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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Flying gods, lying prophets and power bandits

In May, 1891, James Richard Jewett of Brown University, Providence, United States, presented a paper on ‘Arabic Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases’ to the American Oriental Society. The paper was eventually published as an article in that society’s journal in 1893. One striking line I picked in that paper last week is the author’s entry of what he calls Jiha’s Cow. He writes: “Jiha slaughtered his cow, sold the meat, and received his pay. After a while, he again demanded pay from each purchaser and received it. He kept doing this till he died.” What Jiha did would not be strange to you if you were a Nigerian. We pay many times and forever for a paradise long lost.

Nigeria is a low wall mounted by every goat. I see Jiha in how the regime we have treats us. Trending now is electricity apartheid that stratifies the haves and the have-nots. They call it electricity subsidy removal. They band and disband cities; they grade and degrade streets. They distribute darkness and allocate fanciful power hours. The favoured are queued up as Band A; the disfavored are petty men packed into other bands ending empty-handed with letter E. Families sob, businesses weep. Indeed, the regime’s Julius Caesar “doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus.” They reduce all to the emperor’s “underlings, …petty men (who) walk under his huge legs”. In response to our cries, they bid us to do what Shakespeare’s Romans do: “peep about to find for ourselves dishonorable graves.”

A gluttonous government eats with both hands and ten fingers while asking us to skip meals, and fast and pray for John Milton’s paradise regained. Rupert Russel, author of ‘Price War$’ would look at them and say they are ‘prophets’ and we are their scammed ‘followers.’ He would explain our situation with his “cargo cult” metaphor of visionary prophets and stupid, expectant followers. Phil Murray explains him: “The prophets share a vision that God will deliver ‘cargo’ in the form of goods but the followers must first offer some sacrifice in exchange. The prophets take the sacrificial food or money, but the cargo never appears.”

I know there are partisan optimists who still wait at the port for the illusory cargo and at the harbour for the crab of this regime to wink. But for me, it is enough on this domestic darkness and the banditry in our forest of demons.
I shift my gaze to the enemy outside.

If you canter, trot or amble like a horse, the world will saddle you up. I see Jiha and his cow meat in how Nigeria and Nigerian businesses are treated by competition from outside. The outside is never tired of demanding payment for goods it never sold to us – and we keep paying. They did and do it in telecoms – the Globacom experience. The trending act is in aviation. Air Peace, a Nigerian airline, recently started operating the Lagos-London route. I read of hell being unleashed by the world’s lords of the sky.

I thought we were told that the sky has enough space for all birds to fly without clashing. It is no longer so. Or, it has never been so in the business of air travel. One Jide Iyaniwura, a passenger on Air Peace’s recent inaugural flight from Gatwick to Lagos, in a social media post, alleged that from what he saw on the day of the inaugural flight, the British government was intent on frustrating Air Peace out of the London route. He said: “British Airways and Virgin were the only airlines doing direct flight from Lagos to London before Air Peace joined. The British government will do everything within their power to truncate the effort of any Nigerian carrier trying to break into that market.” He provided clues and cited acts that suggested his conclusion. “It is a government-to-government fight. It is a British government versus the Nigerian government fight,” the passenger said while warning our leaders not to see it as a war between businesses.

Other observers say a war is on already from some established foreign airlines. Said to be leading the pack is expensive, elite British Airways. That should not be a surprise. The lion’s den is never free from bones. A behemoth company with imperialism as its foundational philosophy and ethos cannot be seen brooding any act of impudence from an upstart airline from Africa, its country’s inheritance. The lords on that route take the route as their bequest. Their mindset is rooted in history.

