Ibom Air is being managed professionally, writes Michael Bassey

In the buildup to the governorship election early this year, so much was said about the Akwa Ibom State airline being desperately driven by a sinking governor eager to hold on to anything for survival. The project was announced dead even before its commencement. It was perceived by some people as purely a tactic to get a reelection.

Really, it is difficult to blame anyone for being suspicious of politicians in a country where there are countless examples of leaders merely driven by political gains. We have seen government officials embarking only on projects that are capable of giving them political mileage. Even at that, there have been reports of embezzlement of money devoted to such ventures. It is for this reason that many Nigerians have become cynical. Many see political leaders as being deceptive, selfish and self centered. It is therefore gladdening that the Ibom Air has proved cynics wrong in that the airline has not only taken off, it is a venture that may stand the test of time if successive governments in the state follow the business template for its operations.

It is interesting that the success story of Ibom Air is being told by the opposition, with the governor, Udom Emmanuel, receiving praises from unexpected quarters. That is the beauty of embarking on projects that have positive impacts on the society. Good initiatives are not discriminatory. No sane person abandons a good road for a bad one simply because he wants to prove to be loyal to a party or an individual. That is why some people have continued to argue that good governance serves everybody’s interest – both the good and the bad the same way anyone could be a victim of bad governance.

A chieftain of the All Progressives Congress in Akwa Ibom State, Mr Anietie Usen, was one of the people that openly lauded the Akwa Ibom government on the Ibom Air initiative. It is interesting that Usen is not just an ordinary member of APC; he is one of the strong supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari and a close friend of Nsima Ekere, APC governorship candidate in the last general elections. Going by his antecedents, Usen is not likely to be generous with praise especially for a ruling party in a state where elections are being contested by the opposition. So, if someone like Usen should say anything good about Ibom Air, he must have meant it.

Usen had described Ibom Air which started flying on June 8, 2019 as the “newest and the freshest aircraft” in Nigeria. This kind of endorsement is difficult to ignore. According to him, flying Ibom Air was a decision he had to take because he had no other choice as the other airline he had booked had disappointed him. But despite his political difference with the ruling party in the state, he acknowledged that the Ibom Air project was a good initiative. Usen was reported to have said that the freshness of the aircraft was the first surprise he got when he boarded it sometime last month, lauding the aircraft’s spacious leg room, comfortable seats and very friendly crew. He even took notice of how the snacks were uniquely packaged and presented in the state colours of orange, green and white. He was that detailed. He enthused that the aircraft was the newest and freshest aircraft he had flown in his 43 years of flying in Nigeria. Not yet done, he spoke about the experiences of other passengers, who according to him, all acknowledged that the airline was not only good, but manned by professionals.

The usual fear when it comes to government ventures like the Ibom Air is that they are not sustainable. This is because Nigeria does not have many good examples of well-managed government businesses. They are usually money guzzlers, a drainpipe and avenue for corruptly enriching the people in power. Many good initiatives in the past have been destroyed by political intermeddling. This is why Governor Emmanuel should not allow Ibom Air to go the way of other typical government projects. The governor should continue to bring to bear his experience as an astute administrator in the management of the Ibom Air and other businesses in the state.

Going by his antecedents, the governor has proved to be an efficient manager of human and capital resources. These virtues are clearly seen in his previous interventions in the oil state’s affairs since he became governor in 2015. The state has developed 11,000 hectares of coconut plantations, 2,100 hectares of cassava plantation in 15 local government areas, registered 48,000 rice farmers for the CBN anchor borrowers’ scheme and trained 450 youths on cocoa maintenance. The state has also established Special Cocoa Maintenance Scheme (SCMS) to train farmers and youths on pruning/shading management to improve on the yielding from its large expanse of farmlands and at the same time distributed cocoa seedlings to farmers at subsidised rates to encourage cocoa plantation among other laudable programmes. Its hatchery known as the Akwa Prime Hatchery hatches thousands of day-old cheeks per week. All these are aside the syringe factory, pencil, toothpick and other industrial ventures birthed in the state in the last four years. Most of these ventures are run on public-private participation basis to guarantee profit. This is commendable.

For now, Akwa Ibom is the only state across the country running and operating an international airport. It is also the only state running a Category Two run way. The Ibom Air has employed close to 300 people directly while about 3,000 people are involved in its daily operations.

But to prevent the airline from going the way of government projects in Nigeria, the governor would have to ensure that the airline continues to epitomize excellence in aviation service delivery. The airline operations should adhere strictly to international best practices in its funding and management.

It is good that the governor has assured that political motives would be excluded in the running of the airline to make it remain afloat so that it could provide services not only to the people of the state, but other Nigerians and international investors as well. Already, it is being run as a limited liability company under the management of aviation experts to ensure sustenance. The governor should ensure that the airline services are treated as a venture and patronized on that basis and not as government project meant to provide free money for state officials.

The success of Ibom Air has changed the perception about state governments running businesses. It has shown that states can run businesses if they are willing to apply business models in running them.