Obiora Okonkwo is the Chairman, United Nigeria Airlines. He tells Iyobosa Uwugiaren why he established the new airline despite the prevailing challenges in the sector. He also talks about his plans for the forthcoming governorship election in Anambra state
Recently United Nigeria Airlines started commercial flights. This took the aviation industry by surprise because of the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s the idea behind the airline?
The United Nigeria Airlines goes into the records as the first post-pandemic creation in the aviation industry in Nigeria. It did not come without hard work. But in all, it is simply by God’s grace. No doubt the industry needs more activities because there is a lot of vacuum. We just simply had to step in to see how to fill the gap, provide service to the nation and also bequeath a legacy. Everything about it is part of our commitment, and zeal, to be part of national development.
Your state governor, Willy Obiano, recently commended you on this initiative. How did you see it?
He did and the words were well chosen. I thank him for that. I appreciate it. I also welcome his hand of friendship.
As we speak, there are so many challenges within the aviation sector. What is United Nigeria Airlines going to do differently?
We are not here to reinvent the wheel. So many people have been in it and they have done it to the best of their ability. But ours is a promise to offer a most rewarding customer experience. We are committed to making flying United Nigeria a most rewarding experience for our customers. And this customer experience comes from the delivery by well-trained staff. This is something we had done with plans for further improvement through continuous training and upgrade and exposure. This is an area I have the greatest passion for. With this, we can guarantee safety within human limits, because the ultimate safety provider is the Almighty God. However, our experience getting our operating certificate indicates that we must be at our best. I can tell you that any certificate issued by the current NCAA under Captain Nuhu, is the completion of a very rigorous process that is of world standard. Every detail had to be crossed to the detail and exactly to the books to ensure the safety of air travellers.
Besides, there are some challenges in the industry that comes not necessarily from what the operators are doing but more from what is in existence like policies of government and support system. Aviation is critical to the economy and that is why before you can be a director in an airline, you have to get a national security clearance. So as important as it is, one will want to see a more government-focused agenda in developing the aviation sector for the right reasons. For instance, 99.5 per cent of all the aircraft parts are imported and you need to keep the aircraft serviceable. This means that foreign exchange is required. If you have a scheduled flight and you wake up in the morning and there’s a snag in the aircraft, if you don’t have the aircraft spare parts, you have to make a quick arrangement. To achieve this, there must be a window through which you can access forex quicker. But as it is, if you look at the bidding system and you don’t fall within for that week, then you have to wait for the next two weeks, and there’s no guarantee that what you ask for is what you get. And when you miss that, you wait for another two weeks. That is enough to ground an aircraft.
With the insecurity around the country, flying is no more a luxury. It is an alternative. So, those are the challenges. So, the aviation business is a money-spinner. The government makes money from every ticket sold. So, any amount of investment the government does to strengthen the industry and help the operators grow will eventually come back to the benefit of the government. So it is one industry that government has to reposition in terms of policy thrust. It does not only offer service it is also an income-generating industry for the government.
What has been the feedback from your customers since the inaugural flight? Are you impressed?
Yes, we are impressed. The passengers have been amazing. Some of our people and my team members who have been part of start-ups in other airlines have broken every record because on the first day of our flight, on some of the routes, we had a full load of passengers. It was amazing. The story has been that some people started with two or three passengers or flew empty. That did not happen to us thought this is a very low season for air travel. The high season is usually between December 15 and January 15. So, the feedback has been great. We know that starting in this way will not come without having some little issues here and there and where they apply, we plead with the passengers to be patient as thins shape up. So far, we have not had any negative feedback. A good percentage of workers have loads of industry experience and they have been handy in ensuring a smooth take off. With them, it was easy to begin operations less than 24 hours after we received the AOC. That shows how prepared we were even before the AOC came. The AOC was signed on a Wednesday; by the time the certified true copy got to us, it was on Thursday. By 7:00 am on Friday, we went into full operation. That’s to say that we have been ready for a long time. We have kept our schedules and all are running very well.
As it stands today, you have Enugu, Asaba, Lagos and Abuja. What other routes are we expecting?
We are already activating Owerri and Port Harcourt. Those will come live in the next few days. We have also received a request to open more routes. But we take them on as we progress.
You started with four aircraft. Are you expecting more?
Yes! In the next two months, we should be expecting two aircraft by God’s grace. It is part of our strategic development plan. Also, before the year runs out and even before the next Hajj season, we would have developed some routes and built more manpower. As the industry is, you can plan better when you have your AOC. Before you have your AOC, you have limitations in the number of pilots because nobody will be willing to leave what they are doing and come and wait from morning till night.
Away from aviation, you are one of the leading aspirants in the Anambra governorship election. PDP just released its timetable. Are you further encouraged?
I am more than encouraged. The position we are now is already beyond consideration. We are in the race with our two hands and two legs. I have seen the timetable and it is good. They have allowed more time for the campaign before the election takes place in November. We have been preparing since 2018. So we are good.
