Usman: Economic Downturn Has Not Impinged on NCAA Operations

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The Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Muhktar Usman said the agency carries out its functions effectively despite the economic downturn and the over-bloated workforce. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:

Your workers seem to be aggrieved by your style of leadership possibly because their expectation is not being met in terms of training but they acknowledged they are paid as at when due their salaries and allowances. What do you think is wrong?

Thank you very much, first all I would like to say that I am happy that the staff have acknowledged that their salaries are paid as at when due which so many other agencies and companies are struggling to do. I am happy to say that we have ensured that because of our concern for the welfare of our staff, that we pay them as at when due. As for training, training should be seen for what it is, the tool for the staff to be able to perform whatever function he is being asked to perform.

We are all aware that sometimes in the past a barrel of oil cost substantial amounts in dollars, even close to $130. Two, the foreign exchange value against the naira is not helping matters also. Most importantly, the time they claimed that such training was going on regularly was when they were very few in number. Currently we have almost double that number; 1400 staff and a lot of them are high-level technical personnel. That is not to say that we have reduced the training and in those days people were going for trainings, in some cases you can say irrelevant training, not the core training they should attend. Rather, people were looking at it in terms of how many days they are going to spend over there, so that will depends on the amount in dollars that you are going to get as allowance. And we said we are going to prioritise, but we will start doing what we must do, first based on the limited resources available to us, that is what we have been doing.

And briefly I would say I assumed duty on the 31st of October 2013. When I arrived there was no signed budget at all. There was no training approval for that year and yet people were expecting that we should go outside the books, outside the law and do training. There is no provision, no appropriation, and so it was not possible to do that.

People are used to indiscriminately allocate trainings to themselves, loading the training programme just for the purpose of it, but things have changed, we told them, let us look at it practically, we are regulatory agency, let us do what we are supposed to do, do the training we need to do; technically you need training and it is not as of you have not had training, even 2015 we did not have a formal training programme approval. But we still did some necessary foreign training that we needed to do. And some of these other trainings that we could domesticate we domesticated them. Example is the government safety inspector trainings. We had quite a number of trainings here in Nigeria; we also hosted the accident and investigation trainings, which were core trainings required for our own inspectors.

There is this allegation of your doing a deal with MTN. the allegation is that you made arrangement between NCAA and MTN and other network providers, you shortchanged NCAA by diverting some of the money to yourself instead of paying it to NCAA. How true is that?

Well, unfortunately people live on rumours rather than looking at things objectively. The issue of MTN with their mast dated back to 2005 when MTN as a company refused to pay the height clearance charges levied on operators of high rises and mast. And they went to court, so for 10 years the case was in court. At the end of the day it was resolved that the matter should be settled outside the court. By the time we came a consultant had already been engaged and also there was a cost of judgment. We were to pay this cost and also pay our lawyers. In fact if anything, instead of losing, we gained a lot because our own lawyer was willing to forfeit all the cost of the legal work he did for us in all the cases. I did not strike any deal with MTN. I should be praised really because I saved the day by bringing in revenue for NCAA from there because for 10 years that revenue was lost.

When I came I was able to get the money. The payment was done through the court. So the chance of anybody collecting anything and converting it to his own does not arise; in fact, I don’t know about that. And if anybody has any evidence I challenge him to bring it out.

Lets talk about this issue of not resigning your appointment with Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) before you took this job as Director-General. This should be a kind of an appointment, which does not follow your work as a civil servant, which means, you ought to have resigned at a certain time, before you take up this new appointment. So why didn’t you resign?

Well, if I am retired, I will not be here, so that is the answer to the first one. It is very natural you are in the same government establishment, you have been asked to move to another department, you are not expected to resign because you are still within the same government work, I am not leaving for a private setup. It is the same government that they nominated me. I went through all the due process. I got confirmed by the Senate so I was not retired; I work here, I am a public servant. And also I did not collect salaries in both organisations (AIB and NCAA) while serving in one organisation. So when I left, when I was confirmed here in NCAA my salaries ceased to be paid by the accident investigation.

On the age issue, it was alleged you ought to have retired?

Well as of age, first of all I can tell you that in the civil service you are expected to retire when you are 60. I am most certainly not up to 60 and I think people are just being lazy. This is because it is very easy to establish the age of an individual who has gone through the system, both here and abroad. I have pilot license in the United States. You can confirm that, my age is there. I also have a flight engineer’s license in the United States; the age is there. I have a Nigerian pilot license and I have flight engineer’s license issued by NCAA, which is a government organisation, and the age is there. I went through College of Aviation Technology, Zaria (NCAT) as a student, my age is there, I was employed as an instructor in the same school and my age is there. My age has never changed because I was not born twice, so it very easy to establish. And of course I had several international passports dating back from 1977 to date; my date of birth has never changed.

So people are just being lazy; if not out rightly mischievous.

There is this allegation of recruitment you did; in fact, somebody sent me the recruitment list, the allegation on the recruitment list is that it did not reflect federal character, which did you choose to ignore the policy?

