Air travelers in West and Central Africa do so with tears due to bottlenecks created by African governments. For example, a plane trip from Abuja to Douala in Cameroon, which shares borders with Nigeria, could take the traveler about 24 hours. Indeed, the passenger may have to fly from Nigeria to Addis Ababa, then Guinea Conakry before arriving in Douala, a journey that should normally only take an hour and a half. Also, a trip from Nigeria to the Central African Republic would take the traveler to Kenya in East Africa, before arriving in Bangui. Worse still, the cost of flying on the West Coast and Central Africa is as high as the cost of flying between, say, Nigeria and Europe.
A recent survey by Daily Trust revealed that due to difficult air links, West African countries – comprising Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia , Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo – remained isolated from themselves.
The report revealed that “out of the 16 West Coast countries, only very few are connected by direct flights… Apart from Ghana to Nigeria with a direct flight, either from Lagos or Abuja, other neighboring countries are not easily accessible. Also, with the Togolese airline, Asky, there is a direct flight to Lomé, which takes about 50 minutes while Air Peace also connects Banjul in Gambia; Freetown in Sierra Leone only on Sundays; Dakar in Senegal on Fridays and Mondays and Douala in Cameroon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
But the situation is different in North Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa, where there are multiple flights from one country to another at affordable fares. Outside the sub-regional blocks, there is flexible and frequent air connectivity between Eastern and Southern Africa, as Johannesburg, Addis Ababa and Nairobi have developed their airports to serve as sub-regional hubs for air travel. Each of these countries has national carriers, with many aircraft of varying sizes flying frequently to countries in their region.
The President of the Association of African Startups (TAAS), Just Ibe, explained why air connectivity is very cumbersome in Africa. She said: “The reason why it is difficult for us to access all countries on the continent by air is that there are not enough carriers to these destinations and largely because they do not think not that it’s profitable.” In addition to the lack of carriers, the exorbitant taxes and fees levied on the few carriers that use some of the routes make investment on West and Central African routes very prohibitive.
The situation is a challenge for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as the difficulty of linking one country to another resonates in the low volume of trade between ECOWAS countries. In the sub-region, there is no rail service and road transport is hampered by border controls and the corrupt activities of some customs and immigration officials. The vision of free movement between ECOWAS member states has not been adopted as some countries still erect different barriers that make their entry very difficult.
West and Central African countries are so disconnected that the social and cultural exchanges that should connect young people in arts and sports are barely there. Moreover, West Africans rarely travel to neighboring countries for tourism; rather, they travel to Europe, Asia or America, very distant continents, on vacation, despite the fact that there may be more historical tourist sites in neighboring countries. In this situation, the main objective of ECOWAS, which is supposed to be “the promotion of economic cooperation among member states in order to raise the standard of living and promote economic development”, cannot be achieved.
While other ECOWAS countries are relaxed about activating air connectivity in the sub-region, Nigeria must take the lead in doing so. The starting point for Nigeria is to boost the aviation sector either by creating a national carrier to serve many West and Central African routes or by supporting any national airline that aspires harness the connection potential of the sub-region. With its population of over 200 million and the penchant of Nigerians for foreign travel, the government could develop the infrastructure that could turn Lagos, Kano, Abuja and other cities into hubs of the West and Central Africa for air transport.
This idea has been on the table for more than a decade now, when the defunct Virgin Nigeria was created, but subsequent governments have done nothing to realize it. More Nigerians travel internationally than Ethiopians, Kenyans or South Africans, but with government support, these countries have established air transport hubs and built economies around their aviation sector. Nigeria can achieve the same feat, alleviating the challenges of flying in West and Central Africa. It is important that West Africans can reach out easily.