It must be rare to find a regular Nigerian air traveller who, each time he or she patronises South African, Ethiopian or Egypt Air, does not, instinctively, wonder why Nigeria no longer has a national airline. It is the only one of the countries regularly mentioned as Africa’s powerhouses which does not have a national carrier. The criteria by which a country may be reckoned with as a powerhouse in the African context doesn’t seem that clear anymore but Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt are those mentioned as such. Each of these countries is operating what appear to be thriving national carriers. But not Nigeria anymore! Could that be the outcome of strategic thinking from which Nigeria concluded that a national airline no longer matter or another dimension of the Nigerian crisis?
There is something odd, if not embarrassing, for the African country of nearly 200 million citizens to afford being without a national carrier at a time when air travel has become more important than ever, meaning there is the domestic as well as international market for Nigeria Airways. Ethiopia must be raking in prestige, money and expertise from running a national airline that seem to be going places. As the host country of the headquarters of the continental body – the African Union, Ethiopia can probably not afford not to run a national airline. But without hosting the continental body, Nigeria, by population, endowment and self-understanding, is a destination of choice, a reality that makes a national airline a priority issue.
As a nation of big buyers and spenders, it is a market for all manner of goods and services. Above all, it is a country of travelling citizenry, some of it for no other good reasons than to showcase the Nigerian in him or her – that African who is so sensitive to being trifled with or so sensitive to what s/he considers as being trifled with. As it is today, the Nigerian who leaves Abuja, Lagos, Portharcourt or Kano has to be taken to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, Cairo, London or New Delhi before s/he starts navigating his or her way to where s/he might actually be going. Without a national airline and with national airlines following the convention of landing in their own capital city first, the Nigerian carries a burden in air travel.
National airlines script their owner states in global politics. They represent the nation in the same way that ambassadors do, sometimes better than ambassadors and formal diplomacy do. The image they carry in the national name, colors, costumes, food and language have powerful communicative effect because they carry values in them. This geopolitical role can never be reduced to monetary value.
This not to ignore traditional geopolitical roles such as ferrying back stranded or vulnerable Nigerians in any part of the world or even assisting the Nigerian Air Force to airlift troops to emergencies where their own facilities might be inadequate. There are situations that could warrant that in a world of complex emergencies and humanitarian disasters. Where none of these is the case, there is still the challenge of Nigerians performing pilgrimage to either Saudi Arabia or Israel. The argument that the number of Nigerian pilgrims to each of these lands is such that religion is not a private affair when it comes to pilgrimage is truer today. A national airline responds very well to the airlifting of the pilgrims in a manner that speaks to collective dignity. Above all, it is a source of good business as the national carrier would benefit from the millions now paid for charter flights every year. If there is a well organised national carrier, much of that money comes back to Nigeria. This scenario applies to the national team.
Back home and to business! The aviation industry may be lucrative but it is also technology driven and relatively more expensive than some other sectors. Domestic investors have thus been unable to cope if the number of airlines that have collapsed in Nigeria are anything to go by: Dana Air, Kabo Air, Chachangi Airline, Albarka, Sosoliso and what have you. This death rate suggests that private airline investors do not have the money to invest.
How do Nigerians travel domestically in the absence of functional private airlines as well as a national carrier in the situation where Ethiopian, South African, Egypt Air, Ghana Airways, KQ and so on cannot come and ply domestic routes? Even if private airlines were doing well, wouldn’t cartelisation result in the absence of a national carrier and, therefore, absence of competition? By what means might anybody control the price of air travel in that sort of circumstance? Is there any variant of capitalism to which private monopoly is not a threat?
Without a national carrier setting the pace, there has basically been no aviation industry in Nigeria. So, Nigeria is not a factor when it comes to countries of her age and with much less wealth but which are today not importing much of the aircraft spare parts they use. As it is, Nigeria cannot even make the aircraft tyre. How can that happen in the absence of a national airline whose needs would drive the argument for such strivings? So, without a national airline, Nigeria is foregoing the industry around aviation and the industrial, technological, business and cultural gains that come with that.
In one sentence, it would seem that Nigeria has followed the tragedy of all importing nations that tried Structural Adjustment Programme, (SAP). Without a basic manufacturing capability, all its state owned enterprises started to collapse one after the other as soon as the exchange rate went wild with devaluation. Instead of honestly admitting this, some people keep saying that corruption killed Nigeria Airways, killed Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, (NITEL), National Electric Power Authority, (NEPA) and so on. And that there are no alternatives to selling these companies to private buyers. But even that, they did it wrongly. As Ghanaian political economist, Tetteh Hormeku-Ajei said recently, when the Americans privatised their airlines, they were bought by American capitalists. The same with the British when they sold British Telecomms! And BMW is basically a state owned enterprise, with the German state controlling 50% of the shares.
As usual, it takes someone from somewhere else to deliver the home truth to Nigeria. CNN journalist, Richard Quest, reported learning that there are more private aircrafts than commercial ones in Nigeria. It was both a reprimand, a reminder and an alarm that the national elite is still not a class for itself. It is a class in itself quite alright but it is still not a class for itself. That’s the trouble with Nigeria.
So, as it is now, a Nigerian would have had to go to London or Paris or Amsterdam first and then start struggling to go to Johannesburg or Addis Ababa or Cairo if not for the Ethiopian, South African, Egypt Air, KQ, etc. And this because the biggest all-blacks nation on earth wilfully collapsed its own national carrier in the age of globalisation and it is not embarrassed by it!