Yes, you heard right: an African nation which once owned an airline has resolved to own one again.
The effort will boost national pride and jobs, the government believes. To that end, it plans to acquire aircraft from such manufacturers as Bombadier and Airbus.
That country is Uganda.
Yes, two weeks ago Nigeria did announce a similar initiative, but with little more than hot hair.
“I’m very pleased to tell you that we are finally on track to launching a new national flag carrier for our country: Nigeria Air,” Nigeria’s Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, declared at an air show in London.
Apparently trying to head off scepticism from Nigerians given how previous national airlines were run to the ground by the government, the Minister announced that the government will not own more than 5% of the new carrier, and “will not be involved in running it or deciding who runs it.”
It was a little awkward that a minority shareholder snatched the microphone and announced corporate policies to be imposed on owners it had yet to negotiate with.
And little was known of the heart of the business plan of a government and a culture that is famous for its dislike of the rigor of detail and implementation. For an airline which aims to take off in a few months, Air Nigeria has no offices, no marketing, no website, no airport lounges, no training programmes, and no staff.
But Sirika said the airline would operate 30 aircraft within four years, launching in December with a fleet of 15 leases. Those aircraft, by the way are “urgently” being prospected for, ironically along with investors.
Uganda, on the other hand, expects its new airline to be running in January 2019, the government rolling out specific details that included funding, training and acquisition of aircraft.
Providing substance to announcement, Bombardier said Uganda would acquire from it four new CRJ900 jets. The government projects delivery of the first of those to be in January 2019 and the rest by the end of April. Airbus also confirmed it had signed an MOU with Uganda for two A330neo-800 aircraft. Long-haul Airbus craft will be ready in 2020.
Funding? Uganda is borrowing from Canadian and European credit agencies for the jets. According to Bloomberg, the country’s working figure for each Bombardier jet-including training of its crew-is $27.7 million, while that for each Airbus is $108 million.
The government also announced its business plan, demonstrating strong clarity about its markets and routes.
By contrast, it was curious that Sirika announced the name of the airline in London, while a personal aide of President Muhammadu Buhari, who appeared to be at the airshow, went online with the announcement, although he has no business with aviation.
“I am confident that we will have a well-run national flag carrier, a global player, compliant to international safety standards, one which has the customer at its heart,” the Minister said. “An airline that communicates the essence of our beautiful country, an airline we can all be proud of.”
I fully support an airline of Nigeria’s, but the one that was marketed in London with so many questions and such poor preparation is not such a project. It is a hasty idea in which the government is trapped between specific realities but still hopes it can enjoy some political and electoral capital.
One of those realities is that the government knows it is not capable of establishing and running an airline because it is no different from the governments that ran Nigeria Airways aground, or the one that investigated the collapse.
After that airline landed in 2003 to fly no more, the Olusegun Obasanjo government in 2004 set up a judicial panel headed by Justice Obiora Nwazota to investigate the matter.
No fewer than 78 persons were indicted. They were found guilty of having mismanaged, looted or misappropriated over N54 billion, and were declared wanted by the police.
They included the following former aviation ministers or Managing Directors of Nigeria Airways: Jani Ibrahim, Capt. Mohammed Joji, Air Commodore Bernard Banfa, Capt. Bara Allwell-Brown, Air Vice Marshall Anthony Okpere (rtd), Maj. Gen. Olu Bajowa (rtd), AVM Patrick Koshoni (rtd), AVM Abdullahi Bello (rtd), Alabo Tonye Graham-Douglas and Capt. Benoni Briggs.
The panel also recommended them for prosecution, ban from public office and refund of the monies they looted or misappropriated. But in power was one Obasanjo, who is currently proclaiming his new mission to be to wipe out bad governance and corruption.
Fourteen years ago, none of those 78 men served one night behind bars because they were either his friends or friends of his friends.
I recall this story, as we might the story of Nigeria Railways or electricity or roads or education-or specific projects within those sectors-because in Nigeria, we often pretend that history does not matter.
Think about it: this week, for instance, President Buhari is back in London for medical care. He has described it as a vacation, but everyone the world over knows he is there to take care of his health. That is, he is in England to take advantage of a medical system which works.
But he left behind in Nigeria not only a medical system that does not, but a state-funded hospital within his presidential complex-under his direct official gaze-which has also collapsed.
In a different kind of political system, a leader would have built first-class hospitals within one or two years not only to conserve state resources, but also to avoid the ignominy of traveling abroad and confronting allegations of hypocrisy.
But this is Nigeria, where hypocrisy has no spelling. You can abandon a job you didn’t do and head anywhere, at public expense, to take care of yourself.
What does this mean, in practice? Here is an isolated example: Two months ago, a conscientious medical doctor died in her own hospital in Lokoja.
Rosemary Chukwudebe, an asthmatic, headed the Internal Medicine Department of the Kogi State Specialist Hospital in that city. By coincidence, it was to that facility that Ms. Chukwudebe, a mother of three, was taken when she had an attack and could not breathe.
But in that same environment where she had saved life after life after life, even the new Intensive Care Unit could not save her because it lacked equipment to administer oxygen.
She died, painfully and needlessly, as do Nigerians in makeshift health clinics throughout the country. These Nigerians are killed, in effect, by leaders who have no commitment to functional projects capable of delivering service. And the country is littered with hundreds of thousands of them.
That is what happened to Nigeria Airways, and it is what is happening to our airports, roads and public hospitals. If you are in Nigeria, you must make sure you do not need a hospital!
And so I wish Air Nigeria well…just as I wish the presidential fleet Buhari once said no Nigerian leader needs.
And no: I am no longer ashamed my president is not ashamed he cannot build a hospital in his own country. If you have a presidential jet and unlimited state resources, the Queen will provide a hospital for you.