LILIAN UKAGWU examines the possibility of the national carrier flying before the end of Buhari’s administration
As Nigerians look forward to the May 29 inauguration of the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, into office, the prospect of Nigeria Air, the country’s national carrier, flying before the end of the current administration continued to be shrouded in doubt.
Last month, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, assured Nigerians that Nigeria Air, which has been embroiled in controversy, would commence operation before May 29.
Speaking at the National Aviation Stakeholders Forum 2023 in Abuja, the minister stated that the national carrier would commence local and international flights before May 29.
“Negotiation meeting with the Ethiopian Airlines Group Consortium and the Federal Government of Nigeria ongoing. “Next step: Federal Executive Council approval of the Full Business Case,” he asserted.
However, aviation pundits have argued that this may be another failed promise from Sirika.
The Nigeria Air project was launched amid fanfare in 2018. The Nigerian government promised to establish a national carrier to compete with other successful African airlines.
Meanwhile, the project has been enmeshed in controversies since it was launched. The first thing attracted criticism was the initial branding of the airline, with many Nigerians questioning the suitability of the logo and name. Many also frowned at the government’s decision to maintain a sealed lips about the details of the project.
There was news that the project had been put on hold indefinitely in September 2018, but government officials repeatedly assured Nigerians that the project was on course, though there were no physical developments to buttress their claims.
Less than two weeks to the inauguration of a new government, the fate of Nigeria Air remained on clear.
The country has been without a national carrier since the collapse of Nigeria Airways, despite several failed attempts to float one.
In September 2022, the Federal Government named Ethiopian Airlines Consortium as the preferred bidder for Nigeria Air.
The Minister of Aviation, Sirika, said Ethiopian Airlines won the bid with a consortium and would have 95 controlling shares in the airline.
While noting that only Ethiopian Airlines met the bidding evaluation criteria and the deadline, Sirika said it would hold 49 per cent equity with other consortiums holding 46 per cent.
According to the minister, the Federal Government will have only a five per cent equity in the project.
Also, in a statement released by the Ministry of Aviation said Nigeria Air would launch with Boeing 737-800 (NG) aircraft, adding that B787 aircraft, which would be for international operations, would follow thereafter.
“Nigeria Air, the new airline will be owned by a Nigerian private Investor Consortium together with a five per cent Federal Government holding, including Ethiopian Airline’s shareholding. Bringing Nigeria Closer to the World,” the statement read.
In October same year, the Minister of Aviation said the national carrier would kick off before the end of December 2022, noting that 20 aircraft with petrol engines had been ordered for training purposes, nine of which had been delivered.
Sirika at a recent ministers’ retreat noted that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), had given a marching order to ensure that the carrier was launched.
He said, “When I came in as a minister, we didn’t arrogate to ourselves knowledge and wisdom. We believe in the stakeholders on whose behalf we are serving. The national carrier is in the works and we have advanced significantly. And just yesterday, Mr President, in concluding the retreat, directed that this airline must work between now and December. And it will work by God’s grace.
In November 2022, eight local airlines and their association took the government to court, listing Nigerian Air, Ethiopian Airlines, Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, and Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, as defendants.
Among other prayers, the indigenous airlines wanted the court to stop the national carrier deal and withdraw the Air Transport Licence already issued to Nigeria Air by the Federal Government/Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
They also claimed that the firm which served as Transaction Adviser for the transaction was incorporated in March 2021 and alleged that the company was linked to the aviation minister.
The local airlines further alleged that ATL issued to Nigerian Air did not pass through the normal security clearance.
According to them, the Federal Government’s partnership with Ethiopian Airlines on the project will send domestic airlines out of business by opening up the domestic air travel market to Ethiopian Airlines.
However, despite the court order, the minister has insisted that Nigeria air must fly, stating that the project was 98 per cent ready and all equipment had been procured.
At the end of the day, the court ordered the government to suspend the project indefinitely.
However, despite the court order, the minister had insisted that Nigeria Air would fly, stating that the project was 98 per cent ready and all equipment had been procured.
