A national carrier is an airline locally registered under a given statute and enjoys preferential rights or privileges accorded by the government for international operations. A national carrier can be fully or partly owned by the government. And in some cases the government only designates an existing airline as its national carrier. Nations consider national carriers as part of their diplomacy and this explains why Article 3(1) of the Tokyo Convention describes a country’s flag on an airline as a “sign of the country’s presence abroad.”
The history of a national carrier in Nigeria dates back to pre-independence, precisely 1946, when the country together with Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone established the jointly owned and operated West African Airways Corporation (WAAC), with headquarters in Nigeria. Upon independence and imminent independence of the participating countries, WAAC was dissolved in 1958 and Nigeria established the WAAC Nigeria brand, which later metamorphosed into Nigerian Airways in 1971. The national carrier operated as Nigeria’s pride until mismanagement overshadowed patriotism and professionalism, which ultimately culminated in the indebtedness of the brand and its eventual liquidation in 2003. Lamenting the sad state of the establishment before its liquidation, President Olusegun Obasanjo once said “When I was leaving office in 1979, there were 32 aircraft in the Nigeria Airways fleet, but when I came back in 1999, I only met one. I looked back to history and discovered that the board of directors of the airline was corrupt. The board will form a company in Jersey Island, and will give the repairs of the aircraft to that company. So, that was how they embezzled the airline’s funds and ran it down.”
Since theignoble demise of the Nigeria Airways, there have been diverse attempts by the government to introduce a new national carrier. The attempt to establish Air Nigeria in 2001 with Air Wing Aerospace, which was a Special Purpose Vehicle incorporated in UK, is perhaps the beginning of our many ill-advised desperate adventures. The investigation by the AwaalTukur-led House Committee on Aviation revealed many things that called to question the true intention of those that were at the forefront of the floatation exercise at the time. The public hearing by the House Committee revealed that the two Asians, who were behind the Air Wing Aerospace, lacked experience in the operations of the aviation industry. The duo had claimed a partnership with the world renowned Singapore Airline, which was to serve as Technical Partner on the new endeavour. Singapore Airline later denied any relationship with the two men and even described them as impostors. The revelation from the public hearing of the House Committee led to the cancelation of the agreement by the minister.
After the failed attempt at establishing Air Nigeria, the then minister intensified effortsat floating a national carrier, but in another nomenclature. This time it was called Nigeria Global. It was reported that the minister got to the point of gathering newsmen to the reception of the new Nigeria Global at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagoswithout obtaining a formal approval from the Federal Executive Council (FEC). Ultimately, as a result of ill-planning and needless desperation, the Nigeria Global dream also came to another shameful end, thus ending the first term of President Olusegun Obasanjo without successfully bequeathing to Nigeria a national carrier. By the time the president won a second term in office the new Minister of Aviation, Isa Yuguda also attempted the floatation of a new airline for Nigeria. This time it was to be named Nigerian Eagle, with RewaneBismark serving as the financial consultant. However, that plan was cut short and instead the popular businessman Richard Branson became the anointed to spearhead a national carrier for the country. It was reported that the deal that brought Richard Branson into the country was personally superintended by the then president. The Memorandum of Mutual Understanding (MOMU) for the new airline was signed and Virgin Nigeria was birthedSeptember, 2004 and commenced operations in July 2005. Virgin Nigeria was a baby that elicited mixed reactions from Nigerians. While some Nigerians were excited at the dawn of a new national carrier managed by a reputable global brand, aviation experts were dissatisfied at the arrangement that saw the establishment of the airline in Nigeria, which many claimed was designed to short-change Nigeria from the outset.
Less than five years into operation, the Virgin Group started lamented its losses in Nigeria. Subsequently, Richard Branson and his Virgin Group took a decision to exit the country. Jimoh Ibrahim, who was the chairman of the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, at the time, soon became the new owner of the airline and under a new name, Air Nigeria. With a combination of inexperience, huge debt burden and labour unrest, Air Nigeria collapsed and again Nigeria was back on the search for a surviving national carrier. The Goodluck Jonathan administration through the then Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Stella Oduah also attempted to float a national carrier all to no avail. The minister will probably be more remembered for her commitment to remodelling the airports in the country and the “Oduahgate” scandal that eventually terminated her appointment.
The foregoing shows that our attempt at establishing a national carrier has been a tumultuous journey. The failure of successive administration to successfully establish a surviving carrier shows the complexities of the Nigerian aviation sector and the peculiarities of the Nigerian business environment. Thus, when the current administration declared the desire to launch a national carrier, it was no news to observers in the industry. However, unfolding events have signalled the president’s interest in the establishment of the carrier. At the beginning of the administration, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Aviation once said: “The president is quite concerned about the lack of national carrier and he has directed the ministry to look into the possibility of establishing a national carrier as soon as possible. The president also expressed concern over the enormous debt profile of Nigeria’s aviation sector, saying that his administration will act quickly to redress the situation.” And true to his words, the president inaugurated a 12-member ministerial committee, headed by Mohammed Abdulsalam, former managing director of Discovery Airlines, to look into the establishment of a national carrier. Sadly, observers are still awaiting the submission of the report of the panel and its eventual release to the expectant public.
Forging ahead, the federal government through the Minister of State for Aviation, HadiSirika told newsmen in January 2017 that the country would have a national carrier by December 2017. Following this the government hired a consortium of six firms including Lufthansa Consulting at $4.99 million advisory services fees. After public outcry by aviation experts on the inclusion of Lufthansa Consulting, which is an appendage of a potential competitor, the government this year substituted the company with another company called AMG (Airline Management Group) andAvia Solutions GE.
To further reassure Nigerians of the commitment of the government to establish the national carrier within President Buhari’s first term, the minister has at different instances stated that Boeing and Airbus – two major internationally renowned aircraft manufacturers – have indicated interest in Nigeria’s quest to establish a national carrier. In separate tweets, the minister said “Boeing said they can’t wait to discuss their proposal for the Nigerian national carrier. Will sign an MoU at the IWAF (ICAO World Aviation Forum).” In another tweet, he said“Airbus signified interest in our national carrier and our MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul). Will discuss further during the upcoming ICAO forum.”
The resolution of the government to seeing this project come to fruition is truly worthy of commendation. However, the previous attempts at establishing a national carrier show that it must not be done out of desperation to fulfil campaign promises; rather it is best pursued with undiluted patriotism and nationalistic disposition. Inasmuch as the successful establishment of a national carrier lies in strong political commitment, bequeathing a strong carrier should not be made an endeavour that must be realised by all means within the 4-year term of an administration. That every administration is fixated on having a national carrier within its first term is indicative of the deficiency in our long-term approach to such endeavours as a country. The prevailing environment in our aviation industry requires proper planning and structuring before we can guarantee the survival of national carrier. It is elating that the government has chosen to make the carrier a private driven endeavour in order to ensure efficiency and professionalism. Nevertheless, the experience with Virgin Nigeria and Air Nigeria clearly shows that private sector management is not the sole answer to the survival of a national carrier. Until the issues surrounding the harsh operating environment are addressed holistically, we might be giving birth to another national carrier that degenerates from national pride to national embarrassment. Having a national carrier is desirable; but there is no need for desperation in establishing one. Our aviation industry needs a total overhaul.
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