Ebuka Obi-Uchendu: The Air Nigeria disaster (YNaija FrontPage)

The one thing I’ve never understood with business owners, especially those ones like Jimoh Ibrahim who brag constantly about how they own business upon business, is the audacity to not pay staff that run these businesses.

It’s tough to describe Sir Richard Branson as anything but a fighter; someone who dares to go where no one else dares. A few years ago, he launched his very own reality show called ‘The Rebel Billionaire” and I still get very angry today when I think about the fact that it is off air. He humanized ‘wealthy gods’ for me. It was refreshing to see a billionaire sky dive and ride his car on water and climb buildings and what not. Most importantly, that show told the story of the sort of person he is.

If anyone was still in doubt as to how daring he could be, his entry into the Nigerian market via Virgin Nigeria in 2004 was quite the move. At a time the Nigerian aviation industry was a mess (some believe those times are still with us), landing his first flight in Nigeria in June of 2005 seemed like the beginning of new things for the country. They did a pretty good job all around; and even staff seemed pretty excited to work there. Things didn’t last too long though as in 2008, Virgin Atlantic announced that it would be selling its 49% stake in Virgin Nigeria, and in the company’s words, was reviewing “whether it is still appropriate for the Virgin brand to be linked to Virgin Nigeria.” And then ‘Nigerian Eagle Air’ was born. That lasted all of a year or so before Jimoh Ibrahim bought majority shares in the company and renamed it ‘Air Nigeria’.

It isn’t in doubt that Jimoh Ibrahim is quite the controversial character in Nigerian business circles. There’s the constant story about his love for buying up dead or dying businesses. Sadly, I’m not particularly sure if he’s ever been able to bring any of them back to life. Air Nigeria seemed like it would be the exception. All seemed well. At least from the outside; for the first year or so until then the grumblings started both from staff and customers.

The one thing I’ve never understood with business owners, especially those ones like Jimoh Ibrahim who brag constantly about how they own business upon business, is the audacity to not pay staff that run these businesses. What started off as a month’s backlog of salaries, suddenly became the norm. Unemployment figures in Nigeria, are through the roof so naturally, you wouldn’t find a lot of people who walk out of their jobs because they aren’t getting paid; or even raise dust, especially where labor is more concerned with going on strike on their own terms as against the terms of workers, including those in the private sector.

The most embarrassing story I heard with Air Nigeria didn’t even happen here. Not sure when it started but many months ago, officials at Kotoka International Airport stopped selling fuel to Air Nigeria because the man would simply not pay for what he bought. The Ghanaians wouldn’t have anymore of it and simply stopped selling. On this one occasion, there was a flight from Lagos to Dakar via Accra and Banjul. Now that was a dilemma, as the airline needed to refuel at Accra before continuing the trip to the other two cities. To circumvent that, the Air Nigeria flight fuelled in Lagos, took off with the Accra bound passengers, dropped them off, picked up the Banjul and Dakar passengers from Accra, brought them back to Lagos, refueled again in Lagos, picked the Banjul and Dakar passengers from Lagos and then flew on to Gambia and Senegal. Yeah, going through all of that stress seemed like a bright idea instead of paying what they owed.

Oh, he didn’t just owe airports and staff salaries. Air Nigeria staff have a cooperative where they save up their money for the future. Most Nigerians can relate to such cooperative organizations. Bad enough that staff were being owed a backlog of salaries, the owner of their company felt he needed more funds to hold on to and went on to borrow money from this cooperative fund and yes, still hasn’t paid back. So basically staff don’t even have their own self-thought out pension funds to fall back on.

The recent sack of all staff and suspension of operations by the owner of Air Nigeria is probably another turn in what is a never-ending drama. When the airline was going to commence international operations, they sent staff for a 3-day training to Egypt. On getting there, the staff were forced to sign a bond not to leave the company or pay a certain fine. Apparently, they had heard that many were dissatisfied and had started seeking other opportunities. You wonder where the funds to pay this fine are meant to come from seeing that staffers are basically broke. Then, another loyalty agreement was meant to be signed again by the staff back in Nigeria after all of that. Not sure what a ‘loyalty bond’ is but I don’t know that it is possible to be loyal to a company that isn’t particularly showing you the same

With the ‘Newswatch’ drama going on with the Board of Directors and now the ‘Air Nigeria’ staff protest added to it, it is tough to see how Jimoh Ibrahim isn’t doing something wrong. For a country with little or no new jobs being created on the average, you would expect that the priority would be to save the few we have. Yes, he does buy up dying companies. But is his purpose to finally kill them off? If he finds he can’t run a company properly, you would expect him to do the honorable thing like Richard Branson did; sell! Daredevils are defined by their successes and ability to admit failure, not by how dirty they fight the wrong battles with no results.

I hope NLC and TUC and all the plenty labor unions we have lying around, can step in on this one and use this as a medium to get things properly done from here on. The government should not always be their enemy. Sometimes, the enemy is disguised like a helping hand.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.