In December 2012, the great economist, Albert Otto Hirschman passed away. By all accounts, the man had lived a truly remarkable life and in April of this year, the Princeton Professor, Jeremy Adelman published a very well received biography of Hirschman – Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. The book is 760 pages so if that’s not your cup of tea, it’s worth reading Malcolm Gladwell’s review of the book in the New Yorker. It’s a really good piece. Or your money back.
Hirschman lived all around the world and spoke Italian, French, German and English. He worked in Europe, Africa, America and South America and he wrote about 9 books and countless papers in his time.
Of all his books though, the most popular one was Exit, Voice and Loyalty. The book is about the 3 different responses people come up with to decline i.e. exit, voice and loyalty. Hirschman used a simplified example to explain this point:
Consider a publicly funded school where the quality of education declined. Quality-conscious parents would increasingly remove their child to a privately funded school, given that they are relatively indifferent to the cost. A price-conscious parent, being similarly indifferent to the quality, would not notice that decline. At some point then, the school would know there was a problem, having been abandoned, but have no parents left who cared sufficiently about the quality to point to exactly where it had failed, locking the school into that state. Hirschman notes that in this and similar fields (“connoisseur goods”), a “tight monopoly could be preferable”, preventing parents from moving. This would be better for the school, if not the child, by keeping an active voice among the parents
You don’t have to agree with his ideas, compelling as they may be, but what is most interesting here is that Hirschman’s most popular book was inspired by something he saw in… Nigeria.
He was in Nigeria around 1965 doing some development economics work on ‘Railway Modernisation and The Bornu Extension’ when the idea for the book came to him. He concluded that the railways were getting worse because the most vocal customers – companies who needed to move good across the country – were abandoning the railways and shifting to trucking their goods on the roads. He also noted this behaviour in middle class Nigerians who voted with their wallets and bought cars or traveled by road. The problem was of course compounded by the fact that the railways were government-owned and as such didn’t care about the loss of revenues.
Fast forward to 2013 and yesterday on twitter I saw the following tweets from Professor Pat Utomi:
The distance from Lagos to Akure is around 300 kilometres or 3 hours on a decent road. Make no mistake about it, this is the road that the Agagu family were avoiding when the recent Associated Airlines plane crashed. It’s a terrible road and I remember the last time I passed through it – September 2009 when I attended Gani Fawehinmi’s burial – my heart was in my mouth the whole time.
I’ve seen the contract for this particular road described as ‘the greatest work of fiction ever written’ (although some say that accolade belongs to the East – West Road in the South South).
So if vocal Nigerians fled the railways for the roads, it’s not too ludicrous to extend the argument and say the same subset of Nigerians have since fled the roads for the air.
The trouble now is that there is nowhere else to run to when the airspace is no longer safe. So it’s time for…
What has been most troubling about the recent #StellaGate revelations is why exactly she chose the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to make these purchases. This is the body charged with air safety in Nigeria and by definition ought to be independent of government interference. To be clear, spending $1.6m on two cars for a minister to ride around in luxury is theft and a terrible scandal but why didn’t she use FAAN or any other agency under her ministry to do the deed? Taking money from NCAA is actively compromising the safety of people who fly around Nigeria everyday.
I have 2 possible answers to this.
1. The man in charge of NCAA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu was put there specifically for things like this i.e. to be her crony. People say the man is qualified for the job, but I am not convinced. This how he describes himself:
My name is Captain Fola Akinkuotu; I am the Rector of International Aviation College, Ilorin, which is the newest aviation college in Nigeria. I have been in the aviation industry most of my life. I will definitely say over 40 years in the industry. I started out as an aircraft engineer and I became a flight engineer and a pilot. I have flown in most of the airlines in Nigeria and I have over 13,000 hours of jet time. I have been in various things; I have been an instructor; a VIP pilot, I flew the Pope in 1997. I have done my bit
However this is how his LinkedIn profile describes him:
It’s certainly not my job to update his public profile for him. He is a public official and he should be able to do that himself. So it will be useful to know why his CV has gaps from 1992 – 2000 and from 2003 – 2009. That is at least 14 years missing from the last 21 years. If his public profile is an accurate reflection of his experience, why is he in charge of air safety in Nigeria? Is he just there to make it easier for the minister to buy luxury cars at inflated prices?
