The other day I saw a post on WhatsApp that had a long table filled with all kinds of alcoholic beverages and a host of black persons sitting around the table ready to drink. What was even more interesting was the rider, a comment to the effect that we Africans know how to come together to buy alcohol but cannot come together to do business.
Someone had remarked equally that when there is an exchange of goods between an African nation and a European or Asian one, we call it international trade but when it is an exchange of goods and services between neighbouring African nations, we term it smuggling. It is no wonder then that while India has become Nigeria’s largest trade partner and it is easy to call up the numbers in trade between Nigeria and European and Asian countries it is really hard to quantify the actual trade between Nigeria and such neighbouring African nations as Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea.
I am interested in these countries because of their contiguity with the South South region of Nigeria. A lot of people would be surprised to learn that geographical distance between Calabar and Lagos is farther than Calabar to Douala, Calabar to Libreville and Calabar to Malabo. Geographical distance between Calabar and Lagos is 571km; whereas Calabar to Libreville is 522km and Calabar to Douala is 183km and Calabar to Malabo is 142km. Assuming the black person was really to be a correct thinking being concerned with the common good and not his selfish or tribal acquisitions, wouldn’t there be a regional strategy to develop tourism between these contiguous capital cities?
I think an opportunity arises in the about to be established Ibom Air belonging exclusively to Akwa Ibom State. I have only seen the executive jet parked usually at the Victor Attah International Airport purchased by the previous government; however the news of additional air planes to make up an airline that would be run like a private enterprise complete with international aviation standards really makes me happy. I see Emmanuel Udom as an innovative and conscientious governor.
I am not from Akwa Ibom. I rejoice with the people of Akwa Ibom over this great initiative, for I know that despite its small beginnings, if it is managed professionally as a business, it could grow to be a great income generator for Akwa Ibom State.
The little contribution I want to make is that in the airline’s strategic plan, Akwa Ibom should consider making it an international fleet. After all Victor Atta International Airport is an international airport. Why would we keep on christening airports international when the farthest places flights take off to are Lagos and Abuja ? So indeed if Akwa Ibom under the vision of Victor Attah established an international airport and now Udom Emmanuel is establishing an airline, why not make it an international airline?
When I say international, I don’t mean Uyo-Dubai-Uyo or Uyo-London-Uyo or Uyo-Accra-Uyo. I mean Uyo-Doula-Malabo-Libreville-Uyo. Sometimes I sit and wonder why all these countries that are contiguous, even if the federal government does not reason along those lines, why state governments in the South South would not take advantage and explore tourism opportunities with those countries? Why can’t Cross River and Akwa Ibom come together on this venture of an international airline ?
These are short distance flights that could be impactful while maximizing returns. I have been several times on a 17-minute flight from Chicago to South Bend. If there could be such interstate flights overseas, why can we not organize such short international flights ? Unfortunately our governments in the South South thrive in hero worship and proclaiming routine activities of government as extraterrestrial accomplishments.
I know a lot goes into acquiring routes through the bilateral air service agreement (BASA) between countries. This is where the federal government could be of assistance although I suspect that when a development advantages anywhere outside the South West and the Northern regions, the powers that be try to frustrate it. The Sea port in Calabar lies waste, the Export Free Zone in Calabar as the very first export free zone remains under-utilized because it is located in Calabar; rather there was a mad rush to establish export free zones in other states without supporting the first one to work.
So it might be tough luck relying on the federal government entirely to facilitate. Nonetheless this prejudice should not constitute an inhibition, as the federal government should now be concerned about creating jobs either directly or by enabling the environment and should welcome such initiatives. On the other hand, the way private entities come into Nigeria and negotiate deals with our governments, perhaps the Akwa Ibom State government could lead the management team of the new airline to make these negotiations with these countries.
I know that this venture would assist many of our business men who have to go to Lagos first before traveling to these countries that are contiguous with the South South. It would now be a shorter commute between the South East states whose natives constitute the majority of persons of business in these countries as they would not have to travel to Lagos anymore. I also know that if marketed properly, tourism could spring up and bloom between Nigerians and these countries, especially as many European nations multiply the response to Nigerians’ visa applications in the negative day by day.
As government both at the federal and state levels is short-sighted and bereft of strategic thinking and is excellent in mouthing platitudes about tourism without a corresponding deliberateness in developing infrastructure that supports tourism, establishing an airline with regional comparative advantage might be the catalyst that is needed in this region.
Bassey is the former national director of Caritas Nigeria/JDPC