When word seeped through the media early this year that a number of airlines were coming up to populate the Nigerian airspace, veteran journalist and former editor of BusinessDay, Okwudili Ojukwu-Enendu, sneered.
Half a dozen of them had been mooted to have secured or were on the verge of securing the Air Operator’s License (AOL). These included United Nigeria Airlines, which launched operations in March, Green Africa Airlines, which has announced its imminent takeoff, NG Eagle, Binani Air, Rano Air and Northeast Shuttle, among others.
Take this from Ojukwu-Enendu: “If Nigerian Airways, with an endless flow of government cash, couldn’t be sustained; if Captains Augustine Okon and Alakija of ADC, and their entire generation couldn’t keep their aviation companies flying, who are these clones of Isaac Newton that have come up with some discovery of aviation gravity?”
According to him, “A count of airlines that have been issued the Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) to fly in the Nigerian airspace lists about 66. Of that, only about 13 are operational and of these only about half maintain scheduled flights, with the rest more dead than alive. Of about 53 airlines that have categorically died, about 43 of them went under between 2000 and now – a space of 20 years.”
From the historical perspective, therefore, he saw aviation in Nigeria, as one of the sectors with the highest attrition rates. But he has since seen the industry from another perspective.
Ojukwu-Enendu, confessed that he shelved his sarcasm when the first of them to roll out, United Nigeria Airlines, turned out having Dr. Obiora Okonkwo as the promoter. Ojukwu had known Okonkwo for decades and his reputation as a hard-nosed serial business success stands him out. There must be something there for Okonkwo to get involved.
“I first made acquaintance with Okonkwo in the 1980s before he travelled to the then Soviet Union for higher education. He returned with a bang – an earned doctorate from the Russian Academy of Sciences and tons of money.
“He was a student in Russia when the socialist system of the USSR crumbled under Mikhail Gorbachev. Completely Nigerian, with the can-do spirit, he immediately added business to academics, becoming one of the first entrepreneurs as the country cracked open. For a black African to make a way in the uncharted territory of the nascent free market Russia says a thing about Okonkwo, a story better told directly by him”, said Ojukwu.
Okonkwo cut his business umbilical cord by himself and went ahead to achieve success in diverse enterprises in Nigeria, Europe and the United States. In Abuja, his signature piece piercing through the skyline is the iconic The Dome, a highrise entertainment, sports and hospitality centre.
Back to the present: United Nigeria Airlines is in the skies on scheduled flights. Within one month of starting operations with a fleet of three aircraft, the airline overshot the 25,000 passenger milestone. And a fourth aircraft is on the way, putting it ahead of many others that started much earlier on that count.
According to Okonkwo, the airline was to be a joint venture with the Nigerian Air Force. But just as the first aircraft arrived the country, the air force chief with whom he hatched the arrangement was removed, and the new man, the Nigerian way, had his own priorities. But rather than sell off and lick his wounds, he restructured the enterprise and United Nigeria Airlines emerged.
Importantly, Okonkwo says that the industry has sufficient space to accommodate not only his own airline, but more. His inaugural flight, which was booked full to and fro, was just one of the pointers.
Ojukwu-Enendu confesses that it was from this point that it dawned on him that the new gold for Nigeria could be in the air.
“I began to think how insufficient it is for some 200 million people to be served by some half dozen airlines, with an average of perhaps 3.5 airplanes each. It was when I served Olusegun Aganga, then Minister of Finance, that Razia Khan of Standard Chartered Bank, UK delivered a paper centred on Nigeria’s demographic advantage in Abuja, which got etched in my mind.
“Simply put, these are advantages that accrue to Nigeria based on just her population. The people must wear clothes, for instance, she said, which makes the country a major market for clothes. The air travel industry is one in which Nigeria’s demographic advantage could kick in for economic benefits.
“The Federal Government has just named the international airports at Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt as special economic zones. If I understand it, they would become free trade zones of some sorts. More should come. Then the airline industry should be equally designated as a special industry, attracting special incentives aimed at lowering operational costs and bringing fares within affordable range for much more Nigerians.
“The government will reap from the taxes on tickets and operational profits, while a sizeable number of people will be employed by the industry. Just look at Ethiopian Airlines. It is the country’s equivalent of the NNPC. We can do something similar here, with the private sector in the lead,” Ojukwu-Enendu concluded.