In the middle 80s, the then Military Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, faced with the challenge of communicating and convincing the Nigerian public of the benefits of his economic policies which were tied to the IMF dictates, appointed an acquitted journalist, Prince Tony Momoh, his Information Minister.
Momoh had the uphill task of defending Naira devaluation with its devastating impacts; increase in fuel pump price and liberalization as well as commercialization and privatization of government-owned companies; as well as general decline in economic life of the citizenry. To do this, required thinking out of the box since the usual run-off the mill press release, publications, features and articles could not do. Prince Momoh came up with a novel idea titled “Letter To My Countryman”, in which he sought to directly address the citizenry on government’s policies, policy actions, intended objectives and benefits in short and long terms.
Then, working as Senior Press Secretary to Momoh, along with my senior and junior colleagues, we had the uphill task of providing the huge basic data the Minister needed for his “Letters” which he wrote himself. It was novel and impactful, though not devoid of heart aches and disappointments.
I have therefore decided to pull out from Momoh’s archives, this unpatented concept of “Letter” to engage the FEC, Stakeholders and the general public on specific issues in Aviation which will include, but not limited to, National Carrier – Nigeria Air, State of Airline Services in Nigeria, Airport Concession and Maintenance, Repairs and Overhaul (MRO) Centre, Aircraft Leasing, Safety and Regulations. Since the most trending issue is Nigeria Air, my first set of Letters will focus on this.
Just like Obasanjo did in 1999, Buhari even before assumption of office had muted his interest in bringing back a national carrier to meet the yearnings and aspirations of Nigeria air travel public as well as use it to catalyze the aviation sector. Like Obasanjo, Buhari’s plan was in response to the aspiration of millions of Nigerians at home and in the diaspora who feel the devastating impact of the absence of a national carrier or a formidable, reputable Nigeria private international operator since the ill-advised liquidation of Nigeria Airways.
Since its liquidation, some domestic private airlines had done a great deal to provide services at the domestic level and, limitedly, at the regional level. But attempts on international level have been somewhat woeful try as much as the two airlines that attempted did. Today, there is no Nigerian domestic airline operating inter-continental flights in spite of the fact that seven of them are designated on over 20 international and regional routes.
So, when the President appointed Hadi Sirika Minister of State, Transport, with specific responsibility for Aviation, quite many a person believed that the President had an eye on the sector.
This perception was re-enforced by Sirika, when in 2016, at the Shehu Yar’dua Conference Centre, Abuja, he unveiled a comprehensive aviation roadmap in an event that was pack-full of stakeholders, which included Airline Operators, aviation unions, service providers, bankers regulators, travel agencies, serving and retired professionals in all facets of the aviation sector. In fact, the who and who in the industry were there.
Again in April, 2018, the Minister, at the newly built Air Force Conference Centre, Abuja, unveiled the six Transaction Advisers approved and appointed in all the areas of the Roadmap following the advertised call for Expression of Interest and competitive Bid. In that forum were the elites and the unions of the industry. There were legislators, bankers, service providers, airline operators and industry professionals, serving and retired as well as two main Regulators: the NCAA and the ICRC. The Minister had promised to hold another Stakeholders’ forum when the Transaction Advisers’ report was ready.
When in August, Sirika, unveiled the Logo, livery, ownership structure and funding requirement at the 2018 UK Farnborough Air Show, a good number of Nigerians were taken aback, arguing that “Charity should have begun at home”; that unveiling should have been done at home first. Despite the spontaneous criticism of the unveiling abroad, millions of Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief as they looked forward to a new dawn, a new national airline that would, as it were, wipe away tears and national shame. The support for Nigeria Air was so overwhelming that it almost drowned the voices of the few but well-placed vociferous critics.
