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Opinions of Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

Plenitude of Greetings from Ghana

– Reminiscences of a Patriot in the Diaspora-Part 1

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi

18th December 2013

(The writer is a freelance writer and a Senior Lecturer at the Zambia Centre for Accountancy Studies in Lusaka, Zambia)

I left Lusaka for Accra via Addis Ababa on Monday 16th December 2013, aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight ET912 in their latest B787 Dreamliner, which was indeed my very first encounter with that behemoth of a flying fortress. What a marvel of aviation technology that such a monster of a beautiful techno-beast could effortlessly take to the sky and cruise above the clouds!

It is reassuring for Africans to reflect on the one hand what a success story Ethiopian Airlines has become, and on the other hand, sad to juxtapose this huge African success story alongside the general economic malaise in Ghana in general, and in particular, the long demise of Ghana Airways. Who talks now of resurrecting Ghana Airways? Do we and can we ever in Ghana learn from our sordid past mistakes? Someone somewhere once noted that History teaches man that man never learns from History, so History keeps repeating itself like a recurring decimal or an iterative process. Hmmmm !

At the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport (KKIA) in Lusaka that morning in December 2013, we went through immigration and custom formalities as well as final check in. When we finally got clearance and we hit the tarmac to board the Dreamliner, many of my fellow travellers, (astonishingly including many Chinese, whites, Indians and majority blacks) could not help themselves but take out their cameras and start taking shots at close range of the bewildering and enigmatic flying fortress. It really looked swanky and imposing, like a painted titanic metal bird, as it perched like an unbeguiling Trojan horse left behind the walls and gate of Troy by the seemingly departing Spartans, who were led on their epic odyssey by their valiant leader, Odysseus.

While scaling the lofty stairs of the plane, I recalled to mind the biblical stories of Noah and the Ark, and the forty days and nights of unrelenting deluge and torrential rains, with a menagerie of pairs of all living species of flora and fauna encamped in the Ark; then also the story of recalcitrant Jonah in the belly of the whale which eventually spewed him out on the shores of Nineveh, the very city he was avoiding to go to when directed by God to do so; and the non-biblical tragedy of the ancient mariner, vis a vis the curse which befell the marooned and famishing sailors after they had committed the abomination of slaying the albatross. Again, a flashback of the Titanic Tragedy in 1912 flooded my memory in my mind’s eye. As I scaled the stairs, I said to myself, ‘Phew, what a mammoth edifice and citadel in the sky!’

By 15.20 hours Zambian local time, we were airborne, exactly as stated in the electronic ticket that I was carrying on me. I marvelled what lessons the whole enterprise called Ghana could learn from the hardworking and unassuming Ethiopians. The flight to Addis Ababa was very smooth, as the wide-bodied plane with nine people sitting abreast also roughly reminded one of the Titanic in 1912, which tragically hit iceberg in the extremely frigid ocean that winter in North-west Atlantic. The plane cruised as effortlessly in the African sky as a swan takes to water or the monkeys and baboons take to the African jungles and savannahs. I was thrilled and exhilarated beyond my wildest expectations to be on board the Dreamliner which I had so much read and heard about.

My seat was very close to the First Class cabin and I literarily got myself carried away on cloud nine or in cuckoo land. The Ethiopian Airline cabin crew doted on us as they were at our beck and call, with assortments of soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, gourmet food and in-flight entertainment of classic movies, music and quality magazines to read. The entire crew was at its professional best as they set us off to whiffs of the impending Yuletide and Noel with generous helpings of everything one asked for. Of course, I had learnt some serious lessons on my previous flights not to take large doses of alcohol while airborne because of some discomfiture it had caused me then.

The only beef I had against the crew was the incoherent way their announcers spoke English on the intercom, which sounded gibberish to me. And that was the umpteenth time, yet they have no incentive to improve on the situation. Perhaps, they want all their passengers to learn their Amharic language and speak English with a heavy tinge of Amharic accent. I think the lady announcers should be sent to schools in England to polish up on their elocution and enunciation, because Ethiopian Airlines has long come of age, and it is now a flag-bearer for Africa, and a multinational entity which owes its very existence to a generous largesse of state capitalism. It is the largest contributor to the GDP of Ethiopia. It surely has a global presence. They need to up their game in all departments to remain competitive. Their strategy revolves around customer-centricity, safety, security, global connectivity, cheap airfares and tight integration in their entire supply chain.

