Nigeria and the flying elephant – Punch Newspapers

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Minabere Ibelema
I have long thought that nothing better captures the challenges facing Nigeria than the story of the flying elephant. It doesn’t matter whether the challenges are economic, political or social, it is insightful to revisit the fate of that elephant, the allegorical emblem of Nigeria’s first national airline.
When Nigeria Airways was launched on Oct. 1, 1958, the image makers had lots of options for an emblem. The most logical were things that fly: an arrow, an eagle, a seagull. Rather they chose to brand the airline as the flying elephant. Yes, the emblem painted on the tails of the planes and imprinted on tickets was that of an elephant fitted with wings and superimposed on the Nigerian flag.
Incongruent as it might seem, it was brilliant. An emblem of flying things is banal. That of a flying elephant better captures the miracle of air travel. A jumbo jet in flight is more like a flying elephant than a soaring eagle. Rather than an elephant, it could have been a hippo or a rhino. They all would better represent the feat of flight than those things that naturally fly.
Had Nigeria Airways performed well, the inaugural emblem might have become textbook material for ingenious branding.  Instead, it was ruined when the airline became known for unreliable and chaotic operations. It routinely remained on the ground long after it was supposed to take off. Too often, it didn’t take off at all. And when it did, it could be to a destination that is different from what is on the schedule.

So, the brilliant emblem became a mockery for the airline. Rather than symbolising the miracle of flight, the flying elephant came to stand for a lumbering operation. The accompanying slogan of “Skypower” was similarly derided. In due course, the emblem was changed from the poetic elephant to the prosaic eagle. The symbol of derision was thus removed, but not the substantive cause.
In April 1987 — about 16 years before the airline folded — then Minister of Transportation and Aviation Brig. Jerry Useni foretold the demise. “Our national airline is a disgrace,’’ he told the staff in an address. ‘’Lateness, delays, outright cancellation of flights and a nonchalant attitude of the staff toward customers are now part of your operational guide. You must sit up and improve; otherwise, you will be signing your own death warrant.”
Given the context of Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime, that last bit of the warning could have sent chills through the staff. Mercifully, Useni didn’t mean it literally. The death warrant was for the airlines, and it materialised in 2003. By then, many of them had moved on anyway.

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During the address, Useni complained that the government was pouring enormous amounts into the airline with nothing to show for it. In fact, the airline had become so financially stressed that it couldn’t pay its international obligations. It became the only airline to face the ignominy of being suspended from the International Air Transport Association.
The suspension meant that Nigeria Airways could no longer interface with other airlines — regarding cross-booking, for example. The resulting operational constraints compounded the airline’s troubles.
What Useni didn’t say was that government allocation wasn’t enough to save the airline. Its distress inhered in its operational circumstances, some of which were dictated by the government.
For one thing, it was required to charge fares that were just a fraction of what others charged, fares that were economically untenable. And, according to the New York Times, the airline employed 500 people for every plane it operated, a ratio that was about double the international average.
And then there was the Nigerian penchant for showy overreach. We see that in our birthday bashes, weddings, funerals, and so on. In the case of Nigeria Airways, it was trying to do what the big boys were doing, and that is to service the whole world. It flew to 38 airports, 22 of which were at foreign lands and quite a few were not profitable. With such a burden, the eagle couldn’t soar any better than the elephant.

What is of particular interest in the foregoing is that the problems were so glaring they didn’t require an economist to identify them and prescribe remedies. Yet, the airline lumbered on as though it was on the right course. Then came the turbulence of Babangida’s economic restructuring, and the crash was a matter of time. With a sharply devalued naira and no corresponding increase in fares, the airline barely managed to hobble until 2003.
So much of Nigeria’s problems today mirror the plight of Nigeria Airways and the flying elephant. When Lord Lugard amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914, he couldn’t have been unaware of the seeming incongruence of merging people of such disparate cultures and religion. But he probably saw the poetry of the merger rather than prose. He saw the synergy more so than the division.

In many ways, Nigerians sought to capitalise on that synergy and pull off the miracle of the flying elephant. That’s why early in the life of the republic, Nigeria was hailed as the showcase of democracy in Africa. And Nigerian leaders routinely enthused about the country’s future as an economic powerhouse that would lift up the rest of black Africa.
But the noble vision was no match for parochial interests and personal ambitions. So, obstacles to the vision that could have been removed were instead made to fester. Avoidably, the country descended into a civil war that lasted about 30 months, and is now being resurrected. The political class, who bought into the notion of Nigeria’s manifest destiny, now derides it, just as it did the emblem of the flying elephant.
Judging by the scheming in preparation for the 2023 elections, there’s little evidence of lessons learned from the 1960s. Parochial interests and personal ambitions still seem to be the major driving force.
If Nigeria crashes out like the Nigeria Airways, it wouldn’t be because of what happened in 1914. It would be because of disinclination to do what is necessary to fix obvious problems. It would be because of failure to be guided by the grand vision.
Correction
Last week’s column appears to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin was in his 70s in his iconic horseback photo. He was actually about 57.
Copyright PUNCH.

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