A fumbling senate and the fuss over air fares By Godwin Onyeacholem



There is a genuine impulse to appreciate the intervention of Mrs. Stella Oduah, Minister of Aviation, on the alleged “deliberate discriminatory” air fares imposed on Nigerian passengers by some foreign airlines – with British Airways presumably the main culprit – and salute her guts for exhibiting a remarkable sense of patriotism. Hers is the kind of zeal and sense of purpose which, Nigerians would no doubt agree, is demanded of public office holders of whatever description in any normal government, and which is unquestionably more compelling in a severely misgoverned country they call their own.

Except that the story would have been different if the firmness and decisiveness she had shown so far had been aimed at matters affecting the lives of “ordinary Nigerians”, to borrow the demeaning vernacular which Nigeria’s pompous elite regularly use in describing their less privileged compatriots. It is almost superfluous to state here that, in constructing the architecture of an envisioned modern society, those who hold the levers of power in Nigeria and their collaborating decision makers in government offices hardly put the oppressed masses in the frame. Unlike when dealing with matters affecting the privileged few, our dear officials demonstrate neither the presence of mind nor the slightest urgency when it comes to issues affecting the underclass.

Though there are many, just two examples will suffice for now. The first is still very fresh: the promptness with which a so-called subsidy was withdrawn from petrol, just when evidence of the huge fraud surrounding its existence was being unmasked. The resulting increase in the price of one litre of petrol led to a corresponding rise in the prices of all goods and services. The rich make nothing of this, but the vast poor, who barely survive on $2 (N300) per day, have since the very first day of the year, been further consigned to a life of unending poverty

The second example goes back to the days of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Because the Abuja-Lokoja-Okene highway, the busiest route to the southern part of the country, is plied mostly by the poor who have no means of tasting the convenience of air travel, it is taking almost eternity to convert that highway to a dual carriageway. As Nigerian leaders and their rich friends hardly travel that route, they have displayed crass sloppiness in fixing the road and sheer insensitivity to the plight of its users. The result is that the chaos goes on unabated as innocent lives of promising citizens continue to terminate at every inch of the ill-fated highway. If Arc. Mike Onolehmeme, Minister of Works whose remit is to fix the roads, has deployed the same energy Mrs. Oduah summoned to confront the worries in her somewhat exclusive department, the answer is obvious in the current state of Abuja-Lokoja-Okene road.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Nigerian senators, widely despised for their unrepressed greed and parasitic propensities, not to talk of their disdainful attitude towards the people they claim voted for them, quickly latched on to the aviation minister’s protestation of what she sees as unfair price of air tickets purportedly imposed on Nigerians by some foreign airlines, notably British Airways. Of course not for any reason other than because they believe that their irritating prodigality and the filthy overindulgence of the Nigerian elite is being threatened, the senators, at the end of a rambling deliberation of a motion moved by Senator Hope Uzodimma, chairman of the senate committee on aviation, joyfully mandated the committee to investigate the issue.

The bone of contention is the air fares BA charges for its Abuja-London, Lagos-London and Accra-London routes. The question being asked is: why should passengers taking off from Abuja or Lagos to London on BA flights pay higher for tickets than the passenger on Accra-London flight despite the fact that the journey from Accra is longer by 40 minutes? Since

the probe began, the senate committee has virtually drowned the nation in the noise of this disparity. It’s as if no other airline flies to London other than the British carrier. But knowing this senate, it is hard not to expect its occupants to always put the wrong foot forward. They have conveniently overlooked the sharp practices of local airline operators and, instead, turned their searchlight on foreign lines, accusing BA and to some extent Virgin Atlantic, of “grand rip-off” not only on the matter of flight charges, but also on taxes due to the Nigerian government.

 

But if these lawmakers knew any shame at all they would be working seriously towards re-awakening some of the extinct icons of Nigeria’s past glory. One of them is the once ubiquitous Nigeria Airways. The senators should by now be thinking of how to ensure that their government – which makes no pretense of its pride in signing up to the aggressive and merciless prescriptions of capitalism – put the country’s flag carrier back in the skies within the next three months. That is one of the ways they could begin to settle scores and win back self-respect in a fiercely competitive world. Not by basking in the luxury of Abuja, gorging themselves on freebies and belching sour grapes over charges by foreign airline operators who say they are in business anyway.

Our senators are not to be found sweating, dissipating energy on pro-poor issues or matters that would fast-track the attainment of a society where all citizens enjoy equal social, political and economic rights and opportunities. They would rather devote unconscionable time on red herring, and only that which they know would ultimately redound to their benefit. As rural folks often ask in pidgin English in moments of anger, Which kain senators be dis sef? Again the answer to that question can only be found in the exceptional decline in the quality of life of the overwhelming majority of the people beginning since 1999.

For instance, everyday on the streets of Abuja, poor traders struggling to lighten the devastating burden of bad governance are being chased around, arrested, beaten, and extorted by a gang of thugs and armed policemen dubbed task force, who drive around the city in

trucks full of seized wares. This is a common occurrence at any time of the day. The senators are aware of this brazen robbery and criminal debasement of their less privileged compatriots, yet it has not occurred to the conscience of any of them to table a motion that would not only lead to the passage of a resolution condemning this odious undertaking, but would also usher in an investigation with a view to bringing it to an end. So comfortable are they that they easily forget that this was the same type of attitude on the part of callous state officials that ignited the flame of the revolution now sweeping across the Arab world. Nigerian senators rather find succour in the idle, misleading refrain that “it can never happen here”.

An upper legislative parliament of boastful characters elected, or more appropriately selected, “to make laws for the good governance of Nigeria” has seen nothing wrong in the scandalous cost of property in Abuja. They certainly are not ignorant of how extremely difficult it is to secure accommodation in the city. They are aware that a modest two-bedroom apartment is already pushing towards N5m or (about $31,000) annually in many areas.

 

But since they are among the major owners of property, our senators are not going to be patriotic enough to legislate against themselves and fellow landlords in the interest of the general good. If they do not already know, someone should tell them that there is something

untoward in trying to force a foreign airline, or any company for that matter operating in Nigeria, to reduce the prices of their products while the senators themselves ignore the cry of Nigerians over skyrocketing rents imposed by fellow citizens. It does not make sense.

In the end there can’t be anything cheerful about a senate that fails to deploy its full voice to restore crumbling infrastructure in every sector. Senators have the power to make things happen. But greed and selfishness won’t let these ones. That is why they won’t feel any pain of humiliation if Nigerian hospitals are so decrepit that their president, David Mark, hastily flew to Israel for medical treatment. So long, distinguished senators.

Godwin Oyeacholem is a journalist based in Abuja

 

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