Monday 21 January 2013

Opinion Post: RE: Another wrong move in aviation sector

Aviation Nigeria

The Punch newspaper of Friday, January 18, 2013 in its Editorial under the above caption was characteristically very caustic in its jaundiced appraisal and ‘analysis’ of the moves by the current aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah to intervene ‘’directly’’ in the domestic operations of the local airlines in Nigeria. 

We grant The Punch, or any other newspaper in Nigeria for that matter its sacred right to hold and disseminate opinion, but we are totally averse to such opinion being expressed in the most deprecating manner! 

If the entire piece were to secure some converts to its avowed position that the private sector holds the key to all the problems in the aviation sector in Nigeria today, I sincerely doubt if any objective reader would be so convinced given the naked display of vitriol, bordering on plain hatred and utter dislike for the person of the Minister as expressed in that Editorial Opinion-which ought to be more elevated both in language and presentation. 

But ample evidence, not only in the aviation industry, but also in other sectors of the economy shows that the private sector is not the Holy Grail-in all situations, as The Punch wants us to believe. My brief does not include an exposure of past failed PPP arrangements in the country as I am pretty sure The Punch has the information at its finger-tips. 

It was however very convenient for The Punch to throw into the mix the successes in the Communications sector and the Seaports for its purposes.

Be that as it may, we like to take deliberate effort to state very emphatically that contrary to the views expressed in that piece to the effect that government, especially its intervention efforts in the aviation sector in the past have come to naught-and therefore no similar effort, regardless of the different circumstances can come to any useful purposes, is at best pedestrian. 

Like the Master Plan and Roadmap that was developed, for the very first time for the sector, the various intervention efforts by the present Minister are very well thought through. They are not a knee-jerk reaction to the challenges facing the sector.

To be sure, it is not true that Yakubu Dati, the spokesman for FAAN was the first person to break the news of government’s plan to acquire 30 aircraft to make up for the equipment deficit by domestic operators. 

Dati was only re-echoing what the Aviation Minister had personally disclosed in an interview with a national daily. My humble self had also, in an earlier Press Release made clarifications on the matter. 

But this is besides the question. It beats one’s imagination that a newspaper would make a blanket statement that ‘’it is inconceivable for this government to consider any further direct intervention with public funds’’ regardless of the circumstances. 

Without prejudice to the way and manner previous intervention funds had been utilized in the past, it is too reductionist for anyone to literally advocate a blanket ban on future intervention without looking at the merit of individual cases.

Of course, Princess Oduah has expressed strong reservations on the way and manner the Aviation Intervention Fund was utilized by beneficiary airlines. 

It will however be escapist to, on the strength of past failures, fold her arms and do nothing in the face of the critical needs of domestic operators for equipment (aircraft). 

The decision to acquire these equipment was therefore not only well thought through, but also a product of wide consultations with stakeholders and the flying public which desires brand new, safe, and efficient aircraft. 

To avoid pitfalls of the past, with attendant allegations and counter-allegations of misapplication of fund, the Minister now opted for the safe option where physical cash would not be doled out to any operator. 

And for emphasis, these equipment would not be given out for free to any airline operator-there would be stringent conditions that potential beneficiaries must meet in order to qualify as a beneficiaries. 

One of such conditions would be ability to refund (bank guarantee). 
This way, government investment would be secure, while at the same time meeting the challenge of equipment deficit on the part of operators and the desire for newer, safer aircraft from the flying public. It is going to be a win-win situation. 

The point being made is that it is too reductionist and escapist to say that since previous direct intervention failed in the past, government must run away from it like a plaque! 
What anybody should interrogate is the modalities governing the current intervention effort, not a blanket ‘BAN’ as the Punch is advocating.

The Punch agrees with our position that much of the problems of the sector are ‘’fundamentally structural’’ requiring a ‘’thorough overhaul of the dilapidated infrastructure’’. 

Pitiably, since we do not hold the same view that the private sector holds the key to the solution of all these problems, the paper conveniently choose to be silent on the huge efforts-with tangible and verifiable results, that the present Minister has undertaken to tackle the challenges. 

For several decades, the infrastructure at the nation’s airports had been left to rot and decay. It took the current Minister less than 12 months to show that government can indeed achieve results when the leadership is right.
It is curious, but not entirely surprising that the Punch is mute on the dramatic turn of fortune for airport terminals across the country that today wear grandiose and edifying look; courtesy of the re-modelling Projects embarked upon by Princess Oduah.

The infrastructural rehabilitation and upgrade currently going on across all 22 federally –owned airports more than adequately answers The Punch query of inherited derelict facilities at the airports. 

And for over five years, the runway lighting on Runway 18L at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA) were not installed. 

Just before Christmas of 2012, the lights came alive courtesy of the huge efforts of NAMA to boost air safety in Nigeria. 

The Punch does not think this deserves some mention too. To be sure, we do not ask for praise; since the Minister is only doing her job, but we insist that her modest efforts be acknowledged.
We realize, like The Punch that some of FAAN’S problems are ‘‘managerial and structural’’. But when in the last quarter of 2012, the Minister took the bull by the horns in her Institutional Reform Programme to re-position FAAN and other agencies under the ministry for higher productivity, efficiency and accountability, commentators took up arms against her, falsely alleging ethnic cleansing. 

The NCAA has also been strengthened to carry out its regulatory oversight. The least we expect of The Punch is an acknowledgement of this re-positioning exercise which has seen round pegs put in round holes. Instead, what we see is a rehash of the old mantra of ‘managerial’ problems!

Talking about government’s alleged failed efforts in the past is good. It is also good to be fair and balanced. As far as the aviation sector is concerned, PPP arrangement being spear-headed by The Punch has been a huge failure and disappointment. 

We do not need to mention the scandalous Concession and Lease Agreements in the sector in the past which literally sold out government and Nigerians’ equity in government property at a pittance. 
The present leadership in the sector does not intend to travel this treacherous road again. The new National Carrier which the Minister is championing will not be funded by the tax payer, it will be private-sector driven in terms of funding while government provides the framework, platform and enabling environment. 

Curiously, this does not meet The Punch’s minimum criteria and quest for Private Sector involvement in the growth of the sector as it has equally lampooned the initiative. 

"All the ill-thought-out schemes for state-sponsored national Carrier, buying aircraft and building new terminals are driven by corruption and will only serve as new conduits for filching government funds’’, the paper concludes. Haba, Punch! But we clearly understand. 

The paper wants government property and investments in the aviation sector to be handed over to Private Sector surrogates in the name of PPP and Concessions, but this is a long-travelled road. This Minister is not going there. 

Joe Obi is the SA (Media) to the Hon. Minister of Aviation. He contributed this piece from Abuja.


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