The recent plane crash that ended the life of ninety six Nigerians – old and young, rich and not so rich, is one crash too many. Nigeria has been dogged by aviation disasters in the past one decade since the Ejigbo crash ten years ago. From small jets to large bodied flying machine, our air space is simply unsafe. Indeed, just like our roads and waterways, the bloodsucking demons of the air have been feeding fat on the innocent souls of fellow citizens. The experts are telling us the root of the problem is lack of maintenance, others say is poor training for the pilots in whose hands we invest our soul when we embark on these air trips and some people opine that it is a top-to-bottom rot in the aviation industry; a result of the corruption that have ate deep into our nation psyche.
As far as these opinions go, I simply just think we are just beginning to scratch the surface. We need to dig deeper into history to find the true reasons behind the destruction of national assets by these undertakers & coffins called airlines & airplanes. The country recorded its first plane crash on November 20, 1969, when a government-owned DC-10 aircraft on a flight from London crash-landed in Lagos and killed all 87 passengers and crew on board. Between November 1969 and the latest incident, at least 1000 persons have been killed in plane crashes involving Nigeria, Nigerians or Nigerian- operated aircrafts. A review of the incidents reveals that between 1969 and 1989, there were four fatal plane crashes in Nigeria and between 1989 and 2006 there were twenty nine plane crashes that resulted in loss of lives. For Details Click this Link.
The above statistics is of course excluding the near misses, which any aviation expert will say is conservative. Indeed, average incidence of fatal plane crashes between 1969 and 1989 was one for every five years, while the average zoomed to one for every year for the next seven years and has since climbed to two for every year in the succeeding ten years from 1996 till date. This is simply one plane crashes too many. The question a good student of aviation history will ask is – what changed between 1969 and 1989? What changed between 1996 and 1989? What can be done to reverse this trend as we appear to be headed to the beachhead of three fatal air incidents per year?
In answering this question, I have taken into cognizance the rash history of aviation in Nigeria. For starters, prior to the eighties the aviation industry was basically ran by a monopoly: Nigerian Airways. In its early days, the Nigeria Airways was a symbol of national pride and efficiency. The food was good, the airline was well managed, the planes were maintained and the price of jet travel was reasonable. Nigerians traveled and traveling with Nigerian Airways was the in thing. But like everything Nigerian the honeymoon soon ended. With the entry of military bastardization of national infrastructure and the injection of tribalism, nepotism and favoritism to appointments which basically saw the employment of “aviation idiots” into the upper echelons of the company as well as the operational cadre, the resources of Nigeria Airways was mismanaged and looted. Stories abound of how many planes were sold off in the dead of the night, plane parts carted to unknown destination, profits looted and free tickets doled out to cronies to the detriment of the bottom-line of the national flagship. Some board members and chair were indicted but their indictment hardly see the daylight; corruption and inefficiency was swept under the carpet while the Airways which was a national valuable asset was gutted and swept away by the Nigerian factor.
Of course, in the face of this decay the best solution the government of the gap tooth general could come up with was to deregulate the industry under the Yamoussoukro Declaration of 1988 and his SAP dreams. Ironically, IBB did not see it fit to put a brakes on the corruption in the government owned airways, instead he simply aggravated it as if he had a stake in seeing its complete destruction; indeed, he refused to privatize it too. What ensued in the late eighties was the doling of airline license to friends, political associates and of course as usual and typical of Badamosi Babangida an allocation of these resources to achieve his own goal of personal enrichment. In the process, men who were clueless on how airlines are ran were handed license and in quick succession a rash of private airlines with a fleet of tokunboh jets sprouted left, right and center across the country. While deregulation or some form of it was indeed necessary to open this sector of the economy, there is no doubt that where greed and selfishness have decolorized the eyes of the bogus dictator, all that was left was to implement a good policy in a corrupt manner on whose altar more than one thousand lives have since been sacrificed. All said and done- blame IBB (blood on his hands) and corruption.
The airline industry by nature is a very difficult one to make money; the initial cost of purchasing an aircraft, operating it, employing pilots, maintaining the fleet and of course insuring for mishaps is by far extremely costly in many orders of magnitude than most industries. As such, even in the United States, airlines are by far one of the worst investments you can make. Their stocks tanks when disasters happen that discourage travel, they are always in the red, and many of them routinely file for bankruptcy gutting shareholder equities and value. As such, if even in the United States many airlines are routinely bailed out by government assistance (e.g. the aftermath of the September 11 incidents) just to break even, what then is the likelihood that a standard airline in Nigeria can make it into the black on it own? My answer is none.
Indeed, to make money most Nigerian business men will cut corners at least when the authorities that are supposed to be watching are looking the other way. As such what we get are pilots that have not seen training or refresher courses in years, who carry forged flight records and training certificates, airlines operating with out of date aircrafts that serviceable parts no longer exist for, airport operating with primitive equipment and a virtually destructive aviation industry that have consumed the life of the young and old efficiently for the past fifteen years. The answer of course to the first question about what changed in the past fifteen years is obvious: a rash introduction of private ran airlines that can hardly make profit in the face of enormous competition and high maintenance cost, have cost us hundreds of innocent lives, and dismembered limbs all in the name of deregulation hand in hand with mind boggling corruption.
The unfortunate turn of events in the airline industry is a lesson for all, especially those who are quick to import foreign solutions to solve Nigerian problems without taking their time to understudy the possible effects of such when practiced hand in hand with the “Nigerian factor”. It is my believe that while deregulation of the airline industry in the face of the gross inefficiencies ongoing at the Nigeria Airways was appropriate, a more fundamental middle road between an all out deregulation and monopoly was the better option. How about licensing limited number of airlines per route to reduce the competition and enable the airlines have optimum passenger count, while allowing them the flexibility to charge reasonably for their services without under cutting safety and wellbeing of their passengers? Why can’t the licensing of airlines be done in similar fashion as we did the GSM licensing and allow for the same rules of increasing tariffs to prevail which calls for approval of upward review of prices within limits of reasonable price and profits? How about more rigorous safety standards and adherence to meritocracy in the regulatory bodies charged with overse
eing the industry?
Indeed more than anything, the current administration is guilty of a complete lack of imagination in governance. Beyond his ritualistic call for investigation, white papers and such shenanigans, Obasanjo has proven he is an inept administrator and manager of the vital sectors of the Nigerian economy especially transport, power and oil/gas. All out privatization of the downstream oil sector, like the airlines as well as the one recently embarked on in the power sector will become a disaster to our economy for the same reasons the airline industry have imploded. The time to seriously consider rolling back the IBB years of corrupt deregulation into a new era of managed privatization with the public interest placed above profit making and cronyism is here. If the numbers of “big men” that continue to die in this disasters have not taught the elites a lesson or two, then I guess nothing will. Let those who have ears, let them hear.