A ‘madman’ is Argentina’s president; East Africa could do with some of his ‘madness’

Monday January 15 2024

The EAC states have discussed about how wonderful it would be to have open-skies. However, when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, no one is at home. In the meantime, they continue to operate loss-making national carriers. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Argentina’s libertarian and right-wing populist new president, Javier Milei, has not quite turned the country on its head as he promised, but he has rattled the cage.

Nicknamed “Madman” (El Loco) because of some of his unusual and anarchist ideas, Milei believes society functions much better without a state.

He had said he would close Argentina’s central bank, slash through red tape, and get rid of 10 of the 18 federal ministries, among other things. He hasn’t got rid of the central bank, but he’s given the debt-ridden and inflation-ravaged economy some early shocks.

Milei might be a madman, but a few days ago he did something East Africa might want to draw inspiration from: He announced an "open skies" initiative that will remove many of the regulations prohibiting foreign airlines from operating flights between Argentinian cities.

The new rules will allow foreign airlines to directly compete with the loss-making national carrier, Aerolineas Argentinas.

All over the world, governments protect domestic aviation markets like crazy, one of the few exceptions being the European Union. The EU doesn’t consider flights within its member states international, so any carrier from Europe can fly anywhere with the common market.


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If the East African Community (EAC) took the same spirit, then RwandAir could fly from Kigali to Nairobi, Nairobi to Mombasa, Mombasa to Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro International, and from there to Mbarara in Uganda, and Mbarara to Kigali.

Kenya Airways would fly folks from Kisumu to Entebbe International, and from Entebbe to Soroti in the northeast, then on to Juba, and from Juba to Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Uganda Airlines could carry passengers from Kasese to Kisangani in the DRC, then from Kisangani to Bukavu, Bukavu to Kigali, and on to Bujumbura. The possibilities are endless.

The EAC states have discussed this, and spoken about how wonderful it would be to have open-skies. However, when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, no one is at home. In the meantime, they continue to operate loss-making national carriers.

An Argentina-style approach might not immediately turn around the fortunes of the struggling carriers but could open up a lot of possibilities for the future and bring new business models into the regional aviation industry.

For one, the carriers might find new ways to work together, for example, establishing affordable flying matatus. Most East Africans, the serious business travellers, who visit Kenya can do so for years, and end up never having used Wilson Airport. Wilson Airport is the hub of Kenyan domestic flying, and Africa’s busiest airport in terms of flight take-offs and landings.

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Things around Wilson are not elegant. On the ground there are all sorts of aircraft; tiny things, medium size, and big ones. Some belong to rich fellows, mostly white Kenyans, who live in far-flung corners of the country and fly in and out of Nairobi daily for work. Some of the planes are the only ones owned by the operators.

You can take a flight today, and next month the company will have gone bankrupt, but the owner will have registered a new one. You will fly on the same plane, with the same pilot, but the name will be different. The cabin service is barebones or zero, and some of them give you your micro bottle of mineral water at the plane entrance when you are boarding. A torn seat patched with duct tape is not unusual.

It might all be a little overwhelming for those unaccustomed to tough love flying and sometimes seems like a madhouse, but they deliver the goods.

They get you to places quickly and at pocket-friendly prices. One of the most impressive things is that for the number of flights out of Wilson Airport, there have been remarkably few crashes. More government helicopters are falling out of East African skies, than there are scrappy planes that originated from Wilson, despite their being far more plentiful.

In there, though, is the future. A pipeline that creates more passengers, and a tradition that breeds smart thinking about how to do low-budget flying. There is no need to feed people between Nairobi and Entebbe, or Entebbe and Kigali, with soggy sandwiches and bland peanuts. Right now, no carrier has the courage not to feed passengers food they don’t need. The fellows who travel on some of those hardy domestic flights that land on dusty airports are what you need to end that.

Additionally, we could something else that annoyed East African nationalists and patriots when I posted it, accompanied with praise, on social media. In South Africa, they are piloting a programme that is renewing national IDs and passports (especially now we have an East African passport) through banks. They already renew their driving licences at banks.

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That is something that should be happening in East Africa, championed by three-member states —Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda — who have led on innovative stuff like the East African Single Tourist Visa. KCB and Equity Bank, which have a large regional footprint, could renew the travel documents for the countries where they operate. That way, if you are a Kenyan in Rubavu or Goma, you don’t have to fly back to Nairobi to renew a passport. You can do it at the Rubavu Equity branch.

The imagination and boldness that would make those things possible are the kind that would take East Africa to great heights. And they would provide something the EAC lacks today; a compelling and beautiful story. Something more uplifting than fights over cross-border trade in aflatoxin-infected maize.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3