Very, very interesting, I think the same person should have given you the list of our nominal role for all the staff from inception to date. The list should reflect all the state of origin and see what the balance was like and where those individuals who are talking about this imbalance now were at that time. Even now, if you take the current nominal role and look at it you will see that there is still serious imbalance. When I came in I was accused wrongly because those who did the lopsided employment then were no more in the system, so I was made to apologise on their behalf for the wrongs that were done before I came in. A strongly worded directive with the warning came from the Federal Character Commission, which is the agency saddled with the responsibility of ensuring compliance with the provision of that section of the constitution. And whatever recruitment we did was fully in line with the rules and we have been duly satisfied as in compliance with the Federal Character principle.

Last year some people were relieved of their duties, especially the inspectors. It is said the number of inspectors you have both on contract and otherwise are not enough to carry out their responsibility of aircraft inspection. How are you managing the depleted workforce?

First of all what I would like to say is that those who were initially removed, were removed based on a directive that indicated that proper procedure was not followed in the first place when they were employed. In the second place, out of the people that were relieved of their employment as a result of that irregularity, only one person is no longer with us and that person chose not to be with us. So in other words, it is only the person that voluntarily decided to leave. He was called back, in fact he even reported and finally he left.

But it was alleged that some of them were downgraded in their level?

No, no, no, there was nothing like that. In the first place, they were not placed appropriately because I told you there was irregularity in the first place and based on directive we asked them to go. And then we now called them and placed them appropriately. Everybody except one person came back. So you can see, if out of probably about nine, one choose not to come back and the others accepted then you know what the answer is. And moreover when they talked of partisan, I have heard it, some people say that maybe they are from a particular section of the country, which is not true. But even if it is so it is because they were the people involved. You cannot go and punish somebody who is not involved in something. Even then I don’t even look at it as punishment; it was supposed to be corrected because we recalled them and normalised the process.

There is chasm between you and your directors. They feel you don’t carry them along and they feel that in certain situations when you are supposed to relate with them you subordinate such responsibility to the junior staff to relate with them, which to them is undignifying. This has brewed animosity and bitterness. What is your take on this?

I run an open door policy and no human being is perfect, so if there is any issue that does not go down well with them there is no director that does not have access to me, none of my directors. In fact other heads of departments that don’t have directorates, they relate with me directly. So if there are issues I expect they should come to me. Of course, I have an office; I have somebody coordinating the office. If there is information sometimes I send that information through him which is very normal in any democratic setup or any other setup. For example, the presidency has a chief of staff and so on. So if that’s what people say, I don’t think they should take it in that light because information must flow and I don’t think there is anything that I do that I don’t carry directors along.

We meet all the time and we even have an item on the agenda all the time, AOB, which is an opportunity for even things that are not listed for people to talk about. And we also have an AOB in our meetings. So I believe it is either misconception or maybe some people are just trying to be mischievous or maybe people are already. We are open and we give everybody his rights and privileges.

Is it lack of communication or rapport that made things not as smooth as they used to be in this place?

Well as I mentioned earlier, people expect you to operate the same way you operated when they were only about 700; now you are 1400. People expect you to operate the same way they operated when oil prices were about $130 -140 per barrels now that it is under $50 a barrel. People expect you to operate the same way they operated when the dollar was probably officially at N200; now it is based on interbank, which is about N350 or 360.

Certainly things will have to change. When I came here I met a lot of backlog in staff claims. I don’t want to go into the genuineness of those claims but the fact of the matter was that what I met was almost a billion naira debt; a lot of them in third party debts in foreign exchange, in dollars, euro and in some even pounds sterling. And we made a programme, tried to pay them back, and I find out that it is just not possible to continue along that direction. If we continue that way, one day we will wake up and there is no NCAA because even the salary and allowances that we are paying regularly we would not be able to pay again. And we said we have to change and we put some things in place to reduce those leakages; if possible to block them completely and also try to shore up our own internally generated revenue.

But I don’t want to use that word, generate because essentially NCAA is supposed to be a cost recovery agency, which is what it is worldwide. We are not really commercial to go and make money but whatever money comes into the civil aviation authority is to be ploughed back into the system to enhance and improve the system. So certainly there are expectations from people that business should be as usual but certainly the realities on ground dictates it is not possible to do that. So we had to prioritise, which is what we have been doing and do what we have to do and any other thing will come later.

Earlier this month there was this IATA AGM in Dublin and Tony Tyler was talking about aircraft tracking. And after the MH370 disappearance there was an emphasis on aircraft tracking. I know NCAA had a romance with that idea before when theBeechcraft 1900D disappeared in Cross Rivers in March 2008. So is that project still on or is it dead?

Most certainly it is still on, in fact what we have in the proposed budget for the year is much more enhanced system that will even give us some kind of backup data from the aircraft directly. There are some of the parameters that would even be inside the black box, so in a situation where the black boxes are not located in the event of an unfortunate crash at least the information that would be available to us, we can make it available to the investigation authority to help unravel what the causes are for us to learn lessons and prevent such from happening again. So what we are planning to do is actually to have something that is much, more enhanced and it is already in the proposed 2016 budget.

By the end of 2015 it was expected that airlines that are operating in Nigeria would have met the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification. Are you still enforcing that regulation on Nigerian airlines?