They also pay attention to technology by acquiring the latest state-of-the-art equipment and products. Their Sheba-miles free ticket promotion for frequent flyers is a unique selling point targeted at the clientele of the emerging African small scale importer and exporter who frequently goes on business trips to Dubai, China, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Japan. They target the mass market of the working class and the casual traveller who pays from his or her own resources. Ethiopia does not worry too much about the small minority elite or status-symbol minded class, who can fly first class if they choose, on cloud nine treatment.

Ethiopia now depends on soft people skills and the social media to sell their products to the travelling public. They have revolutionised the way they do business by embracing all stakeholders in the supply chain, and they have integrated tightly with suppliers of services and components, both downstream and upstream, thereby reaping from transactions cost and hierarchy solutions. They gain from the economies of scope and economies of scale.

I suggest Ethiopian Airlines forms joint ventures and some alliances across Africa, if such alliances and joint ventures will help them gain economies of scope, and economies of scale in order to be sustainable, cost leaders and gain some advantages of diversification, differentiation and perhaps concentration and agglomeration economies emanating from monopolies, mergers and franchising. However, they should weigh the pros and cons of such mergers and acquisitions as the failure experiences of SAB-Miller and Daimler-Chrysler are fresh in our minds.

Being wholly government-owned, it is dicey for Ethiopian Airlines to enter into merger, acquisition and partnership arrangements with large private sector players on the continent and beyond, because of information asymmetry, and constitutional encumbrances and corporate governance rules and guidelines from the Stock Exchanges and the Security and Exchange Commissions.

Let us go back to the story, after the digression. Our flight from Lusaka landed at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (BIA) at 20.30 hours local time, which was about 4 hours of flying non-stop, since Addis Ababa is one hour ahead of Lusaka time. We were welcome to a chilly weather at the Bole Airport as we disembarked. I was least expecting that inclement weather as I was dressed lightly in a tie-and dye batik shirt over some jeans trousers. It took us more than 2 hours to wade through their cumbersome airport clearance procedures, whilst waiting patiently in long queues to go through arrival formalities. It looked eternity to me.

Even outside the magnificent world class white-washed terminal building, (which was built a few years back at the colossal sum of 700 million dollars from the Kuwaiti Fund), we had a long wait in our hotel shuttle bus whilst waiting for other passengers, as Addis is the aviation hub of Ethiopian Airlines, with their planes arriving and taking off all the time to and from destinations scattered around the globe. To say the least, the dronish manner in which their outsourced partners treat transit passengers to unnecessary delays leaves much to be desired. However, it is understood that their supply chain is heavily interconnected to create multiplier effects in their economy, which leans heavily on the hospitality industry, aside from exports of coffee, animals, hides and a few artefacts and local crafts.

However, it is to the credit of Ethiopians that one does not encounter any form of bribery, as all their staff work with high sense of mission, professional integrity and responsibility. Our bus driver delayed us in the biting cold for hours on end, and those of us who were skimpily dressed were at the receiving end of the biting cold.

One French-speaking Paris-based consultant, a black, and fellow traveller, on his way to Lome, Togo came out strongly and accosted the driver several times for his delay and insensitivity to our plight. Around mid-night, the driver eventually took off with umbrage, and drove us to uptown as if he was going to hell. Ararat Hotel, our shelter for the night, was perched on a high promontory way deep in the heart of Addis. The name Ararat rang a bell, as it was the final resting place for Noah’s Ark after the flood and days of relentless downpour with the windows of heaven wide open.

The ill-tempered driver jerked the bus to an abrupt stop when we finally arrived there. He left all of us gasping for breath and wondering what an ill-mannered fellow he was. We were warmly welcomed by the hotel staff, and given keys to our rooms. Some of the hotels in Addis are elegant and well-furnished, though their standard could be three or four star. Some are not fully booked to their maximum capacity, and they seem under-utilised. What lowers their grading is the terrible menu they serve, sometimes warming and serving stale food for late arrivals! The hotels are well-furnished and their décor and ambience is classic. What makes a big difference is their genial and helpful staff.