Sir Samuel Hoare was the British Secretary of State for Air from 1922 to 1929. He wrote in his Empire of the Air (1957:90) that he “saw in the creation of air routes the chance of uniting the scattered countries of the (British) Empire and the Commonwealth.” To him (and his country), air travel and route allocations were carefully etched and aimed at making sure that Great Britain did not “surrender in the air a paramountcy won on the ground by a generation before.” In other words, as elegantly couched by Hoare, the official British air travel policy was (and should still be) undergirded by the national desire to “make closer and more constant the unity of imperial thought, imperial intercourse and imperial ideals.”

Direct territorial acquisition of land that is not yours is colonialism. Garnish it with political and economic control from an outside power and you have the textbook definition of imperialism.

Imperial Airways, the grandfather of British Airways, was set up as the “chosen instrument” to achieve England’s imperial agenda. Indeed, The Times of London of December 28, 1923 noted and emphasized that in the choice of name for that airline, ‘Imperial’ and not ‘National’ had been used as its label. For these details and more, I suggest you read (as I did) Robert McCormack’s ‘Airlines and Empires: Great Britain and the Scramble for Africa, 1919-1932 published by the Canadian Journal of African Studies in 1976. You will read in that piece how the first scheduled flight of Imperial Airways on its trunk route to Cape Town on January 20, 1932 was celebrated by a British newspaper as “an imperial event of outstanding importance.”

Ninety years ago (18 October, 1934) at the Chatham House, London, Lt. Colonel H. Burchall, General Manager of Imperial Airways, spoke on ‘The Politics of International Air Routes’. He warned that “any country which maintains regular air services over routes crossing foreign countries has to encounter many difficulties.” He added that of those difficulties, “none is greater than those presented by international politics for these are based upon the uncertain and shifting foundations of national prejudices and aspirations.” You would probably understand Burchall’s words better if you advert your mind to the fact that on that London route used to be Nigeria’s Arik, Medview and Bellview. The gods of the skies swat them; they closed shop.

There is a gush of ground calls for support for Air Peace in this war. They say it is patriotism to do so. Before the coming of Air Peace on the London route, flying became food only for the gods of cash. Virgin Atlantic increased its price for economy class to N2,353,200; its business class was N5,345,700. Turkish airlines’ economy class ticket for the Lagos-Istanbul -London route rose to N874,661 while the business class ticket jumped to N1,980,876. Nigerian travellers experienced same with British Airways, Delta, Lufthansa, KLM/Air France, Air Maroc and Ethiopian Airlines. Nigerians cried, wailed and waited for succour, none came. Air Peace’s entry and cheaper fares have now forced the gods to reconsider their judgement. Reports say the flying spirits have not only reduced their fares, they are weaponising them against the upstart from Lagos. They are charging fares lower than Air Peace’s. That is war, price war.

Every war, including a price war, has an objective. A petrol station manager in the United States tells Strategic Pricing Solutions his own experience: “During the price war my company fought, consumers got some of the lowest gas prices in Dallas, but those low prices could not last. The end result for the consumer in that neighborhood was two of three gas stations on one corner going out of business, and as soon as they closed their doors, the remaining company raised prices higher than ever before.” That is what the dominant birds seek to do to the cattle egret. Their lowered prices are clippers for the wings of the competitor. The news will be very bad if Nigerians buy their guile. The Nigerian flyer will pay if the aliens win.

Those leading this war seek to prevent importation of aviation into their country from Nigeria while exporting theirs to Nigeria. It happened in other sectors, particularly in telecoms. It is still happening. What kind of trade and economic relations opens my door for your goods and closes yours to mine? American economist, William D. Grampp (1914-2019), in his ‘The Third Century of Mercantilism’ (published in the Southern Economic Journal in April 1944) argues that the prohibition of imports should be seen also as a prohibition of exports. This, he argues, is “not only because such protective devices lead to retaliatory measures but because exports must pay for imports and imports must pay for exports.” The greedy does not think so. They do to us here what they won’t accept in their home.