Let me start by saying that since I came we have had two airlines, one was a cargo airline that passed IOSA and one just happened recently, this Friday. So you can see we are really on course on that and we are working to ensure that all our airlines are compliant in line with those targets.

What is your evaluation of the safety status of Nigerian airlines?

NCAA is guided by the standards and recommended practices as set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). We carry out inspections; we mount surveillance to ensure that all safety and aviation security requirements are met. And we also go as far as giving enforcement sanction for none compliance and we have achieved a lot really and I thank God there has not been any major accident and we pray that we will continue to sustain it. Shortly after my coming here, just barely six or seven months we were first of all audited for security by the ICAO and we did very well, well over 96 percent, which only few countries in the world have been able to achieve. But we are not saying that we are going to sleep, we will continue. Just in March this year also we underwent an ICAO audit, which is safety. The basic target is for countries to meet 60 percent. From the preliminary report we had we were at almost 69 percent. And the areas of shortfall we had we are developing the corrective action plan to ensure that we recover them. Part of it was the none certification of our international airports. And I am also happy to announce that we have almost completed it, in fact we are at the last stage of certifying Lagos airport. That would have been done since the 2006 audit, so 10 years later and since I came just shortly over a year ago we are at the last stage of certification. And Abuja is to follow and the other international airports also. So in areas of safety we are doing well and we intend to do even better because there is always room for improvement, until we score 100 percent, there is always room for improvement.

Shortly before the last audit some people came and vandalised runway lighting at Lagos airport. Don’t you thing that was sabotage?

It is something that is difficult to comment on, yes what you said really happened and we all knew that it was an insider that did it because nobody will have access to the airside unless he had authority. So it must have been an insider that did it and I am happy to say that we quickly recovered from that and they are replaced and since then nothing of such has happened. And we will continue to be on the lookout to ensure that the safety and security of our teaming passengers are adequately protected at any time.

NCAA has problem of collecting its charges from the airlines, how are you coping?

The issue that would have solved the failure of the airlines not paying the five percent charge to NCAA would have been automation but unfortunately the automation has not really fully taken off. There are still some teething problems and we expect all the airlines to be on that but the fundamental difficulty we had was a provision in the Civil Aviation Act which we are proposing for amendment, which has to do with the method of collection. The essence is for us to be able to provide very strong safety and security regulation for the aviation industry in Nigeria. But having said that we are also pleading with the operators to pay up. Of course, without the operators we will not be able to regulate anything but at the same time the operators may not be there if there is no regulation. So we try as much as possible to work with them, encourage them to pay and also where we need to sanction them to ensure that there is compliance with the payments we do so. So we are working, for the time being, we are trying to use the carrot but if we have to use the stick, we also use it. But we also take into consideration the traveling public in addition to the operator. But safety is the watchword.

Do you think the domestic airlines are over charged? What is your view about those charges and foreign exchange challenges? Are there things to be done to enhance their operation and their capacity?

Let me start with the forex issue, during the aviation stakeholders forum, the Honourable Minister of State for Aviation addressed some issues which included the forex and he has been working and we have been working along with him in the issue of classifying aviation as a priority when it comes to allocation of foreign exchange. When the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) met him, he took it up upon himself and took them along to the Central Bank Governor and I am happy to report that I got a lot of commendation coming from the airline operators that the visit made it possible for them to get a lot of the foreign exchange they require to carry out their safety responsibilities which is positive.

In addition to the foreign exchange issue, the Minster has been working; he is making aviation fuel available and affordable. Because we have a promise that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) will try to start refining Jet A1 (aviation fuel) in Nigeria, and that will reduce the cost even if it is transportation cost, two, availability will be the watch word also. Flights delays and cancellation arising from the non-availability of fuel will be a thing of the past. And of course when we engage our production lines, chances are that you will have more Nigerians employed. So it is a positive chain reaction, and also when you talk of the taxation, well tax is different from charges and there is a process.

Tax goes to government and charges go to the relevant agencies. So there is process for charges and if any operator or operators or group feel they are shortchanged when it comes to charges, they should come to the regulatory agency, file their complaint and we will check if the process was followed and we will arrive at amicable solution.
This is because whoever is charging should also consult with the stakeholders and eventually when they come into an agreement they will file that charge with us. If they have disagreement they will still come to us and then we will intervene and mediate and ensure that everybody get what he is supposed to get. We have this terrible attitude, some people use service they don’t want to pay for it, I think we should go beyond that. Whoever gets service should be able to pay for that service and if we all do that promptly we will end up with a very efficient industry, which is what we are all striving for.

Does the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) come to you to get approval before they enforce those charges?

That is the process but don’t forget that FAAN was created before NCAA and both have enabling laws. NAMA also was created that way. So those are some of the conflicts that are being addressed by the amendment of the civil aviation act, which is already an ongoing process. So those will be addressed where regulatory provisions were inadvertently put in those agencies. But the Civil Aviation Act 2006 is clear, NCAA is the only regulatory agency as far as civil aviation is concerned in Nigeria and I am sure with the amendment all will be brought in line with that provision under the Civil Aviation Act.