a set of bars when I was asked to identify him. His associate Frank Duncan was ultimately convicted of fraud, but I don’t know if Eric’s case eventually went to court or not. To be honest, I was just glad to wash my hands of it after lengthy questioning and many statements! I am shocked (although I really shouldn’t be!) that GCAA granted any organization related to Eric Bannerman any sort of permit/license given his track record,” Mendis stated disdainfully about his encounters with Goldstar’s Eric Bannerman.
To make matters worse, out of the 159 “tourists” that Bannerman’s Season’s Travel and Tours company facilitated their two weeks travel to Barbados for holidays vacationing, 70 were detained at a military base, while the rest escaped into the surroundings.
According to one member of the holidaymakers, OsaAgbonicota from Nigeria, she had spent two months at the airport waiting for the promised return flight. She was later moved along with others to the Paragon military base where reports emerged of the rape of one of the “tourists”.
The partnership between Eric Bannerman’s Goldstar Air and Liberia’s national carrier, is expected to see Wings of Liberia flying to 11 West African destinations from Monrovia, to Accra, Abuja, Lagos, Abidjan, Freetown, Banjul, Conakry, Dakar, Ouagadougou, Bissau and Sao Tome.
But, while the promise of new job opportunities may be enticing as the news of a new national airline, Liberians are still wary of the dark days, when hush-hush backroom deals were brokered that saw a senior official of the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe’s government, who is now a senior official of the current government, encouraging the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe to purchase a Boeing jet in the name of the country. That government official would later seize and sell for US$8.9 million the presidential jet that was stranded in London during the Liberian civil war.
Liberians are wary of another snake oil deal.