I think we should give Nigeria Air a chance. I think also that as Nigerians we should resolve to conduct ourselves more respectably all over the world, going forward. Back in the day, it was a privilege to travel, and our people understood that if you were visiting someone else’s country, you needed to be somehow decently presented. These days, I see young Nigerians with little exposure showing up deliberately shabby at another man’s border.
I must confess that years back when Minister Hadi Sirika first toyed with the idea of Nigeria Air – a sovereign airline for Nigeria – I wasn’t on board with him. I felt it was a wasteful idea and since we hadn’t run anything well, any such massive idea to be handled fully by Nigerians was likely to fail like the ones before it.
I also had a few examples to show. In the dying days of Nigeria Airways, when President Obasanjo got Mrs Kema Chikwe to try and revive the airline – somewhere around 2000 and 2001 – I recall going to the London with them from Lagos. It was a hilarious disaster. Of course, by then Nigeria probably had no aircraft of its own left, so we actually boarded an unbranded white aeroplane. It had a white crew, with a few Nigerians in the cabin crew (a wet lease, such arrangement is called). It was our last-ditch effort at running an airline. The fare was around N70,000. I recall that they served cold food and warm Coca Cola, complaining that there was no electricity in Lagos to freeze their drinks or to warm the food. It was in the dead of winter, and as we climbed into the air and it got chilly, they apologised that they had no blankets. When I arrived London, my luggage did not come with me. I filled a form indicating my friend’s address at Hackney. Seven days later when I was departing London back to Lagos, I had to buy Ghana-must-go bags (I hate that phrase) for the stuff I had purchased in London to take back home.
The flight back was better for the in-flight catering, but they also lost my Ghana-must-go bags for over one week. My outbound luggage arrived in London days after I had departed too. I had to take a flight back to Lagos from Abuja after another week, to come retrieve my bag. My friend’s brother had arrived in London on the Tuesday before I did, and he told a very hilarious story. He said when they took off from Lagos and the cabin crew started wheeling out the inflight services, someone jumped up from their seat screaming, ‘Ejo! Ejo! Ejo!’ (Snake! Snake! Snake!). There was pandemonium on the flight. The cabin crew scrambled away as people jumped on their seats. Somehow, he said they killed the small snake – perhaps it had escaped from somebody’s hand luggage! Such was our experience with Nigeria Airways in its dying days. The poor company died in the hands of Nigerians who had used and abused it. Nigeria Airways died because of the many demands on it by Nigerian elites. We don’t know how not to take advantage of things. And at one point, it became a shambolic bedlam, as everybody rushed in with their daggers. Those who could steal ticket sales did so with impunity. Those who could strip assets did so too. Others merely traveled for free with their harem and dozens of children. Who cares?
Even our latter dalliance with Richard Branson ended up a fiasco. Branson would later complain about the many untenable requests that were made on him – including by ministers and directors-general of government establishments, who demanded for shares in the business or for the proceeds of a number of seats on every flight, which were to be forwarded to them daily. Some say that Richard too meant to play a fast one, forgetting that Nigerians are smarter swindlers.
But this time, it is different. A lot of water has passed under the bridge. The circumstances have changed. A lot of time has elapsed. I support the idea of Nigeria Air as packaged, for the following reasons:
- The partnership with Ethiopia Air. ET, as it is known, has become a global player, and it is by far the largest and most professionally run airline in Africa. The company has been around for over 75 solid years and for Ethiopia, that is their mainstay. In spite of the toughness of that industry, ET went all in, and has therefore gained global acclaim and respect for its professionalism. ET currently partners with a few African countries and I was surprised the other day touching down in Togo, to learn just how far they’ve gone with some other African nations. ET presently runs ASky Airlines out of Lome, among others in Africa.
- Fronting private airlines as our national career seems not to have gone well so far. The case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with Air Peace comes to mind. Somehow, foreign countries don’t have maximum respect for private airlines coming out of a country like ours. We need to represent properly and signal a new lease of life for our country. It will sound entirely different and unacceptable, if Nigeria Air is prevented from enjoying Bilateral Air Service Agreement rights as, Air Peace has been deprived in many jurisdictions, like the UK and UAE, in the not-too-distant past.
- Ethiopia’s professional involvement will enable Nigeria to operate the new airline on an arm’s length basis and reduce drastically a scenario where any government official takes advantage of the airline. It also will signal a new era where Nigeria will not allow pride to get in the way of progress. This is actually the biggest hurdle now, and the most strident argument I have heard so far is: why should we allow another country – much less an African country – come and show us the way and have substantial shares in our airline? I think Nigerians should really study the achievements of ET in aviation. From the maintenance of aircraft to the running of an ultra-modern airport (Bole Airport has seen tremendous improvements even over the COVID-19 period), I think we should stoop to conquer (if conquering is what is on our mind). I believe we should readily accept expertise from anywhere, if we are indeed sincere about transforming our country. Of course, issues of shares and ownership could be continually considered.
- Presently, there are many complaints of exploitation of Nigerians by many foreign airlines. Flying from Ghana to the UK is mostly cheaper than from anywhere in Nigeria. We have been exploited for many years. A Nigeria Air will probably allow us to see what our fair fares should be like – if managed professionally. I believe also that this is the minister’s chief motivation – especially how Nigeria can save foreign exchange. One of the biggest issues with our economy is that we owe foreign airlines almost a billion dollars. For this reason, many of the airlines have blocked cheaper tickets for Nigerians and we are only enabled to buy very expensive ones, thus exacerbating the already bad foreign exchange situation. Perhaps having our Nigeria Air will reduce this pressure considerably.
- Nigeria has almost become a global pariah nation, with many countries zoning us out entirely. Part of the reason for this is our hopeless reliance on others. As many as we are, we have no global representation of greatness. I believe though that if we think well enough, we will notice that things are changing. I believe we should be able to run our own national airline better today at least for one reason – in the time that Nigeria Airways was run down, the people’s voices were weak. Not anymore. The presence of social media has ensured that citizen complaints get mainstreamed more easily and that governments are on their toes increasingly. There’s a chance that the kind of abuses of the system we saw back in the Nigeria Airways days will find its way to the internet in these days of the ubiquitous smartphones and document leakages.
I think we should give Nigeria Air a chance. I think also that as Nigerians we should resolve to conduct ourselves more respectably all over the world, going forward. Back in the day, it was a privilege to travel, and our people understood that if you were visiting someone else’s country, you needed to be somehow decently presented. These days, I see young Nigerians with little exposure showing up deliberately shabby at another man’s border. What went wrong? Of course, the blowback is being suffered by all of us. But fix it, we must. Nigeria Air is a step in the right direction.
‘Tope Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, entrepreneur, and recent presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.
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