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‘Canada has right to accept or reject unknown Nigerian Airline’

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The diplomatic row and alleged conflicts of interest between Nigeria and Canada regarding the carrier to evacuate over 300 Nigerians stranded in the latter, almost a month after their scheduled airlifting, following Canada’s rejection of Air Peace on the ground of safety concerns, has attracted negative comments from many Nigerians at home, including members of the House of Representatives. But a former commandant at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, with about five decades of experience in international aviation protocols, Grp. Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), told WOLE OYEBADE that Nigeria and her airlines are paying for their failure to project to international prominence, just as he reminisced on related issues in the 1990s

To what extent can we fault Canada’s rejection of Nigerian carrier, Air Peace, specially designated by the Federal Government to evacuate its citizens?
Except you are around in the industry in the 1980s and 1990s, you may not understand what is going on now. For me, there is nothing wrong in what has happened. We only need to remove sentiments from it. Even if you send an ambassador to Canada, the host has a right to reject him or her. I have seen that done on one or two occasions. If they send their own ambassador here, based on our own findings on that person, we also have a right to reject.

It follows that you cannot just send an airline to them. Coming into their country means they need to have trust in either the person or airline coming. When you go to their embassy, they have a right to give you a visa or not. It is just like that.

On what ground could Canada have rejected Air Peace, apart from what it called ‘safety concern?’
They must have seen something, though it is not their business to tell us what they saw. When you submit a visa application, the host country will go ahead and do background check on the applicant.

The question now is what is the result of the background check? But they won’t show you. The only thing they would say is ‘go and look for another airline. This one we cannot approve it.’

But ask yourself, what is the pedigree of the airline that you have sent? What confidence level does it have even locally? These are the issues.
That is why I have often said that there is no basis of allowing a domestic airline that has not fully and faithfully complied with your national regulations to go regional. Otherwise, it will soil your name.

In such case, restrict such airline to domestic operations where it could be properly monitored. We had similar cases with Nigeria Airways in those days until it died.

The perception is that Euro politics could be at play here?
But the country itself has not projected its own airline the way it ought to do for whatever reason. You can look at the issue even from the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA).

Here, we project foreign airlines better than we do with our own local airlines. Our behaviours are such that we show the rest of the world, particularly our diplomatic and trade competitors, that we don’t have capacity or capabilities in BASAs and the Open Sky Treaty on regional and international routes, and even our local routes, making us to give multiple destination and landings to foreign airlines.

So, how would you press for a position for a private airline that has no serious government support in the trade business that is dominated by government and public airlines of foreign countries and are generally in alliances?
Understand me well. We all created what is happening. What confidence have we built in foreign airlines and other countries about our local airlines and local capacity when we giveaway seven frequencies that we built up to 14, because we have no local airline to reciprocate?

Ethiopian Airline makes scheduled flights to Canada and known to many more globally, even in the sub-region, than Air Peace. How do you expect Canadian government to trust Air Peace better?

Remember the case of British Airways that recently dropped Nigerian evacuees in Lagos, who were meant to be taken to Abuja for isolation. The airline dropped them in Lagos to pick its nationals in Lagos, flew to the same Abuja to pick others before returning to Europe. I asked then, why didn’t the airlines fly Nigerians to Abuja and wait there for Air Peace to bring its nationals in Lagos to Abuja for onward departure to Europe?

But not many of these foreign countries have confidence in the industry and us because we showed them so. Foreign airlines today have access to six airports in Nigeria. How many of local airlines can reciprocate when the bigger ones are already intruding into their houses?

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, both from London, together have 21 frequencies weekly to Nigeria. Ethiopian Airline makes 21 or more frequencies weekly, so are Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, and so on. But ask them, what is in the BASA agreement? All these airlines are in different alliances and are known by other countries that even have no flights to Nigeria.

We have projected no airline as national or flag carrier, so we cannot now in COVID-19 era project an airline that is not known to a country on its international routes or by name and expect same to be accepted.

