In order to grow the air transport industry to significantly contribute to the country’s gross domestic product, create jobs and provide efficient service to the country, it must adopt decisive diplomatic policies to protect local carriers.

Unfolding events in the aviation sector during the coronavirus lockdown showed that Nigeria may still be trapped in the colonial mindset. This period exposed a situation where countries used diplomacy as business warfare to carve out markets for their own airlines.

Some international carriers also capitalised on weak diplomatic policies in some countries to exploit aviation markets in those countries, especially in Africa and stripped local airlines business opportunities.

Nigeria made commendable efforts through its pronouncements to protect its own carriers but made feeble diplomatic moves to implement its decision.

These were the views of many industry stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY and insisted that the federal government must take advantage of Nigeria’s huge travelling population by ensuring that local airlines are able to operate international destinations.

Evacuation exercises being carried out by countries due to the coronavirus lockdown had been described by many industry observers as extension of the marketing competition by airlines because majority of the evacuations are conducted by well-known major carriers of the world.

All airlines want to continue to earn revenue through evacuation and cargo operations in other to sustain their business and the host government of these airlines protect them, chart diplomatic ways for them to continue to do their business in other countries.

It was the Group Managing Director of Ethiopia Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam that said that European and Middle East carriers have over 80 per cent of international flights in Africa. This is also reflected in the evacuation exercise but and ironically, while African countries open their hands to welcome these carriers to operate, European and other Western countries use diplomacy to block African countries in the well-known tactics known in the aviation industry as aeropolitics.

British Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Air France have flown many times into Nigeria to carry out evacuation exercise and currently investigation is being conducted by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) that some of these airlines are actually carrying out full commercial operation, which they dubbed evacuation.

UK, Canada Diplomatic Spat

During the current lockdown where thousands of citizens have been evacuated by flights arranged by governments through their embassies, many countries have evacuated their citizens from Nigeria and it is not on record that any that followed due process was turned back or refused, but Canada and UK have refused Nigerian airline from evacuating Nigerian citizens on what many industry observers described as spurious excuses.

After the federal government announced that only Nigerian carriers would conduct repatriation of Nigerian citizens for government backed evacuation exercise, it designated Air Peace to evacuate Nigerians from Canada, but the North American country turned the airline down and made its own arrangement through its embassy in Nigeria where it wanted to deploy a foreign carrier that charged Nigerians over 40 per cent of the fare charged by the Nigerian carrier. At the end, Canada had its way. The Nigerian carrier was not allowed to conduct that evacuation.

Although the federal government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained about the action taken by Canada, it did not do anything further.

Also, recently the British government denied Air Peace the landing right to evacuate Nigerians from London in a flight scheduled for July 13, 2020.

British authorities had said Air Peace did not have the landing rights to fly to the United Kingdom as scheduled operator, but according to the International Civil Aviation Organsiation (ICAO) Annexe 9, countries are allowed under emergencies as such occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic to dispatch flights to evacuate their citizens so long the airline has the approval of the Civil Aviation Authority.

Ironically the Nigerian carrier successfully operated evacuation flight from London on June 28, airlifting 327 Nigerians and the Nigerian government arranged for two more evacuation for Air Peace slated on July 13, 2020 but the British government refused further flights from Air Peace and insisted that Nigeria must contract European carrier to conduct the evacuation.

Reviewing Air Agreements

Reacting to the sudden decision of the UK government, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, had written on his verified twitter handle: “Having been allowed to carry out one very successful evacuation of Nigerians from London at very low fares, Air Peace in coordination with the Nigerian Government and full knowledge of the UK authorities scheduled two additional flights.

“All the arrangements were made including payments, only for the UK authorities to withdraw landing rights close to departure despite strong representations by the Nigerian Government including pointing out the hardship that would be caused to hundreds of Nigerian evacuees.

“Air Peace could have just refunded the passengers but exceptionally, patriotically and altruistically agreed to find an alternative carrier acceptable to the UK authorities to carry out the evacuation a day later than scheduled but for much higher fares. These higher fares could legitimately have been passed on to the evacuees but Air Peace bore this huge cost itself.

“This is to let the aggrieved evacuees know that the objects of their grievance should neither be Air Peace nor the Nigerian Government. They should rather be eternally grateful to Air Peace. The Nigerian Government will review its Air agreements with various countries as a result of the unacceptable treatment of Nigerian carriers during this pandemic.”

Reacting, the Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, (NIDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa described the United Kingdom’s denial of landing permit to a Nigerian carrier, Air peace, at the last minute as outrageous and absolutely unwarranted. The NIDCOM boss revealed this via her Twitter handle @abikedabiri.

“The decision by the UK government to deny Air Peace landing permit at the last minute is outrageous and absolutely unwarranted.”

Diplomacy

It is expected that the Nigerian government would take actions against the sudden decision taken by the UK government against the Nigerian carrier, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs but what is known over the years is that the Nigerian government rarely respond decisively against this unfavourable actions meted against local carriers by foreign countries.

The last decisive action as could be recalled was the one done by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, the late Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, who reacted when South African immigration authorities deported 125 Nigerians over not meeting their requirement for vaccination document (yellow card). The late Minister deported 56 South Africans and vowed that the federal government would henceforth take tough action against “any country that takes delight in ill-treating Nigerians.”

It happened then that the Nigerian passengers that were deported then were those who flew to Johannesburg with Arik Air and the plan was to discourage travellers to that country from using Arik Air, a Nigerian airline, where the only alternative was South Africa Airways. But because of the immediate reaction of the Nigerian government, South Africa government issued an apology.

According to BBC report on March 8, 2012, “South Africa has apologised for the deportation last week of 125 Nigerians over suspicions that their yellow fever certificates were fake. The action quickly turned into a diplomatic spat – with Nigeria refusing South Africans entry and the foreign minister branding Pretoria xenophobic. South Africa has rejected that claim – and promised new procedures to avoid a repeat of the “regrettable incident”. At one stage Nigerian carrier, Arik Air, suspended flights to South Africa.”

Former Secretary General of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Olayinka Abioye, noted that foreign airlines have not employed many Nigerians despite the huge amount of money they cart away from the country.

“It will surprise you to see or hear how much money these foreign airlines earn annually and compare that with the number of employment opportunities they create for the Nigerian people. Shocking to say the least.

“Secondly, almost on regular basis, they still confront us (labour) with redundancy, laying off staff by claiming that new technology or restrictions from home office necessitated such staff reduction.

“Thirdly, where there is no such redundant or laying off of employees, there are no regular employees as almost every staff in one or two of the foreign airlines are contract staff. As you may wish to know, contract staff has no promotion, no benefits, except the terms and conditions upon which he/she was contracted. They circumvent our labour laws through the engagement of local legal officers who help them perfect those back door policies,” Olayinka said.

Government Policies, Partnership

Industry consultant and CEO of Aglow Aviation, Tayo Ojuri said that Nigeria airlines should partner with foreign airlines so that it would help them to acquire spares at good prices and also not subjected to pay before service, which is the current experience.