Exit, Voice And Loyalty: Aviation In Nigeria

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:

Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 11.19.16

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)

Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 11.33.03

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.


25 thoughts on “Exit, Voice And Loyalty: Aviation In Nigeria

  1. This article is so on point, I could cry. It not only indicates the problems, it proffers likely solutions. Nigerians, the ball is in our court.

  2. The former local wing of the abuja airport has been re-modelled and has been turned into a 5 star hotel,lounge,and private air-stripe.not one person batted an eye-lid.public money for private consumption.
    Mr feyi I would have said God bless u for your unrelenting effort but it is not enough for someone who painstakingly takes his time to show us that we have lost our way.
    I think we need to break up this country.it too large to manage.

    1. We all keep retreating to ‘break up this country’ as a fix for problems that are rooted in the component parts of Nigeria.
      If fail to face and attack the root causes of our miasma, NOTHING will change in any of the illusory Republics we so earnest wish for. NOTHING!

  3. There is this joke about routing a trip from Lagos to Abuja through Heathrow: that way you get to avoid local flights even though you are doing what is essentially a local trip.

    While it is joke, it makes the point still that exit is always preferred to voice. Given though that no one actually does that circuitous trip, many who can voice are increasingly becoming convinced that their best bet is the big EXIT. Leave the place while you can.

  4. LOL. I like Feyi; he always has solutions. But I’m very certain that – given the attitude of Nigerians as we know it – nobody will take this advice. Why? Because, in the long run, even Nigerians don’t care about their own safety! Many Nigerians believe in the “Act of God” phenomenon than we know. Princess must have observed this, hence her use of the phrase in the justification of her ineptitude. Just ask a random person on the street. Bottom line: nobody cares. No even Nigerians who fly and whose lives are at stake, and whose families will suffer. They will keep wondering how they’ll get to Lagos from Abuja, of Port Harcourt from Ibadan, until the next crash happens, then we’ll all go back to blaming the Minister and the NCAA. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

  5. Pingback: Feyi Fawehinmi: Nigerians, how about a monthly boycott of airlines? | YNaija

  6. Wow!

    Great treatise!
    Worst of all is that after each air incident someone comes up to say that s/he knew it was going to happen; “I flew in that plane two weeks before!”

    I think we need to shout out every time we perceive something is wrong on a flyte because
    “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
    because I was not a communist;
    Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
    because I was not a socialist;
    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
    because I was not a trade unionist;
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    because I was not a Jew;
    Then they came for me—
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    See http://www.flytexperience.com

  7. When next you make post do your research well before misinforming the public…..capt fola though appointed DG had not esumed when the cars were purchased….go look for copies of the letter ( it’s all over the internet) authorizing the purchase, it was signed by the acting DG of NCAA at that time

    1. In that case, he should have publicly washed his hands of the matter. This would have forced reactions from the Minister ( abu she was not the minister that the vehicles were ordered for?) .
      Why do you guys enjoy begging the question so? If the Minister is a true born daughter of this land, even she ought to throw her resignation letter at the Prez if he had asked the NCAA to fund armored vehicles for the presidency. Of course, that would be after the messiah returns!

  8. Pingback: Exit, Voice And Loyalty: Aviation In Nigeria – Y! Opinion

  9. Feyi, thanks for starting the article by analyzing the decline of Nigerian Railway.

    In the long-run, therein lies our salvation. Nigeria is only one in the top 10 most populous countries without a functional rail system.

    Do what we like about fixing air safety but the roads will still carry more people and rail is still the safest means of real mass transit.

  10. Isn’t loyalty also the idea that we must be determined to see change? And as such use Voice to demand it, while staying in the system to ensure it?

    I mention this because of the general attitude of resignation that we, Nigerians, seem to be comfortable in.

  11. I fight back tears when I read articles like these from fellow country men. It’s very obvious the deep love we have for the country and the prolific way with which the brilliant minds that produce such objective objective opinions for its progress do it every time. But I find it difficult to understand why the average Nigerian intellectual thinks it wise that someone else bell the cat when it comes to acting on our very many ideas for the solution to Nigeria’s myriad problems. If you truly believe what you write, start a petition, seek signatures, put all your energy behind it to bring about whatever specific change you seek and then you can rest easy knowing you have indeed DONE ( as opposed to WROTE) something about Nigeria’s many issues.

    We that are young seek who to follow.

  12. I just wonder……all the people who insist on traveling via Nigeria’s extremely dangerous skies because of meetings, etc, of what value would all 3 meetings in one day in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos be to them if they die in a plane crash. The unfortunate passengers in the recent Associated Airlines crash wanted to get to Akure ‘quickly’ and avoid all the stress of traveling via the bad roads……….now most of them are no more. We really need to identify what is important, the money that is to be made or the life of the one who will make and enjoy the money. Agreeing to boycott air travel (on a scheduled basis as you’ve suggested) shouldn’t be difficult if people really identify what is important to them.

  13. Wow…well said, this is the time really to “Voice”. I want to do just that, where do I go? how do I go about it?. this is the time.

  14. Reblogged this on The Failed Rift and commented:
    This is not the first time I’m reblogging FF here (and probably not the last). This article takes a detailed and learned (as usual) look at the Aviation industry in the wake of the concerns safety concerns and corruption scandals and looks at possible options for Nigerians.

  15. Dear FF,

    Thank you for this piece. When Hirschman died in 2012, I heard about such a remarkable thinker for the first time in his obituary published by the Economist. Virtually every reference about Hirschman revolves around that theory: what baffles me was that the “Exit-Voice-Loyalty” theory was inspired about what Hirschmann experienced upon his visit to Nigeria. Then, it was the state of the Nigerian rail transport system. Today, that theoretical postulates holds good about the state of the air transport sector and every other facets of our socio-economic life in Nigeria. How we got to this abysmal level still baffles me. Is the situation redeemable? Yes, but it will take more than what we are currently doing. We require a very radical and holistic reform in the entire system. The choice is ours to make.

    Thanks once again.

  16. Hi there! This blog post could not be written much better!
    Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He continually kept preaching about this. I’ll send this
    article to him. Fairly certain he will have a great read.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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