Early the following morning, Tuesday 17th December 2013, at exactly 5 o’clock, the landline telephone in my room rang with a call from a lady staff, to get ready for shunting to the airport to catch my flight. I was already up and had taken a shower, as I had set my alarm. I went downstairs for breakfast, which took about an hour to be ready. We had poached eggs, the proverbial Ethiopian Arabica coffee, some bread, jam and margarine. There was no fruit juice or supply of fresh fruits. Neither was there bacon or sausage to match up to English breakfast standards. I struck banter with a fellow Ghanaian traveller who was on his way to the Congo DRC, and working for an international inter-governmental organisation. We chatted at length on several issues. We expressed misgivings about the declining political correctness and economy in Ghana, as well as global issues.

I ran into a young Nigerian lady en route to Johannesburg, who said she enjoyed travelling and was going for a holiday. She sounded well-travelled as she told me a lot about places she had been to. She called me Daddy, which flattered me a lot. By 6.30 a.m, we were on our way to the airport, this time, being driven by an urbane and cultured gentleman who was polite and dressed like a gentleman. Departure for Accra was at 9.30 a.m local time.

We went aloft in a relatively smaller and narrow-bodied aircraft, a B767 compared to the Dreamliner we had had from Lusaka. Passengers on board were a mixed grill of nationalities and races, Addis being a hub and bee-hive of activity, aviation-wise. There were Ghanaians from Australia, Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, Dubai, South Africa, UK, USA; you name it, on their way to Ghana to celebrate Christmas with their relatives and friends. They had all connected to the hub in Addis, slept over and changed planes and were re-connecting to Accra. Some passengers were going to neighbouring countries, and had reconnecting flights to catch again in Accra.

This is why it is imperative to upgrade our aviation facilities in Ghana countrywide. After about 6 hours of flying west from Addis, we safely touched down at Kotoka International Airport (KIA) at 12.30 noon, Ghana local time. We transited from a cold weather in Ethiopia to the warm, humid and sultry weather in West Africa. It was the harmattan season, yet the weather was fine, with visibility being high, unlike at other times in that season of year. Accra Airport to me looked very much ran down, as it looked uncared for, abandoned and rapidly losing its sheen of yester-year. I could see tell-tale signs of decay and nonchalance. Is our government sleeping on their watch, what with all the oil revenue on stream and trickling in of dollar revenue?

It must be observed that an airport is a good barometer for gauging the economic vibrancy of an economy, and feeling the pulse or heartbeat of a country, even though it is said that appearances may be deceptive or you cannot judge the contents of a book by its cover. However, an airport is to a country what the eye is to the human body. I noticed some expansion works going on there at KIA but the contractors did not seem to be in earnest. I doubt very much whether qualitative outcomes can be expected, as those works could be some form of mere window dressing, or merely going through the motions.

Let us give the authorities the benefit of doubt and hope for better concrete results in project deadline time. I recall world class contractors like Strabag and Julius Berger in Nigeria who did some of the world class civil engineering infrastructure in Lagos and Abuja in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Those are the ones currently beautifying Kagame’s Kigali in Rwanda. Why don’t we do the same? Is Rwanda richer than Ghana to be able to afford the services of those contractors and consultants? What about ABB which builds power generating dams?

Immigration formalities did not take long to go through at Kotoka Airport when we arrived. In that department, we have improved a lot over the past years. We used to witness harrowing and degrading naked bribery and corruption at the arrivals. The one area which needs a lot of improvement and which is far below world class standards is the baggage handling and clearance area where the handling facilities are inadequate, old fashioned and terribly slow and slovenly operated.

You stand for hours waiting patiently to collect your luggage but it never shows up. They use farm tractors to convey the luggage from the hull of the plane to the offloading area. There are about three collection points. After about an hour standing near one of them, an announcement is made that arriving passengers of an airline should go to bay so-and-so to collect their luggage, and there is a near stampede and bedlam. What if you are in transit to catch a connecting flight or you are travelling by road to a far off place locally? You may miss your connecting flight or reach your local destination far into the night at extra cost and discomfiture.

