I recall my first flight out of the country on our national carrier in the early 1990’s. I had just won a prestigious professional fellowship in Canada, but I had to spend a few days in London. I had what was then an OK ticket. Technically, it implied I could walk right into the aircraft and to my seat.
The reality was, however, a nightmare. More persons than available seats had Ok tickets. All wanted to fly out that Sunday morning. A melee was inevitable. In spite of our formal – some had flamboyant – dressings and the retinue of family and friends on hand to say goodbye, we knew the journey had no guarantee.
Some people would return that morning to their homes. Families and friends reined in their farewells. Rather they joined the travellers in the many queues to secure boarding passes. The lines formed and collapsed repeatedly as though a human parody of the pack of cards.
I was lucky to secure one, thanks to a relative who quickly sensed the formation of a new line and took her place in the front. Needless to say, after securing my ticket, the line tumbled over.
That was the story of the Nigeria Airways. It was also that way in local travels. Travellers waxed into sprinters, and if your flight was called and you warbled, it was hard luck. Wait another time.
The Nigeria Airways was a failure and a sad reminder about how government can ruin a great product. Nigeria Airways also blossomed in an age state-run enterprises when the current thought was government monopoly. Socialism was the bride of theorists and idealists.
But the experience was one of corruption. Government bigwigs subverted protocol and obtained OK tickets. Business moguls also waded in and, of course, staff took advantage to make a killing. Nepotism, of course, had its pride of place.
The nightmare seems to be coming back, it seems. The Ahmed Joda committee has recommended a return to the Nigeria Airways model, according to news reports. It will imply merging the existing airlines, and bring them under a national carrier. It is a return to the past of failure.
“To stumble twice over a stone,” warned Cicero, “is a proverbial disgrace.” It is like taking the Titanic back to the Ice field, and expecting a miracle. This is the age of free enterprise, and it calls for competition. It does not call for control.
We have never done it right in this country. Even our refineries, in spite of the good it did in the past, are wilting under what everyone knows as government fiat and corruption. NEPA went through similar rut and wrapped us around with a web of darkness. To resolve it, we have had to go through a ponderous rigmarole of dismantling. We are seeing what that is causing us today with the fingers of government corruption writ large in the GENCOs and DISCOs.
Ahmed Joda is a familiar name in Nigerian bureaucracy. He was a permanent secretary when that position had the force of a bullet. Like Allison Ayida, he was called a super permanent secretary. So it was expected that he knew about the Nigerian civil service as much as anyone. But he worked in a different generation, in what I would call an antediluvian time of our government. His choice by PMB to head the transition committee was informed by experience but not imagination.
The world has leapt past the range of the man, and his recommendation of merger may be a reflection of his ancient train of thought. I hope he redeems that perception by more sophisticated recommendations to the Buhari administration. This is a world of free enterprise, not of monopolistic domination.
Instead of calling for a single carrier, it should call for an enabling environment for the carriers to operate. One of the drawbacks for the airline industry is the financial predation of the banks. Airlines everywhere are heavy investments, and banks should not be made to impose interest rates at such high levels. In fact, this is not restricted to the airlines. It is the hobgoblin of Nigerian business. Small businesses have been suffocated while large ones lumber along.
To ask them to collapse under a new sort of Nigeria Airways will attract tremendous taxpayer’s money and it will be a gamble. This is no time for gamble. Another thing: governments should realise that airlines, like many international businesses, groan under the present foreign exchange rate. It now goes for a dollar to about N240. This calls for caution.
If the airlines are to merge, they should do it on their own terms. Forcing the marriage as they did with the banks is the wrong way to go. The bank mergers have eventually worked at tremendous costs. But it is a market that also offers variety. A single carrier would create a government misnomer. That is, a government will be held responsible for monopolistic practices. The United States president Theodore Roosevelt fought this against big business men like John D. Rockefeller because he knew the government had no stain on its shirt. He even fought with the financiers of his candidacy. He was a Republican and his main opponents were in his party. He risked their alienation to uphold a just cause. This was about a hundred years ago.
The Nigerian government should not be seen to pursue such anomaly when the world, through laws and conventions, are backing away because of its moral wrong. Marriages, however, should be by consent.
“A marriage is not a word,” crooned Oscar Wilde. “It is a sentence.” A forced one will be a death sentence for the airline industry again.
The Daily Times is an opposite of the Nigeria Airways narrative. It prospered without government interference until the Owu chief came. As military head of state, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo clipped the wings of the great newspaper, and its decline and fall became inevitable.
The British Airways is the model for Nigeria’s peacock class today. But it used to be a conglomerate of sorts under government control. The owners knew it was not sustainable, so they privatised it. That unleashed its mammoth potential for profit. Nigeria is one of their great customers although they give us the least of their fleet.
We need to open the door for our airlines to bloom, and not clip the wings as we did that of the Daily Times and the Nigeria Airways.
We don’t want our airline industry to fulfill the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. The story of Daedalus, the father, and Icarus, the son, have become classics about misplaced ambition. Daedalus warned his son Icarus not to fly too close to the sun in the wings he made for him. It was made of wax. But Icarus disobeyed, and flew too high. He crashed because the sun melted the wax.
Metaphorically, our planes are flying in bad weather, with clouds of hard finance and suffocating winds of official interference. Right now they would like to fulfil the famous quote from John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi, where a character says, “Black birds fatten in hard weather.” But they are failing up there. The second coming of the Nigeria Airways may smear the clouds. We do not want blood in our skies.