People should start appreciating that everybody has to tighten his or her belt; to go back to the farm. And the government should create an enabling environment to assist them so that we too can start being a country of export of products; be it minerals or whatever and foods to other countries as we were doing before.
AVIATIONLINE: (cuts in) You have really taken us out of aviation completely.
OWOLABI: (also cuts in) Ah, no; it is part of it because as at today people concentrate on the sea port. It is wrong. We should start looking at the airports too. These airports are the places where these aircraft are going back empty and that should not be the case. Don’t forget that the import of cargo would be reduced drastically this year considering the current terrible foreign exchange problems. I understand, I know the way we Nigerians are, we have high taste but there are limits to high taste. Once our electricity is standard and it is working well, I trust Nigerians they will embark on innovative ideas that will ameliorate our situation. Even with the epileptic power supply, a lot of innovative things are being done by Nigerians. I believe we are a nation that can adjust to a lot of good things if given the opportunity and the support that are needed.
AVIATIONLINE: How many airlines was SAHCOL handling before you came into office as MD/CEO and how many were they when you left?
OWOLABI: I started with three (3) and by the time I left we were already handling twelve (12) functional airlines.
AVIATIONLINE: Anytime you speak about your Chairman, you always speak glowingly about him. Why this?
OWOLABI: Thank you or that question. I am not a praise singer. I don’t praise people just for the fun of it. You know me very well that I don’t do that. But I appreciate people. You know he is one of the few people looking back, that the issue of siphoning money out of the country and leaving SAHCOL empty could have been his aim. As I told you earlier, he said he wanted very hard working people that he wanted honesty and was ready to support. What do I mean by support? You go to him, you discuss with him, you tell him you feel this thing is viable, this is very important and it is good, he complements by giving you his approval or by saying, go ahead, do so.
But I remember the days when the Ministry was involved. You start from the Chief Executive, to the MD, to the Permanent Secretary, from the Permanent Secretary you go to the Minister. The Minister will minute back to the Permanent Secretary. Then what you have starts to move up; I don’t know how many people will get involved. You start with $10, you may end up with $30! So before finally you can get approval, how will you be able to achieve what you want to achieve.
I appreciate him for the support. If he is an unwilling Chairman and has his focus on some other things besides the success of the company he might have said no.
When a car wants to run well and you refuse to put on the fuel and you want to push; by pushing and you want to get to your destination, you know how long it will take; you virtually crawl. But when you put fuel in a good car and you operate it you will see how fast it is.
The success story of SAHCOL today cannot be written without first of all giving kudos to the Chairman. We have differences at times, sharp differences; but we always sort it out and it always ends up for the success of the company. It’s not that everything was very rosy. We will have to look at that another day when we will have to look at the differences between the private sector and the public sector enterprises.
As at today, I believe SAHCOL is one of the best leading privatised company that the government can make reference to. And that is kudos to him and also to the staff that have been working endlessly to see to this success.
AVIATIONLINE: How much did your friends benefit from you when you were in office?
OWOLABI: I’m saying it boldly that, I, Dr.OluOwolabi, had no single contractor in that set up. Many people have the erroneous belief that I must have made millions out of deals when contracts are awarded. No! I am an operational man, I face my operational duties and allow the finance department handle its own aspect of the company. Once what I requested for was given to me to operate, it made things easier for me. I’m not an accountant; I’m a guru, very sound in management and handling company where I belong: the airlines and some other areas which I know I’m very good at. I’m boldly saying it that I have not unnecessarily benefitted or given advantage to my cronies. If there is anyone who has a contradictory knowledge, let him come out to say it. Even my friends were not happy about it because I didn’t allow them to come into it. It’s a relationship that needed to be guided.
Not that I was asked not to do so. Not that I had taken anybody and I wanted him to do something and they said no. I just chose not to do all these things because of what I looked forward to in the future. I want it to be looked at as the case of a man who has come, passionate with his job, has done his best and has left everything for posterity to judge either rightly or wrongly.
AVIATIONLINE: You were seen as a hard person; you don’t spare indolence. What is your take about this?
OWOLABI: To succeed in life there are two principles: you either do it right or you do it wrongly. If you look at the Nigerian context, you accommodate indolence and you get the result. The best of friends I had then were those who were hard working. I usually told them, eight hours is the time we have together; let us utilise the time to cover our various beats in harmony and successfully. I made them realise that there was no way; it would be wrong if I should come into their homes and begin to direct them around on what to do. But when we are at work we must do what the owner wants. The owner has given me a mandate. He wants a job to be done.
