TWO days to the exit of the last administration, the former Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, exhibited the prevailing culture of impunity and mendacity in Nigeria on the global stage. By sneaking in an aircraft marked “Nigeria Air,” and just as mysteriously, spiriting it out of the country, perversely, he believed he had delivered on his promise to birth a national air carrier before the expiration of the Muhammadu Buhari administration. All relevant institutions should unravel the circumstances of the scandal, recover all public funds wasted, and compel Sirika to account for his actions.
The declaration of the purported Nigeria Air launch or “unveiling” as claimed by the Ministry of Aviation as a fraud by the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation on Tuesday should culminate in full-scale criminal investigation, trial, and severe punishment for all those involved in the trick. The management of Nigeria Air also admitted hiring the planes “just to unveil the logo.”
In office since 2015, first as Minister of State, and later as minister, Sirika’s obsessive desire to promote a national carrier led him into several missteps at public expense.
Inaugurated with fanfare at the Farnborough Airshow in 2018, the Nigeria Air project was revived by the Buhari administration. It suffered several setbacks, including being shunned by global investors, until a few months ago when Sirika announced a successful deal with Ethiopian Airlines, which kicked off fresh controversy.
To fulfil his vow to launch a carrier before the administration’s exit, a Boeing 737-800 aircraft painted with the logo of ‘Nigeria Air’ landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, on May 26, and just as strangely, disappeared 24 hours later, provoking another controversy.
The ongoing investigative hearing by the House of Representatives is welcome, but it is not enough. National Bureau of Statistics data and annual budgetary figures indicate that the Buhari administration committed N85.42 billion to the stillborn project between 2016 and 2023. This included payments to transaction advisers, working capital, and other consultancy bills. Sirika and other officials involved must be made to account for every kobo.
Moreover, in line with that administration’s notorious disregard for the rule of law and the courts, the administration went ahead with the Nigeria Air-Ethiopian Airline venture despite a subsisting court injunction stopping further action.
The anti-graft agencies should swing into action; insiders who have been making allegations of underhand dealings in the saga should in the national interest, file petitions to the law enforcement agencies to aid the investigations. Testimonies at the parliamentary probe allege that Sirika had contacted Ethiopian Airlines a few days before the ‘fly-in, fly-out’ drama, to provide an aircraft that would be presented to Nigerians as a Nigeria Air aeroplane. They alleged that the aircraft has since been returned to the Ethiopian Airlines service. The official excuse for borrowing the aircraft from Ethiopian Airlines as the ‘technical partner’ with Nigeria Air is not satisfactory.
Investigations should verify why as alleged, the aircraft had Ethiopian Airlines registration numbers, contrary to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority regulations. Even more disturbing is the revelation that the purported national carrier had failed to progress to Phase Two of the Air Operator Certificate certification process due to a lack of formal application forms and necessary documentation.
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Sirika and Buhari should be made to explain why they defied a court order and brushed aside regulations to “unveil” a premature national carrier. Despite the huge amount spent, the airline not only failed to secure the AOC, but has also not secured a single aircraft.
Nigeria’s record with a state-owned national aircraft is sordid. A brief period of success was followed by decades of waste, inefficiency, corruption, and eventual collapse. Nigeria Airways, which ceased operation 20 years ago, went through several botched deals to save it, including successive management contracts with British Airways, KLM, and South African Airways. The country once partnered with Britain’s Virgin Atlantic. All crashed, killed by corruption, the adverse economic environment and the government’s meddlesomeness.
Sirika insisted that his Nigeria Air would be private sector-driven with the government holding just five per cent stake and private investors 95 per cent. Till he left, the detailed shareholding structure remained opaque, alleged industry stakeholders.
Aviation is an international business that is best left to private investors with government regulating. President Bola Tinubu should break with the ignorance and statist instincts of his predecessors and deliver a robust enabling environment for the aviation sector and the ancillary tourism and hospitality sectors.
The government should reopen enquiries into the N120 billion aviation sector intervention fund disbursed up till 2011 that went down the drain and has never been accounted for.
Beyond the probes, the 22 federal-owned airports in the country should be concessioned to facilitate private investment. They are currently all in bad shape; passengers endure dilapidated escalators, recurrent power outages, poor runways, parked-up aero bridges, and unserviceable screening machines, stinking toilets, and terrible services, among others. Stakeholders say the resources wasted on the Nigeria Air project would have been better utilised to upgrade dilapidated airport infrastructure.
The federal and state governments should collaborate to develop private sector-led tourism hubs. Other African countries are taking this route. In 2015, Rwanda received over 1.3 million tourists and earned $318 million. Its government is investing an estimated $789 million in aviation infrastructure 2019 to 2030. Morocco’s air transport industry and foreign tourists contribute $9.7 billion annually to GDP.
Nigeria’s airline industry, says the International Air Transport Association, is estimated to add $600 million or just 0.4 percent to GDP, with foreign tourists adding $1.1 billion annually. In contrast, Tunisair, Tunisia’s national carrier, increased its revenue by 175 per cent during the first half of 2022. The reported African Airlines Association showed that the aviation sector contributed significantly to the economic growth of Ethiopia by 49.3 percent; South Africa 37.7 percent; and Egypt 89.8 percent. Nigeria should vigorously play catch-up. It should start by getting to the bottom of the atrocious ‘Nigeria Air’ saga. ,
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