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Idowu Akinlotan: Too much money chasing too much frivolity

Between them, three women have partitioned Nigeria into an overbearing and scheming country. It is doubtful whether the three – Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Finance), Stella Oduah(Aviation) and Diezani Alison-Madueke(Petroleum) – do so deliberately. But by their policies, and the vociferous arguments they summon to drive them, the country’s fate seems sealed, at least under President Goodluck Jonathan. The situation was probably not better under Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency, but in those days it was at least difficult to determine where Obasanjo’s overbearingness began and where the conceitedness of his appointees ended. We groped in that fogginess for eight years to 2007 assured that some sort of balance could be conjured by nature itself. Nature, we convinced ourselves, abhorred imbalance. But under Jonathan, there is no fog anywhere, nor is nature keen to intervene.

For a moment, let us put aside the policy parade of the Finance and Petroleum ministers, and instead concern ourselves with the Aviation minister, who is on some sort of rampage. It is of course mere co-incidence that the three ministers are from the Southeast/South-South. Their power and influence – some say dominance – is probably not due to their states or regions of origin. They are influential partly because of their intellects and mostly because of their personalities. When it comes to the debate over finance and poverty, have you ever tried to convince the highly opinionated Okonjo-Iweala that the square of the longest side hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides? Forget it; it’s a lost cause. No matter how right you are, she is even righter. If you draw the sword of Pythagoras, she will counter with the shield of Euclid. And you would be lucky to get in a word when she is declaiming on any topic.

Diezani (I mean no disrespect; her first name, which is not common, is simpler to use than her hyphenated surname) is probably the most oratorical of the three, and certainly the most dashing. What degree of persuasiveness she loses by way of conjured or ambiguous facts and figures, especially when she is put to task by the National Assembly and the querulous long-suffering public, she makes up for by way of sheer verbal profundity. It is always an unequal combat when a brilliant but not fluent speaker meets an eloquent exaggerator who can manage to pay occasional homage to logic. Whereas the Finance minister undermines your statistics and makes you doubt the sources of your figures, the Petroleum minister overwhelms you with her rolling words and glacial composure, thawing only sparingly to remind you of her humanity, nay, femininity. Neither of the two ministers is ever able to convince anyone about the fidelity of the facts and figures coming from the two ministries, whether as they concern poverty and the application of fiscal tools to regenerate the economy, or as they concern fuel consumption or the so-called subsidy regime.

Of the three, however, Oduah, who is the main focus of this piece today, appears to be the most daring and enterprising, and perhaps the most energetic. By dint of her obtrusion, she has managed to raise the status of the Aviation ministry from a sedate, backroom bureaucracy to a frontline and, if we should borrow a phrase from modern analysts, cutting-edge organisation. As her obtrusiveness during electioneering showed, when she made the so-called Neighbour-to-Neighbour unit of the Jonathan campaign organisation a powerful instrument propelled by delicate and indecipherable financial engineering, she has a knack for turning water to wine, and turning a molehill to a mountain. Left alone in the Aviation ministry, as the Jonathan government seems increasingly bent on doing, she could soon begin imagining the prospect of developing a rocketry department in the ministry with the objective of putting a Nigerian on the moon, if not next year, then the year after. Her imagination is so fecund that, like God observed of human beings at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), whatever she proposes to do she was likely to accomplish. But of course I exaggerate, for Oduah’s fecundity is neither profound nor without a terrible price.

During the 2011 electioneering, Oduah knew how to get things done. She has transferred that talent and energy to her present assignment. Somehow, she does not seem to be discomfited by lack of funds. She is renovating, modernising, and in some instances, expanding the airports in the country, of course, in phases. And from all evidence, and by frequent fliers’ testimonies, she is doing the renovation to taste. But that exercise, as salutary as it seems, jars against a sensible consideration of the economics of airports. Might the renovation not be an unsupportable elevation of aesthetics over functionality? Ghana’s Kotoka Airport is not as fascinating as Murtala Mohammed International Airport, but it is better maintained, better utilised, friendlier to travellers, and there is always a general sense of sanity and safety in its precincts. I won’t push this point, however, for Nigerians, high and low, are eternally fond of the meretricious.