However, it is heartening news to hear that refurbishment works are on-going to spruce up facilities at our KIA gateway, which once upon a time used to be the pride of Ghana and the entire sub-region. We have in the recent past been treated to a series of fine rhetoric from the NDC government which has made so many promises, but it seems our current government does not walk its talk nor put the money where its mouth is. Is it mere propaganda or building castles in the air? However, one fact remains that passenger arrivals and the number of foreign airlines operating from KIA have grown astronomically, with demand far outstripping supply. This challenge offers rich opportunities to exploit in terms of tourism earnings and landing fees.

Our only international airport is fast becoming decrepit and moribund, and a symbol of national shame and public embarrassment. The earlier steps were taken to remedy the situation, the better it would be for all of us, as our dignity and national pride are at stake. I have never for the like of me seen such an incompetent government as the current NDC government, which is full of JSS upstarts and talking-big appointees. I am by nature and principle non-partisan, as my own take is the good of Ghana. We criticise because, as Dr Aggrey said long ago, ‘only the best is good enough for (Ghana) Africa.’ Many Ghanaians in the Diaspora do visit home frequently and their observation is that the NDC government since 2010 has let us down badly in terms of governance, infrastructure development and the provision of public utilities such as water, electricity, and provision of health services, waste management and the beautification of our capital city, among other issues.

As I stood waiting patiently to collect my baggage, I was amused to see about six Ghanaian women huddled together and squatting near the conveyor belt, in animated banter. One of them sensed my amusement and confessed, ‘Massa (master), this is our way of killing time while awaiting the collection of our luggage. Don’t worry about us (or mind us) women, as we do our own thing.’ I envied them for their patience and rustic ways of containing stress and boredom. They could never be short of gossip, and I bet they could be better journalists or story-tellers than many of us pretenders and charlatans!

There was a young brawny looking guy who had commandeered about four trolleys and was busy offloading huge bales of clothing from the conveyor belt. Those were some of the self-styled one-man clearing contractors. Another middle-aged woman who was standing by me was also clearing similar bales, and seemed wanting a helping hand, so I went to her rescue. Yet still, near me was a young and very beautiful looking brownish lady in beret and western jeans with top, who I had heard, being called Askia by some of the Airport officials.

She seemed so much liked and very popular with them. She had come on the same Ethiopian flight as myself, and was sitting astride me at the opposite window on the plane. She was wearing a red sweater, which reminded me of the movie title, ‘The Woman in Red’. She was reconnecting to another destination and her facials showed desperation, anxiety and confusion. Luckily, my own luggage came first and I collected them and wheeled them to the custom check point, on my way out.

I had travelled light with only two relatively small pieces of luggage, unlike the typical Ghanaian arrivee who wants to carry the whole world in his or her luggage with him or her to show off to people at home. Not being a business traveller with only my personal effects, I had no trouble checking them out. Neither did even the busy business travellers who had many things to declare. It seemed a lot of formalities at KIA have been streamlined and improved to conform to international standards.

All the Ghanaian immigration, customs and security personnel are very warm, welcoming and professional. Though a few still try to scrounge a few cedis from you if they can. These can easily be fobbed off with a few cedis, as a good gesture.

On the whole, Accra from the air looked becoming and impressive. Thanks to the effort of individuals and corporate bodies who are putting up imposing buildings, Accra looks beautiful from the air.

Outside the airport, I found my elder son, my wife and daughter waiting for me in the family car. My son had driven to collect me as I do not know how to drive myself, and I saw the car I had bought them for the first time. My last born daughter of 15 had grown big. It was a good reunion after 18 months of absence in the Diaspora. As we drove past Airport City, I could take in the magnificent buildings shooting up, and I liked what I saw of the neat areas around the Cantonments and the newly constructed highways. Past Jubilee House and Ako Adjei Interchange, the scene started looking crowded. Circle looked too congested and dirty. Well, welcome home. Akwaaba. Stand by for Part 2 in my next edition.

Contact: kwesiattasakyi449@gmail.com