22 November 2012

Nigeria: Our Stand - Stop This Woman!

Photo: This Day
Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah

The last time we urged President Goodluck Jonathan, in this space, to call aviation minister Stella Oduah to order was on September 17, after she had grounded Arik Air for no just cause. Now, she appears ready to step up her intransigence to a new frontier.

It was reported yesterday that the Ministry of Aviation had terminated the memorandum of understanding (MoU) which the federal government signed with Lufthansa in 2008. In the letter allegedly signed by the aviation ministry's legal adviser and addressed to the vice president of Deutche Lufthansa, it was explicitly stated that Minister Oduah "hereby terminates" the MoU "with immediate effect".

The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) told LEADERSHIP that, as of yesterday, it had not been informed and no Lufthansa flight had been cancelled. But this could well be the calm before the storm. We feel obliged not just to ask the ministry to stop the madness but to ask the minister to perish the thought. This action, if allowed, would bring misery and heartbreak to hundreds of Nigerian air passengers, especially those travelling to or from Europe and America.

But what's Ms Oduah up to this time? What is driving her so passionately to ruin air transportation at a time other means of transportation in the country are either comatose or extremely risky? If there was any genuine reason to pillory a foreign airline, it couldn't have been Lufthansa whose services are excellent.

Every Nigerian travelling abroad savours the peace of mind the airline offers: none of its aircraft has ever been involved in a mishap since it started operating in the Nigerian airspace. Indeed, it was no mistake that FAAN voted Lufthansa the best international carrier for the year 2011.

Minister Stella Oduah or her agent has not come out openly to explain the reason for this plan of action. Certainly, it couldn't have been that Lufthansa violated the MoU; the aviation ministry had been claiming that the MoU was not signed by President Umaru Yar'Adua at the time.

Under the agreement, Lufthansa was supposed to partner with local airlines and help to train Nigerians while Nigeria was to grant the airline certain waivers. If Nigeria slept over its rights or allowed the selfish interest of some political appointees and civil servants to undermine the agreement, who is to blame?

It is important to state that any attempt to frustrate Lufthansa could have a major negative impact on the nation's aviation industry.

For example, Lufthansa Technique, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, which currently maintains the fleet of Arik Air, Nigeria's biggest airline, may be compelled to review its services, with dire consequences for the industry. This may not mean much for the growing multitude of private jet owners, but Oduah should spare a thought for the millions of Nigerians who still depend on commercial airlines for their travels.

It may be convenient for Oduah to argue that Nigeria is within its rights to refuse to renew the MoU, which expired on November 20, but it would be useful to examine her motive closely. In September, Stella Oduah's delegation approached Lufthansa to help her in developing a national carrier for Nigeria. Another meeting in which the minister would be present was scheduled for October.

On each occasion, Lufthansa's representatives expressed unwillingness to invest in the country but advised that a Nigerian carrier must develop from within and not from outside (a foreign operator). It is obvious that this plain truth did not go down well with the minister and it was only a matter of time before she would extract her own pound of flesh. The move not to renew the agreement with Lufthansa, therefore, was Oduah's own private revenge; no more, no less. Is this how to run a country?

Strangely, Oduah's alternative to Lufthansa seems to be a Bi-lateral Air Service Agreement reached between Nigeria and Pakistan yesterday. President Jonathan travelled to Islamabad to meet with President Asif Zardari of Pakistan. And, just like he did in Malawi where he invited that country to flood Nigeria with rice, and in Ethiopia where he begged for salvation for our aviation industry, the government has opened the skies for direct flights between Islamabad and Lagos.

Is the government thinking about the likely impact of such a move on our already woeful security situation? Pakistan with all its insurgency woes? Is Oduah thinking of the consequences for the drug war? What is the sense in planning to delink Nigeria from Europe's biggest economy (Germany) and coupling it with one of South Asia's most turbulent nations? Whose interest is Stella Oduah serving? Why is it easier to invite the Pakistanis than it is to allow Emirates, a world-class airline, to open shop in Abuja (while asking for similar rights for Nigerian airlines)?

Oduah appears determined to be Nigeria's last aviation minister. The way she is going, it won't be long before she achieves her goal. Sadly, her boss and appointer - the president - is absent.

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