The General Manager, Public Affairs of the defunct Nigeria Airways, Chris Aligbe in this interview with WOLE OYEBADE of the Guardian Newspaper, relives the cocktail of administrative blunders that pushed the airline to the precipice. Aligbe, the Chief Executive Officer of Belujane Konzult, also zeroed in on the political intrigues that got the airline liquidated and lessons to learn from that episode.
There is a certain belief that mismanagement and corruption were responsible for the demise of Nigeria Airways. Do you share that opinion?
Absolutely not. In my view, the airline was on a flip-flop, which was unhealthy. I worked in the airline for 13 years within which nine managing directors came with different policies, so you can see the level of instability, and the lack of continuity. When I joined the airline, we had the Presidential Taskforce, headed by AVM Bello, which was probably the best board ever put together because of the quality of people that were in it. After that came Captain Jonathan, who was the next person to run the airline.
A new board, headed by Tony Momoh was appointed in 1991, and the minister, Alabo Graham-Douglas, fired the board for increasing airfares without his clearance. Later, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida fired Douglas and brought in a new minister that reinstated the sacked Momoh-led board.
He appointed Captain Ibrahim as the managing director and later, Captain Mohammed Joji. All of them had different ideas. So, the airline was just there until Jani Ibrahim came under Abacha and brought a lot of stability in its operation.
The Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration played a dominant role in the fate of the airline. Why?
Two things – Obasanjo had decided on privatising the airline. Even before he came in, he had arranged with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to execute the privatisation exercise.
But, even if that was going to happen, there was no need for anyone to have removed Jani Ibrahim. Unfortunately, ministers, whenever they come, the first thing they do is to remove people.
So, Olusegun Agagu removed Jani Ibrahim and brought in Yomi Jones. Jones remains one of the most honest CEOs that ran Nigeria Airways. He did not understand the language of corruption.
I remember one episode when we were launching our joint venture with South African Airways and took some senators along. After breakfast, the senators started complaining: ‘look at these people, they brought us here, no programme for us. Nothing.’
Yomi Jones told me to quickly go to the office and draw up an agenda so we can give them. He did not understand that they wanted something in their pockets. He was shocked when I told him. The London office wired the money and the moment the senators got it, all of them disappeared into the market. That was the end of the complaints about ‘programme.’ The shoes of Nigeria Airways were too big for the person of Yomi Jones. He never managed a complex organisation like that.
What lessons do you think the country should learn from the Nigeria Airways episode?
We should first realise that anything that is not done in the interest of this country, and transparently will not work; the country’s interest must be uppermost.
We must get strong technical partners with a global reputation, and also make sure that they are transparent by a minimum of 80 per cent. These have been missing in all attempts since the demise of Nigeria Airways.
We had Virgin Nigeria, which was not a national carrier but owned by the trio of Richard Branson, Virgin Capital (of Tony Elumelu and OBJ). Virgin Capital was used as a cloak for the two personnel. That is why when Virgin Nigeria was established, all their offices were inside UBA buildings. But they floated it as a new national carrier. But it was a flight that was doomed ab initio. The collapse of Virgin Nigeria was horrendous and a very sad thing. The N35b that they used for football, and Jimoh Ibrahim used to buy Virgin Nigeria no one is talking about it today. That debt is still being paid by Nigerian taxpayers. Sad!
Air Nigeria was meant to fill the gap created by Nigeria Airways. What happened?
After the government decided on the floatation of Air Nigeria, in its second coming, it brought in two Indians, who claimed to have worked with Singapore Airlines, and former Aviation Minister, Kema Chikwe went ahead to incorporate Air Nigeria.
She gave these two Indians property of Nigeria Airways to raise money from Nigerian banks. They did not bring in a dime. When the thing was hitting up, the National Assembly called for a public hearing. At that time, Awal Tukur was the Chairman of the House Committee on Aviation.
