The last may not have been heard of the debacle that is Nigeria Air, as reactions continue to trail the controversial launch of the proposed national carrier that was met with widespread outrage and condemnation from Nigerians and stakeholders in the aviation sector.
It has been one drama to another for the project that was conceptualised seven years ago, with many presently calling for a probe and possible prosecution of everyone involved in the project, which they have described as a fraud.
When the immediate past Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika came on board in 2015, an Aviation Roadmap was unveiled. The establishment of a national carrier was top of the list, with a promise to deliver during the Muhammadu Buhari-led Administration.
But it was not until July 2018, that Sirika unveiled the name of the national carrier as Nigeria Air, as well as its logo at the Farnborough International Airshow in London.
At the time, he said that the airline would begin operations in December of the same year, but that did not happen. New deadlines were set in subsequent years, but the situation remained the same.
Then, in June 2022, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) presented the Air Transport License (ATL) to Nigeria Air, a precursor to the Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC), which airlines must receive from the regulatory agency before commencement of flight operations.
It also named former Managing Director of the defunct Virgin Nigeria Airways, Captain Dapo Olumide as the acting Managing Director, while an approval to lease three aircraft for the airline was given by the Federal Government (FG) on July 27, 2022.
On September 24, 2022, in Abuja, Sirika disclosed that after searching for investors, FG had selected Ethiopian Airlines (ET Consortium) as the preferred bidder for Nigeria Air, stating that ET scored 89% as regards the technical bid and 15 out of 20 for the financial bid.
According to him, the bid under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement will see ET own 49% stake of the business, while the FG hold 5%, and Nigerian entrepreneurs 46%.
At this point, it felt like Nigeria Air had finally found its wings and was ready to fly.
“Nigeria Air is well on its way to being launched with three Boeing 737-800 in a configuration very suitable for the Nigerian market. The Request for Proposal (RFP) under the PPP act, governed by ICRC, is completed. After a careful, detailed and ICRC-governed selection process, Ethiopian Airlines (ET) Consortium has been selected as the preferred bidder”, a statement by the Ministry had said.
It further explained that the money spent for the launch of Nigeria Air, for all the requirements to establish an AOC and be admitted to starting an airline operation is well within the 5% capital investment of the FG.
JournalNG gathered that in November 2019, the Aviation Ministry approached the National Assembly for the sum of $338 million for ‘setting up’ of the airline.
There are reports that at least N85.42 billion was budgeted for the national carrier project in seven years. It is however, unclear if that amount is the FG’s share of its 5% investment.
Findings also show that between 2019 and 2022, budgetary votes earmarked for the national carrier add up to N14.65 billion, with an additional N1.3 billion in the 2023 Appropriation Bill (cumulative N15.9 billion in five years). The ex-minister however, denied the figures, saying only N400 million had been approved at the time.
The agreement between the Nigerian government and Ethiopian Airlines was met with strong resistance by domestic airlines under the aegis of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON).
They argued that having a competitor as a major shareholder of Nigeria Air would kill local airlines, adding that the partnership would only help ET achieve its target of dominating the African market. The body went to court to stop the process.
On November 10, 2022, a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos issued an Order of Interim Injunction, stopping the agreement between Nigeria Air and ET in suit FHC/L/CS/2159/2022 filed by six plaintiffs: Registered Trustees of the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON), Azman Air, Air Peace, Max Air, United Nigeria Airlines and Topbrass Aviation.
The suit listed Nigeria Air Limited, Ethiopian Airlines, Sirika, and former Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, as defendants one, two, three and four respectively.
Among other prayers of the plaintiffs before the court are: “an order of the court to stop the national carrier deal and withdraw the Air Transport Licence already issued to Nigeria Air by the FG/NCAA.
“A declaration that Ethiopian Airlines was incompetent to bid for shares in Nigerian Air and commence business accordingly, and an order setting aside the entire bidding/selection process(es) for the “Nigeria Air” project as well as the approval, grant or selection of Ethiopian Airlines by other defendants in the process”.
The presiding judge, Justice Lewis-Allagoa, after hearing the submission of Nureni Jimoh SAN with Abubakar Nuhu Ahmad Esq., counsel for the Plaintiff/Applicant move in terms of the Motion paper granted the injunction.
The injunction order read: “The Court after careful consideration of the application and submission of counsel. It is hereby ordered as follows: “1.That an Order of Interim Injunction is granted restraining the Defendants either by themselves, agents, privies, Principals or any other persons whosoever from draft the proposed executing “NATIONAL CARRIER ESTABLISHMENT AND AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OF NIGERIA (represented by the 3rd and 4th Defendants) and the strategic equity partner (the 2nd Defendant) or giving effect to and or suspending the sale and transfer of the shares & operations of the 1stDefendant by the 2nd Defendant pending the determination of the Motion on Notice.
“2. That an Order of Maintenance of Status Quo by all parties in this suit from taking any further step(s) in relation to the subject matter of this suit pending the determination of the Motion on Notice is granted.
“3. That an Order of Accelerated Hearing of this suit is granted”.
Sirika while reacting to the injunction at the time, stated that no rational court can stop the process between the FG and ET, insisting that the Nigeria Air project is on course despite the opposition.
He explained that since the Aviation Roadmap was drawn and unveiled to the public, for every step taken, stakeholders were carried along including the unions and airline operators, adding that he personally and through other formal means invited the operators to be part owners of the national carrier but they refused, giving different excuses.
However, the court, on November 24, 2022, further instructed the parties involved to maintain status quo, pending the determination of the suit filed by the plaintiffs in suit FHC/L/CS/2159/2022 on the proposed Nigeria Air, while adjourning proceedings on the matter till February 13, 2023.
There was continued legal back and forth on the matter in the months that followed without any headway, while the clock wound down on Sirika to deliver. He proceeded, despite the subsisting court order stopping him from doing so, leaving many to wonder what personal interest he had in the project.
With days to the end of his tenure, Sirika stated on national television that the aircraft for Nigeria Air, painted in the country’s colours would arrive on Friday, May 26, ahead of commencement of operations, adding that the AOC process was at the concluding stage five.
Documents however, revealed that it was still in the first stage of the process stipulated by the NCAA for every legal airline in the country to get an AOC. There were also rumours of the ex-minister coercing some directors of the regulator, who were said to be ready to hand in their resignations if he continued to interfere with their functions.
Granting an AOC to Nigeria Air without going through the legal procedure will be considered an infraction by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on the part of NCAA, and could lead to it being penalised and blacklisted by other safety agencies, thereby jeopardizing the future and image of the country’s aviation sector.
Following Sirika’s pronouncement to deliver the airline before May 29, AON, in a statement described it as contemptuous and an invitation to anarchy.
The AON said: “It is very disturbing that a Minister is desperately hoodwinking the entire nation into accepting a massively flawed process just 72 hours to the end of his 7-year tenure in office as Minister of Aviation, even as the courts have halted him”.
“The government should understand that the actions and pronouncements of this Minister is not only impugning on the independence and integrity of the NCAA, but also capable of bringing the entire industry into disrepute, thereby adversely affecting the ratings of Nigeria’s airlines on the global stage.
“The minister cannot order these certification processes by fiat. Therefore, an aircraft flying into Nigeria and bearing Nigerian colours does not change anything”.
The Faux Launch
Despite not completing the AOC requirements, coupled with the subsisting court order, Sirika went on with the launch of Nigeria Air with a static display on Friday, May 26, the last working day of the Buhari administration.
When the aircraft landed at the Abuja Airport, it was greeted with a water salute, an action usually used to mark the first flight of an aircraft to an airport, even though it flew for its original airline up till four days before it was brought to Nigeria.
Investigations revealed that the Boeing 737-860 Max ET-APL, Mode S Q4005C with serial number: 40965/4075 is about 11 years old, and had its first flight on June 22, 2012 as Ethiopian Airlines aircraft.
The aircraft became Malawi Airlines on February 16, 2014, one of ET’s other subsidiaries and was returned to Ethiopian Airlines on August 12, 2015.
