Rivers State/Ethiopian Airlines partnership and matters arising

As usual, the country’s aviation sector has again been enmeshed in another controversy that is being used by stakeholders to cast aspersions on the relevant aviation authorities, particularly the officials at the directorate of Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) at the Ministry of Aviation.

The latest has only confirmed how government policies with its lack of national planing have been mainly responsible for the woes of the sector.

The recent move by the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike to meet with the Ethiopian Airlines management to consider the commencement of  a permanent operations between his state and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, though yet to be approved by the Federal Government,  has continued to generate reactions from the sector.

The governor, out of his genuine desire to make the international airport in his state become more viable for the economic and business development of his citizens, spearheaded the discussions that eventually sealed the air transport deal between the state and the Ethiopian airline.

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The negotiation, according to information gathered, is still dependent on the Federal Government’s final approval through the officials in charge of BASA negotiations on behalf of government. But questions are being asked about the role played by the relevant aviation authorities whose responsibility it is to discuss such issues.

Since the move was made public, the aviation sector in particular has never remained the same with reactions of different shades coming from different interest groups, with many describing the efforts of the governor as that of the Ministry of Aviation, a unit responsible for negotiation of commercial air transport agreements with foreign airlines.

As relevant as this question is meant to be, any governor that knows his onions and has the development interest of his state at heart will do what Governor Wike has done. Moreover, he is only following in the footstep of his Kaduna State counterpart, Nasir El-Rufai, who in like manner was able to prevail on Ethiopian Airlines to commence operations between Addis Ababa and Kaduna when every other foreign airlines abandoned the airport for security reasons then.

As the latest negotiation between the Rivers State government and  Ethiopian Airlines awaits the Federal Government’s final decision, many have again argued that the step taken by the state government cannot be seen as a BASA negotiation since the law only allows the Ministry of Aviation and the Ministry of External Affairs and other relevant government ministries to carry out such negotiations.

Without sounding emotional, the whole scenario has again gone to expose the unclear policies of government vis-a-vis the negative impact such policies may have on the entire system.

All these anomalies boil down to one fact, which is the obvious failure of the government to put a solid national plan on ground that will guide and guard against muddling up sensitive policies like BASA negotiations vis-a-vis what should be done and by who.

Though the extent of the discussions the Rivers State government had with the Ethiopian government has remained unclear, but as good as Governor Wike’s decision is, some obvious questions on the lips of many key players include: if it was proper for a state government to enter into negotiation with a foreign airline, or if the BASA officials at the Ministry of Aviation and other relevant authorities were aware of such move.

It has therefore become pertinent for the ministry officials to clear the air on the type of deal the state had with the foreign carrier and if such negotiation is allowed.

The need for the ministry on one the hand and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) as the aviation regulator on the other hand to speak up becomes necessary so as to prevent a breakdown of aviation rules regarding critical national issues like commercial flight negotiations.

As Nigerians await how the latest issue plays out, the manner the relevant aviation authorities manage this will determine how such move will serve as a guideline to other state governments willing to open up the airports in their states to flight operations.

Any attempt for the aviation authorities not to put their feet on ground when it comes to commercial air transport negotiation will be an invitation to confusion as it would have become almost impossible to stop any other governor that wants to follow the footsteps of the Rivers State government.