Look we must commend a good initiative. Even as an opposition leader I will readily commend whatever the incumbent leaders do correctly. The launching of Nigeria Air, in keeping with the promises of President Buhari looks like a commendable move. I will not hasten to throw it out the window. But I believe it needs to be appraised well enough.
Let me start with my experience with Nigeria Airways, which I patronized a bit in its twilight under Kema Chikwe. Nigeria had then signed some sort of wet lease with some British company which provided us with the pilot and crew, alongside the plane. Nigeria provided the ground staff, backup, food etc. The plane was then unbranded; just plain white in colour.
I flew into London one cold Friday but my checked in luggage did not arrive with me. In the flight, the food was flat and cold, while the coca cola was warm. They said there was no electricity to keep the food warm, or the drinks cold. We managed. While airborne it got quite cold because it was winter, but Nigeria Airways had no blanket. We managed again. When I was returned, the in-flight conditions was better – because they had prepared from the London end. However, I hadn’t received the luggage I took with me. Getting here, the luggage I brought back also did not arrive, so I went home very empty handed. It wasn’t until one week that they called me from London that the one I took just arrived there, around the same time as they managed to locate what I brought back. It was hilarious.
But my story is not as bizarre as what happened in the flight the Tuesday before I traveled. My friend’s elder brother had traveled into London that day with Nigeria Airways. He narrated that as the plane stabilized and the cabin crew started wheeling out the food for inflight service, someone suddenly jumped on his seat shouting ‘ejo! ejo! ejo!!” (Snake! Snake! Snake!!). All hell broke loose as everyone jumped on their seats. The cabin crew abandoned their trolleys and disappeared. The pilots shut locked themselves in and concentrated on the flight. He said the snake was eventually killed. It was a small snake. People wondered how the snake got in the cabin. It could be that someone was asked by the Babalawos of Peckham, Camberwell, Woolwich and Clapham Common (oh yes there are many), to bring a live snake when coming back to London, and it probably escaped from someone’s hand luggage. Or it could be the generally decrepit conditions of the environment where our planes are parked especially in Lagos where an alligator and a male genital organs were once found in the basement (a very dark place. Google it).
These stories may sound tangential but they are very instructive in determining the viability, sustainability, rationale and reasonability of this new venture, which is likely a product of sentiments. Indeed the president promised to bring back Nigeria Airway. But the intriguing thing is why this fanciful promise is the one he chose to keep over and above the many other promises he made, which his minister for information, among other lieutenants had striven to deny on his behalf. I have the printed manifesto in front of me as I type. The number one promise is ‘to openly declare my asset and ensure all my appointees declare their assets openly’. Yar’Adua did that and forced Jonathan. But with the second coming of Jonathan, and then, unfortunately the second coming of Buhari, the idea of open declaration of asset now sounds so distant, archaic, and impossible. Yet such would have been salutary to the anti-corruption war, and will mark a readiness for integrity.
Lets go back to the promise to deliver a national career. What value does it carry?
I think it is largely sentimental. Buhari – like Obasanjo before him – would usually rue the achievements of the past. The only difference is that he has done that more than Obasanjo and is now ready to give effect to one of those reminisces of his. Obasanjo would also long for NNSL and the 25 ships Nigeria used to own, but never came round to bringing them back. It was Obasanjo that gave final effect to the winding up of Nigeria Airways, paradoxically. Hadi Sirika, being a pilot is also emotionally attached to this project. Oftentimes, emotions need to be pushed aside when thinking of business.
Those who love the idea speak about Nigeria’s population, and the need to block the billions of dollars that Nigerians pay out yearly on our many foreign trips (truly Nigerians ‘don chop guinea fowl leg’, given the way we are always traveling – especially those who have access to government funds). They also speak about pride, as well as the need to properly utilize our Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA), which seem to have become merely a one-sided affair as other countries merely take advantage of our people’s cash flows.
For me, I don’t think the idea is such a fantastic one at this point, even though it is meant to be driven 95% by the private sector. The private-sector leadership of this project is not enough grounds to justify it. We all have seen what is happening in our privatized power sector. Our education has also been privatized. Sometimes, the private sector comes with their own delusions. And you can’t blame them if they exploit the people; they are set up to maximize profits, not to make Nigeria proud.
These are my reasons for applying caution:
- Nigeria’s population does not automatically translate into profitability in the aviation sector. Nigeria’s biggest problem – economically – is the paucity of non-debt, and non-business foreign currency inflow from non-Nigerians. Unlike what obtains in other African countries, we hardly get much of cheap tourist money. What we get are either foreign portfolio investments or debt capital. In other words, we need to work on how to get foreigners to visit Nigeria.
- Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world where the majority of our aviation traffic consist of indigenes. Check it. At any point in time at any of our airports, the queue of Nigerians returning or departing is always several times higher. In all the countries I’ve been, the opposite is true. This has to do with our externalized view of life, which needs to be changed; curbed, not encouraged. Certainly we cannot build a business on a bad habit that we should otherwise kick.
- Tourism is dead – or never really lived – in Nigeria due to our problems with crime, insecurity and a mismanaged reputation. These needs to be fixed to make Nigeria attractive to foreigners. Our tourist centers are quite moribund right now. We cannot even feed animals in our zoos! I have done research in tourism in the past. Uganda boasts of a million tourists yearly and you can see them on their streets. Kenya boasts of 2million. Ethiopia a little bit more. Here, tourist footfall is almost non-existent. We have no mention on global tourism databases, only cooked up figures by local ministries and parastatals. Sorry.
- Most of the foreign travel by Nigerians have no business case. We should balance our tourist inflow with our own external sojourns. We cannot build a business case on the number of Nigerians who travel for pilgrimage yearly, or public servants who travel to myriad conferences that add little value. If we consider most of our travels critically one will conclude that we stay back home and build our country. Then the illusionary air traffic will drop. We need a reality check.
- Aviation investment due to its capital intensiveness is long term in nature. If we look at what happened to Arik Air, in spite of the alleged leverage of capital from former Rivers State Governor Odili, the company still owed so much to banks, and had to be taken over from its initial owners. Nigeria does not guarantee long-term investments due to change in government policies.
- he ever-present corruption is a major turnoff which can alter the ROI (Return on Investment) of such transactions at any time. Virgin Atlantic/Virgin Nigeria quit the Nigerian space allegedly due to demands being made by sundry government officials. If the government of the day can guarantee that no one is making such demands from the new investors they are shopping for today, there is still no guarantee that coming governments will not demand that proceeds from certain number of seats should be remitted to some powerful politician in the near-future. We can see the possibility of a major reversion to prebendalism with a vengeance, with Ekiti elections.
- From the stories narrated above, our backend is where the problem is. Compared to Ethiopia and some other countries we wish to benchmark, Nigerians have not shown the beginning of any capacity to provide world-class backup to a national carrier. We cannot compete well with tardy, half-baked technical support. And we cannot also afford to outsource these services to foreigners whom we will pay dollars. The moment travelers see that the backup is dodgy, they move to other options and that dents the business – the cash flow drops and business starts to have a going concern problem.
- Nigerians in general need to begin to commit to excellence in all things before venturing into aviation business. Yes, there has been improvement in aviation excellence since the Obasanjo days when planes used to drop like flies, but excellence and attention to details need to be a culture in Nigeria. The incumbent government was voted in because of that promise but slacked out. I am President of the Institute for Service Excellence and Good Governance in Nigeria and this is what we help with
- One way to show the beginnings of a commitment to excellence and meticulousness required to run sustainable operations in a national airline is the quality of our airports. Facelifts have been rather cosmetic. But our airports are still a bevy of touts and adhere with no international standards. Compared to airports in say Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Ghana, Uganda and Kenya where I’ve been, our airports are an absolute nightmare for travelers. Fixing the airports and ensuring they are hallowed grounds is a good start.
- Lastly I believe we could have done more work on the name. The logo is fine. But Nigeria Air sounds a bit pedestrian. With the problems we have with 419 guys, I wouldn’t be buying any ‘Nigerian Air’. Sounds vapid. I thought about this and came up with UNITED NIGERIA AIRLINE (UNA). Always good to use this kind of occasion to rescue the splinter of this country. Did Sirika really do a thorough job?
Let me end it here. Any traveller who alights at our airport will at once be accosted and approached by a rugby scrum of 50 unlicensed and un-uniformed taxi drivers any of whom could be criminals. Then little children selling groundnut when they should be in school (especially in Abuja), recharge card sellers, dollar-pound changers and whatnot. The other time I was approached by a guy who told me he had something for erectile dysfunction. In an airport! We should start from these embarrassing places. I once reported on the cleaners in Lagos airport who issue Yellow Fever immunization cards from the toilet, for N2,000. What about the army of people who beg for money from all passengers who have not changed despite the executive order to clean up the airport space? Where do we start?
I hope Nigeria Air is not just a flight of fancy. Is there a pun there? Forgive it please.