It is alleged that the former minister had contacted ET to provide an aircraft that would be presented as a Nigeria Air aircraft. ET, on its part, repainted the aircraft to Nigeria’s colours, but retained ownership.
By the evening of Saturday, May 27, flightradar24, a flight tracker showed that the aircraft had left Nigeria for Addis Ababa. And by Wednesday, May 31, the aircraft was fully back with ET and had commenced its usual Addis Ababa –Mogadishu route.
While the event was supposed to be a celebration of a promise kept, it was greeted with contempt by Nigerians on social media, due to the revelation concerning the ownership of the aircraft.
Stakeholders and experts in the sector have also expressed concerns over how the ex-minister conducted himself during the whole process which they deemed not transparent.
The president, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Nigeria (AOPAN), Alex Nwuba described the project as unbudgeted billions spent on frivolities, showcasing, and unveilings.
“From ribbons to Ethiopian aircraft all in the name of Nigeria Air; from the demolition of offices of staff of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria to actual demolition of a few houses. From airport concessions to two funny concessions.
“The establishment of an unseen leasing company to Aerotroprolis even the drawings are yet to be seen. In the end we’re here pockets emptied and hopes dashed”, he said during an interview.
Also, the Chairman, United Nigeria Airlines, and the AON spokesperson, Prof. Obiora Okonkwo in a television interview described it as a charade being masqueraded as a Nigerian project.
Commenting on the aircraft he said: “Nigeria has no stake in this aircraft by law both ICAO or NCAA. Any aircraft registered to Nigeria must carry a 5N registration mark. It is whether you bought outright or you have a dry lease on it and not when it is wet leased. None of the documents of this aircraft is domiciled with the NCAA”.
“We are thankful to the NCAA which showed resolve. If the Minister had been successfully it would have not been good. Aviation is a global market, the global community would have been questioning the credibility of our AOC”.
Earlier, aviation analyst and security expert, Group Captain John Ojikutu (Rtd), CEO of Centurion Aviation Security and Safety Consult, told our correspondent that he lost faith in the Nigeria Air project since 2019, because most of the steps taken by Sirika was negative.
According to him, the arrangement between the defunct Nigerian Airways, KLM and South African Airways did not work out or benefit Nigeria, which is similar to the ET partnership.
“We should learn lessons from the relationship between Nigeria Airways, KLM and South African Airways, which collapsed. We have a lot of experiences, but make it look as if there is nothing to make reference to. Now the national carrier is still being debated four years later”, he said.
Following the public outcry, the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation summoned the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Aviation, Dr. Emmanuel Meribole; acting MD of Nigeria Air, Capt. Olumide, as well as heads of aviation agencies to a meeting.
When Capt. Olumide appeared before the Committee on Tuesday, June 6, he revealed that the aircraft was chartered from ET for the purpose of unveiling the logo.
“Ever since 2018, all you have ever seen about Nigeria Air were pictures, drawings not the real aircraft, and we thought it was time to show what the real aircraft will look like also to let shareholders see. We have institutional investors, they are not in aviation but they are putting their money for 10 to 15 years, so they need to see what the actual aircraft will look like.
“So we brought it in here to show them what the aircraft will look like, then the social media dimension came into it”, he said.
On his part, Dr. Merebole stated that the airline had not been launched, saying that the aircraft was chartered to test Nigerians’ acceptance of the project.
He further disclosed that Nigeria Air had not acquired any aircraft and that it had no AOC.
Chairman of the committee, Hon. Nnolim Nnaji described the launch as a Fraud, stating that the entire process was shrouded in secrecy.
According to him, the former Minister did not carry the house along in the entire arrangement, despite promising to supply it with details of the transactions.
After evaluating the submissions by all stakeholders, the committee reached three resolutions.
It directed the Ministry of Aviation and its partners in the Nigeria Air project to immediately suspend flights operations and every other actions with respect to the Nigeria Air.
The Committee urged the new administration to urgency constitute a high-level Presidential Committee to undertake a holistic review of the processes of the project, and advise the government on the way forward.
It resolved that all individuals, groups, or organisation involved in the controversial “Nigeria Air Take-Off” are brought to book, prosecuted and sanctioned.