By Azu Ishiekwene*
It’s not been a merry run-up to Christmas for many Nigerian travellers. It all started with Canada, Saudi Arabia, and then the UK, red-listing Nigeria (and 10 other African countries) for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in spite of relatively low reported cases.
If there were any remaining doubts about COVID-19 racism, these countries shed it and showed the world they could not help wearing bigotry on their sleeve. Countries that were rightly opposed to labelling COVID-19 the “China virus”, were quick to target Africa, which is not the original source of the new variant, for detecting it among in-bound travellers and quickly reporting it.
It was a moment when the virus not only infected politics, it also infected any pretences to common sense. The red list wrecked the travel plans of many families, but the worst was yet to come. In a worsening of an already fraught slot-and-frequency war, the Nigerian aviation authorities announced the restriction of Emirates flights into Nigeria from the present 21 frequencies to once a week, limiting it to a single Abuja slot.
According to the aviation authorities, the restriction was in retaliation for the decision of the UAE authorities, which it accused of unilaterally restricting flights for Air Peace, the Nigerian carrier, from three agreed in the winter to one. Even though the UAE denied, claiming that the fault was with Air Peace for abandoning its slots in Sharjah, Nigeria stood its ground and travellers, mostly Nigerians, bore the brunt.
According to one report, Nigerians who had boarded flights to the Emirates even on other airlines were deplaned, hundreds of passengers on scheduled flights stranded, and hundreds more forced to cancel.
In leaked audio, Nigeria’s Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika explained that he was imposing the restriction on Emirates airlines (Emirates and Etihad) with a heavy heart, especially at this time of the year, but that patriotism and the national pride of 200 million people demanded nothing less. It was not retaliation, the minister said. Under the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between Nigeria and the UAE, it is called reciprocity.
For at least eight months this year, the UAE and the Nigerian authorities have been locked in a dog fight over COVID-19 protocols, with Emirates announcing the suspension of flights one minute and lifting it the next. And now, the slot/frequency brawl upstages all previous sore points.
In the midst of the ruins of shattered travel plans caused by the latest disruption, there are still a number of Nigerian travellers who are prepared to endure the fallouts, out of a genuine sense of frustration that there must come a time when enough is enough. That time did not start with the current dispute. It started when the Nigerian elite replaced Switzerland and London with Dubai as the new destination not just for leisure, but also for stolen wealth.
In a 2020 report by Matthew Page published on the Carnegie Foundation website, the Centre for Advanced Defence Studies carried out an investigation in 2016, which linked 800 properties in Dubai worth about N146 billion ($400 million) or the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of the Nigerian Army’s annual budget, to Nigerian politicians.
No country whose elite steals this way and hides the money in another country, much less a country that it is in dispute with, should expect to be taken seriously. They know where the skeletons are buried. Rightly, too, they assume that if Nigeria had its house in order it would not come to the negotiating table ready to accept a deal less than one-third of what it is getting.
There are very many areas where Nigeria ought to have said enough long ago, and aviation is one of them. Even though the flight time between London-Heathrow and Accra and London-Heathrow and Lagos is approximately the same, for example, for many years, the cost of flying from Lagos, not to mention the hassle at the destination, has been roughly $250 more for a round trip economy ticket, than the cost of flying from Accra. Foreign airlines are happy to land and refuel in Kotoka International Airport and scrape any stray dollars they can find in the neighbourhood from there, then fly into the Murtala Muhammed International Airport.
Many Nigerian travellers route their UK flights—and increasingly other international—through Accra. And while the UAE and the Nigerian aviation authorities traded blows, the Benin Republic also became another gateway for desperate Nigerian travellers! Even within Nigeria, the price difference for a round trip economy ticket charged by foreign airlines could be $1,200 higher in Abuja than in Lagos.
That’s how utterly shambolic aviation experience has become for a country that boasts of being not only Africa’s largest economy but also one of the world’s most obsessively jet-set populations.
The problem didn’t start today. In its heyday, the management of Arik Air complained to Nigeria’s aviation authorities that it was unfair to give British Airways 14 flights into Nigeria – with seven into Lagos and seven into Abuja, apart from the frequencies enjoyed by Virgin Atlantic – while Arik Air to got only seven into London-Heathrow for which it was paying about $40,000 weekly. That, of course, was after the airline vehemently rejected the Gatwick option.
The matter was never completely settled. After a bitter and complicated back-and-forth about slot and destination rules, the British authorities passed the complaint to the London-Heathrow authorities. British Airways, whose Nigeria service was being threatened, offered BMI’s London-Heathrow slots to calm Arik Air. In the end, however, issues around aircraft type, lack of will by the Nigerian aviation authorities, and Nigerians’ own appetite for all-things-oyibo, killed the effort.
Until recently, local airlines eyeing international routes bore the brunt of arbitrary and punitive charges, poor infrastructure, incompetent support services and corrupt officials who just don’t understand that the airline business is a jealous and marginal one.
Where major international carriers like Emirates Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, South Africa Airways and others get massive government funding because their countries regard the business as a vital part of their strategic plan, Nigeria not only abandons operators to their fate, the authorities also do everything to worsen their misery.
But let’s leave our sordid history and penchant for self-immolation for a moment. How long will Nigeria survive on the fresh supply of testosterone from Monday’s retaliatory action by the aviation ministry, which some think may have forced UAE to review its position two days later?
BASA is an agreement between countries. But while governments or aviation authorities do the paperwork including frequency allocation, airports assign slots. Slots are assigned based on two major criteria: air traffic capacity and airport infrastructure.
Although authorities in a number of developed countries sometimes leave both frequency and slot details to slot committees, it is at the negotiation stage of BASA that serious countries insist on frequencies and slots. The negotiations are usually led by seasoned diplomats, to ensure that their countries get the best deal, while aviators provide technical and logistical support. In Nigerian deals, the dog wags the tail.
Also, the point of these negotiations is not only about commercial flights. Forward-thinking frequency and slot allocation can also be used to develop trade and boost cargo freight, especially in countries with the severely limited road, rail and maritime connections. So, if Nigeria is negotiating seven frequencies with UAE, for example, it could at the point of the BASA signing, insist on designating one or two slots for cargo destinations, based on the country’s strategic commercial trade objectives and growth opportunities.
It’s not for nothing that the US and Europe, the bastions of the free market, have refused to sign the Open Skies agreement. Aviation is a vital asset and serious governments know when they must intervene to protect the market. Nigeria’s current practice of excluding frequencies and slots in BASA agreements leaves us completely at the mercy of the bigger players.
I perfectly understand the frustration of the aviation minister, who is perhaps one of the most outstanding in Buhari’s government. But there was really no need to throw tantrums in the dispute with the UAE. In digging ourselves out of the hole we created in the last several decades, we must avoid the low, populist road, however tempting it could be.
The aviation authorities could have asked the slot allocation committee, if it has one, to reallocate Emirates and Etihad slots to Enugu, Kaduna, Port Harcourt or Kano on grounds that Abuja and Lagos have exceeded their performance capacity.
Emiratis coming into Nigeria for serious business will probably use private, not commercial airliners laden with Christmas travellers. And one more thing: it’s not enough for the government to get more slots. Slots and frequencies are assets, not ego massage commodities. Government and beneficiaries have to justify performance at a certain minimum threshold, failing which the slots would be auctioned and we’ll be back to square one.
This is where the aviation minister must now earn his brownie points.
*The writer is the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria.