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For Christain Folly-Kossi, African airlines is a pet subject that he never fails to talk about as he traverses the globe to safeguard the interests of Africans, writes Cyrus Kinyungu

When the Kenya Airways flight crashed in Ivory Coast in 2000, a diplomatic vacuum reared its face, forcing a foreigner to literally represent Kenya’s interests in the country.

The foreigner temporarily got the rare honour of literally becoming Kenya’s ambassador in Cote D’Ivoire, welcoming the country’s delegation as they went to assess the situation.

The only attachment that "the diplomat" — Togolese business executive Christian Folly-Kossi — had with Kenya at the time was that he was to take up a job at the African Airlines Association (Afraa) headquarters in Kenya in a month’s time.

Incidentally, Kossi had great attachment not only to Kenya Airways but the whole Africa airline industry and also the Ivory Coast government.

At the time of the accident, Kenya did not have diplomatic ties with the French speaking West African country, thus complicating the work of the Kenyan delegation comprising two Cabinet ministers, senior Kenya Airways officials and aircraft accident investigators who had flown to Cote D’Ivoire.

Joint flight between KQ and Air Afrique

Having been an advisor to the then Ivory Coast President, Robert Guei, Kossi was able to perfectly act as Kenya’s envoy and arrange a meeting between the government’s senior officials and the Kenyan delegation, led by then Transport minister Mr Musalia Mudavadi and his Foreign Affairs counterpart Mr Marsden Madoka.

Kossi also took the responsibility of organising, on behalf of the Kenyan Government, all necessary audience in Ivory Coast. Besides, like a good ambassador, he hosted the Government officials at his residence in Abidjan.

Indeed, the ill-fated Kenya Airways flight to Abidjan was a joint flight between KQ and Air Afrique, an airline jointly owned by 11 West African countries.

Kossi remembers that he implored Air Afrique to extend hospitality to the Kenyan delegation and relatives of the affected people.

He went to the site of the accident with then Ivory Coast First Lady, Rose Gougou Guei, and Kenya Airways officials for prayers.

His ability to communicate fluently in both French and English was a big asset to the two governments at the time.

Served as finance director of Air Afrique

Christian Folly-Kossi (left) with former Ivorian President Robert Guei.

When they left Ivory Coast after completing their mission, Kossi had unknowingly warmed himself into their hearts and the Kenyan delegation realised they truly had a son in that foreign land.

A month later when he came to take over his job as Afraa secretary general in Nairobi, Kossi says, the Government and even Kenya Airways gave him maximum support as payback.

"I was received at State House by then President Daniel Moi on the advise of Mudavadi when I came to Kenya," he recalls with a bright smile on his face.

Kenya Airways, he adds, gave him total support when he took over the job as the overall defender of the top airlines in the continent. This gesture, extended to Kenya at a time of great need, was not a preserve of the country but a pointer to Kossi’s international outlook on issues affecting the African continent.

His diplomatic skills, however, were not borne of that experience since prior to his posting in Nairobi he had served in a position that required him to deal with several governments and heads of state and balance their interests.

Kossi had served as the finance director of Air Afrique before joining Afraa.

"As a finance director, I was managing the company’s relationship with all the 11 states," he says of his role at the prestigious airline.

He has come to know many African presidents

It was his responsibility to negotiate with other countries interested in joining the airline as partners. In these discussions, he adds, he would negotiate with presidents of the interested countries before a decision was taken.

It is through these negotiations and discussions that he honed his diplomatic skills.

Through his many years of service, he has come to know many African presidents, retired presidents and senior African government officials at a personal level.

This is evident as one enters his expensively furnished office at Afraa headquarters in Nairobi’s Bellevue area.

The picture of Kossi chatting with the enigmatic Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi enjoys the pride of place in his office.

Yet another picture of him with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is prominently displayed on his office walls.

Also notable is a photo of him exchanging niceties with former Ivory Coast President Felix Houphet Boigny.

"I have developed a personal touch with some of these African presidents," he says with his trademark smile lighting his face.

Kossi presents a gift to Libyan President Muamar Gaddafi.

"Without bragging, I can pick a phone and talk to some of these presidents any time without any barriers," he says pointing at many other photos he has taken with other heads of state.

Represents interests of more than 40 major airlines

Kossi has been an advisor to various African governments —including Togo, Namibia, Ivory Coast and Nigeria — on air transport related matters.

He has been involved in the shaping of many policies affecting the air transport industry in the continent and also internationally.

Through his work, he has now been transformed into an African diplomat, hopping from one country to the other across the globe to defend the African Airlines that he represents.

Being the head of African Airlines association, he represents the interests of more than 40 major African airlines.

These include Africa’s giant airlines like South Africa Airways, Kenya Airways, Egypt Air, Ethiopia Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Tunis Air, Air Senegal International and Libyan Arab Airlines.

The African airspace and African airlines have become his pet subjects as he traverses the globe safeguarding the interests of the Africans in these areas.

"Some of the African Airlines call us to face their governments when they have important issues they feel we are in a better position to convince their governments to implement," he says.

Spearheaded programme to assess safety of airlines

When the European Union banned some African airlines from flying their airspace, Kossi was the first person to answer back, accusing them of insincerity.

He said some of the airlines that had been listed as unsafe were nonexistent. Some of them, he said, only existed in books.

However, even with his hard stance on some of these issues, he does not miss an opportunity to crack a joke even in the most difficult of the situations thus endearing him to many.

"Banning some of these airlines from flying to Europe is like saying Kenyan matatus (commuter vans) should not carry passengers in Paris. Do you ever expect them to go there?" he asked at the time, explaining that some of the airlines operated only domestic routes in their countries.

Though he led in the lobby against such unilateral and unhelpful actions by the European Union, he still acknowledged the need for some civil aviation authorities in Africa to take their safety oversight responsibilities more seriously.

