"What we have tried to do is first give Nigeria an
airline - that is important for our national psyche and
pride." However, she says this does not mean the
privatisation process for Nigeria Airways has to stop.
Measures to privatise the beleaguered airline, plagued by
problems and setbacks over the past few years, are still in
"I don't believe Nigeria Airways must die before it is
privatised," says Chikwe, adding that the introduction
of the new airline should, in fact, boost Nigeria Airways by
taking pressure off it and allowing the privatisation to
proceed more smoothly.
"We are first trying to ensure a national carrier for
Nigeria. The challenge that matters is that people are
able to travel with a national carrier," says Chikwe.
She says the privatisation process is in the hands of the
Bureau for Public Enterprises, the implementation body for
the National Council on Privatisation. Several options have
been considered but the process has been mired in problems.
The government's lead adviser in the privatisation process,
the 1FC, pulled out last year.
"Another process was to be
started with BPE trying to appoint new advisors but that
is as far as they have reached. From my ministry we are
working to our own mandate, that is
facilitating the proposal from Airbus.
"When I assumed office
there were no flights at all," says Chikwe, who was
appointed Aviation Minister in 2000. "It was when I
came that we put Nigeria Airways back in the sky with two
737s operating the regional routes and a
5C 10 operating the London routes.
The airline is technically
insolvent with trade debts of about $67 million and
Financial debt of more than $330 million.
The minister, who is also the chairperson of the aviation
committee of the Nigeria Airways privatisation council, to
which BPE reports, believes the new airline is the answer
for Nigeria's aviation problems. "Our venture with
Airbus came about following President Obasanjo's visit to
France late last year. He met with Airbus and charged them
with the responsibility of seeing what could be done for
"So, when Airbus came with an offer for leasing four
Airbus 300s and A340s to operate the international routes
with a third partner we were happy."
The initial proposal was to partner with Emirates Air but
when the airline did not agree to it. Gulf Air was
"Airbus will manufacturer the
and Gulf Air will provide the
and technical support for the routes. We don't have all the
details as yet as we are still studying the proposal, but
so far so good."
The two airlines will be
totally different companies but Chikwe stresses that
Nigeria Airways is not being sidelined
in any way by the introduction of a new airline.
"We are getting experts in
to turn Nigeria Airways around and revitalise and reposition
it for regional and domestic routes."
Chikwe, who was redeployed to aviation from being
Transport Minister, controversially sacked the management of
Nigeria Airways for incompetence after they leased a Boeing
747 from Air Djibouti, which had no Airway Operators
certificate to operate the Lagos-London route last year.
"I removed all of them from general manager level up
following that mess. They were there before I came so I did
not appoint them. The president gave me the job to sanitise
this industry. That is my mission and I am unwavering,"
Moves towards privatisation have also resulted in 1,000
staff losing their jobs. "This is a commercialised
sector, the government is not putting any
money into Nigeria Airways. It is a
market-driven economy and you cannot overburden yourself
with staff that you don't need.
"With the Airbus
arrangement, there is going to be training and retraining so
each new arrangement will retrain whoever is employed. We
often think that the government owes us money for going to
work, not for being productive and that is something that we
have to kill in the airline business in Nigeria, and in all
A government directive regulates Nigeria Airways' budget.
"We now get approvals before money is used for
anything. We use monies from our bilateral air
services account, commercial agreement accounts and so on.
But I also try to make the operations profitable."
Chikwe has instituted a policy that all Nigeria Airways
accounts are sent to the Aviation Ministry once a week.
"We now have checks and balances in place and can look
at the running and handling costs. 1 also set up a
committee to oversee that area and the profit they are
making that will justify the number of staff.
"I keep telling my staff that they really have to
professionalise themselves because if you are a professional
you will be employable anywhere. A situation where only
Nigeria Airways can employ a person doesn't make sense. So
the mentality of routinely going to work in the Nigerian
civil service invariably has to die. If you go to work, you
must achieve something."
South African Airways recently with-drew from the joint
venture with Nigeria Airways to service the latter's
Lagos-New York route, saying it was a loss-making venture.
The minister claims that SAA's decision looked
like it was designed to embarrass the Nigerian government.
Nigeria Airways has since taken over the route using an
aircraft wet-leased from Air Atlanta in the US. Chikwe says
there are also plans to begin a Lagos-Johannesburg route to
fill the gap left by SAA which introduced a new once weekly
flight to Lagos as part of the venture.