Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Atlantic, reportedly swore never to do business in Nigeria again because Nigerian politicians are "very insane" and "dream killers". The British billionaire has not looked back since he moved Virgin airline out of the country.
Yesterday, another airline that filled the void left by Virgin in the nation's airspace, Arik Air, felt Branson's pains when it grounded all its domestic flights, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and other airports across the country. Arik Air pointed fingers at the "persistent hostility" of the Ministry of Aviation and the management of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
Aviation union leaders were said to have picketed the airline as early as 7am in Lagos over its alleged refusal to pay certain debts. In the process, they shut down the airline's operations and locked in passengers that had been checked in. The union members claimed that their agencies - including FAAN, NCAA and NAMA - were being owed almost N18billion.
But no discerning observer should be fooled by that puppet show: FAAN staff were used by the politicians mentioned by Branson. In a statement announcing an indefinite suspension of its domestic operations, Arik said, "This issue borders on personal interests and not payment of bills, since FAAN has been collecting their charges in advance for 18 months now." In a response, FAAN management stated that it was not aware of a plan by the union members to embark on the industrial action.
We see the hands of aviation minister Stella Oduah in all this. It is curious that the airline that has just been recommended as potential national carrier by the Senate Committee on Aviation has to be grounded over an issue that has nothing to do with air safety. In a twist of irony, Oduah recently restored the licence of an airline that killed more than 160 people whose families are still mourning.
While the minister apparently insists on her pound of flesh from debtors - if indeed Arik Air's debt is the issue - she has become the media industry's biggest debtor. Since January this year, the arrowhead of Neighbour-2-Neighbour, which campaigned for the withdrawal of fuel subsidy on behalf of the presidency, has accumulated debts in newspaper advertisements exceeding N600 million. If there is one person that has constituted a threat to the businesses of media organisations in the country today, it is Stella Oduah.
But that is beside the point. The entire country is at a standstill. With most domestic airlines now grounded, movement has been greatly impeded in the country.Transportation by sea or rail is near-impossible, just as roads have turned death-traps and have found a handmaid in perennial fuel scarcity.
Maybe Minister Oduah and her fellow politicians still do not understand the gravity of the situation. It's understandable, since many of them have private jets. They should quickly come to their senses and halt further damage to the life and liberty of their compatriots. A country blighted by a hostile business climate ought to pamper the few businesses that can still create jobs.
Arik Air's chairman, Mr. Johnson Arumemi-Ikhide, is a Nigerian and may therefore not act like Branson. He has a stake in the country. But what if his business is crippled by the greed and thoughtlessness of our leaders? There has even been talk of a demand for 5 per cent shares of the company by some government officials. We hope that that is not responsible for this needless chaos. After weeks on a road show, is this how the minister intends to attract foreign investors?
This is an airline that currently employs more than 1, 500 breadwinners; the unions must, therefore, be careful not to be used. Only this week, the leading carrier in Nigeria celebrated its 10 millionth passenger milestone - in less than six years of flying to domestic, regional and international destinations. Arik Air is also the national carrier of Sierra Leone.
Long-haul routes from Lagos to both London Heathrow and New York JFK have, no doubt, boosted its international stature. This year alone, the airline has transported over 1.5 million passengers across its expanding network of 20 domestic,10 regional and three long-haul destinations. The airline has helped to connect different parts of the country in a way that has not been done in a long time.
President Goodluck Jonathan must call the minister to order. Now.