By Olusegun Adeniyi . . .
President Muhammadu Buhari was in Qatar last week and the major news that came out of the visit was the signing of Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between Nigeria and Qatar to pave way for direct flights between major cities of both countries. While I continue to wonder whether any due diligence was done by the relevant authorities before committing Nigeria to such an agreement, there are pertinent questions as to whose idea this BASA deal is. Since Nigeria currently has no national carrier, it stands to reason that Qatar initiated the idea and that is where the problem lies: I don’t believe that the interest of our people was served by the agreement.
Early in January this year, I got a mail from a lady, Mrs Chioma Okigbo, narrating one of those unpleasant experiences to which Nigerians are usually subjected in their own country. On receiving the mail (with supporting documents), I immediately forwarded them to THISDAY aviation editor, Chinedu Eze, asking him to investigate the claims and give me a feedback. Since Mrs Okigbo’s enclosed her phone number, I also called to assure her I would follow up on the matter. It took Chinedu a week to get back to me but he confirmed Mrs Okigbo’s story. Now, this was what she wrote in her mail:
“Dear Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi,
“I felt a need to share an event that happened to me with you. On 19th November, 2015, I accessed Qatar Airways website with the intention of purchasing a ticket to visit Doha and Dubai. The visit to Dubai was the major reason for the trip as we had planned a reunion of our secondary school classmates from all over the world in that location. Having a friend working in Doha, I opted to leave Nigeria some days earlier than the planned reunion dates of 25th – 28th February.
“Before buying my ticket, I confirmed from the website that the airline was able to process visa for visitors to Qatar; in fact this information was very prominently displayed on their website. I proceeded to purchase my ticket and onTuesday, January 19th, a month to my travel date, I visited Qatar Airways website again, this time to complete the visa process. The site redirected me to a website called Discover Qatar, which I believe is the official information center for all visitors to Qatar and had been set up by the Qatari government to provide accurate and timely travel information to visitors. I was required to complete a simple form but the first unpleasant surprise was that Nigeria was not listed among the countries under the pull down menu for Nationality. I found this curious and told my classmates that I had planned the Doha trip with a friend (who would be flying in from London) and she suggested that a country called Niceau was their own clever way of writing Nigeria. I decided however to contact the center and make proper inquiries.
“To my shock and utter dismay, I received an almost instant response from the website informing me that the government of Qatar does not issue visas to Nigerian nationals. This response upset me a great deal and raised a number of questions in my head: If we, as Nigerians are not good enough to visit their country, what exactly are they doing running an airline in ours? What is the Nigerian Government’s stance on Qataris visiting Nigeria? Do we issue visas to them or are they also not allowed in Nigeria? Why is the Federal Government of Nigeria allowing a company to run a business in Nigeria, whilst their host country feels we are all criminals?
“Anyway, I went to the Qatar Airways office where, by the way, I met some really nice Nigerians, and asked for a full refund. To add insult to injury, the airline will be deducting a 10 percent fee for cancellation! Where in the world is this fair and equitable? I felt that I needed to share this with you as I do not know the number of other unsuspecting Nigerians that would be affected by such discrimination.”
When THISDAY sought explanation for such discrimination against our nationals, the Qatar Airways Lagos Airport Manager, who simply gave his name as Hashim said: “for a Nigerian to get a Qatari visa, he ought to have a sponsor who is resident in Qatar; that is the new policy for those countries that are not listed among the nations that its citizens are allowed to visit the country (Qatar).”
And it is this same Qatar with which Nigeria has just signed a BASA deal!
For those who still may not get it, what we are dealing with here is not the usual impunity of some foreign companies operating in our country, the summary of Mrs Okigbo’s ordeal is that Qatar Airways operates and makes money from Nigeria yet our citizens are considered not good enough to enter their country like other nationals.
There are several critical issues here for both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Consumer Protection Council but I will highlight only two. First, Mrs Okigbo was practically fleeced of 10 percent of her ticket money because she did not embark on a flight to a country that would not give her a visa. Two, it is an official policy of Qatar to discriminate against nationals of Nigeria.
I believe that the humiliating experience of Mrs Chioma Okigbo should not be seen as a personal insult, it is a serious affront to our country. What is perhaps more worrying is that the presidential statement announcing the BASA deal went further to disclose that Nigeria has commenced discussions on partnership (with Qatar, I imagine) towards establishing a national carrier without providing any details.
Given that the nation’s aviation industry is currently going through financial crisis with many of our local airlines highly indebted, the Buhari administration has refused to answer the most pertinent question about this idea of national carrier that is being driven more by nostalgia than economic common sense: On what model will the flag carrier be based and what are the funding plans, especially at a time like this?
Again, coming up with a prestige project at a time Nigeria needs all the resources it can muster to meet pressing national demands betrays a clear lack of seriousness on the part of this administration. Against the background that even countries like Italy and others that are better managed have found running airlines a difficult proposition with most of them divesting from the business, I still fail to understand what is driving this obsession with national carrier. However, more pertinent is the question of why the latest announcement was made in Doha after signing the BASA deal.
Since our international aviation sector is very lucrative (Nigerians travel a lot and to everywhere in the world) and we currently do not have a national carrier, the implication of any BASA deal with Qatar can only be to the advantage of Qatar Airways. While I should not begrudge them for that, I hope the Nigerian authorities also have ready answers for the questions posed by Mrs. Chioma Okigbo. Yet, there is something in this untidy affair that should make one very sad. Apparently because we are now looking anywhere and everywhere for “foreign investors”, we don’t have a sense of shame anymore. But just how cheap can a nation be?
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