Looking at the political calculations in Anambra state, do you think PDP is well-positioned to win that election?
PDP has a great chance of winning the election not by default, but by deliberate plan and effort by committed people. I was a member of the caretaker committee of the PDP in Anambra state at the 2017 governorship election and I know what we went through in the process. As an outcome, we have studied the situation and traced it to certain factors and we are committed to dealing with those factors. A major part of those factors is the party structure -having a stable, consistent elected executive from the state, local government to ward level. It might interest you to know that since 2007, PDP has not gone for governorship primaries with statutory delegates. It has been ad-hoc. At every point in time, there is a battle of who is the authentic exco with different groups claiming leadership and it ends badly for the party. What we have done, however, is that instead of one person sitting in their room and writing the list of executives, we said that each ward or the local government will be determined by their stakeholders who are PDP members. With that, the party is stable and there are activities and programmes. You can predict that if the PDP remains stable, it will win the election.
And there is no reason not to achieve it. We now have a very efficient leadership which had made it possible for everyone to see that if you are a PDP member and do not have a stake at the state level, you are a bigger loser. We have lost a lot and everybody has learnt their lesson. However, we still have a few dissidents, but the good thing is that they are fighting from outside. But everything is being done to reconcile them and let them see reason.
What’s your motivation for this race?
This is not your typical reason for running for governorship. By qualification, I am a political scientist. I have been involved in political activities in so many ways. I do not believe that you can only be part of a developmental process when you are in power. So I have been using my knowledge, and my talent, to support the political process believing that it will provide some kind of leadership that will actualise the aspirations of the people. Having, however, seen what is eluding us, I have asked myself what will I do better? I have told God, prayed to God that all the things you have done for me, your favour, your blessings, I am grateful for them, but if it pleases you that I should serve you through the leadership of Anambra state, I am making myself available and in the process of doing that, I don’t want that power to be a curse or a reason to keep me away from you. I have prayed and told God that if it is not his will, let it not happen.
So, I have offered myself to be used by God to change the narrative on Anambra state. If it pleases God, let him use me. So, for me, if it pleases God that I become governor of Anambra state, the office will only be a larger platform for me to do the things that I have always done for the benefit of the people and the glory of God. I say this because one can glorify God through leadership. I get worried sometimes when people categorize every politician as dirty. The reason can be that when good people are out of politics, bad people will occupy the space. Also, I am encouraged by the fact that the political process has gone through some evolution. Now, we have a greater guarantee that votes will count to a large extent. For instance, nobody has gone to court in Edo state concerning the election count. All I am seeing is pre-election qualifications and litigations. So, what that means is that over 90 per cent of the votes cast in the election were the ones escalated to the different levels of collation centres and were counted as final results and all the parties involved were satisfied. If that is the case, then it is now a better environment where somebody like me can operate.
People believe there is a lot of potential in Anambra that can be harnessed but the problem is about the leadership question. How do you intend to resolve that?
The potential is enormous and Anambra is a unique state. It can’t boast of oil and a large expanse of agricultural land. As you know, the entire territory of Kogi state is almost larger than the entire southeast. But we have the most valuable resources which are human capital. These are people with special endowments and creativity. That means wealth. Today, the whole world is rotating around creativity and innovation. These things come from inside. We already have an action plan that we are going to unveil soon. And it’s such that will bring economic independence of Anambra state. We need to harness the entrepreneurial skills of our people which are phenomenal. Industrialization is talent and that is the new capital. What brought about industrial development in China is its investment in human capital.
I was in China about two decades ago and I found out what they could do with their talents and creativity. But when the western world discovered the abundance of human capital there, they went in and provided them with all they needed, including modern machinery. They continued to train their people all over the world. Today, it has yielded results. When you have human capital, everything you need will look for you. With what we have, Anambra will stand on its own. Today, the government talks about being able to pay salaries. How much does it pay compared with the per capita income in that state? With the wealth and number of billionaires in that state, the workforce should be earning a lot more than so many other states. These are the things that can only come from wealth creation. So, we have great plans for this state and we will be unveiling them very soon.
Politics is a very serious business. Taking into consideration your business interests, how do you intend to manage both?
Any modern business today that’s set up not be able to run itself with the right members of management and staff will fail from the beginning. The business I do is like that of a venture capitalist who has a passion for one area, develops it, drives the vision and get a group of people who share the vision, pass it on and move on to other ventures. So, my businesses are not all wrapped around me. I can walk away and they will still grow.
Apart from you, there are other governorship aspirants within and outside your party in Anambra. What makes you different from them?
I hope the delegates will rate what I have that is different from all the others. Some people see politics and positions as a business. They contest in every election. Such persons have no other address other than a political contest. Not many of them have had been able to create businesses from scratch, created jobs through them and nurture those businesses to profitability. Over-sighting a budget already prepared by the executive does not provide you with leadership credentials for the task of the office of governor. In most cases, a local government chairman is better suited to execute the task of the office of governor than a legislator. So, I have looked around those running with me and I don’t think any of them has a track record of having gone through the process of formal education, choosing to go into the private sector, get established, create employment with vision and focus, follow projects from the beginning to the end etc. and remain consistent, not in one year but for over two decades.
