Nigeria Airways retirees: endless wait for a funeral’s closure
Since the defunct national carrier, Nigeria Airways closed shop in 2003, about 6,000 ex-workers of the outfit have continued to wait on the Federal Government to pay their entitlements, including pension and gratuities for services rendered. On the lips of affected persons are tales of disappointment, pain, agony, misery. On a sad note, some have also passed on in the last 15 years, while waiting to be paid what was due them. The Muhammadu Buhari-led government recently made a move towards settling the indebtedness. Many of the affected are wondering whether they will find respite from their suffering. WOLE OYEBADE reports.
The procession was obviously tired even before the march begun. Sad and solemn was the mood of about 150 people that morning. And except for a hearse, casket and undertakers that were missing in the crowd, the march could have been mistaken for a funeral procession on the busy Murtala Muhammed Airport Road in Lagos. But it was not.
Indeed, it was a protest march by some senior citizens – all former workers of the defunct Nigeria Airways. Among them were the old, the sick and the dying, who have all been left in the cold for so long, as the reward for service to the nation.
Without a doubt, the years of waiting have taken its toll on them, but the protesters are some of the lucky ones. At least, they are alive to tell their stories.
On that Wednesday, as early as 7:30am, the former workers in their 60s, 70s and 80s all gathered at the corridor of Murtala Muhammed II (MMA2) terminal, in Lagos. The initial camaraderie and exchange of banters by a few of them notwithstanding, the gathering had no joy in it. They had come to remind the Federal Government of their outstanding gratuities, after several weeks of fasting and prayers, which they observed at a particular Lagos location on Fridays.
“We are sick and cannot treat ourselves,” said a septuagenarian that was physically supported. “Please, give us our dues. It is not a crime to have worked diligently for the Federal Government (owner of defunct Nigeria Airways).”
“I put 30 years into the operations of the Nigeria Airways. Why do I have nothing to show for it?” another retiree asked The Guardian rhetorically.
“Why are we so heartless in this country? I have been practically homeless and sick for eight years now. I cannot cater for myself and my family. The system is waiting for us to all to die in penury so they can chop our money. Yes, we are dying, but know that whatever goes around will surely come around,” yet another added.
As many as could muster the strength raised placards. The inscriptions spoke volumes of what they had on their minds: Some of the placards read: “President Buhari, please prevail on the Ministry of Transportation to release the money to us,” “In the month of August, we lost 25 pensioners,” “Honourable Minister, please help us, our members are dying daily,” and “No national carrier takes off without our pension.”
The struggle by the ex-staff of the defunct carrier has been on for the last 15 years, that is since the erstwhile promising and profitable airline was liquidated in 2004, to save the country of further embarrassment.
A little respite came the way of some of the workers in 2008 when the then administration “graciously” paid a five-year pension arrears. It was the last ever earned as benefits, as former staff, both at home and abroad have been left to lick their wounds.
According to figures offered by the Nigerian Union of Pensioners, no fewer than 700 out of about 6,000 ex-workers of the airline have died in the course of the struggle.
About a month and half ago, one of the former workers, Hajia A. Jatto, died of minor ailment, which a hospital had demanded N20, 000 for treatment, which the deceased could not raise. Another seasoned engineer with the former national carrier, Peter Ibeh, also passed on not long ago.
Scenarios like these, forced those alive to consider it necessary to showcase their plights to the world, and they did that without caring a hoot about the traffic snarl behind their procession, and on the opposite end of the Airport Road. Even though it was a short march that lasted less than one hour, the vehicular traffic took all afternoon to dissolve.
According to one of the protesters, Elder Peters, who is in his 70s, the matter is more spiritual than physical. “So, I refuse to believe that the matter is just refusal of the government to pay us. The Goodluck Jonathan government refused to pay us, and the current government has made some moves, but we are yet to see the end of the matter. Something is fundamentally wrong and only God can intervene.”
Peters’ view is already shared by an arm of the retirees’ body known as the Elders’ Forum. The group is made up of former management staff of the airline and workers above 60. They now gather on Fridays to pray for divine intervention in their matter.
A 69-year-old member of the forum, who simply identified himself as Ezekiel, said their demands were beyond human solutions, and that explains the reason they have decided to ask for God’s intervention.
“Yar’Adua’s government meant well and was ready to settle us before he suddenly died. Buhari too was showing promises in 2016, but his sickness truncated the process. That is why we are taking our matter to God, and also to remind the government that we are still alive and in need,” Ezekiel said.
Birth Of A National Carrier
Nigeria Airways Limited, commonly known as Nigeria Airways, was founded in 1958, after the dissolution of West African Airways Corporation (WAAC). It held the name WAAC Nigeria until 1971, when it was rebranded Nigeria Airways, the name it bore until it ceased operations in 2003.
The Federal Government owned 51 per cent of the airline’s shares until 1961, when it boosted its participation in the company to 100 per cent and made it the country’s national carrier. The airline’s headquarters were at the Airways House in Abuja, while operations were concentrated at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos.