Oduah speaks interminably about grandness in the aviation sector without a correspondingly grand and realistic paradigm to support her dreams. She wants at least one International Airport comparable with the best in the world. But in which aspect of Nigerian leadership is there anything comparable with the best in the world? Is it in observance of the constitution? What of the justice system, education, politics, healthcare, and all other human development indicators? This objectionable lack of realism, as personified by Oduah’s approach to aviation matters, is discernible in the attitudes of Nigerian leaders to the construction of State Houses, legislative complexes, official residential quarters, and the headquarters of some powerful ministries, departments and agencies. Oduah’s comparable airport terminal will pander to our outsized ego, and nothing more.

Perhaps the most disagreeable policy to come from the Aviation minister is the decision to float a new national carrier barely 10 years after the same federal government scrapped the old carrier, the Nigeria Airways. The old carrier was scrapped because the government and its World Bank economists argued that governments were notoriously inefficient in running businesses. With maniacal zeal, the previous government scrapped virtually everything publicly owned. Official residences and cars were monetised. Roads were to be offered to willing concessionaires, and even Federal Government Colleges were scrapped. Virtually nothing was to be left in the hands of the government except the privileges of power. Now, they are gradually reversing themselves – a troubling indication of sloppy thinking, official grandstanding and depressing lack of public debate.

When the Aviation minister first mooted the idea of a new carrier, a columnist with this newspaper argued along the following lines: “Oduah indicates the new national carrier will welcome private equity and be jointly and professionally managed to make it a successful venture. In addition, she says, if all things go well, the new carrier could hit the skies before many months. But it was not too long ago, however, that the government invited Virgin Atlantic to invest in the airline business in Nigeria over the ashes of Nigeria Airways. It proved an impossible task after just a few years, as the new airline made huge losses estimated at more than $300m between 2005 and 2010. In 2007 alone, Virgin Nigeria Airways lost nearly N10 billion. Moreover, Virgin Atlantic Limited never took more than 49 percent equity in the Virgin Nigeria project. So, what has changed? Oduah says the government has learnt its lessons, and will not repeat the mistakes of the past. She is confident that a new national carrier operated jointly with private capital will fly. Nonsense.

“If private investors want to come into the airline business either in partnership or alone, the skies are always open. As everyone knows, the skies may be open, but the capital to establish and run airlines here has not always been open or friendly. Airline business has been a difficult one in recent years requiring the help of the government to keep it aloft…It is doubtful whether Oduah can convince anyone of the need for a new national carrier. The idea of a new national carrier is idle and wishful thinking. There is absolutely no basis for it, either financially or managerially…”

And while we were still trying to come to terms with the new carrier bugaboo, Oduah threw us an even tougher bone to chew. According to an aviation source, the federal government plans to buy 30 new aircraft to be distributed to airlines to help them operate better and to crash air fares. Now, if there is a worse malady than this, we would like to hear it. The crazy venture, we are told, is to be funded by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) – would Sanusi Lamido Sanusi countenance this nonsense? – and the Bank of Industry (BoI). Would the planes be given free? If not, would it not further aggravate the financial distress of the operators and encumber their operating costs? And are the CBN and BoI so loaded with idle money that they can be persuaded to throw it on fantasies?

It is not enough to absorb the fact that these three ministers are powerful and influential, or that they give the Jonathan cabinet its steely core; we must also recognise that they are in fact symptomatic of the lack of consistent policy framework required to run a disciplined, transformative and progressive government. The ministers and their policies indicate just how besotted to grand fantasies the government has become, and why their successes will be few and far between.

 

Idowu Akinlotan

Read original piece via The Nation

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