By Rotimi Fasan
A NATION just as the peoples that constitute its being should have a healthy sense of self-worth. There is a kind of behaviour it must not be seen to engage in if it would not destroy the dignity of its people. Thus, even if it’s only for reasons of national pride, the proposed partnership between the Federal Government and Ethiopian Airlines, one that would see Nigeria outsourcing the management of its soon-to-be revived national carrier to Ethiopian Airlines, ought not to be followed through.
As with a relationship between a leader and their advisers, it is the prerogative of the leader to choose which piece of advice to take but the duty of their advisers is to offer honest advice that is neither tainted with fear nor favour. In this instance, many, if not most Nigerians, who have anything to say on the matter are opposed to the partnership.
Even if the relationship between Nigerians and their leaders does not strictly follow the template of the relationship between leaders and their advisers (for Nigerians are indeed the employers and, therefore, the true leaders in such circumstances), a responsible government ought to listen to the voice of the people and as much as possible try to reflect their yearnings. They are the ones in whom inhere the sovereignty of the nation. Their elected representatives owe them the duty of listening to their concerns and carrying them along in their decision-making. Not act in total disregard of the voice of the people which, when they find convenient, they claim is the voice of God.
Aside the question of national pride there are other equally compelling reasons that have been advanced by those who ought to know for why the partnership plans should be jettisoned. But even as the partnership is now more or less being handled and presented to the country as a fait accompli, Abuja can and should reconsider its position on the matter. There is nothing inevitable about the move up to this point that the partners seem to be far gone with their plans, or before now when corrective steps could have been quietly taken without anyone suffering a bruise of ego.
Among other so-called stakeholders in the aviation industry, the Airline Operators of Nigeria are vehemently opposed to the planned partnership. Yes, they have an interest to protect as does Ethiopian Airlines that would be in direct competition with them. But the position of AON to defend its turf is to be expected of all business owners.
They are not in business to run at a loss and one would think that a responsible government, even one that cannot muster the means to set up a national carrier without direct foreign input decades after Nigeria Airways was established and flourished, one would imagine that a government that has failed to manage other state-owned businesses (witness NNPC and PHCN among others) effectively would appreciate the stand the AON has taken without viewing it as the grousing of aspiring monopolists whose sole motivation is disguised but unbridled self-interest.
AON like other concerned persons and groups have in their opposition to the partnership highlighted how the arrangement would pitch the new national carrier into competition with Ethiopian Airlines itself on routes it plies and where it stands to enjoy relative dominance over the Nigerian national carrier if and when it takes off. Between AON and Ethiopian Airlines, therefore, who has more interest to protect, whose involvement in the Nigerian aviation sector should be more concerning? There is a lack of transparency, many have alleged, in the plan of the Federal Government to go ahead with this partnership. Why would a government want to re-establish a national carrier on a failed template?
It was exactly a decade ago last month that Nigeria’s national carrier that operated under the brand name of Nigeria Air went bankrupt and folded. Before that time, it had in 2005 gone into a partnership with the Virgin Group of airlines under the brand name of Virgin Nigeria. Virgin Nigeria was a relatively popular brand that ran for about five years before the Nigerian government intervened in its operation by its insistence that it moved from the terminal from where it initially operated to another it didn’t want.
Without prejudice to the merit or lack of merit of that government decision, it has to be borne in mind that it was the then government’s intervention in Virgin Nigeria’s business operations that set that thriving airline on a downward slide. Which reinforces the notion that government has no business in business. Virgin Nigeria was in business between 2005 and 2009. But soon after the Federal Government forced Virgin Nigeria to change terminals, the airline started experiencing troubles of its own and it had to downgrade its operations to regional and local networks while it forfeited the international routes.
Virgin Nigeria transformed to the brand name of Nigerian Eagle Airlines but could barely stay afloat. This was when it shifted its focus to local and regional routes. Even this scaling down of its operations could not save it as it had to assume the new brand name of Air Nigeria. Does this frequent name change remind anyone of the fortunes of the defunct National Electric Power Authority and the effort so far made to make it a viable business conglomerate in its present “unbundled” state of three different outfits that respectively generate, transmit and distribute power?
What is the outcome of all this effort? The change in the fortunes of Nigeria’s national carrier would eventually lead to the company finally going bankrupt and folding in 2012. Ten years later Abuja is hoping to return the national carrier under the management of the national carrier of another African country with a population less than half of Nigeria’s.
What does this tell us if not a tale of utter shamelessness and national abdication? But for the sense of national pride that Emperor Haile Selassie brought to the establishment of Ethiopian Air Lines, later renamed Ethiopian Airlines, with American support in 1946, the airlines would today not be standing as Africa’s largest and perhaps most profitable airline in nearly eight decades since it was established.
In this regard, it dwarfs South Africa and Egypt. This is a country that recognises a niche market and has kept to it. It chose that one area where it wanted to stand out and has stuck to it in seven and half decades. What does Nigeria have in comparison? In what way have we tried to identify our own area of relative advantage and stuck to it? We’ve been scattering our seeds in different directions without any clear agenda for lucrative returns on investment. How can a thinking people and government trade off their national patrimony?