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A new ‘Nigeria Air’

Posted by on November 28, 2021 0


It is three and a half years since the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) administration announced a new national airline.

Strangely choosing an airshow in London to make the announcement, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said his government was “finally on track to launching a new national flag carrier.”

The new business, to be called “Nigeria Air,” would be operational in December 2018, just a few months away, he said at the time.  It would take to the skies with 15 leased aircraft.

I liked the idea of a Nigeria national airline despite my final memories of the defunct Nigeria Airways being of an embarrassingly late flight from Lagos to London, on my way to the United States, causing me to miss my connecting flight and being stranded in the British capital for days.

I was thrilled at the prospects of a proper national airline that would make certain international travels easier for Nigerians and put our flag up in aviation circles again.

But clearly what Mr Sirika was describing in London in July 2018 smelled fake and contrived and unrealistic.  Beyond a logo and a name, the minister had nothing.   But he persisted, as if trying to persuade himself that if he deployed enough hot air in London, it would freeze into the mythical institution he was trying to sell.

“Nigeria Air,” he told his listeners, would within four years operate 30 aircraft, and they were “urgently” being prospected for.

Also being looked for—and also strangely—were investors.  “The Nigerian government will not own more than 5% (maximum) of the new national carrier,” Sirika said.  “The government will not be involved in running it or deciding who runs it.”

It was obvious that the government of Nigeria was conscious of the skepticism of many who were still scandalised by the way its predecessors ruined Nigeria Airways by means of corruption and mismanagement.

In other words, three and a half years ago, the minister stepped away from being a spectator at an airshow at which Nigeria obviously had no business trying to make the news, armed only with a logo and a name about an airline that would take off in a few months.  But he really had nothing substantial to say.

Sirika’s “airline” had no business presence, no structure, no strategy, no investors, no money, no hires, nobody in training, no offices, and no plans, technical or administrative.

The airline was so fictional, so off base and so mythical that its announcement attracted only derision.  It was dead even before the minister shuffled out of London and into Abuja.

Last week, he dug it up again, admitting that he had had to present the idea to the Federal Executive Council six times before gaining approval.  But it is getting late for the administration and its operatives to show some semblance of life and arm themselves for a life outside governance.

According to Sirika, 46 per cent of the ownership will belong to Nigerians.   “So, if you add that [to the government’s 5%], it’s 51 per cent. So, it’s 51 per cent majority shareholding by Nigerians and then 49 per cent will be held by strategic equity partner or partners that will be sourced during the procurement phase, which is the next phase.”

In effect, no substantive advancement of the idea has occurred since July 2018 when the government first announced the airline and then backed off.  There are still only numbers without names or takers, with the minority owner, the Nigeria government, making all the wild plans for the prospective owners should any be found.

Apparently still trying to persuade itself that it makes sense to invest in air travel despite the government’s famous failure to build other travel infrastructure, the minister invoked the African Union’s Agenda 2063, particularly concerning continental integration.

Sirika said, “Now, the only way, the quickest way that you can integrate Africa is by air because if you want to interconnect all the 54 nations of Africa, via rail or road, or waterways, which is even impossible, the quantum of money that you need to do all of these, the time it will take to develop this infrastructure, as well as the maintenance cost, is almost prohibitive.”

And then he played the employment card, which Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress, finds to be irresistible.  Within four years of Air Nigeria taking off in April 2022, the minister said, it will generate a whopping 70,000 jobs!  For context, he pointed out that that number outstrips Nigeria’s entire Federal Civil Service workforce.

These are highly impressive numbers, just like the party’s employment confetti ahead of the 2015 election.   In APC’s 2014 Manifesto, which you can read on the website of the electoral commission, it promised, among others: three million new jobs a year; healthcare for all; and guaranteed free education.  Of course, it was also going to enhance security, by employing “at least an extra 100,000 police officers and establish a properly trained and equipped Federal Anti-Terrorism Multi-Agency Task Force to destroy Boko Haram and any form of insurgency.”

The point is that Nigerians know that APC has not generated three million new jobs in its seven years in office, let alone the 21 million it should have by now.  And only General Buhari enjoys free healthcare!

And yet the same government’s Nigeria Air—which may never take off—will guarantee 70,000 jobs?  Given the state of an economy the government has run aground, how many passengers will it fly annually, and in what direction, to be able to hire or justify 70,000?

Think about it: according to statista.com, American Airlines, the biggest in North America, has only 102,000 employees.  Emirates Airlines, IATA’s largest international airline in 2021, has 45,000; while British Airways, which carries 40 million customers annually on a fleet of over 280 aircraft, has 40,000 employees.

In effect, Sirika is going to hire nearly the combined staff strength of Emirates and British Airways to run a new airline near Aso Rock which, just months before takeoff, has no business plan and no resources and no market…which is far worse than the formula which ate Nigeria Airways alive?

I am not saying the government should not set up its airline, just that it is not ready for the kind of airline of which it speaks.  While Nigeria may have the travelling population to support a strong airline, the Nigerian traveller has since Nigeria Airways and Virgin Nigeria become far more sophisticated.  He would not travel on an airline simply because it wears the “national” tag.  Does the APC crowd possess the commitment and clarity it would require to persuade them to fly the carrier?

But something else is eminently possible.  Buhari had declared before he took office that he would start the national airline with the aircraft in the presidential fleet.  That is still the best option, if the will is there.  Start with that small pool, run independently, covering the Nigerian and West African markets, and within those first four years, develop a strong, positive reputation. Otherwise call this airline “Buhari Air” or “APC Air.”  Because it will evaporate just as quickly.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials]

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