2. The second possible reason is that she chose the NCAA because it is ‘hidden’ in the budget. Looking at the section on Aviation in the 2013 budget, the NCAA is not one of the bodies that receives an appropriation in the budget (It’s not in the Ministry of Transport either)
In other words, this is a perfect place to hide graft or to put it another way; the NCAA is a revenue generating agency of the government (one of 54 such agencies) that contributes to the government purse as opposed to being sustained by allocations. Bear in mind that we were never meant to know about this. Someone took a risk to leak this to the public otherwise we would be none the wiser.
This whole mess should alarm anyone who flies regularly in Nigeria – is this what air safety is all about? That the body in charge of safety is merely a conduit for theft of public money? Resources are very limited in Nigeria so this is money that should have gone towards equipment or training or inspection that has gone towards providing even more luxurious travel for someone who by the account of Yakubu Datti, the resident clown at the Aviation Ministry, is ‘successful and well established’?
People who can afford to fly in Nigeria are by definition middle or upper class. Tickets are not cheap – a random Arik flight from Lagos to Abuja (return) from December 11th to 14th is currently priced at N40,641- of which N23,055 is ‘taxes and fees’ (I’m sure some of these fees go towards funding the NCAA…in other words you may have directly paid for the BMWs). This is a lot to pay for people to then fool around with lives.
My instincts are for people to simply stop flying until serious changes are made in how air safety is regulated in Nigeria – when the airlines get hit in the pocket, they will put pressure where pressure needs to be put. But this is a non starter with Nigerians who fly regularly.
How will I get to Abuja from Lagos for my meetings? The roads are even more dangerous
How about when I need to be in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Abuja in the same day?
Be realistic, avoiding air travel in Nigeria leaves you with no choice
And so on. This is all fine. But surely we can all agree that things cant continue like this? How about organizing a once a month boycott of airlines on the second Monday of every month? Surely if this is planned in advance, people can arrange their travel to reduce the impact of this? What is surely unacceptable is for people to pay N40,000 or more for local flights and then shrug their shoulders and say there’s not much they can do about demanding safety.
The first thing to do here is demand independence for the NCAA. And this can only happen when you have someone who isn’t there just to do the minister’s bidding. After yesterday’s disgraceful press conference by Capt. Akinkuotu, I am afraid there’s no evidence that he is someone who can stand up to a rampaging minister when she asks for BMWs. The purchase of the BMWs happened under his watch. He is now telling disgraceful lies to cover it up. He has to go.
The absolute most important thing about aviation is safety. A single crash can destroy an airline’s reputation overnight. The Minister can have everything else in aviation but turning the NCAA into a toothless agency is one corruption too much. People need to demand that she has absolutely no say whatsoever in who is appointed to run the agency – Nigerian or foreigner.
But I don’t live in Nigeria and it wont be long before someone insults me for ranting from the safety of London.
In the meantime, safe journey as you fly.
Addendum: I didn’t think it was important, but a couple of people have pointed out that I didn’t say anything about the 3rd leg of the equation – loyalty. According to Hirschman, ‘loyalty holds exit at bay’ i.e. it is most important for the firms in question to use. Since we are talking about aviation, one of the best examples of this is the use of frequent flyer miles by airlines to keep their customers. Imagine you have been collecting miles with British Airways for many many years and standards started to decline. Exit is not really an option to you at that point so you are forced to use voice to demand an improvement.
We are nowhere near there yet – where airlines respect customers enough to make changes when it is demanded but it is undoubtedly where we need to go.