He said, “Nigeria Air Limited. I did say that we will get it going before the end of this administration and I have not withdrawn my words. We have everything in place. The aircraft, offices, operational centres, staffing and everything needed are in place. We are doing the last minute checks and waiting for the issuance of the AOC and it will fly.”
In April this year, a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos also restrained the Director General of Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Nuhu Musa, from issuing an Air Operator’s Certificate to the proposed national carrier.
This development came several months after Nigeria Air got an Air Transport Licence.
The latest court order obtained by the domestic airline operators barred the government from taking any step with regards to the national carrier project until further notice.
Responding to the order of the court barring the NCAA from issuing an AOC for Nigeria Air, the Special Assistant to the Minister on Public Affairs, James Odaudu, claimed there was no such order.
According to Odaudu, there was no High Court sitting on the matter, adding the reports on order of the court barring the NCAA from issuing an AOC for Nigeria Air were the work of “mischief makers”.
He argued that the reports were based on a letter sent to the NCAA by the lawyer for the Airline Operators of Nigeria, noting that letter reminded the NCAA of an injunction previously issued by the court, which stated that status quo should be maintained.
Odaudu claimed that the reports were sponsored and that the journalists who wrote them lacked the capacity to interpret the letter properly.
He said,” There was no High Court sitting on the matter last week, not to talk of an order. The report was the work of mischief makers.
“What happened was that the lawyer for AON wrote a letter to NCAA reminding them of the injunction earlier issued by the court stating that status quo ante be mentioned. I believe that the reports were sponsored.
“Check the reports again. Did any of them refer to a sitting, a judge, a date, etc.? Probably they did not have the capacity to interpret the letter properly. I wonder what has happened to interpretative journalism.”
Key players in the sector have expressed diverse views regarding the Nigeria Air. The Chief Executive Officer of TopBrass Airline, Capt Rolland Iyayi, said the Ethiopian Airline was poised to benefit most in the Nigeria Air project.
He said, “The issue of the national carrier is very important. It is something we are all paying attention to. We just want to make sure we get it right. There have been some misgivings. Some issues have been raised. But there are issues that need clarification.”
In the same vein, the Chairman of the House Committee on Aviation, Nnolim Nnaji, criticised the engagement of another country’s airline to own a major stake in Nigeria’s national carrier, warning that it may be counterproductive.
The former military commandant at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Group Capt John Ojikutu (retd), while speaking about mistakes the government had made with Nigerian Airways, which Nigeria Air must avoid in order to survive, blamed government officials for being part of the reasons the airline ceased to operate.
He said, “Let it be sustained as a national carrier and not a government carrier. Let it be sustained by that national name carrier, not a government carrier. Nigeria Airways was virtually turned into a government carrier that virtually most officials who travel by Nigerian Airways were not paying the real fare for the class they sat in. It was either they do not pay at all or they do not pay the real fare.
“They will sit in business class, first class, but they will pay for economy class. I have a lot of experience with them. I am very sorry to say without any reservation that these things were done during the military era and it is not going to be different under this political dispensation with the way we are even handling it. That is one aspect of it. Then, commercial agreement. Let commercial agreement be commercial agreement.”
He went further to condemn the partnership between FG and Ethiopia, questioning the government’s stake in the flagship of Nigeria Air.
A captain in the industry, who preferred not to be named, told The PUNCH in an interview that there was no way Nigeria Air would be launched on or before May 29. Giving his reasons, he said, “I cannot see how this can happen because I do not see any tangible structures in place. I mean, where are the crew, the cabin crew, the ground handlers, the ticketing desk, and all that? I do not see it happening. I might be wrong.”
Reacting to this, the spokesperson for the Airline Operators of Nigeria and chairman of United Airlines, Prof. Obiora Okonkwo, stated that there had been an order from the court that the status quo should be maintained months back.
“Unless someone is violating this order, everything related to Nigeria Air should have been halted three months ago.
”I am not a stakeholder in Nigeria Air. So, I don’t attend their meetings to know their plans but if the minister had said it will fly before May 29, I think he should be the one to give you the assurance of the possibility.”