Nigeria Airways served both domestic and international destinations, mainly concentrated in West Africa; the network also had points in Europe, North America and Saudi Arabia.
The airline had its heyday in the early 1980s, running efficiently and profitably. At that time, its fleet consisted of about 30 aircraft. Owned or leased, the carrier operated a variety of aircraft during its history, including the Airbus A310, the Boeing 737, and the Douglas DC-10, of which it flew the last one ever built.
Contrary to what is the case with current airlines today, Nigeria Airway in the 1980s and 1990s, had most of its maintenance done locally. A member of the engineering team, Ayuba Kyari, recalled that the Lagos hangar conducted C-checks on Boeing 737 aircraft type, and D-check on Airbus A310 in the fleet paraded by the defunct airline. The Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility was liquidated with the airline in 2004.
Today, all local airlines in commercial operations fly to France, Germany, Lithuania, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, South America among others to do mandatory C-checks.
Arik Air, for instance, currently patronises a MRO facility in Lithuania; a country of 2.8 million population.
Not too far away, specifically a few hundred metres away from where the procession took off from, specifically on the airside of the Lagos Airport corridor lied the remains of aircrafts belonging to the defunct Nigeria Airways. Now grounded and covered in dirt, these are aircrafts the ex-workers used to know as the state-of-the-art in the 1970s and the 1980s. Since closing shop, happenings in the sector have completely obliterated exploits of the famous airline both, on the regional and international routes.
Slow, Steady Decline Into Extinction
THE national carrier’s descent into extinction started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it flew into turbulence, allegedly caused by gross mismanagement, corruption, and overstaffing of the workforce to over 10, 000, just as poor safety record, a no-no in global aviation, started earning the airline bad reputation in the international community. It was so bad that at the time of final operations in 2003, the airline had amassed debts to the tune of $528m, at a time the exchange rate was less than N22 to a United States dollar.
For accumulated debts in excess of $1.1m, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suspended Nigeria Airways in early 1987 from the clearinghouse. This meant the airline could not issue tickets to fly on other IATA member airlines and the converse.
To offset its piling debt, the airline raised domestic and international fares by 100 per cent and 20 per cent in that order, in order to raise funds to alleviate the deficit, but this measure ended up reducing the passenger traffic.
In 1988, while cost-cutting measures led to the discontinuance of flights to a number of African destinations, including Cotonou, Dakar, Douala, Kinshasa, Monrovia and Nairobi, the airline also dismissed 3,000 employees, a third of the workforce, in an effort to keep operations afloat.
A fleet that had numbered 32 aircraft airlifting 2.1 million passengers in 1984 had gradually reduced to just three aircraft in October 2000. Some of the airplanes were grounded overseas for safety rules violation, some for unpaid debt and others unserviceable, due to financial distress. By May 2003, when the then administration decided to liquidate it, the fleet had reduced to just one aircraft, with just 10,000-passenger traffic a year.
The Guardian learnt that the ground facility of Nigeria Airways was allegedly acquired by a startup private airline for the sum of N800m. However, the sum is allegedly still unremitted to the Federal Government’s coffers till date. The private airline in question still operates in the country under receivership and control of Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON).
Politics Of Severance Package And Negotiations
Chairman of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners, Nigerian Airways Branch, Sam Nzene, alleged that the Olusegun Obasanjo administration liquidated the national carrier without plans to pay gratuities of the workers.
Nzene said they were labeled as “corrupt and inefficient. Therefore, undeserving of any compensation until the Umaru Yar’Adua administration gave us a listening ear.” The result was a five-month pension pay that some of the workers received in 2008.
Some of the retirees, are of the view that their plight since 2004 might not be unconnected with compromise on the part of their members that make up the leadership of the Nigerian Airways Union of Pensioners, who were saddled with negotiations for pension payment and severance package.
At least two of retirees told The Guardian in confidence that they suspect a compromise in the negotiations that brought the pension pay from 25 years to 10 years, and latter a five-year agreement with the Yar’Adua’s administration.
The current chairman of the union, who was also a member of the negotiating team, Nzene, dismissed the claims as untrue, saying “we negotiated the best for our members within the prevailing circumstance.”
Yar’Adua’s successor in office, Jonathan allegedly had very little to offer the retirees until the twilight of his six-year administration.
Abraham Olajide, observed that it was one of those years that they were utterly jinxed as aviation ministers, one after another, kept turning deaf ear to their plight.
“They didn’t even want to hear us at all. They didn’t care whether we cried, wailed and died. But these are our entitlements. Why? You will not believe that the only time they listened to us was towards the last election. They needed our votes! ‘Vote for us and get all your pensions.’ Just like that! The height of wickedness,” Olajide said.
Henry Iwelunmo, a former worker of the airline said: “There was a point in time that they wanted us to vote for them to be able to pay us our entitlements and benefits. But that didn’t work out in their favour.
“The then minister, Stella Oduah, totally turned her back on us. And by extension, the government headed by her principal-Goodluck Jonathan.”
