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26.03.2002 Feature Article

Ghana Airways Saga Continues

Ghana Airways Saga Continues
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The latest attempt to provide a fresh breathing space for Ghana's potentially profitable, yet management induced decrepit national airline failed when South Africa Airlines (which has its own problems) backed off a deal for joint operations in the West African region. The reason behind the failure of the joint-venture is the much discussed debt burden of the Ghana Airways Corporation. The Ghana Airways authorities admit that the company's debt now stand at a whopping $150 million, and growing by the day. The daily reports of mismanagement can only add to a perception of general inefficiency in management practices in Ghana. A perception which is misleading, but nonetheless, is negative for our country's image. I have suggested that if the debt burden is too huge for the government to bear, then the company must be privatized. Some Ghanaians, including senior government officials offer a rather oafish reason for the government's continued financial support for the airline thus: A nation must have a national airline! It is of such ‘sentimental' value, they contend. They claim that a national airline provides a sort of identity for the nation. This kind of reasoning is simply hogwash. Our national identity will survive the grand death of an airline, just as it survived years of dictatorship. There comes a time when a nation must re-arrange her priorities. I will wager that having an effective domestic transportation network provides a better "national identity", if we needed one. We must rather use the available resources to rehabilitate our railway network and roads. Our rail transportation has been destroyed through neglect and corrupt practices. I will rather suggest a bail out and improvement of our railways. An effective domestic railway and road system are sine qua non to national development. So, let us rethink seriously wether Ghana needs to squander her meager financial resources on bailing out a national airline that has brought nothing but grief and debt to Ghana. One is tempted to ask why the authorities are unwilling to let Ghana Airways go private. Does the average Ghanaian really care wether we fly our own airline or not, at such great cost to the national treasury? The truth of the matter is that Ghana Airways provides easy access to the ruling elite to receive instant free flights for themselves and relations. Indeed, this corrupt practice whereby "a senior government official" can simply call the airline boss and be granted almost a free ride, has contributed to the debt of Ghana Airways in so many ways. It destroys whatever oversight our political leaders and bureaucrats may have over the management and operations of the airline. It draws the government officials and senior bureaucrats into the marsh of corruption at the airline. And, it provides the airline management with the alibi to continue their disastrous management practices. The calls for the government to maintain the moribund airline has more to do with such considerations than with any so-called nationalist instincts. As for Ghana Airways, it can still market itself (in spite of the huge debt), to the private sector. The airline operates very attractive routes: Accra-New York; Accra Baltimore(Washington, DC); Accra-London; Accra-Rome; Accra-Dusseldorf (Germany); Accra-Harare(Zimbabwe); Accra-Johannesburg; Accra-Dubai (since cancelled); and the very lucrative West Africa routes to virtually all countries in the sub-region. Indeed, Accra could be developed into an airline transportation hub for travelers in Africa with connections world-wide. This demands proper planning and execution which thus far has been found wanting at Ghana Airways management. Meanwhile, other airline are getting rich on the corpse of Ghana Airways mismanagement. British Airways just announced a daily London to Accra flight. Both Lufthansa and KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) have plans to increase their flights to Accra. Why are these airlines increasing their flights to Ghana, while they cut back their flights in Europe and to North America? The answer is rather simple: Ghana provides immense profits to these airlines. With their effective services, and respectable customer service, these foreign airlines are making money at the expense of Ghana Airways. What is surprising in all of this charade, is that the government is yet to appoint someone to direct the affairs of the embattled airline. To say that the NDC government bequeathed the new NPP government with wrong cards in a game of poker, is to belabour the obvious. However, one would have thought that by this time (a year after assuming power), the NPP government would have brought in a new team to attempt needed reforms at Ghana Airways. The problems at Ghana Airways are systemic. The company needs outsiders untainted by the corruption and graft that has besieged the airline for years, to do a complete overhaul of management operations and practices. Appointing an insider to the top management position in the company, merely leads to the same practices that has confounded the airline. Surprisingly, the government was quick to appoint Mr. Sam Jonah as the Chairman of the Board. I say ‘surprisingly', because Mr. Sam Jonah held the same position during the Rawlings tenure. It was under him that the company accrued much of the debt. It surprised me that Mr. Sam Jonah would accept the position. A moribund airline would certainly not add any glitter to Mr. Sam Jonah's already impressive resume (curriculum vitae). Nor has he been able to stem the fall of the airline. During his second coming ( less than a year), the debt has increased by at least $30 million. And, customer service and operations of the airline has continued to deteriorate. So why would Sam Jonah want to head the airline's Board again? He certainly does not need the money. Nor do I think he needs the exposure! Did he come back to either complete the disaster he supervised, or did he come back to stall what reforms were needed to set the company on the right course? These are legitimate questions. It should not take an Okomfo Anokye to decipher that any serious investigation of the airline's mismanagement would point some accusing fingers at those who managed the affairs of the airline in the past, and that would include Mr. Sam Jonah. With him at the helm of the board, who will bell the cat by investigating him? Who can say that Krotwiamansa's (the Big Lion) cloth has picked a foul scent? One of the debilitating problems we have in Ghana is the perception that anyone who does an investigative reporting on problems of a national corporation such as Ghana Airways, invariably undermines someone! That is nonsense!! It is a uniquely regressive way of thinking among Africans in general, and Ghanaians in particular. Predictably, with such antiquated thinking, which has more to do with negative aspects of our traditional culture, rather than modern methods of analysis, Ghanaians allow rot to fester. In February this year, Kobby Acheampong (the NDC honcho in Washington, D.C.), sought to delineate the personalities and personal contacts that have contributed to the financial mismanagement of the company, in an article titled "Ghana Airways Blues Again". It was an excellent piece that told it like it is. As expected, the Ghanaian belief that anyone who criticizes management "destroys" others livelihood, set in! They conveniently forget that such individuals have already squandered precious taxpayer (citizens) money and resources. We need to move away from this primordial manner of thinking, into modern methods of analysis. Otherwise, we shall remain easy pickings for the powerful. We must learn to tell it like it is, and let the chips fall where they may; or we will be doing our great nation, unspeakable harm. This is where I think the Ghanaian in the diaspora has the responsibility to unearth some of the canker in our Ghanaian society. The $150 million-plus question remains: Will the government sacrifice its meager resources to bail the airline; or will the government divest her interest in the airline; and channel those resources towards better areas of national development?

Kofi Ellison
Kofi Ellison, © 2002

The author has 60 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KofiEllison

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