By Chris Aligbe
The history of aviation in what today is Nigeria dates back to the colonial period with the first flight landing in Kano in 1922 and the first Control Tower built in 1936 in Kano.
But this piece is concerned with the period from 1960 – 1979 when Nigeria acceded to independence as a sovereign entity to 2019.
An examination of the history of Nigeria’s aviation will reveal a profile of an undulating landscape, an escarpment with its highs, lows and flats that leave no avid watcher in doubt about why we are where we are today in some of its critical sub sectors in particular, and the entire industry in general.
For the purpose of assessment and elucidation, our 59-year period can be divided into four (4) developmental stages, viz:
1960 – 1979, the stage of Evolution and Imago; 1980-1999, the stage of Policy shift/Down turn and decadence; 2000 – 2010, period of Realisation and Awakening and 2011 – 2019, the period of Self-consciousness and Thrust.
The Period 1960 – 79 can be described as a period of Imago and evolution in our aviation history. During this period, everything in aviation, Civil Aviation development and policy, Airline operation (Nigeria Airways) and airports were all under the control and management of the government.
At accession to independence, only three institutions existed, the Civil Aviation Department, an overflow from the colonial era, was independent and was in charge of policy, regulation and air traffic control.
By 1965, it became a Department in the newly established Ministry of Aviation. Also, the Nigeria Airways Limited which came into existence as a national carrier following Nigeria’s buyout of the 50% shares of its two British Partners – BOAC and Elder Dempster. The last of them was Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, established in 1959 following a resolution and Act by the 12th International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Assembly in Montreal.
These were the pioneer institutions that drove aviation development. The philosophy then was social in spirit and intentions. It was to announce and fly the flag of a new nation in the global arena. There was no commercial motive.
The institutions no doubt creditably acquitted themselves in their pioneering roles. NCAT had, in its records, numerous Pilots and Technical professionals from Nigeria and many African countries as envisaged by ICAO, while Nigeria Airways successfully fulfilled its role of flying the national flag across nations, connecting cities and people at the domestic level.
It was a period of modest achievements as Nigeria showed some visible strength in the sub-region and Africa at large.
Towards the end of this period, precisely in 1976, a new Agency, the Nigeria Airports Authority (NAA) was established for airports development and management. It was during this period that Nigeria’s flagship airport – Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos was built.
The period 1980 – 1999 can be described as the period of policy shift, down turn and decadence. At the tail end of the pioneer period, precisely 1979-80, Nigeria had begun to experience economic stress which made it imperative for the government to shed weight and seek other ways to carry on its activities.
One of the ways enunciated by the then government of General Ibrahim Babangida was the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), under which the Naira was heavily devalued. The impact was devastating on the then National Carrier, Nigeria Airways whose operational debts and expenses which were dollar-based rose by over 250% in Naira value. And although the market was also deregulated, the airline was not allowed to increase fares.
The attempt made by the airline’s Tony Momoh-led Board to increase fares by 10% earned the Board and Management a sack by the then Minister of Aviation, Alabo Graham-Douglas. Also, the market deregulation under SAP opened up the sector for the entry of private domestic airlines into scheduled operations. This development was in some way positive for air travellers and growth of the industry as not less than six new domestic operators came into operation.
However, the industry was neither prepared nor positioned for this sudden growth. The airport facilities began to burst while regulation in all ramifications was at a very low ebb. This period ran through primarily four military administrations – Generals Buhari, Babangida, Abacha and Abubakar. While General Buhari’s administration then had little or no time to focus on the aviation sector, General Babangida could be credited with liberalisation of the sector and the feeble effort he made towards the revival of the then national carrier, Nigeria Airways as well as the establishment of the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) in 1989.
Unfortunately, Babangida by himself, personally truncated his effort to revive Nigeria Airways on the altar of his political interests. Most remarkable were the actions of two Ministers who served during these two decades of Military rule, one, then Air Commodore Nsikak Eduok under Abacha and the other Capt. (Pilot) Benoni Briggs under Abdulssalam Abubakar. Eduok as a Minister, woke up one fateful day to set back the great efforts and achievements made by the industry in the creation, in 1989, of the Federal Civil Aviation Authority (FCAA), an Agency charged with regulation of safety and air worthiness as well as air traffic control and air space management.
Nsikak Eduok that fateful day, announced, in his fangled idea of “Autonomous Airport System”, the merger of the young but effective FCAA, with the then Nigeria Airports Authority (NAA) which he renamed FAAN. He stripped his new creation of the regulatory functions which he transferred to the Ministry of Aviation in the name of DERAM (Directorate of Economic Regulation And Monitoring) and DSRAM (Directorate of Safety Regulation And Monitoring).
This was the most retrograde step ever taken in the annals of the history of our aviation sector, most probably equalled only by President Obasanjo’s liquidation of Nigeria Airways in 2003 whose assets were four times the value of its liabilities. Eduok’s action ended every modicum of regulations and building of safe flights infrastructure in our airports. This was the beginning of the ten-year decadence that culminated in the fatal air crashes of 2005/6 involving ADC, Bellview and Sosoliso, which killed over 350 passengers.
Capt. Benoni Briggs in his short period under Abdulsalam made great effort to reverse Eduok’s engineered decadence by establishing the NCAA to take over industry regulation.
Under the period from 1999 to 2010: This decade which marked the return of the present democratic dispensation had Presidents Obasanjo and Late Musa Yar’dua respectively for eight years and two years. During this period, there were remarkable achievements and there were remarkable failures both of which left indelible impacts on our nation’s aviation development.
