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‘Nigeria needs a national carrier urgently for socio-economic development’

Nigeria is currently losing millions of dollars to foreign airlines as she has no national carrier. Ibrahim Mshelia, a pilot, chairman, West Link Airlines and politician, says Nigeria needs a national carrier urgently for its socio-economic development. In this interview with John Osadolor, he also speaks on several issues including the aviation industry and Borno State politics. Excerpts:

Does Nigeria need a national carrier owned by government?

Nigeria cannot continue to allow foreign airlines serve its major international travelers to and from the country alone for any longer.

This Covid-19 pandemic has shown that we acted inappropriately as a nation, in my opinion. No nation can survive local currency slide against foreign currency when the country depends on import. Foreign airlines playing major roles in providing our international travel connections solely is not only counterproductive but disastrous. The foreign airlines have to take their money out and these people don’t spend or accept naira in their countries, they have to process our naira and take out more acceptable and stronger foreign exchanged currencies out of our economy (USD, EURO or Pounds,etc.).

A government that wants to do well should not watch quietly for the length of time Nigeria has done; without coming to the sector’s rescue. I will therefore support a national carrier by government now because aviation was deregulated over 30 years ago. The private sector operators were solely allowed to run the sector and they have done very well indeed on the domestic front and must be commended, supported and patted on the back.

But then, even after government deregulates, the government still remains responsible to general citizenry and those working, doing business and living in Nigeria, paying their taxes deserve security of their air travel as well as all other interests.

Now, if Government owned Nigeria Airways and shut it down due to failures, deregulated the industry as developed nations did, allowed and designated private operators on domestic, regional and intercontinental routes, government also equally has the responsibility to evaluate its own performance. This evaluation includes but not limited to the deregulated sectors as well.

I believe also that everyone of us here who has 30 years or more experience in the industry can bear witness to the abilities or otherwise of our aviation private sector operators over the past, at least 25 years as well. They have done very well in sustaining our domestic operations and nobody can disprove this. However, we cannot fairly and rightly say that of the regional and intercontinental routes which are even worse (international as most refer). While the regional, like west coast, have been served fairly well, even though not as well as the domestic (Lagos to Dakar, Accra, etc.), we can still say that the private sector can handle the regional operations better with cooperation from the government in terms of balanced fees and charges as their foreign counterparts enjoy from their own governments. We can engage government and get this ironed out.

As for the international, can we authoritatively say that the private sector has done well on the international/intercontinental routes? The answer needs no efforts to determine. It is NO!

Let’s go back history lane for a bit. Nigeria Airways came into being on 23 August 1958 under the name West African Airways Corporation Nigeria Limited (WAAC Nigeria), also then known as Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL). It succeeded the folded West African Airways Corporation (WAAC), at the time. The title “WAAC” was retained due to the prestige this company had previously earned. But once Nigeria Airways started making its own name, it was dropped and NAL remained till 2003.

Prior to 2003, I would say about five to 10 years before then, the airline was already, almost crippled due to several reasons. At one time, from over 23 aircraft, they had just one flying the domestic route alone and using sales money to fuel the aircraft. From 1958 to say, 1994, the airline was doing well and a pride for, not only Nigeria but black Africa. As a student pilot then, my dream was to fly Nigeria Airways’ DC 10 back then. By the time I graduated, the airline was in a tough time. That was how good it was. The airline flourished well for at least about 25 years before it started drawing concerns from successive governments and eventually in a democratic dispensation, the airline was liquidated in 2003. NAL was run then like a government transport department with budget from subventions; hence it collapsed when funding from government stopped. I recall it was this same president that was head of state when most government agencies were told to self- sustain. Then it was a very good thing and best idea.

The eventual liquidation however, happened in democratic dispensation, meaning the people themselves dissolved the airline. Their elected representatives did it. Not the military dictators as we would have easily blamed.

Having said these, if government could fund the airline well then till it could no longer do it and asked it to fund itself and then it collapsed; there were so many lessons to have been learnt by the private sector operators who now took the centre stage.

It is a fact that government always takes blame and bashing by the general public for failures of both the private and public sectors. The aviation ministry today can roll out a long list of who and who has been designated on the lucrative defunct Nigeria Airways routes but failed to perform to satisfaction on even already developed routes. Don’t forget private operators inherited developed routes that they did not use or lose money to develop. Anyone doing those routes should start fairly well and post profit quickly. But what has happened, we are all living witnesses to it.

