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Nigeria air(ways) as a metaphor for why Nigeria might never be first world nation

By Dele Sobowale

“They came forth to war, but they always fell.”

James Macpherson, 1736-1796.

James Macpherson was the grandfather of Sir John Macpherson, a former Governor General of Nigeria and his observations about people going to war and failing each and every time is perhaps the most appropriate way to summarise the disastrous efforts made by Nigerian governments – Federal, States and Local Governments – to engage in businesses which are best left to the private sector.

Nigerian Airways grounded

The list at the Federal level is as long as two arms strung together. They start well but end up in tragedies. The same can be said about states’ and Local Governments enterprises. They are launched with fanfare and promises of employment generation. They end up bankrupting the nation, the state and the LGs. Dreams of employment end in frustration and joblessness visited on those who believed them in the beginning.

“Every great enterprise starts off with enthusiasm for an exalted aim and ends up bogged down by petty politics.” Charles Peguy, 1873-1914.

Nigerian Airways was started under colonial rule — just like Kenya Airways, South African Airlines. But, perhaps because the others suffered more under while rule and remained longer under them, they were able to acquire the discipline necessary to manage businesses – especially those as complex as airlines. Till today those national airlines remain in business and are fiercely competitive in a global aviation sector which punishes failures severely.

Nigeria Airways died with President Obasanjo with no credible replacement. Our attempt to revive the business in a Public-Private-Partnership, PPP, with Virgin Nigeria ended very quickly in mutual recriminations. No point in going into the reasons for the collapse of that arrangement. It will amount to crying over spilled Coca-cola.

It is only important as a point of departure because it might tell us a few things we should expect from the new Nigeria Air.

The first and most important question is: will the new flag-bearer be managed by Nigerians or Martians i.e people from planet Mars. If Nigerians appointed by politicians are going to run the business, then we might as well forget it. The reason is not hard to discover for reaching that conclusion. Take a look at what happened to Nigerian Airways.

“What does corrupting time not diminish? Our grandparents brought forth feebler heirs, we are further degenerate; and soon will beget progeny more wicked.” Horace, 65-8 BC.

The profitable Nigerian Airways bequeathed to us by the British and our founding fathers during the First Republic, was ruined by our generation, as represented by President Obasanjo who liquidated it. But, that was not before the Federal Government left unpaid N45 billion severance entitlements owed to employees. Those left holding the empty bag; that is. Till he left, Obasanjo promised to pay, but failed to do. Yar’Adua took over and still refused to pay. Jonathan, GEJ, behaved as if he did not recognize that government is a continuum; the obligations inherited from a previous government must be addressed – just as the President accepts the positive balances in the treasury.

But, at least GEJ knew his limitations. His government talked about resuscitating the national airline but wisely did nothing about it. All was apparently well until recently, when one of the grandsons of our founding fathers, Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, re-opened the hornet’s nest by announcing that another national airline will take off before the end of the year. Nigeria Air was unveiled complete with logo even before the core investors in the business have been identified. But, that is topic for another day. The whole thing sounds like an election year gimmick to me.

However, what is not election year rigmarole is the matter of N45 billion severance entitlements owed to the workers of the defunct Nigerian Airways. Mr Sirika needs to understand that it would amount to wickedness of the worst kind if the Buhari administration fails to redeem the pledge made to workers by self-righteous Obasanjo before the first flight takes off – if it ever does.

So far, the Minister had given no assurances that the Federal Government will do the right thing in this regard. But, apart from the moral aspect of the matter, there is the hardnosed economic reality which the FG must consider. A nation which treats its own citizens and public servants shabbily and unfairly will be hard-pressed to find investors, especially foreign, willing to partner with it to establish the proposed airline. In global financial circles, integrity is not a fifty per cent thing; it must be hundred per cent.

The FG must show the world that it is trust worthy if investors will be expected to flock to the now venture. Somehow, the former workers must be paid. Otherwise, the current workers would have every reason to “pay themselves” before leaving the service – voluntarily or not. And we know what that means – widespread corruption which will doom the business eventually.


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