Nigeria Air: There Are Faults In Our Stars

To say there’s been a fair bit of divergence on the internet since the name and logo of the national carrier project was announced this week is an understatement. Everybody worth their status in public affairs and business analysis has had something to say.

Among the optimists, there are those who are cheering because of how different the approach to a national carrier is this time from past failed attempts, while there are others who are simply on the parade bus because this will provide national pride. Then, there are the people who see no pride in constituting a vanity airline in a period when the country has slipped into having the highest proportion of poor people within its shores. This is one debate where people who usually vote on the same side on many other issues are split. Names are being called, patriotism and interests called into question, and all of this has something to do with the grand kick-off to come on a certain February Saturday morning next year.

First, what is the Nigeria Air project about?

The Buhari government wants to have something in the mould of Rwanda Air, Ethiopia Airlines, Kenya and Airways. A national carrier is a symbol that basically says to the world: we are adults, we can direct the course of our destiny. It is a project under the transportation sector all right but it is as much expected to be a worldwide service in national promotion and an invitation to “Bring Nigeria Closer to the World the World” as the Nigeria Air tagline says. As outlined in the documents at the unveiling, the government will have only a 5% “non-controlling” stake in the airline while the rest will be owned by private investors. The investors will get to determine how to run it, making all decisions from staffing and recruitment to the addition of routes and more aircrafts over the years. Government officials led by the Minister of State for Aviation Hadi Sirika have already started negotiating with aircraft providers like Airbus and Boeing for the first fleet, and a call for Request for Qualification (RFQ) have been put out for intending investors.

The enthusiasm of the Minister has portrayed the sense that this is one project he cares about. A pilot and aircraft engineer, Mr Sirika has taken on aviation issues with an approach that could pass for admirable, professional and committed. There will be no sniffing at his resume if he is able to add a national carrier launch to leading repairs of the ABV runway and remodeling of terminals. But in public policy, the question is always about the benefit of projects to the public in light of prevailing circumstances and other needs. Is there sufficient evidence to believe that a national carrier will provide a significant lever for achieving other national priorities? And is there enough on ground to support its being a success?

(Mr Awoyemi is the CEO of Proshare Nigeria Limited, a financial services firm)

From a historical viewpoint, there is an compelling case for not doing it after past and recent collapses from Nigeria Airways to Virgin Nigeria. A reply has been that this is a different government, but that is not enough. Surely it isn’t in the light of security challenges and administrative inefficiencies that have dogged this “different” administration. Past efforts at establishing a national airline have not failed because of the lack of carefully crafted white papers; a Nigeria-owned airline has dragged in the past almost for the same reason that the country as an entity has itself struggled to take-off. It is reasonable to question the possibility that outsourcing this lack of ability to take ownership will solve the deep lying problems that provoke eventual abandonment.

PPPs work but when the actors representing government are on the same wavelength with the investors. As it stands, the government is in the market for its 95% holders in Nigeria Air. It is in its interests to be transparent about the process in order to inspire public confidence. The likelihood of adoption will increase the more it is open about the books and credentials of those to make the project work. This is one venture where secrecy will be really bad for an already questionable project, which will make Mike Asukwo’s description absolutely apt…

…and the project undeserving of optimism and hope that can be channeled elwewhere.


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