Uganda Airlines; when you learn nothing and forget nothing

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

The world is full of CEOs and managers who have retired from running successful airlines. Why not hire some of these steady old hands...?

When Uganda decided to privatise state enterprises more than 30 years ago, it was alleged that the government was just not good or suited to run businesses sensibly or for profit.

Somehow they turned out to be dens of thieves that encroached excessively on government funding, burdening the taxpayer.

It was left to the market. Government would only regulate, design and implement policies for the purposes of guidance.

Increasingly, we are returning where we started with the government venturing into business like the reviving of Uganda Airlines. Unfortunately, we have also picked it up from where we left with the bad habits that led to the conclusion that the government is a bad businessman.

It appears we learnt nothing and forgot nothing during the commercial break. It is not a given that the government is poor at doing business. It just never gets enough breathing space to do things right. We then end up with the imagery of judging a fish by its ability to climb up a tree.

Government enterprises are abused as a soft landing pad and reward centre. So all manner of political failures, those carrying broken hearts that need mending and fellows seeking appeasement of sorts end up ensconced here.

So orders from above flood the whole place with people who may not be exactly suitable and competent to run the show. They come with the airs of being the big man’s people and so are untouchable and immunised from disciplinary actions by their supervisors.

Then they also have to justify their employment by being nice to those who appointed them. That is how inflated contracts are awarded to the incompetent and undeserving, who act as brokers and connectors.

It is said that you cannot use the same wisdom that brought you into a problem, to get out of it. I am afraid that is what we are doing with Uganda Airlines and then we get angry and surprised that we are getting bad results.

The airline is in a field where money should be watched by the cent. You can’t afford to let one slip away.

Almost all carriers globally and in the region are making losses due to high operational costs and the impact of Covid-19 that saw people scaling down on travel and an increase in health safety measures. So you are already disadvantaged even before you start.

It is high time we climbed down the high horse, took a back seat and allowed those who have run such outfits before, to hold the reins. We may then act as understudies.

The world is full of CEOs and managers who have retired from running successful airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Ethiopian Airlines, etc. Why not hire some of these steady old hands and get shown how it is done?

There is no shame and it does not compromise our independence. Uganda can wholly own it but hire foreign management with set targets and performance indicators.

We have to face a tough reality of the political hangers on. We have to think of a way to take care of those who meddle in businesses like these for personal gain because of their political status. We may need to reward them with a quarterly or yearly stipend. Something like a ‘corruption tax,’ just to keep their long fingers out of the cookie jar. This should be picked after keeping away and allowing everything to run properly.

Otherwise, hand picking or even hiring the most suitable candidate while we still have people inflating and siphoning off money will mean that the airline will not run to its full capacity.

It will soon fall out of the skies and leave us lamenting about the government being a bad business man.


A memo for Cosase

The Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase) that has brought Uganda Airlines into the limelight, has done a commendable job.

But there is need for caution, lest all the efforts end up in the mud.

First of all, be very prepared and thorough as you investigate. It was quite amusing to see the CEO of Uganda Airlines schooling Cosase on what it takes to effectively change one’s name.

Second, keep your eyes on the ball. The CEO is a mere pawn. If there is any venom, direct it to the people behind her appointment. The Executive in this case has a habit of going outside the law to pick and choose who he wants. Don’t let go of him if you have what it takes to contend with him.

Third, the real issues in a place like Uganda Airlines are in the day-to-day operations of the company. Beyond individuals, interest yourself on who is getting contracted and paid. Who does the lucrative ground handling, the printing, the fueling, the catering, the public relations and marketing? How are these services procured? Is there any competitive bidding and who owns the successful bidders/companies? You will get a good understanding of the magnitude of the problem if at all it exists.

Fourth, before you speak to the media or post stuff on social media, be sure you have all the facts to avoid a boomerang. What if you make a claim which the person later disproves with facts like documents they may not have at the moment but produce later? Won’t you look like you are deliberately witch hunting them thus compromising the whole essence of the probe?

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues

Twitter: @nsengoba