This is different from being a perpetual aspirant, who when not contesting any election, or out of political consideration, see themselves as fish out of water. On the other hand, some have tried their hands in certain things and said have not been able to get to a certain level of their chosen career, they come out and to gamble, muster some financial support and keep some change for themselves. I don’t fall into any of those categories. I understand the seriousness of being a governor of a state and I see beyond limits. I see an opportunity to re-engineer our processes and change a lot of people’s lives. That was why in the 2019 general election, for the first time, I was offered the senate seat of my senatorial zone by my party PDP, in recognition of my contributions to the party and my ability to sustain the district. I appreciated and thanked them but I had other engagements. Going to the senate is good, but my eyes were on the governorship. I rather some other person from the party goes while I wait. It is part of the difference and that is because I am contented and fulfilled. I also know what I want and I go for it.
Finally, what are your chances in the upcoming election?
For me, if you ask me I will be like my own teacher and my examiner. If I mark my exam papers you can be sure that I will get 100 per cent. However, one thing is certain in this race and that is that I am the one to beat. If you want to become the governor of Anambra State, you must beat me. And it will be tough to beat me. From all indications, we are in a very good position because we started early and gained a lot of grounds.
You are too confident. Who is your godfather in this race?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a godfather. I only have father God -Father God Almighty who ultimately gives power.
What is this controversy about zoning in your state?
There’s really nothing about it. Anybody who is mentioning zoning or propagating it whether internally or externally must be someone who feels that zoning might be his quickest way to win this election against me. If you look at it, the current governor is from the north senatorial zone, then one might just say by common sense that since he’s just finishing, it should go to other senatorial zones. But that has never been the case because at every time that anybody who wants to run for governorship, we, as Anambra people, have never sat and agreed that it would be based on zoning. But it is becoming so pronounced now and that is because I am in the race. Some aspirants had said to themselves that with me in the race, it might just be better for them to join forces and work with me. They caved in and we have collapsed their structures. Some are also pulling out of the race because they stand no chance against me. As it is, if you look at the Anambra central zone, which has about 60 per cent of the votes, I am about the only visible candidate from there. This is because we have done our politics properly and they people, even other aspirants, appreciate what I stand for and feel we should work together rather than working at cross purposes.
APGA has rotated its ticket to Anambra South. That is understandable. Peter Obi has been APGA governor from the Anambra central. Obiano is APGA governor and he is nor Anambra north. So, the internal policy of APGA which is about rotation favours Anambra south this time. That is an APGA decision. Bear in mind that APGA faces the challenge of an incumbent senator from the south also running in the election. APC, by default, might have their candidate emerge from the south too, because apart from Tony Nwoye who is from the north, Ngige from central, no other person aspires to be governor in APC from either north or central.
From the last APC primary in 2017, Nwoye came first. The second to fifth persons were from the south, not by design but by default. So, if Tony Nwoye declines to contest, the other four after him in the last election, from the south, are the only people in the race. So, by default, the APC candidate will emerge from the south. So, the south will be choked while Anambra central where I hold the ace, with between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of the about 60 per cent of vote hauls in the Central coming from my home front of Idemili, will be the zone to beat. So, for APGA and APC, the thinking is that if I pick the ticket, it will be game over. Now, what options do they have? Simple! They had to work with a few aspirants from the south to keep beating the drum of zoning as their only hope of beating me. That was why they planted a fake report in online media that I had been technically disqualified on the grounds of zoning. The fake report exposed them because the guy who shared that has told some persons close to us how much he was paid to put that up. For these aspirants, the only chance they have in the race is to trade zoning. Unfortunately, for them, the National Working Committee (NWC) of our great party had in August 2020 stated unequivocally, that it will not zone the ticket but will rater run with a candidate that has the capacity and competence to win the election.
On the other hand, however, if we are talking of equity in PDP, the zone that deserves the ticket should be Anambra Central. This is because the PDP has, since 1999, given the south three tickets. 1999 was Chinwoke Mbadinuju, 2007 was Andy Uba, and 2010 was Charles Soludo, back to back. It gave the same ticket to Anambra north twice in 2014 through Tony Nwoye and in 2017 through Oseloka Obaze.
The only one time anybody from Anambra central has picked the PDP ticket was through Chris Ngige. Even at that, Ngige was given the ticket by the Anambra/Southeast PDP powerhouse that was domiciled in Anambra South.
However, I believe that the best qualification to run for election is competence, capacity, merit and ability and not by special consideration. If anybody is demanding special consideration and favour, it should be people from the central because since 1999, they have had PDP ticket only once and other zones have had three and two.
We think that the best thing for Anambra state now is simply going for the best and by the way, we now require a lot of prayers because people should be able to kneel and pray that God will bring a leader to lead us out of this bad situation.