The achievements included the Obasanjo’s mind-shift that resulted in the MM2 Concession despite the near intractable problems of the Concession Agreement, the recreation of a modern regulatory body, the NCAA backed by an Act of the National Assembly, the revelation of the rot in the industry caused by Eduok’s ignoble reform as extensively documented by AVM Dike’s Committee appointed in 2006 by Obasanjo following the fatal crashes earlier mentioned. Also, in response to Dike’s Report, Obasanjo began investments in Airspace Management infrastructure to improve flight safety, TRACON, Safe Tower Project, both under his administration.
However, under Obasanjo were some indelible low points whose impacts are still not only the bane of a stunted industry but undiminishingly choking the aviation sector. These include but not limited to; the bastardisation of BASA commercial rights with foreign airlines which came in the wake of the ill-advised liquidation of Nigeria Airways.
The multiple entry rights, dual designations and non-protection of our domestic airlines remain one of the most teething problems in the industry. Also, the unpatriotic liquidation of the Nigeria Airways and replacing it with Virgin Nigeria owned by one or two Nigerians and Richard Branson. The interference in safety regulation by his personal pronouncement of the ban of Slok Airline belonging to his political adversary. Also, the untidy Concessioning of MM2 and the collapse of Virgin Nigeria/Nigerian Eagle and the damage to our national image, arising from these actions.
The late President Yar’dua’s two-year run largely represents a flat plain in the undulating topography of the industry. This can be accounted by the ill-health that did not allow him to run the government. However, to his credit is his compassionate effort to right the wrong and abuse Obasanjo inflicted on liquidated staff of Nigeria Airways, who he refused, for not just cause, to pay their entitlements and pension.
President Jonathan who replaced Yar’dua had no personal focus on aviation. But he appeared to have depended on his Minister, Princess Stella Oduah, who despite criticisms from some quarters, had great vision, passion, focus and commitment to change the face of the industry.
Under her, most of the ramshackle airports were remodelled and made better than what they hitherto were. She created a sound aviation road-map for the industry that can stand the test any time anywhere. Her undoing was in the implementation.
She either used third rate professionals in the right area or first-rate professionals in the wrong area; square pegs in round holes or untreated and rough pegs in holes. At her exit, the industry went flat again.
Jonathan via Oduah began the last segment of this write up, that is, from 2011 – 2019, the period of Realisation and Awakening. During this period, the industry and Nigerians in general have realised that we have lost virtually everything in the industry to the numerous ills of the past, particularly in the last three decades and have now woken up to the fact that something has to be done. This has been and is the challenge of the President Buhari appointed Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika.
At this point, one can ask what has Sirika done or will do to advance the sector? Are there signs or evidences of a new future? What is the global profile of Nigeria’s aviation sector? What are the Achilles’ heels that must be addressed?
Instability: Instability in industry managers and policy have been the bane of the industry. This has led to discontinuity and summersault. Obasanjo in eight years had four Ministers, virtually all of who changed CEOs of Parastatals and Directors as well as policy directions at their whims. Yar’dua – Johnathan had had five Ministers in eight years who also changed CEOs at will.
In my thirteen years in Nigeria Airways (1989-2002), I worked under ten CEOs and left when the 11th one was announced. This is one major reason why the industry has stunted. However, so far Buhari and Sirika have wittingly or unwittingly avoided this which appear to have helped in sustaining policy thrust.
The successes recorded in areas like Abuja Airport Runway resurfacing and commissioning of projects on safety and training can effectively be sighted as evidence. Also, the great successes recorded on three ICAO Safety and Security Audits by NCAA and the industry and the retention of CAT 1 cannot be missed.
Today, the Nigeria Airspace has become globally accepted as very safe unlike the post-Eduok reform 10-year period when the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFAPA) declared Nigeria airspace as one of the most dangerous.
For about five years now, our aviation industry has been accident-free due a combination of safety and airworthiness oversight by NCAA and effective air traffic control and air space management by NAMA. Security on ground under AVSEC – FAAN has improved, not failing to acknowledge the fact that a lot still remains.
Today our airports are being categorised unlike before while NAMA has taken delivery of equipment to improve visibility challenges at our international airports.
In the last three years, two of our aviation institutions – the Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) and FAAN Training School, Lagos have been accredited as centres of Excellence by ICAO, the global regulator.
The Achilles’ Heels: In the industry, two problem but catalytic areas remain: Airlines and Airports.
In 59 years, over 36 private Domestic Airlines have collapsed, one national carrier liquidated and 10 attempts to float a replacement national carrier failed. Today, we have only one budding hopeful airline – Air Peace while over 30 foreign airlines are feasting on our market and accounting for capital flight of over Two Billion US Dollars annually. Our young pilots and engineers are roaming without jobs. AWA, the small Ghanaian Carrier flies 34 weekly frequencies out of Nigeria.
This is why the need for transparent floatation of a new national carrier as well as capacitation of one or two domestic carriers are imperative to move our country forward and turn our airports into hubs.
As at today, we have no standard airports. And one thing is clear – the government has no funds to develop such airports. The only way is transparent Concessions which Sirika is proposing. However, labour issues must not only be resolved but must precede Concessioning.
Today, Nigeria’s aviation profile has risen to heights never attained before. Check these out:
Nigeria is currently the President of ICAO. Nigeria has again in the last week been elected into the ICAO Council. Nigeria has been awarded Certificate of Excellence at the just-concluded ICAO meeting. Five NCAA staff are now certified ICAO Safety Auditors to be used for oversight in other countries. A Nigerian, Capt Muthar Usman, NCAA Director-General is the Chairman of BAGASO, the regional outfit for safety oversight.
In the last three years, Nigeria has become a destination for International Aviation Conferences; ICAO World Aviation Forum. IWAF never held before outside Montreal, Canada was successfully held in Abuja.
The past, no doubt, was depressing but today holds out hope, provided…
Chris Aligbe, Aviation Consultant,
Belujane Konzult Ltd