By Omoh Gabriel
The news broken by the National President, Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), Mr Benjamin Okewu, last week that the Federal Government might float a national carrier by December, came as a surprise to those who are well informed of the fate of Nigeria Airways.
Nigeria Airways was voluntarily liquidated by the PDP-led Federal Government amidst protests from both well meaning Nigerians and former staffers of the defunct airline. Okewu told newsmen in Lagos that a Federal Government committee was in place to ensure that Nigeria “has its own national carrier that would serve as a driver in the nation’s aviation industry.”
The ATSSSAN president noted that the process of creating the national carrier would have been completed long ago but for the June 3rd Dana plane crash that slowed it down.
“There is a committee on establishing a national carrier and incidentally, the joint trade union forum is representing the unions there.” It is funny how the PDP-led Federal Government reverses its economic policies.
Today, it is privatisation and tomorrow it is nationalisation. Whatever is the fancy of the leader goes. The Obasanjo-led government that liquidated the Nigeria Airways was a PDP-led government. Some six years after the airline was liquidated, another government led by a PDP President, Goodluck Jonathan, is thinking of floating another airline with government funds.
Obasanjo was advised by the International Finance Corporation, IFC, to inject funds into Nigeria Airways to get it operational and thereafter privatise it. He was also asked to allow Nigeria Airways merge with major airlines to revamp its operations. He refused both options and said; “I cannot reinforce failure.” Thereafter, he sold the airline and its properties.
South Africa Airways was facing the same problems that Nigeria Airways was facing then, but the government of South Africa injected funds into the airline and privatized it.
Kenya Airline had to partner a foreign airline, KLM, for it to survive, but the Federal Government sold its airline because some powerful vested interests were eyeing the assets of the airline which they wanted as their share of the national cake.
Nigeria Airways for anyone who cares to recall, was the biggest landlord in GRA; all its properties in London, US, Abidjan and Accra, were sold when it was liquidated, yet, its staff were not paid their entitlements and the matter is still in court today. Curiously, the charter that set up Nigerian Airways was an Act of parliament.
The National Assembly did not revoke the charter. The Act that set up Nigeria Airways indicated that it was set up for national prestige. That was why it was fashionable then for an aircraft that was going to London with 250 passengers on board to be diverted from Kano to take a personality to Saudi Arabia’ and all passengers would be off-loaded, while it carries one person and his entourage to Saudi Arabia and stays there grounded for days. Every government official that had travelled in Nigeria Airways then travelled for free; they did not pay.
In those days, Nigerians used to feel good when at Heathrow Airport, they see an airline landing with “Green, White and Green” colours. As Nigerians, they felt good, whether the Nigeria Airways was making money or not, they felt good and had a sense of belonging because the airline was advertising Nigeria. Despite this, the government went ahead and sold the airline.
Today, Nigerians are paying for it. Nigeria does not have a national carrier. The argument for wanting to set up an airline is that foreign airlines are ripping off Nigerians. Nigeria had signed a Bilateral Air Service Agreement, BASA, with Britain and other countries.
The present Minister of Aviation has seemingly discovered the lopsidedness in these agreements. BASA is an agreement that says ‘I will come to your country 10 times a week; you come to my country 10 times a week.’ Now, foreign airlines take advantage of the terms of the agreement but Nigeria does not because it sold its national carrier.
But the same government officials had exploited it and traded Nigeria’s terms of the agreement for cash. ‘The 10 times Nigerian carrier is supposed to come to your country and is not coming, give us the money in lieu of the10 times so that you can be coming 20 times.’ That is what Nigeria did.
Besides, on what infrastructure will the proposed airline operate? Nigeria Airways, its hangers, office buildings and everything were sold to private individuals for peanuts. Is the government going to do a buy back of the infrastructure now that it seems desperate? At what price is it going to buy them back? Running in circles is not the best of economic option for a country in a hurry to catch up with others. Why was Nigeria Airways liquidated in the first instance?