Do I just sit down carelessly and hopelessly waiting for the result to come and meet me? I have to take the bull by the horns. There is no staff that passes through me that I cannot be proud of to lead anywhere, any place. I’m saying it with all passion, those staff that worked under me honestly and they feel they are very devoted, there is nowhere in the world they cannot be relevant on these issues: in aviation in terms of handling, cargo warehousing, etc, that they would not be successful. They would be rated high. There is nowhere they make application and they are given opportunity to serve and they would not excel. When it was time to work we worked, when it was time to smile, we smiled. One thing I detest is to give you an assignment and you set it apart to do something else such that on time departure, passenger baggaging, airline equipment, warehousing are affected or items are missing or stolen. In fact that is the last thing I can tolerate: stealing. You cannot do that where I am; I’m passionate as that. You don’t steal where I am. When you are caught you must explain. Due process will be followed and it will be carried out.
What I told them when I was leaving was that I had no apology for setting things right and making success of what we’ve been able to achieve together. But anything outside the official job, you think I’ve done that you did not like, I apologise. But certainly not on the job. Because the job comes first, that is where the salary is being generated.
AVIATIONLINE: What do you do now?
OWOLABI: I am on vacation for six weeks. I have offered the position of Director on the Board and I will be moving to the Board on resumption. The Board will be functional, a functional Board that will oversee the company. This implies that new challenges lay ahead for me and I love challenges.
AVIATIONLINE: On a final note, Sir, what will you say about aviation in Nigeria today?
OWOLABI: It’s a pity; our aviation is losing steam fast these days. Government, the major stakeholder in the country today, as far as aviation is concerned, sets the guidelines but civilisation creeps in to change things. I still believe FAAN should be the landlord at the airports as it is done all over the world. It may be government controlled or private sector driven. But they (FAAN) should desist from dabbling into what does not belong to them. The way the international airports are being structured cannot meet with the expectations of the country especially the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, as a hub. If you observe, in hub airports there is a lot of facilities for passengers in transit: the cooling areas, where they can buy things or where they do some work while waiting to board. But what we have today is a junk of shops. I am sure by now the concessionaires already owe FAAN rent and they cannot speak out. That is the truth. The rents are very exorbitant and this everybody knows that they cannot pay. The spaces they occupy are spaces meant for the relaxation of transit passengers and creating things for them to make their journey comfortable.
They are having these shops for the passengers. They (FAAN) should be able to create an enabling environment where the passengers can relax so that when they wake up or decide to move around they go to these shops. You can have shops but they should be limited to the space you have. You cannot usurp passengers’ space for shops. I challenge them (FAAN) if they are not being owed rents; they should come out and say it. FAAN knows that the concessionaires cannot pay the rent fixed for them and the whole place has been occupied.
How then do you think you can operate a hub? The system that is on ground does not support hub. They still need to know the dynamics of having a hub. Nigeria has been placed in a very unique position to operate such a thing. I remember in those days, about 20 or 15 years ago, people going to Ghana came here to connect to Ghana, also people connecting to Abidjan. You have people coming from London connecting to Abidjan. We have people coming from Accra in Ghana, Cotonou coming to Lagos to connect.
If you check records, you will discover people were connecting to as far as Congo Brazaville from here then. But those things have fizzled out with time. Even the airlines are not looking at such schedules for them to be able to connect. The foreign airlines are not giving such opportunity to the local carriers to be able to have a working relationship that will assist them. They (foreign carriers) are in one end to the other: in Abuja, they’re in Kano, Port-Harcourt and they are in Lagos. How do you expect the local carriers to survive? The facilities available at our airports are not helping matters.
When baggage arrives, for instance, it takes up to two or one-and-a-half hours to collect; how do you connect under that circumstance? It is a serious matter and it will take God to help us out.
AVIATIONLINE: The Minister has given indication that the present administration will continue with the airport remodelling exercise started under the previous regime. Do you think this is a wise decision?
OWOLABI: I think it is wise for him to continue. If you discontinue with what you have on ground now, you must have lost millions; trillions; not even millions but trillions. I think it is a good idea for him to continue. But what he should begin to look at now is the infrastructural aspect of it that was not there.
Whatever happens, I give kudos to the woman for opening up our airports that were never opened up for almost 30 or 35 years. If you remember very well when everybody was shouting praises, I was the only one that was insisting that, Madam, you are doing well but there are no infrastructural facilities meant to be in place. When you have dilapidated stairways, dilapidated lifts, dilapidated baggage, conveyor belts that are not working but the walls are beautiful.
I insisted then that, Madam, you need to put in place certain infrastructural facilities that make airports functional. For instance, the air conditioners, the lighting and everything needed to be looked into. I was saying then that all faulty facilities needed to be changed. That I did, I said it at that time and I am repeating it now. While I give kudos to her for opening our airports, I am not happy about what was done regarding the infrastructural aspect of it. That is what gave the whole exercise a negative publicity; otherwise she could have got kudos all through.
hat she has done well and even better than some Ministers who had come into office and did nothing. Whatever must have happened in terms of the monetary aspect of it, I don’t know anything about it. I am a professional and I am looking at the whole thing from the professional view point of what airports should be. They must continue with it. There is no way they can stop. They must continue with it so that they can find a way of finding a meaningful ending to it.