Uganda Airlines’ leasons from Nigeria’s unsuccessful airlines


LEGOS, As Uganda moves to procure six planes to re-establish the Uganda Airline that collapsed decades ago, this week Nigeria launched plans for a new national airline to be called Nigeria Air. It’s set to take off in December, but lessons can Uganda learn from its sister African country with the largest economy.

Even though there is pent-up demand for more air travel in Nigeria as it is currently an underserved market, the plans have already received a lot of criticism from those who feel Africa’s largest economy has a myriad of other more pressing problems to deal with from electricity shortages and lack of basic infrastructure to a rising poverty challenge.

And airlines are very tough businesses to run. Also, the Nigerian government doesn’t have a great track record in the aviation industry. Even privately-owned Nigerian airlines have struggled and some eventually collapse.

Wednesday’s announcement was limited in scope. It confirmed the carrier will be private sector-led and that the government would own a maximum of 5% of the airline. However, Nigeria’s minister of aviation, Hadi Sirika, speaking at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK, would not confirm any details of who the potential partners or investors would be. There have been press reports that the Nigerian government is in talks with partner airlines including Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airways to help manage its operations.

To be clear, attitudes are mixed towards the new national carrier, while there is plenty of skepticism there are also many Nigerians who see it as a sign of progress and national pride and that Nigeria is making a bold statement on the global stage.

Nigeria’s long and fluctuating history with national carriers can be told through the design choices of their day.

West African Airways Corporation (1946-1971)

The first airline associated with the Nigerian government was the West African Airways Corporation (WAAC) created in 1946. Its quant logo includes a winged elephant, lunging upwards with WAAC emblazoned on its side.

This, of course, was pre-independence West Africa. This logo was a clear nod to the colonial badges of the British West Africa Protectorate which featured an elephant.

The creature served to represent West Africa as WAAC was a jointly owned airline operated by the Nigerian, Ghanaian, Gambian and Sierra Leonean governments with the headquarters based in Nigeria.

WAAC was dissolved in 1958 and rebranded as WAAC Nigeria, as all the other shareholder countries pulled out to set up their own individual carriers post independence. The first flight was on Oct.1 1958 as captured with Nigeria’s first prime minister Abubakar Tafewa Balewa in the main photo above. That was exactly two years before Nigeria’s independence from Britain.

Nigeria Airways (1971-2003)

Nigeria airways

Eventually WAAC Nigeria was renamed Nigeria Airways, which operated as the official national carrier of Nigeria, until 2003. Nigerian Airways maintained the colonial relic of the elephant with the Nigerian flag. Nigeria Airways’s 32-year run was the longest of all iterations of the country’s national airlines through the oil boom years in the early 1970s to much leaner austerity years in the mid-1980s. Eventually, as Nigeria’s economy worsened over the years it crash-landed in 2004 under a pile of debt. It left behind many disgruntled pensioners who are unhappy today about plans to launch a new airline without taking care of what’s owed to them.

Nigerian Airways
Nigeria Airways 1966 flyer (Bjorn Larsson & David Zekria,

Virgin Nigeria (2004-2008)

The dissolution of Nigerian Airways paved the way for a joint venture between Nigerian investors and British tycoon Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in 2004. In this design there’s a Nigerian adaptation of the internationally recognized brand, linking to the successful Virgin Atlantic airline.

But the Virgin Group pulled out of the venture after three years blaming interference from local politicians and regulators. Branson is memorably quoted comparing Nigerian officials as having the attitude of the mafia:

To my utter dismay, certain authorities in Nigeria have chosen to ignore our contract, sending in heavies a few months ago to smash up our lounge with sledgehammers.The behavior of the authorities was similar to the way the Mafioso behaved in the U.S. in the 1930s… If Virgin Nigeria can be treated in this way, can any company in the world seriously consider investing in Nigeria in the future?

Nigerian Eagle Airlines (2008-2010)

Virgin withdrew in 2008. The airline was rebranded as a Nigerian Eagle Airlines. Interbrand, the global brand consultancy commissioned to create the logo, described their conceptual design as an intentional use of ” uniquely West African colors… inspiration came from the rich kaleidoscope of patterns in cloths worn by West Africans.”

This time the eagle in the brand name and the logo were more in line with the Nigerian coat of arms where the bird represents strength. It made sense, after all even the Nigerian soccer team is nicknamed the Super Eagles (originally the Green Eagles). Besides, apart from Disney’s Dumbo, elephants can only go so far in the sky.

Air Nigeria (2010-2012)

With few alterations to the design, Nigerian Eagle was rebranded as Air Nigeria in 2010. Operations finally ceased in 2012, when due to mismanagement the airline collapsed under 35 billion naira of debt.

Nigeria Air (2018-??)

This brings us to Nigeria Air, the latest iteration in the list of national air carriers. Like its name, the logo is a sort of reworking of elements from the previous air carriers. The design is more minimal that its predecessors, featuring a ribbon bearing the green-white-green colors of the national flag fluttering in the wind. If you are attentive there is an optical illusion. A white dot on the ribbon, is an eye and the ribbon flutters into the shape of an eagle. Representing a distinctively Nigerian but more functional and streamlined service..

This time, FROM6, an advertising agency from Bahrain, was in charge of design. In the Nigerian Air video debut, they describe it as one that will “take the country to new heights under our common symbol of pride – Nigeria Air.” Unlike past designs, Nigeria Air includes a tagline “bringing Nigeria closer to the world”.

nigeria air

There are still doubts from many Nigerian commentators and watchers as to whether logo and design will translate to actual airplane leases and airport gate slots. The concern, as analyst Dolapo Oni says in the last tweet of his thread, noted earlier, aside from all the economic, financial and operational challenges running a national airline it’s also fraught with political challenges. You could say it’s complicated.


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