The concept of Nigeria Air as the nation’s flag carrier had been mutating since early 2017, when the President Muhammadu Buhari government first announced it would invest $5 million in the project.
The Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, shortly after the President’s announcement, had clarified that as a privately-operated project, the proposed domestic airline would operate as a business and not as a social service and that the government would, therefore, have no business running the airline or deciding who would do so, but that instead, full operational responsibilities would be left at the behest of investors.
Those two contradicting statements early in the day from the minster and the president portended trouble. They were sufficient signal to the wary, of what was to come. Clearly, they pointed at a lack of depth of thoughtfulness carried out on a project of such supposedly monumental significance by those to whom we had trusted our national wealth.
Further contradicting even by the minister himself caused more confusion, when he later announced the involvement of government in negotiating with Airbus and Boeing towards acquiring a fleet for the proposed domestic airline.
Despite these initial fumbling, there were however, flashes of hope about a year later in July 2018 specifically, with the unveiling of the Nigeria Air brand in faraway United Kingdom, at the Farnborough Airshow, with a heartwarming announcement of the airline’s initial operations scheduled to begin in December of the same year.
But by October 2022, four years later, Nigeria Air is unfortunately still at Ground Zero, with the outgoing President, Buhari, again, reassuring Nigerians that he would deliver the airline unfailingly by December 2022.
This is January 2023 and Nigeria Air still has its wings firmly clipped! How hopeful could a nation be!
Nigeria’s aviation sector is a huge profitable market for aviation operators, with the country possessing Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASAs) with 70 countries, albeit, enjoying limited operations with only 30 countries. The country was ambitious with its planned return of Nigeria Air, projecting 81 potential destinations, although agreeing that it would be fine to go, for a start, with a minimal 15 of the 30 countries currently engaged with it on functioning BASAs.
However, given the challenges in the sector, such as trapped funds, suggesting inability of foreign airlines to repatriate over $600 million of their ticket earnings, culminating in the eventual suspension of flights by Emirates Airlines, one of the leading international airlines operating in the country and threats by others to follow, Nigerians thought the idea of Nigeria Air was most desirable to call off such bluffs.
It was in the heat of this unresolved foreign airlines trapped fund hullabaloo that the government announced the appointment of Ethiopian Airlines in the last quarter of 2022 as Nigeria’s national carrier partner. The Ethiopian Airlines, according to the Minister, was allotted 49 percent shares, with Nigeria retaining 51% shares. Out of this 51%, the Nigerian institutional investors were allocated 45% with the Federal Government retaining 5%.
This announcement raised quite some ruffles, compelling the Honourable Minister, who had made the announcement, to proffer tangible reasons in defence of the decision. The Minister described the selection process as transparent and credible, explaining that the appointment was based on the impressive profile of the Ethiopian Airlines as one of the biggest and most efficient airlines in the world.
Besides this profile, the minister explained, was the fact that other airlines had ignored the requests for expression of interest, leaving the Ethiopian Airlines as the sole bidder. What was more, Ethiopian Airlines impressed on all the stipulated conditions for the offer. The minister informed that he had personally met these other airlines at several air shows and international aviation forums as he sought their partnership interests.
Also, Ethiopian Airlines is efficient and profitable, even in the face of global sector challenges. He added that the appointment of Ethiopian Airlines as Nigeria’s national carrier partner was indeed fair and good for Nigeria, further describing it as in line with the African Unity Agenda, which if well implemented, was capable of promoting a bigger market size for the continent and reducing operational costs as well as air fares for Nigerian Air travellers and other air travellers from across the continent.
However, not everyone seemed to agree with the fair and credible deal. But it’s problem was just starting. On Friday, November 11, 2022, Justice Ambrose Lewis-Allagoa of the Federal High Court, Lagos, following a motion ex parte in Suit FHC/L/CS/2159/2022 filed on November 10 by The Registered Trustees of the Airline Operators of Nigeria and five others in the aviation industry, granted an interim injunction restraining the Federal Government (FG) and Ethiopian Airlines from proceeding with the establishment of a proposed national carrier called Nigeria Air Limited.
The interim injunction may have no doubt come to the relief of the officials of the Ministry of Aviation, who were, incidentally, reported to object to the management structure as proposed by Ethiopian Airlines, the majority stakeholder and technical partner. In other words, the Minister had trouble even in his own house, having failed to convince his own team!
While there is indeed a consensus that Nigeria Air requires a partner, the choice of Ethiopia Airlines is questionable on many fronts, the most troubling, being the fact that it is a competitor to the Nigeria national carrier, if not at takeoff, definitely sooner than later. It is, therefore, doubtful if in the true sense of national interest, a competitor, present or prospective, should be handed over the management of Nigeria’s seeming treasury.
It is doubtful that the Federal Government had put enough thoughts into what is best for Nigeria in this national airline deal. There may be need for it to go back to the drawing board by inviting all industry stakeholders to a roundtable that would be aimed at a comprehensive review and articulation of policies and initiatives capable of heralding a total rebirth in the aviation sector of Nigeria in general and the national carrier, in particular.
Having stayed decades without a national carrier, it would be tragic to appear that we are stampeded into partnership tango at the dying moment of a regime.
It would, therefore, be in the best interest of everyone, that the issue of a national carrier be kept on hold for the incoming administration to review and execute, clear eyed. There is apparently no clear roadmap by the current regime on its policies or plans for a national carrier that would herald the joy that was derived in the heydays of Nigeria Airway.
Having waited for decades, it would be a monumental tragedy for a national carrier that falls short of the glorious years of the Nigeria Airways. Nigerians expect a higher standard of what we had in the past. Whether that is to be delivered by domestic airline operators or by renowned international airlines, should be based on clear, unbiased and credible procedures – definitely not a questionable hush-hush as the present plan suggests!