The day of the public hearing was something else because as we were all seated, we knew not that Tukur had written to Singapore Airline inquiring about the two Indians, and the outfit responded by saying that it never had anything to do with any of the Indians who called themselves technopreneurs.
One of them was a retired policeman from Pakistan or so. Right there, it was clear that they were fraudsters. The bubble burst and marked the end of Air Nigeria, yet again. It became a political issue between Obasanjo’s boys and Ghali N’Abba’s boys, of which Tukur (chair of the House Committee on Aviation) belonged. Some people went behind to tell Chikwe that there is no way Air Nigeria could fly while Nigeria Airways was still in place.
At what point did Nigeria Airways collapse?
It was at the twilight of Obasanjo’s first term in office, in 2002. After the two fraudsters from India left, Chikwe decided that she was going to float a national carrier, a new airline, but before then, Nigeria Airways had to be liquidated. She gave the impression that investors in the industry had accepted to be partners in the new airline called Nigeria Global.
Meanwhile, Chikwe had caused the NCAA to issue an Air Operating Certificate (AOC) to Air Nigeria while there were no aircraft or anything on the ground. The airline eventually got the AOC, but Nigeria suffered because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) came down hard on Nigeria for issuing AOC to a non-existing airline. The issue cost the director-general so much that he never recovered from it.
Chikwe had allegedly taken the money and arranged for an aircraft that was painted Nigeria Global and it flew into Nigeria on a technical stop. By this time, the NCAA had become very careful about happenings and had to call the entry a technical stopover. Chikwe thereafter arranged a press conference to announce that Nigeria’s new national carrier was having a maiden flight into Nigeria. At that time, I had left (Nigeria Airways), but I called the NCAA to ask what was happening. They said they don’t know about any national carrier, but that there was a request for a technical stop, which they obliged.
At the valedictory meeting of Obasanjo’s first term in office, Chikwe went there with two memos. One was for the liquidation of Nigeria Airways, and the other for Nigeria Global. As at that time, Obasanjo had pushed Atiku away from the Committee on Privatisation in the FEC. Of course, Atiku had written a 22-page complaint, but Obasanjo didn’t bother, even as he was given two different approvals on issues. While he gave one to the committee on privatisation, he gave Chikwe a counter approval on the same issue.
At the valedictory session, Chikwe presented the first paper on liquidation of the Nigeria Airways, and after discussions, nobody, including Atiku, objected. It was agreed that Nigeria Airways be liquidated. But two persons objected to the second memo on floating Nigeria Global. They were the late Adamu Chiroma and T.Y. Danjuma. When Obasanjo tried to put up a defence, Atiku bowed his head and said nothing.
I’m giving you an eyewitness account. The permanent secretary then, a director in engineering gave blow-by-blow accounts of everything and was close to tears seeing Nigeria Airways being liquidated, and no one saying anything. When Obasanjo asked Atiku for his views, he said the decision on the new carrier was better left to the committee on privatisation, and everyone supported it. Obasanjo approved it. But the airline had already been liquidated.
You appear not to be in support of the liquidation of the Nigeria Airways?
First, let us note that at the time of its liquidation, Nigeria Airways’ assets were about three or four times more than its liability, so there was no reason to liquidate such a company. But besides Obasanjo’s faults, its impact on the environment was key. Under the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of IBB, the naira was devalued. The implication was that Nigeria Airways’ debt rose astronomically. Since Nigeria Airways was a naira-based operation; it needed more naira to pay off foreign debt.
So, the debt mounted. And there was nothing to shore up for the airline to continue. That was why Tony Momoh’s board increased airfares by about 10 per cent, and Douglas fired all of them for not taking permission from him. Gen. Abacha didn’t bother so much about Nigeria Airways. He floated his airline, known as the African Trans Air. Of course, it soon collapsed.
