Aviation Sector Can Drive Nigeria’s Economic Revival Efforts -Engr Okocha

FOR most nations, consistent efforts at effective national economic development lay due slant on the strategic aviation sector. And this is for the singular fact of its beneficial effects on the other sectors of the overall economy and the related multiplier effects.
However, the Nigerian example has not consistently followed in this generic footstep, for still mysterious reasons. Why, and how, did the Nigerian aviation sector, once reputed for its efficiency, slide this far where, in the face of the shameful lack of a national carrier, only a few private interests, most with scant resources and other enablements, now hover the Nigerian airspace?
Engr. Ifeanyi Okocha, Managing Director, Air Gold Aviation, Lagos, and first-generation aviation/avionics expert, in an interview in Asaba, Monday Uwagwu responded to these and related questions. His responses are presented in paraphrase. Excerpts.
Can you briefly assess the state of the Nigerian aviation sector now?
In sum, I will say that, given our initial attainments in that sector, that we are not now making progress, and that, of the truth, we are sliding in that sector. For me ,as a professional aeronautical engineer, with deep associated professional knowledge in other related fields in the sector, am sad, to say the least. This situation, in my view, is the result of the failed efforts to rescue it. Of course, whatever is happening, or has happened, in the sector, is the consequence of the problem associated with the larger Nigerian society, the so-called Nigerian factor, And as I said, this is particularly sad for me as a professional because, the scenario, among others, has created or worsened unemployment among Nigerian youths, especially professionals in that sector. For now, it is sad that not only has the once buoyant and ebullient Nigerian national carrier ceased to exist, but the private sector, in spite of strenuous efforts, has not adequately filled the space or vacuum left by the demise of the national carrier; in fact, even with the best efforts, only a few private airlines are still managing to fly-Arik, Aero Contractor, First Nation and one or two others.
In all, compared to the situation in the past, especially at the initial stage of the development of the sector, what we have now is just symptomatic of survival, rather than flourish; the sector is just managing to survive. Though we have made some enhancement in respect of infrastructure in some of our airports, the fact is that, pegged on the three levels of development in the aviation sector, we are lagging seriously.
The good thing, though,if it must be held as such, is that, in spite of the situation, many interests are still applying to be licensed to operate.
So, in all, what do you perceive as the core problems of the Nigerian aviation sector?
In a nutshell, the chief of the problems relate to our inability, as a people, to accept facts and deploy them in planning and implementation; we do not respect relevant new ideas, but insist on doing the same wrong things over and over again, while expecting different, positive results.
Nigeria, as a country, is stuck at the first level stage of aviation development. The aviation sector, is, as is known worldwide, divided into three different levels of development, tagged first, second and third. Each of these stages or levels had a package of characteristics.
The first level involves the initial use of good open spaces for landing small aircraft, which are later developed into airstrips/airports, and the establishment of a national carrier and regulatory bodies. There are also security-related aviation structures in relation to the Airforce. Over time, the first level leads to the development of other structures and facilities.
Unfortunately, this is not only where we are stuck as a nation, but we have also lost the national carrier due to poor management, leaving us with regulatory bodies, training facilities as the College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, as well as airports and other related facilities. In sum, we have made no progress in this direction because, since 1961, when the first formal steps were taken in this regard, we have not only proved incapable of providing all of the key features of this stage, we have lost the one major feature-the national carrier-to our usual Nigerian factor.
The second level or stage commences when, after the laying or provision of the core elements of the first level, efforts are geared towards the provision of skilled technical/maintenance services locally. This has to do with aircraft maintenance and evaluation under the aegis of the Maintenance, Overhaul and Repairs (MOR). Structures and facilities for the local MOR ought to have been established by bringing makers/designers of aircraft and related establishments, to Nigeria,to end the current situation where we only do what we call daily inspection of aircraft in the country. The local sufficiency of Nigeria in MOR will boost the national economy and enhance the technical/technological competency of local manpower. Nigeria, which had a working relationship with Dornier in relation to the Air Beetle programme, can strive to bring it back.
Another key element of the second stage or level of aviation development is the establishment of an aeronautical university or aerospace university where aerospace engineers and related manpower can be trained. This should have been able to train graduates of our existing training schools, including the one at Zaria. In fact, even electrical, mechanical and other engineers can be trained at the university. While we are yet to think along this line, Ghana has one that it has been running for about five years now, and yet, this is a small country with just two airports. In the main, graduates of the university are highly valued for their invaluable skills, and are called test pilots, who are largely responsible for the test flight of new air planes.