So, if today, government decides to appropriate funds to restart a new airline to fly its flags around the world, I cannot blame that government at all. A true lover and patriot should concern his or herself with immediate solution first, whichever way, rather than the same rhetoric and the cliché being taunted that “Government has no business in doing business.” Really! What’s the primary function of government then? It is to provide security for people and businesses, private or public, within its sovereignty.

Why are you supporting government ownership of an airline when everyone is looking up to the private sector for solution?

My reasons for supporting government now are many but the basics are simple: If government can evaluate itself and drastically take actions such as liquidate an entity like NAL, then government with the same sense of responsibility to citizenry and those who live and do business in our country, similarly bailed out airlines recently to sustain the sector, then now decides to take further actions to remedy this over 30 years of abysmal performance by the private sector on the international routes, then why the brouhaha?

Have those in the aviation private sector organized ourselves to do what NAL did in its days, even on just two routes alone consistently: that is: Lagos/Abuja to London and Lagos/Abuja to New-York for the over three decades of deregulation? So, what are we now talking about here please? I challenge anyone to come and prove to me that today, government is now wrong for taking this decision. Let’s talk with facts and figures and not selfish sentiments.

I, however, caution that the airline government wants to set up should strictly not involve itself with domestic and regional, but partner the domestic private sector operators of its choice to feed it. Those in the aviation private sector have failed to deliver on the international/intercontinental routes as evidenced by every day, seeing major foreign world carriers flying daily flights to various destinations in Nigeria. If we had strong private sector operators, less of the major carriers’ direct presence will be seen, as they would have interlined with our carriers; which is the easiest and modern ways of doing aviation business today. There are now Oneworld, Star Alliances, etc. That was what Nigeria Airways was able to achieve then and remained in IATA clearing house till things became sour after government withdrawal of subventions.

So, now let’s first even define government. Who is government? Government is all of us including the private sector operators. So if we cannot even agree and merge and form strong airline or two airlines to compete, due to cultural and selfish reasons, then why should the general public suffer humiliations, hiked prices, uneasy connections, having no choice of our own, etc. Government has responsibility to act and government, I mean, previous government acted well by bailing out and the bailout was abused, we are also all living witnesses. Today, this government has acted and to me acted right. Government actions also do not have to be pleasing to few individuals but the general public. I strongly believe the general public desires and will perform economically better with reliable international/intercontinental routes operated by own national carrier. In the absence of strong viable flag carriers to meet the huge demand, the government action is the most secured and patriotic step in my opinion.

I wish to also advise government to give private sector operators first right of refusal in shareholding acquisition in the new airline. National carrier to fly Nigerian flag around the world should no longer be negotiable. It’s so dear to national security if not anything else.

Ethiopia is on the lips of every child around the world. Ethiopian Airlines’ engineers trained with Nigeria Airways engineers here in Lagos in the late 50’s and today Ethiopian Airlines can do checks (D- check is like renewing the life of the plane or major components for second life and we don’t even have a national airline that still flies, let alone a befitting maintenance repair and overhaul facility of international standard to attract foreign exchange to our treasury. Kudos to the government for this bold step I would say.

In addition, we the private sector will learn perhaps in the near future and correct our attitude toward better results. At that time, government can decide to get out again. For me therefore, this action is most welcome but should be done with ultimate view to divest to the private sector again when things would have improved.

How do we achieve this?

My take therefore is that by all means government should seek support of National Assembly and I appeal to the representatives of the people to appropriate the money needed to setup a befitting national carrier that will do only the intercontinental routes like London, Paris, Frankfurt, New-York, etc. while the airline gets fed by the domestic and regional private sector carriers they choose to interline with. A standard MRO should be considered along as well, to save capital flight through maintenance. We have very brilliant pilots and engineers in this country that can steer this project to compete in no time with the world’s best. We have been exporting our best brains for too long to develop other countries and time has come that we must be patriotic.

Imagine that despite all these, government has made pronouncements through the supervising Minister, Hadi Sirika, that the pandemic has affected us so mush and government feels and shows concern. If government has done well there because private sector will benefit directly, and the reason for all the support is because government ought to care about security of investors because they generate and pay taxes, the general public also pay taxes, let government also help their difficulties, suffered over the years! We know how Nigerian passengers are treated on foreign airlines; even the well behaved ones are not spared. Let’s call a spade a spade.

You were a candidate in the 2019 governorship election in Borno State. How is the state doing now?

Borno State is a state staggering for seemingly elusive stability under a heavy yoke of poverty. The endemic poverty in the land is fueled by age-long governmental neglect and a lingering traditional over-concentration of development in a zone to the detriment of other communities, some of which government presence had taken flight, for as long as over four decades.

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