What the governments were doing then was to give Hajj operations to private operators, with the right to use Nigeria Airways (WT NGA) callsign (as if it was a Nigeria Airways’ operation). So, all their debts, overflight charges, landing/parking and all others were going to Nigeria Airways. That was what happened when the Old Trade Airline crashed in Jeddah and killed 260-plus persons. That airline belonged to Dasuki. It was a leased aircraft from Canada.
Douglas was in a hotel in Jeddah and gave them the go-ahead to use the aircraft. Harold Demuren and Captain Dahiru, then NCAA DG both went to Douglas to tell him that the aircraft had not been certified, and could not operate. Douglas queried what other certification was needed after he had given his approval? However, the aircraft flew, burst into flames mid-air and passengers were falling from the sky and it crashed. That was 1991.
Because it used Nigeria Airways call sign, the AFP and global news agencies reported the crash of a Nigeria Airways plane. But I gave a press conference and said that no Nigeria Airways flight crashed. Military governors kept calling my office, and I kept telling them that no Nigeria Airways plane crashed. I did not know that the government gave them Nigeria Airways callsign. So, they kept doing that as jobs for the boys while killing the airline.
What role did the IFC play in the failed privatisation agenda?
The IFC, which was engaged to work on privatisation had done extensive work even before the appointment of Chikwe as aviation minister and was paid $400,000 for the job. The corporation produced the major documentation of privatisation of Nigeria Airways and had its proposal accepted by the Federal Executive Council (FEC). It was under the supervision of the Federal Government’s Committee on Privatisation, headed by Atiku, and the BPE headed by Nasir el-Rufai.
Everything went fine, and shortly after Agagu accepted the proposal and set up a steering committee on the privatisation of Nigeria Airways, he was redeployed to another ministry and Chikwe took over to execute OBJ’s privatisation agenda.
Chikwe, who had initially accepted the work done, suddenly turned against the plan of action that the FEC and the ministry had approved because it did not favour her control of Nigeria Airways.
The outfit had stated that Nigeria Airways should not take any loan above $2m so that it will not further lower its marketability. But Jani Ibrahim had sought a loan of about $20m from AFREXIM to support Nigeria Airways. After Chikwe had endorsed it, the IFC and BPE wrote that it cannot happen due to privatisation. Chikwe was upset and made a promise that ‘by the time I finished, there would be no airline to privatise.’
Chikwe, who was bent on taking the loan wrote to Obasanjo, who in turn wrote to el-Rufai to allow Chikwe to continue with her programme at Nigeria Airways. At that time, Nigeria Airways operations had eventually collapsed, all the people sacked, and nobody was paid. That was in 2001. Having seen what Chikwe had done, the IFC wrote a letter of withdrawal from the entire thing because all their guidelines had been completely undermined. It offered to return the $400, 000 paid to it. Obasanjo accepted its resignation, but the outfit refused to return the money saying it had done its job.
Besides, while the IFC was working, some people had told Obasanjo that Atiku was trying to go through IFC to buy Nigeria Airways. But that was a lie, and at that time the relationship between Obasanjo and Atiku had become frosty. So, Obasanjo did not find it funny. It was for that reason that he had no qualms doing away with IFC, which at that time was preparing to go to the market in London to meet both creditors and marketers.
The airline was heavily indebted too. Was it the debt, operational failure or Chikwe’s threat that finally brought down the house?
Let me tell you how it happened. There were prime routes that had been agreed to be left alone as a single designation under the privatization. Routes like the U.S., UK, Jeddah, Dubai and five others. The first thing that the Obasanjo government did was to sign an open sky agreement with the United States. The second was to dualise the Nigeria-UK route and bring in Virgin Atlantic. These were routes that were highly priced in the market. The IFC saw that those moves were whittling down Nigeria Airways powers even as it had also recommended that workers should not be sacked under the privatisation.
In the midst of all these, the government fired so many pilots, engineers and others. Also, by this time, Chikwe and Yomi Jones had refused to renew the joint venture with British Airways (BA).