By Rotimi Fasan
THE Federal Government through the Central Bank last week released $265 million to airline companies operating in the country. These are mostly businesses owned by foreigners. The aviation industry like most other sectors of the economy has been going through a very rough patch in the last few months. There had been a lot of hue and cry about the scarcity of aviation fuel which mostly affected local airlines.
But the scarcity of foreign exchange has translated into bad business for the major airline companies that have not been able to repatriate profits that are trapped in naira in local banks. After weeks of lamentation without any improvement in their situation, a number of them, including British Airways and Emirates, had taken the hard decision to halt their operations in the country beginning from the end of August 2022.
The decision of these airline companies, should it come into effect, would amount to a virtual lockdown of the international routes of the Nigerian aviation sector. For a country that lacks a national carrier, this would be disastrous. As footloose as Nigerians, especially the elite, tend to be, it is both ironic and scandalous that they rely almost exclusively on foreigners for their international junketing. Yet our airports display some of the most exotic private jets, not one of them can be repaired or maintained locally, that are left idle while incurring avoidable debts on airport tarmacs and hangers.
The unsavory truth is that our failure to have a national carrier of our own since the demise of Nigeria Airways has exposed Nigerian travellers as well as local aviation companies to all sorts of unfair, exploitative and discriminatory policies that will never be allowed in countries that take the wellbeing and dignity of their citizens seriously.
These are countries that recognise the aviation industry as an important sector of the economy and a key contributor to the country’s revenue base. But here, nothing matters except the interest of the ruling elite. Hence, the quick response of the Central Bank that has rushed through more than half of the entire funds of the foreign airline companies that are trapped in Nigerian banks.
With one US dollar exchanging for about N700, there was no way the airline companies could remain in business and since, unlike what the Nigerian government expects of local businesses, the foreign companies are not in Nigeria for charity but to make good profit and remain competitive, they could not tolerate any business model that would have adverse consequences for their bottom line. It was their reason for choosing to pull out even when it is clear that the Nigerian aviation industry is not only one that is very lucrative but also leaves room for very sharp and unfair practices that foreign-owned businesses could take advantage of only in a place like Nigeria.
In responding to the cries of the foreign airlines and releasing their funds, the APC-led Buhari government has shown without a doubt where its priorities lie when compared to its treatment of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, to cite one very obvious example. The union’s members have been on strike for some 196 days as I write this, that is almost all of the eight months of this year.
The strike which started on February 14 this year is the third since November 2021. The union was on strike for nine straight months in 2020. The point at issue is ASUU’s demand for a total overhaul of the management of university education in Nigeria as contained in an agreement it reached with the Federal Government going back to 2009.
It is demanding a major increase in the salary of its members that has remained stagnant in 13 years despite galloping inflation and the weakening value of the naira. The union is also calling for revitalisation of the university system through the injection of funds for the repair of decayed and collapsing infrastructure, a probe of how previous funds have been utilised by university administrators and a payment platform that recognises the peculiarity of the university system.
But the Muhammadu Buhari administration would have none of this. It has serially rejected the recommendations of negotiation panels set up by it. In the face of the blatant profligacy of government officials and corruption in high places, it insists it does not have the means to meet the demands of the university teachers. But just one threat from airline companies and the CBN has scrambled out funds to forestall disruptions of international flights.
International aviation plays far more important role than simply ministering to the personal needs of footloose officials travelling on funds provided by tax payers’ money. But it would be hard not to see gross self-interest in the decision of Abuja to release funds to the airline companies.
It is they, the government officials, their cronies and families in business, that ply the international routes for both good and despicable reasons. Having rendered all means of travelling locally impossible they obviously cannot afford to block their only means of escape from the misery they have created at home for the rest of stay-at-home Nigerians.
How could the recent London parley of presidential aspirants and other politicians, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, have been possible without access to international flights that are often managed by foreign airline companies? Which leads me to yet another aspect of the self-centred ways of Nigerian politicians.
Afraid of the disastrous consequences of the yet-unfolding tragedy of food and human insecurity caused by the inept responses of the Buhari government to sundry challenges of governance, the “owners of Nigeria” are again rallying the troops. Obasanjo has been very active on the political front of late. For a supposedly retired politician no longer in active politics, that is stating the point rather mildly.
Those who cannot see the connection between Obasanjo’s meeting at his home in Abeokuta with the APC Presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, and the parley in London are likely misreading recent developments in Nigeria. They would be naïve to imagine that Atiku Abubakar’s trip to London was simply to meet with Nyesom Wike who also met with APC stalwarts as he did with the Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi, that was conveniently in London at this same time.
Obasanjo has since followed that trip with quick stopovers at the Hilltop residence of Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar in Minna. Are these trips in furtherance of a truce between Wike and Atiku? How much of these trips recall the manner IBB and others led the horse-trading that produced Obasanjo in 1999? In the end, Nigerian politicians are the same whether “obediently”, “articulated” or emi lokan. Those who don’t’ know this know nothing of Nigerian politics.