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When will the age of aviation begin in Nigeria?

By  Dele Sobowale

Against stupidity, the gods themselves struggle in vain—Fredrick Von Schiller, 1759-1805. German philosopher.

THE Dark Ages ended in Europe over three hundred years ago. Nigerian Historians of the future might eventually come to regard our era as a continuation of the Dark Age in the, well, Dark continent. Professor Wole Soyinka declared our generation as the Lost Generation. He would have to find another word from his Thesaurus to describe the generations coming after. People become repetitive in old age and I will soon turn 74. But, nothing summarises the decline of everything in Nigeria, including Senior Advocate/Professors peddling rumours, instead of stating facts better than what Horace, 65-8 BC, observed over two thousand years ago. “What does corrupting time not diminish? Our grandparents brought forth feebler heirs [meaning our parents], we are further degenerate, and soon will beget progeny [our kids] more wicked.” Look around you today. In schools, primary and secondary where the most dangerous weapon you could find in 1960 was a pen knife, you now must have guns and cutlasses to survive.

Yet, despite the pervasive decline noticeable in virtually everything, we occasionally bestir ourselves and make attempts to join a world which is rapidly leaving us behind in our self-induced darkness. From time to time, governments and our parasitic private sector pretend to want to join the global race for economic advantage and dominance. But as James Macpherson, 1736-1796, grandfather of a former Governor General of Nigeria, Sir John Macpherson, once said of his lazy countrymen, “They came forth to war, but they always fell.” Our tycoons always bite the dust. There has never been a great business tycoon in Nigeria whose business empire lasted more than a few years after his death. There are no Fords, Mercedes Benzes, no Toyota, no Phillips, no Nestles or Guinness. It is likely that all of our current champions (no names please) are building their business empires like children constructing sand castles on the sea shore – waiting to be wiped away in record time.

The only other business sectors which had witnessed more casualties in this respect than aviation are private banking and the print media. Since private airlines emerged in the early days of the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, during Babangida’s regime, one would need a computer to count the number of private airlines that have come and gone – some so fast the uniforms issued to their staff – from air hostesses to ground crew – are still sparkling when they go belly up.

Nigeria’s aviation sector is so weak and vulnerable, more so than those of many African countries, never mind European or Asian – that it was inevitable that they were the first sector to urge Buhari not to sign the African Continental Free Trade Area accord. This is a comical case of the giant running from battle against midgets. But, nobody can blame them exclusively for their collective cowardice. In no business sector does Nigeria enjoy any demonstrable competitive advantage – not in education, technology, power generation, infrastructure, ease of doing business, government economic policies, preferred investment destination and transparency. Aviation sector merely mirrors the rot in other sectors which need government’s protection (import prohibition, subsidized production, duty waivers etc) in order to survive.

Two factors make the aviation sector more vulnerable than others – attitude (including poor business models) and wrong players. Let us start with the players. Almost right from the start of private airlines, the Nigerian aviation sector can be described as one in which most of the owners are “money-miss-road” individuals. The first entrants were people with a lot of money or clout with banks. They saw a virgin territory into which they could step as pioneers.

Some of them even took advantage of the incentives offered under the Pioneer Status Schemes offered by the Federal Government designed to encourage Nigerians to participate fully in the sector. While their contributions are appreciated, there was no real commitment; no passion for flying in a civilized world. An example will illustrate that statement.

I was once on a flight from Lagos to Maiduguri with the intention to continue to Yola by road and return with the same airline from Yola. The outbound flight was flawless, as far as Nigerian operations go. It was on the return journey that the proprietor of the airline demonstrated all the faults that later turned the dream to a nightmare for him, for staff, for passengers and for bankers. After several announcements of delay for “one hour” and “regrets for any inconvenience to passengers”, the reason for the delay soon became clear.

The owner of the airline and his wives were traveling to Lagos on short notice and he would not travel with his wives and passengers in the same plane. Over two hundred checked in passengers were asked to come and collect refunds and find their way. It was the second and last flight from Yola that day. I had an appointment in Lagos next day. I gathered three men and together drove all afternoon and all night to Lagos. That might be extreme, but, elements of his behaviour was common then. Customer satisfaction counted for nothing.

Five months after, the airline was grounded.

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