At the beginning of the GSM/mobile telephony story in Nigeria, the two foreign companies licensed to operate here gave everyone pills that were as bitter as their ineffectual properties. Ebenezer Obadare, a professor and researcher, puts it succinctly in his ‘Playing Politics with Mobile Phone in Nigeria’ published in March 2006. Obadare writes that in the first two years of mobile telephony in Nigeria, Nigerians suffered and complained of “exorbitant tariffs, poor reception, frequent and unfavourable changes in contract terms, and arbitrary reduction of credits.” I experienced it.

In 2001, our national minimum wage was N5,500 but they sold their SIM cards for N30,000. I could not afford it – my salary was N21,000. They fixed their call tariff at N50 per. There was no saviour if your one-minute call strayed into 61 seconds -your credit would be down by two minutes and no tear shed would argue your case. A second’s call was a minute’s call and you must pay even if the call dropped. It was so bad that at a point, protesters redefined GSM as an acronym for “Grand Swindling Machine.”

Who were the edá rats behind that odious treatment? Foreigners who thought we deserved no more than slave treatment on our own soil. Obadare’s words are very apposite here. He writes that the foreign telecoms companies’ excuse “had been that it was impossible to offer customers per second billing until they attained ‘reasonable maturity’ or at least three years after the commencement of operations.” He continues: “However, following…. the introduction of Mike Adenuga’s Globacom, which gave its customers the per billing option on 29 August, 2003 (its first day of operation), Econet and MTN had no choice but to follow suit. Yet, they did not do this without attempting to claw something back- subscribers who opted to be billed on the per-second platform were made to pay a switchover fee of N300 each.” Obadare adds that one of the foreign operators offered its customers “100 free texts, many of which, ironically, did not reach their destinations.” Twenty one years after Nigerians defeated them through Globacom’s patriotic intervention, the outsiders have refused to forget. They still work and fight dirty.

They fleece Nigeria and escape sanctions. Their immunity is sourced from Nigeria’s peculiar self-hate and self-neglect. The forex crisis that today ravages Nigerians and Nigerian entities makes no sense to them. They make forex and ship them home to their owners. At a point in the decade before the last, the Central Bank of Nigeria complained loudly that the foreign companies did not allow their cash to stay for more than a few weeks in Nigeria “before they were converted to foreign exchange for one purchase or the other.” Since that decade up till now, their foot has remained slammed on the throttle; they do not think what is wrong is bad.

Do not blame them. Blame Nigeria that does not clothe its own from the ravages of dry winds from outside. If our government would not create heaven for us and for entities that belong to Nigerians, they should at least lead us away from the hell of hostile aliens. In the complex tapestry of adultery and concubinage, the Yoruba say the husband (the child’s father) is the one who runs round to wean his child from death. The man outside – the àlè – does not care if the child dies. The ‘enemy’ are not of here, their love is for where their umbilical cords lie buried. Nigeria is the cow tethered (by us) for them to milk. We think our charity should forever begin from outside. The Arabs say that a borrowed garment will not warm, and if it warms, it will not last.

Does international relations still have reciprocity as a reward for acceptable behaviours and as a check on aberrance? If you scratch my back I should scratch yours. If you take an eye, I take an eye. Why not have Nigerian enterprises in South Africa making what MTN and MutiChoice make here? Why should it be fatal for a Nigerian airline to operate in London when British Airways and Virgin come in here and go out with billions in their pocket? It can’t be sweet if one side picks the bill all the time. It is like subsidy withdrawal by this government of highly subsidized people.
They wring us out in the sink. We are where they put us – spread out in the sun to dry. Their parrot speaks only of received benefits. It does not give.
Contemporary Egyptian-American poet and artist, Suzi Kassem, in her ‘The Unforgiven’ writes on people “who take and don’t give. The kind to whom you give and give, and they keep asking. The kind to whom you give and give and they say you gave nothing. The kind who have never offered anything but act like they’re the ones providing EVERYTHING. The rat that never gives back yet is so quick to attack – because they think the word TAKING seriously means GIVING.”

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