This is why when, on Wednesday September 19th, 2018, the Aviation Minister put out a terse press statement to the effect that the Federal Government has suspended the Nigeria Air Project, both the few happy and applauding critics of the suspension as well as the millions of the expectant joyful Nigerians who were looking forward to a new dawn were awe-struck and bewildered. The first group who clapped saw the suspension as a prophesy come true and prayers answered. While the second group saw it as hopes dashed and future truncated. Even at all these, everybody today is still at a loss over what happened, more so as Sirika gave no explanation. This worrisome situation has further been pushed almost to the limits by the discordant tunes coming from the Ministers of Information and Aviation, Lai Mohammed and Hadi Sirika respectively. From Lai, the Nigeria Air was stepped down because there were no investors while from Hadi, there were at least six potential investors which included two reputable airlines, three reputable financial institutions and the two leading global aircraft manufacturers, who all have not only expressed interest in Nigeria Air but have offered incentives. This discordance has also made Nigerians curious on why the suspension of Nigeria Air was not part of the usual post-FEC meeting press briefing that fateful Wednesday which such a major decision should have been. All these have unfortunately given rise to six dangerous schools of thought that have left Nigerians wondering whether the Nigeria Air suspension is a kind of the elephant which the six blind men of Indostan went to see. The prevailing schools of thought are listed below:
The first is that Nigeria Air was ab initio a hoax, a political gimmick designed at best to enlarge the ruling party’s agenda and at worst an individual’s agenda designed to create a pool of funds for electioneering campaign. This position has the following of cynics who hold that “Nigeria Air was created on paper, unveiled on Facebook and died on a Twitter” as well as the following of some politicians and political activists who have said all sorts of not-easily imaginable things and have called for the arrest and prosecution of Sirika over N1.2billion they claimed he spent on the project.
The second school holds that for the first time, the opponents of Nigeria Air, mainly members of the Airline Operators have successfully infiltrated the FEC and lobbed some of its critical members to find a way to ensure that it is a non-starter. This group points to the fact that the leadership of the operators has always advanced arguments of the need for government to direct its funds to areas of health, education, airport infrastructure, etc as well as create a level playing field. This school point to the usual argument by the perceived “mind infiltrators” that national carrier idea is moribund and that any floatation should go to the market. This school of thought whose singular objective is the protection of its business interest has wooled it up in a cloak of national interest.
The third school holds the position that the suspension of Nigeria Air arose from a crisis of poor communication which led to no-buy-in by stakeholders and the Nigerian public. They hold that if it had been otherwise, Nigerians would have risen with a loud voice to pressure and demand the immediate restoration of the Nigeria Air Project. They argue that it is not too late to correct and put back on track, as the baby must not be thrown away with the bath water.
The fourth school advances a conspiracy theory to the effect that there is a co-operation between internal and external forces of very strong members of FEC and some influencers outside the FEC who strongly believe that they would not have any decision-making role in Nigeria Air if Sirika is allowed to go the way he wants to go. The idea is to delay implementation till Buhari’s second term, to enable them take control of the process. This school believes that there is nothing fundamentally wrong in what has been done so far, since necessary approvals were given by the FEC and the process deviation noticed is not such that should derail the project. The school believes that in the next dispensation, Sirika may not occupy the Aviation portfolio even if he remains in the Cabinet. It is this school that moved to use the issue of Nigeria Air not being in 2018 budget as an alibi.
The fifth school of thought is held by those who strongly believe that Nigeria Air is a victim of poor relationship management by Sirika. That he failed to identify some of his colleagues in the Cabinet who he needed to court and lobby. His not doing this was considered as arrogance. Members of this school point out that this frosty relationship started with the separation of the Aviation schedule from Transport and was exacerbated by the Abuja Airport resurfacing among other issues. They point out that ego issues and power play arose all of which led to the high stake lynching of Nigeria Air. The school believes that it would take time to douse the interplay of egotic forces in order to save Nigeria Air and that this will not happen in Buhari’s first term.
The last, the sixth school of thought is held by opposition politicians from various parties who are determined to make a political capital out of the failure by using it as a campaign issue. This group along with some airline operators determined to protect their interest work through the media to throw mud on the Nigeria Air project to distract and create an unfavourable public perception that will stall the project. Members of this group include those who praise the President for being a listening leader and for enhancing his integrity.
In all these, the painful aspect is that our nation and its people are the losers. The suspension is an international embarrassment and a question mark on the integrity and reliability of our Cabinet given the known fact that the stated due processes, from the advertisement for EOI and Bid, the choice of the Transaction Adviser, the approval of the Adviser’s Report up to the ICRC issuance of the Outline Business Case (OBC) – Certificates were discussed and approved by the FEC. Further, worrisome is the failure of the government to tell Nigerians who the national carrier is supposed to belong to, what actually happened and whether the suspension is indefinite or temporary. The domestic and international publics are left in quandary on such a major national issue. I happen not to be a politician but I know that success or failure of the Nigeria Air will be a political campaign issue. If it succeeds, it will be a great plus-story for the government. But if it fails, it will be a great harvest for the opponents and opposition. Any which way, the ball is in the court of the government. And since politicians know how to manage their affairs, for untutored politicians like us to cry will be attempting to be more catholic than the Pope.
All said and done, the government owes the citizenry an explanation.
Chris Aligbe, Aviation Consultant