At the second stage or level, the engineers trained man the MOR facilities. To be able to set up the second stage or level IN
aviation, a country must have a national carrier; though this is a first level feature, it is a core requirement for the establishment of the second stage aviation facilities. The national carrier is required to generate engagements with aircraft makers/designers and other interests. The lack of a national carrier is one of the reasons we are stuck in the first stage. The Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have a lot of MORs and are far more advanced than us by that measure. In fact, some of our airlines now send their aircraft to any of these countries for MOR requirements because it is cheaper to do so in those countries than in Europe or any other Western country.
The third level aviation is the most advanced; it has to do with aerospace science, technology, engineering and hard ware production. Here, we are talking of going to space , and, as is self-evident, Nigeria is far from this stage. The foundation for the third stage is a successful second stage, especially the university facility.
Do we still need the national carrier?
Yes; we do. Privatisation, in spite of all its presumed benefits, is not a perfect answer to all economic and other scenarios. In this sense, we must not copy the West unduly, with their presentation of wholesale privatisation as the sole, perfect answer to development challenges. In fact, some of the countries still subsidise some of their countries’ operations or run businesses or business-like establishments. In Africa, for instance, many countries have their national carriers; Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Ethiopia, which has a global reputation for efficiency, are some of them. Outside of Africa, many countries still operate national carriers, in spite of the growing appeal of privatisation.
So, why do you think we still need the national carrier?
As a country, we have to have a national carrier; we need to reactivate the national carrier, though we must not introduce it under the same name as the defunct Nigeria Airways, which operations left many unanswered questions and a big debt hole.
So, to answer your question more directly, we need a national carrier that would be different in name and structure from the defunct Nigeria Airways. For obvious reasons, I will not give details of what we-that is, myself and a few other seasoned professionals- have done in this respect, but suffice it to say that with a geographic zonal management structure in place, a new national airline, with an appropriate mix of men and materials, will perform far better than the defunct Nigeria Airways. If well established and run on the basis of global best practices, a new national carrier will help drive the national efforts at reflating the economy.
The new national carrier will create jobs, and, arising from that, help resolve Nigeria’s huge unemployment challenge, and also respond to the security and other side-effects of unemployment. In fact, if well run, a new national carrier, operated on best global practices, can create, directly and indirectly, more than 4,000 jobs.
Aside of the job-creation ability, the national air carrier would enable Nigerian professionals in the sector to keep abreast, and even hone their skills the more. It will also engender national pride; the Ethiopians, the Kenyans and nationals of other countries with active and efficient airlines know what elating feeling they have each time they either see or travel in aircraft belonging to their national carriers; in fact, the feeling of pride is beyond description. Nigerians, some of who had experienced that same feeling in the heydays of the defunct Nigerian Airways, can also have the same experience, with the creation of a successful national carrier.
So, what do you say is the true value of the Nigerian aviation sector, from the professional perspective?
The Nigerian aviation sector is viable. In fact, the aviation sector can drive the country’s economic resuscitation efforts; it can drive the efforts to develop the country, outside of the crude oil. If we are truly honest and desirous of developing the sector, proceeds from that sector can effectively drive the national efforts at national economic redemption.
But do you not think that it would cost a bomb to set up the sector and make it effective?
It is difficult for me to say. However, I am confident that, with honest application, about $500bilion would be able to transform the sector through the three stages/levels. That amount, properly used, can transform the sector to world-class across the three levels of aviation. The good thing is that the government does not need to raise the entire money all on its own; it can raise money via a consortium of banks to do so. I am confident that professionals, well motivated and supervised, can efficiently utilise the amount to give Nigeria a befitting world-class aviation sector of which every patriotic person would be proud.
As the first man to moot the idea of an airstrip in Asaba, how do you see the Asaba Airport project?
It is a grand idea come to fruition; the Asaba Airport is a good project which has given vent to my earlier idea of an airstrip in what is now the state capital. As is self-evident, the aviation sector has legion direct and indirect positive effects on the economy, and I am convinced that the administration of Senator (Dr.) Ifeanyi Okowa will provide the enabling environment that will make the state to fully tap the package of benefits that such a project can unleash. I also urge all Deltans to cooperate with the governor to enable him provide the top grade services that would make every Deltan proud of his administration, and of the state.