The roots of all our evils By Ifeanyi Uddin

The trauma occasioned by the crash of the Dana aircraft a couple of Sundays back is different in a difficult-to-explain way. And the burden heavier than that associated with similar tragedies in the past. I suppose the collateral damage on the ground ? reinforcing, as it were, how vulnerable we have become ? contributed much to this quality. For one averse to air travel, it was especially upsetting. Having grown up watching Nigerians ? auto mechanics, carpenters, masons, doctors, architects, bankers, electricians, etc. ? cut as many corners as possible in their different callings, I have always doubted claims about the relative safety of (domestic) air travel. Truth be told, I don’t travel much. Travel by road anywhere in the country is an extreme act of faith! So I tend to hug the couch. And if you live in Lagos like I do, this is perhaps the least cost option. The risks from being outside one’s home ? commercial motorcyclists, over-zealous LASTMA personnel, exuberant law enforcement staff, the ubiquitous “area boy” ? are as legion as they are increasingly tedious. Moreover, on that fateful Sunday, the couch was comfier still: the Nigerian national team was scheduled to take on its Namibian counterpart in a world cup qualifying match by 4.00pm. And then, three bus-stops away a distressed plane made extraordinary contact with suburbia.

Denial. Anger. Resignation. Organ grinding in slow motion. One heart-rending sentiment presaging the next, and seemingly determined by it. Days after, the realisation that all that we hold dear in our system, all that’s left of it, is rapidly failing. And that the new task before us all, if we are to rein this juggernaut in from its determined rush towards the rock face, is to address the threat posed by impunity, not just in government ? the dimensions of this, we all are familiar with. But increasingly in its incarnation outside the hallowed official spaces, as a new randomness that promises to make nonsense of our daily lives.

Where’s the aviation industry regulator? Which one of the innumerable agencies in that space is properly responsible? Who should be the one answering questions about the age/suitability of the planes in the domestic airspace? Who should have ensured that the findings of enquiries into previous such disasters were implemented? I felt the need, in short, for a national institution with the capacity to force commercial airlines to ground their operations because one airplane in their fleet had failed to complete operational checks. In the current circumstance, other assignments appropriate to the aviation industry regulator include confirming that the Heavy Maintenance Visit (HMV, more commonly called the D Check), and the C Check cannot be carried out in Nigeria. The proper question here is not to find out why we cannot carry these checks out locally. It is rather to confirm that local carriers undergo these checks on schedule.

This bit about the local capacity for maintaining aircrafts is significant because it speaks to the added costs we beware for the misfortune of being Nigerian. On account of the conduct of D Checks and C Checks outside the country the cost side of the airline industry’s profit and loss account is measured in dollars, while the revenue leg is in naira ? with the implied exchange rate risks. If domestic businesses cannot pass rising costs (these costs grow as the naira loses value) on to shareholders (these category of stakeholders demand a higher risk premium for doing business here), to staff (in particular the aviation industry’s high labour churn rate makes this difficult), or to consumers (too small a universe), where are the cuts to come from? Part of the answer to this question is the reason behind the delay in handing over the corpses from the crash to their relatives for burial. Much has already been made of the fact that there are no DNA Testing laboratories in the country. Given the potential demand for this service, you could ask why the “private sector” has failed to plug the breach. The reason is simple. Equipment that delicate would require insurance against damage by “power surge” (I’m not sure there’s such an insurance product/service), and/or investment in diesel generators that can run all year round. At this point, it then becomes cheaper to send DNA samples to South Africa or Egypt for the necessary analysis, rather than have it done locally.

This tension between regulatory failure, and unsupportable domestic cost structures was recently illustrated by the shenanigans in another sector of the economy. Having fined the four biggest telecommunications companies in the country N1.17bn for their failure to meet the minimum standard of service quality, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had to resort to threats of additional sanctions in the face of the industry’s recalcitrance. What do we know? Not much. But there are strong reasons to believe that given the levels of service enjoyed by Nigerian mobile phone subscribers, this might just be one of the most expensive places in the world to make a call. Why so? This is also one of the few places in the world where private companies still pay protection money. “Area boys” would not permit the delivery of fuel to those generators, without which no serious business may be done in the country, without companies paying up. No one talks about the police any longer. These non-government agencies have become a new law unto us.

If for every base station, a telco has to pay these princely sums, what options are open to its management? No different, essentially, from the airline operators’ dilemma. Absorb the costs. And pay shareholders less than they expect for investing in a dodgy jurisdiction, or pay staff less. Or pass as much on to the market as the unfortunate consumers can take? These are purely business decisions from which government does well to refrain, having decided that the private sector is to be the engine of growth, going forward. Better, instead, to try and understand the process by which the Mafia and allied criminal organisations came to dominate life in places like Italy at a certain point in the evolution of those places. In other words, to look at how our state is failing and what we can do to remedy this failure. For therein lies the root of all the evil that currently beset us.

 

 


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