National carrier: Buhari’s parting gift

President Buhari has a credibility deficit. This is on account of his long list of unfulfilled election promises including ‘belonging to no one, belonging to everyone,” tackling insecurity challenges, reducing pump price of fuel, making our refineries work, enhancing the value of naira by forcing Nigerians to eat only what they produce, restructuring the country for competitive growth and development, and setting up a national carrier, which back in 2014 he announced from far away Britain would take off with President Jonathan’s fleet of about 11 aircraft.

This was not visited until July 18 2018, three years after assumption of office when the name, logo, colour scheme, structure, and types of airplanes of Nigeria’s national carrier were unveiled, again, from far away Farnborough International Public Airshow in London. His aviation minister claimed about $308.8m had been set aside to cover running costs, acquisition of 30 aircraft, five of which he said were scheduled to arrive Nigeria by December 19 2018 for its take-off.

The national carrier issue was buried for over four years until it resurrected again last week, less than nine months to the end of the Buhari administration. The hope of Nigerians has once again been raised with an announced end of this year take-off date for a new private sector driven ‘Nigeria Air’ with three aircraft manufactured by Airbus and Boeing; 7,000 jobs, according to the government, would be created through its operation of 40 domestic, regional and sub-regional routes and 41 international routes.

But there are many skeptics who are apprehensive about government in a highly sophisticated airline business currently experiencing challenges even in market-driven economies. It is also of no relief that Nigerians have over the years witnessed the monumental waste in Nigeria Airways, National Shipping Line, the four refineries, Ajaokuta Steel Rolling Company, Nigerian Railway Corporation and other mismanaged public enterprises including PHCN, Banks, oil companies, Insurance, hospitality industry etc. These were national assets valued at over $100b but cornered by those in government and their fronts for a paltry $1.5b between 1999 and 2015.

However, a journey through memory shows that our problem was not with public enterprises or the adoption of Keynesian macroeconomic model in place of market economy by our founding fathers for the purpose of national development. Our tragedy was the take-over of our country by ill-trained military adventurers.

Babangida, a military adventurer who hilariously conferred on himself the title of “president’ while not forgetting to also describe himself as “the evil genius,’ went on to impose on Nigeria a widely rejected Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) which opened our country to importation of all manner of goods from across the world. Pretending to teach Nigerians democracy, he derailed our political socialisation process by ‘banning, unbanning and banning’ old politicians during his fraudulent eight years of ‘transition without end,’ after which he annulled the most credible election in our nation’s history.

Obasanjo, who envied bureaucrats and intellectuals, did not believe in leadership training. He boasted about achieving on a platter what leaders like Awolowo, who “burnt the midnight oil to study and proffer solutions to Nigerian problems,” described as one of the world most distinguished administrators of his era by a former British Prime Minister, could not achieve in a life-long struggle.

But the nation paid dearly for the shortsightedness and folly of Obasanjo and Murtala Mohammed, who in 1976 jointly destroyed our bureaucracy, then the best in Africa, our universities and Teaching Hospitals, including UCH, one of the best five teaching hospitals in the Commonwealth.

As an elected leader in 1999, Obasanjo’s “I will listen to God and not my advisers” gaffe was to haunt his administration. His effort at refurbishing the refineries was sabotaged by his PDP men that got the contract and went on to create artificial scarcity that forced him to sign the PPPRA Bill that increased fuel importers from four to about a hundred. The same “PPPRA with staff strength of 249, supervised by an unwieldy 22-man strong board, earning scandalously whopping salaries and allowances of N57.9 billion,” became a vehicle through which PDP stalwarts and their children according to House report forged documents to defraud the nation “to the tune of N1.7trillion in one year.”

Obasanjo tried to salvage NEPA (PHCN) but was outmaneuvered by his better equipped ministers. His expenditure of between $8b and $16b on the power sector produced only darkness. His successor’s N300b intervention fund was meant for packaging PHCN as DISCOS and GENCOS before selling the same to themselves.

Nigeria Airways suffered a similar fate. It was Babangida and his “army of anything is possible” that in the name of commercialisation destroyed and replaced it with privately run Albarka, Okada, Oriental, Concord, Harka, EAS, Triad, Harco, Savannah, Belview, ADC lines, many of them owned by traders, government contractors, retired military and police officers and even fishermen.

Obasanjo’s efforts at reviving the national carrier through an arrangement with Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic was frustrated by his PDP men. Air vice Marshall Dike committee which recommended a sum of N48b for the upgrading of Nigeria’s four international airports soon emerged. He approved N19.5 billion out of which Professor Babalola Borisade as Aviation Minister, according to Fani Kayode, his successor, spent N8.4b, while he spent N3.8b leaving behind N7.2b for Princess Oduah, his successor.

But Stella Oduah went to CBN, insisting on a review of the fund because, according to her “It was obvious the aviation industry was about to die unless we do something urgently.” That was the genesis of ‘N330b aviation Intervention fund. Of the N300b, N232.6b was said to have been paid to 21 participating banks with UBA taking N35b on behalf of Jimoh Ibrahim’s ‘Air Nigeria.’ The Senate Committee on Aviation however directed CBN to recover the N35b extended to Air Nigeria. (Joke Kujenya , “Untold story of Aviation Mystery Fund”: The Nation, March 9, 2014).

No one, however, was held accountable for the monies received by other banks that went under during Sanusi’s tenure as CBN governor. But what was not in dispute was that by 2015, the Airline stakes holders who can also pass for PDP stalwarts, that led the crusade for government bail-out were owing AMCON over $700m debt.

It is apparent from the above that public enterprises did not fail us but our incompetent leaders and governing elite. If we, therefore, don’t want to be slave to our past, with foreign airlines swindling Nigerians about N3.7b annually and our public officials frittering away taxpayers’ money on such foreign airlines like the British Airways that charges, before the current travail of naira, about $10,070 for a First-Class return seat from Abuja to London, the need for a national carrier has never been so imperative.

And with Nigerians unable to travel freely by road and rail for fear of bandits, Fulani terrorists and local criminals kidnapping in their name, and with private airlines owned by traders, retired soldiers and policemen, going under, a national carrier as Buhari’s parting gift will be welcomed by Nigerians who cannot wait for him to return to Daura.

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