It is for this reason that his organisation spearheaded a programme to visit civil aviation authorities jointly with Africa Union Commission representatives to assess accurately the safety situation and needs of the affected civil aviations and pave way for practical solutions.

Has been able to give African Airlines a louder voice

For the respect he commands in the aviation industry in Africa and globally, Kossi was at one time chosen a special advisor to the African Union on the aviation matters.

When Alpha Oumar Konare became the chairman of the African Union in 2002, Kossi was among the few African personalities invited to participate in a special committee to define a new vision for African Union.

They were to come up with an action plan to realise this vision.

Through such forums, Kossi has been able to give the African Airlines a louder voice thus commanding respect from the other world airlines.

"We are the ones to defuse the idea that the African skies are dangerous," he says of the mentality created by the European Union of African skies.

"Up to the end of August, there were 31 civil aircraft fatal accidents in the world with 620 fatalities, of which six accidents with 39 fatalities were from Africa,’ he says with the statistics at his finger tips.

"This represents 6.3 per cent of the total fatalities. So far the African continent is more or less in line to achieving world class standards in terms of the rate of accidents if the present trend continues," he explains, dismissing the idea that African skies are unsafe.

Connectivity between African cities

It is with such focus and accurate statistics that the tough talking Afraa secretary general does not shy away from controversy and is able to defend the continent from what he says are competitors using the excuse of safety to get undue advantage over the African airlines.

"It is ill intentioned for competition purposes to the extent that when accidents involve carriers on other continents, the western media finds it more convenient to attribute their comments to the unsafe African skies," he told an annual general assembly of Afraa attended by the Director General of International Air Transport Association (Iata), Mr Giovanni Bisignani.

Besides safety, what bothers Kossi is the connectivity between the African cities and the time taken to travel from one African city to the other.

He laments situations where one is forced to fly to Europe from Africa to get a flight to another African city saying it’s a shame and interconnectivity should be enhanced. He says airline is the easiest thing that can bring all Africans together as one people.

"I consider that the airline industry is going to be the backbone of economic development in Africa," he says.

He further argues that it would take many years to open the continent if road or railway transport was to be depended upon.

"Africa cannot leave the exclusive operation of its routes to foreign carriers. Countries that have no airlines should allow other African carriers to freely operate their traffic rights to the outside world," he says.

Went to the best schools and universities in France

Global liberalisation of the air transport, says Kossi, should be implemented in a progressive and gradual manner so that Third World countries continue to remain in business.

Born in 1953 in the Togolese provincial city of Kpalime, 120km from Lome, the capital of Togo, Kossi grew from humble beginnings in the border of Ghana and Togo but went to the best schools and universities in France.

"I was born to a father who was among the first people to attend a technical school to train as a tailor," says Kossi.

"My father became popular for sewing suits for the political elite of Togo. Everybody at the time was concerned with the fight for independence. He eventually became a politician," says Kossi of his father.

It is from his father that he learned the need to fight for African unity in all ways. Born near the border with English speaking Ghana, Kossi learnt French and English at a young age.

His mother was forced by circumstances to bring up Kossi and his other siblings alone after his father escaped from Togo in 1961 for political reasons.

"We felt like we were abandoned," he recalls his childhood experiences.

"I was brought up by a very strong woman whom I pay a lot of credit to," he adds, bursting into a hearty laughter.

‘Product of the best education system’

However, despite the problems of being brought up by a ‘single parent’, Kossi says he was extremely brilliant in school and this won him favours and admiration from his teachers.

When he went to a Catholic mission secondary school in Lome, the mission decided to send some students to study in France. Luckily, he was one of the chosen few.

"The Catholic priest in-charge wanted to change our mentality and instil discipline. The priest believed sending people to France would instil this," he adds.

Kossi and his colleagues got a chance to go through the French system of education at an early age.

"The priest wanted to westernise us before we got to the university," he recalls.

Kossi would spend the next seven years in France’s secondary schools before joining universities in the same country.

Through the French system of education, Kossi got to learn Greek and Latin languages besides upgrading his knowledge in French and English.

He would later proceed to the prestigious HEC (Ecole Des Hautes etudes Commerciales-Grand Ecole) in Paris.

"This is the top school in France which trains the best management experts," he jokingly brags, adding he is a product of the best education system.

Dilemma between journalism and a job at Air Afrique

After this, he went to the school of Sorbonne, where he graduated with a degree in sociology.

Later he went to the Paris Dauphine IX University, where he got an advanced degree in monetary economics.

"Basically I am trained for business management but I am an economist and a sociologist," he says of his training.

After completing his studies in 1977, Kossi did his internship at Bank Nationale Paris (National Bank of Paris) where he realised it was very hard for a black person to rise to management positions.

After deciding to search for a job in Africa, he would be faced with a dilemma between becoming a journalist for a prestigious French magazine, Jeune Afrique, published in France or taking up a job at Air Afrique.

Jeune Afrique covers the political, economic and cultural spheres of Africa. But his fiancÈe offered a solution when she suggested that he takes up the air ticket offered to him and fly to Abidjan where he would know what the African multinational airline had to offer.

He admits he was more attracted to the magazine than the airline but when he went to the airline offices, his mind changed when he was told he would train for one year in France before getting a posting.

For his fiancÈe, it was the perfect honeymoon when he was given two air tickets to Abidjan to negotiate for the deal.

He rose through the ranks in the airline to become the finance director in 1982. It was a position he served in until 1999 when he was appointed Afraa secretary general.

Unfortunately the airline folded two years later. Kossi is married to Marie Folly-Kossi, who also attended school and university with him at France, and they have three children.

Source: The East African Standard
Published on October 29, 2006, 12:00 am

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