Ray Of Hope On The Horizon
APPARENTLY not unaware of the travails of the ex-workers, Buhari ran the 2015 electioneering campaign with a promise to revive the aviation industry among others.
In the masterplan, which the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, unveiled in 2016 are concession plan of about 26 airports nationwide, an MRO facility for maintenance of aircraft locally, and the floating of a new national carrier to fill the vaccuum created by demise of Nigeria Airways, both on local and international fronts.
It was self-evident to Sirika and company that a new national carrier will not fly without proper closure to the funeral of Nigeria Airways.
It was in line with this unresolved benefits that the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative, a think-tank group of the aviation industry, gave a position that the new national carrier must be 100 per cent independent of government’s investments to stand a chance of succeeding.
Various unions in the aviation sector have also kicked against the proposed concession of airports, fearing that their jobs could also be on the line, even as they may suffer the same fate as that of Nigeria Airways retirees.
Apparently aligning with this reasoning, the Federal Government promised to pay the retirees their entitlements before floating the new national carrier, and concession the airports.
Sirika, therefore, prevailed on the Nigeria Union of Pensioners to compile all the names of ex-workers of the outfit numbering about 5, 909.
Also, an inter-ministerial committee, the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA), set up by the government, put the outstanding entitlement due the former workers at N78.3b.
PICA, headed by Mohammed Kyari Dikwa, also recommended one per cent administrative charges, totalling N735m to any government agency that would disburse the funds to the ex-workers.
Nzene, who at the Lagos rally, hinted that the sum had since been approved by President Muhammadu Buhari in February this year, added that up till last August, there has been no word from concerned ministries.
“Since the approval came nobody told us what has been approved but as far as we are concerned, our total sum is N78 billion,” Nzene said, adding that about 5, 909 pensioners were expected to benefit from the fund, which was raised from a N1.2trillion bond, which matured in June this year.
Former workers of the defunct firm based in Accra, Ghana, Lome, Togo, Yaounde, Cameroon, Benin and Gabon, have also petitioned Buhari over their plight and delay in benefits payment “following the approval of N78.3 billion.”
Among the petitioners are Emetule Fina and Eno Mao (Gabon); Ndoke Hannah and Bareng John (Cameroon); Afandomi Raymond (Benin) and Mensah Teteh (Togo).
They alleged that, “while the chairman of PICA is bent on reducing the N78b already approved to N43b, with two per cent of N43b going to the paying body, the Minister of State for Aviation is insisting on the payment of the full sum of N78b, with one per cent going to the paying body.
For us, what is playing out is greed, not reason.”
Federal Government Scales Down To N45b From N78.3b
ONLY recently, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) okayed the sum of N45b for the payment of the defunct airline workers’ entitlement. And Sirika, confirmed this when he told reporters that the government had approved this initial sum for that purpose. One of the retirees, Cheta Udom, told The Guardian that just as other Nigerians, they heard the news of the approval too, but nothing concrete has happened just yet. He stressed that they expect to hear from their union leaders, and also see action being taken before taking such pronouncements serious.
“I am skeptical because this is not the first time we are hearing such approvals. Just like the doubting Thomas in the Holy Bible, when I receive my own pension, then I will believe the government. Waiting for that long is enough to make any one tired. But if it comes, then that will be a great development.”
Exactly a week after the approval, Director of Press, Ministry of Aviation, James Odaudu, said he was unaware of any concrete steps being in place, except the plan that a machinery would be set in motion to ensure that the funds are disbursed to the beneficiaries.
Odaudu, recalling the words of Sirika, said the pensioners and labour unions would be involved in the exercise in order to ensure transparency of the process.
But exactly when that would come to fruition, he said he had no idea.
Nzene, on his part, confirmed that neither the Federal Government, nor officials of the Finance and Aviation ministries were yet to reach them.
He said the pensioners had agreed to exercise patience for a while, after which they would take the next “drastic” step to claim what is due them.
Nzene said: “It is a good thing that the government has decided to respond to our agitations since our lasting outing, where we did a peaceful walk, trying to bring our plight to the notice of government that we have not been paid our entitlements, despite the fact that the president had signed and approved our payment before he traveled out on a medical vacation. Till then, we have not heard anything. It is good to know that they have responded again and ordered that they should pay us. That aspect is good that they are doing something.
“The other point is that we are not happy with the amount of money to be released because we know that our money is N78b. We don’t even know what happened to warrant the cut to N45 billion. We don’t know why and we are still waiting to get the details,” he said.
Secretary General of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), said notwithstanding the shortfall, the Federal Government deserves to be commended for having the retirees’ interest at heart.
Ojikutu said: “We’ve been on this for well over 15 years. Many have died in the process of waiting. For me, a bird at hand is worth more than a million birds flying. So, we must commend the government for being able to raise as much as N45b during this period that we are trying to exit recession. A number of those waiting on the line for the money are well between 60 to 80 years and a reasonable number of them are dead; who knows how many will be alive to receive the balance of the N78b if and only if it would ever be paid?”
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