What can the authority do about multiple frequency and landing rights?
We should not stop foreign airlines from coming, but they should be restricted to one or two airports. No foreign airline should come to Lagos and Abuja, two of our biggest airports. If you come to Lagos, don’t go to Abuja and vice versa. It doesn’t make sense to be allowing foreign airlines to go into our domestic routes. That is not how to develop our 20-plus airports.

Open Sky Pacts or not, we have the right to accept certain things and reject others. What has been the benefit of these multiple frequencies and landing rights that we have been giving foreign airlines?

What was it like in the days of Nigeria Airways?
In the 1980s and 1990s when that airline was flying, if you are to come here seven times and we are to reciprocate seven times, you cannot come here 10 times. If you do, Nigeria must have a share of the total passengers that you pick. You don’t come here with 747 when we have agreed to be using 707 type of aircraft. If you do, we have a right to the extra passengers. That is the law.

But people sit down there with these foreign airlines and are busy making money out of all of us. In actual fact, we should be making a lot of money from these multiple frequencies even without flying. But we cannot when BASAs have been replaced by commercial agreements done under the table.
So, if you do not project your own airlines, how do you expect Canada to respect them?

Are the airlines projecting themselves?
That is another issue. They are not even projecting themselves well within the country. In fact, if you see the reports of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on this country, you will be shocked. But people are reacting on the Canada issue based on the level of information at their disposal.

On my part, when I saw the issue, I said Canada has right to accept or to reject, because we have not projected that airline well.

What is your advice to the House of Representatives that is displeased over the development and what should Nigeria be doing differently?
They (representatives) are not well informed. Just like you cannot go to another country without visa, it is the same rule that applies to evacuation mission.

That is why I have said that the government should classify all the airlines going to regional and continental operations as its ambassadors. When you do, put the Nigerian flag on them. There is no single American airline that you will not see the flag in it, yet they are not government’s airlines. That is to tell you that government has responsibility on it. We must learn to do things properly to build confidence.

I was once in that airport (MMA) when an American airline from United States (US) was flying to Kenya and landed here without any paper whatsoever. I seized it. Yes! That is how it is done. These are very simple things we have been doing before.

I have also seized Mobutu Sese Seko’s aircraft (late former President of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC) once at Lagos airport. I seized it (as the airport commandant) for four days during the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and everyone was running away from me, because they were afraid of how the head of state would feel.

Babangida didn’t call me to seize the aircraft, but when I went round all the powerful guys to know if they are aware of the aircraft coming in and they all started running away and not ready to give approval, I knew there was a big problem. And there was a problem, because on the fourth day, Babangida sent for me and he asked me a single question: “Where is the aircraft?”

It immediately tells me that right from day one, the head of state knew about the seized aircraft. He asked the question because when you say that a presidential aircraft comes to your country, he expects to see it on the ground at the presidential lounge.

But when the aircraft landed, it went to the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) and I sent an army vehicle to run after it to block it. I went into the aircraft and asked the pilot questions and he said they were here to drop their president’s friends? I asked what are their names? He said he didn’t know. I said fine and detained the aircraft. That is how it is done. Ordinarily, someone else would have allowed them to go.

I immediately called the protocol at the airport. He didn’t know about its coming. I called the then Foreign Affairs minister, Gen. Ike Nwachukwu, he wasn’t aware. I called my chief, he said he was going to call the President, but till thy kingdom come, he didn’t call back.

The message I got was to call the President’s chief protocol officer. He said since it was a presidential aircraft, I should go and release it. I asked him a single question: “Are you aware that this aircraft was coming?” He said, “look, that is a security question, my hand no dey o.” Then I know that there was a problem.

The following day, media carried it. I just kept quiet where I was. Someone called me from the headquarters and I said this issue was more than the Air Force now, but a national security issue and anyone that must give me order must write a letter and sign it.

The fourth day, Babangida was going to Abuja and he sent for me. That was the only day we ever saw eye to eye. In the presence of all the Generals standing, he said, “where is the aircraft?” Apparently, what he wanted to hear was that someone among those standing with him had given an order to release the aircraft.

But I told him where it was. He then said I should go and release the aircraft. It was not more than two statements. That is how to run the industry by the rule without anyone prompting.


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