THAT BACKWARD SUIT AGAINST NIGERIAN AIR
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.
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 aircrafts of her own left so we actually boarded an unbranded white aeroplane. It had a white crew with a few Nigerian cabin crew (wet lease it is called). It was our last-ditch effort. 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 apologized 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 departed London for Lagos, I had to buy Ghana-must-go bags (I hate that term) for the stuff I had purchased in London.
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 after one 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 her 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. 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 was made on him – including ministers and DG’s who demanded for shares or for the proceeds of a number of seats on every flight 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’s different. A lot of water has passed under the bridge. Circumstance 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 by far the largest and most professionally run 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 their professionalism. ET currently partners with a few African countries and I was surprised the other day touching down at Togo, 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 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 a 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 aircrafts 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 tickets, 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 Nigerians 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 shabbily in 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.