On April 23, we learnt that for some East African Community leaders, the airline business is not just a business but an emotive and ideological venture whose competition is set to skyrocket.
We also learnt the probable reason why Uganda refused to grant RwandAir flight rights to drop-and-pick passengers from Entebbe en route to London. We learnt this from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni after he presided over the arrival and “showering” of two Bombaddier CRJ900 at Entebbe airport.
The planes are the first to arrive in the country as part of government efforts to revive Uganda Airlines, which was liquidated in 2001 after failing to find a buyer following the 1990s’ privatisation bonanza.
After the event, Museveni tweeted: “My ideological orientation still believes we can have an EA airline if we amalgamate all national airlines.” Amusingly, he added: “It partly explains why I delayed the revival of @Ug_Airlines but our friends did not see this, some of them were discriminating against Ugandan travellers.”
To put this idea in what seems a broader development trajectory, Museveni went on: “This airline should also help our push towards attaining middle income status — Uganda spend $400m annually on air travel.
At least some of this money will now come to our own airline just like we shall check on capital flight when we have our own specialised hospitals.”
To those who know little or nothing about the history of the East African Community or how its affairs are currently run, Museveni’s idea is brilliant and even visionary.
For to hold this kind idea is the same as saying that if all the six EAC member states worked together to actualise the single market without interference, their citizens would get richer and their economies better.
However, in reality, we know that Museveni’s idea is not only obsolete, but also the current crop of EAC leaders don’t have what it would take to realise it if it were put to the test.
I offer five reasons for that.
First, the idea itself is neither based on informed context nor understanding why similar ventures failed in the past. For example, the first such venture called the East African Airways failed because leaders were politically at cross-purpose as they are today.
In fact, even as our current leaders signed the common market and the customs union protocols, today, East Africans and goods aren’t only stopped from crossing from this or that border, but there are allegations that this or that government is fighting this or that government.
How can leaders who are plotting against each other and standing in the way of free movement of their people fund a pan-East African and profitable airline?
Secondly, while there are some state run airlines like Ethiopian airlines that make profit, broadly, governments are poor at running business. In fact, despite arguments to the contrary, even the first Uganda Airlines collapsed because of poor management, corruption, favouritism and nepotism.
That means that “amalgamating” national airlines as Museveni calls the venture would also “amalgamate” corruption; a factor that would make the airline a cash-cow for officials rather than a profitable airline.
Thirdly, where airlines run by the state thrive like in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Qatar, there is strong unified leadership, centralised control, and a single development strategy that is absent between East African member states.
Fourth national carriers also thrive not only where there is a strong patriotic spirit but also where there is no political interference in the management and operations of the airline itself. In East Africa, there is neither a patriotic spirit nor political commonality.
Fifth, Museveni’s analysis itself shows that he too isn’t serious about the venture.
For example, his claims that he “delayed the revival of @Ug_Airlines but our friends did not see this, some of them were discriminating against Ugandan travellers” is misleading and manipulative.
The first Uganda airlines was liquidated in 2001 after the revival of the EAC in 2000. If Museveni had an ideological attachment to it, he would have saved it, but he looked on as it was being “eaten” alive leading to failure to find willing buyers.
A man who has been in power for 33 years without building a single hospital that he or his officials or family can go to when sick cannot be believed when he claims to be interested in building “specialised hospitals” that will curb capital flight or ideological airlines that will bring integration.
What Museveni’s claims tell us is that the airline business has become more of a status symbol, and to show seriousness and success of leaders thanks to the success of Ethiopian Airlines and RwandAir’s aggressiveness.
That tells us that the dream of an East Africa airline can only be achieved through for-profit private business mergers.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter account: @Ckayumba