Nigeria Air suspension: What happened?

In the middle 80s, the then military president, Ibrahim Babangida, faced with the challenge of communicating and convincing the Nigerian public of the benefits of his economic policies which were tied to the IMF dictates, appointed an acquitted journalist, Prince Tony Momoh, his Information Minister.

Momoh had the uphill task of defending naira devaluation with its devastating impacts; increase in fuel pump price and liberalization as well as commercialization and privatization of government-owned companies; as well as general decline in economic life of the citizenry. To do this, required thinking out of the box since the usual run-off the mill press release, publications, features and articles could not do. Momoh came up with a novel idea titled “Letter To My Countryman”, in which he sought to directly address the citizenry on government’s policies, policy actions, intended objectives and benefits in short and long terms.

I have decided to pull out from Momoh’s archives, this unpatented concept of “Letter” to engage the Federal Executive Council (FEC), stakeholders and the general public on specific issues in aviation particularly the Nigeria Air.

Just like Obasanjo did in 1999, Buhari even before assumption of office had mooted his interest in bringing back a national carrier to meet the yearnings and aspirations of Nigeria air travel public as well as use it to catalyze the aviation sector.  Like Obasanjo, Buhari’s plan was in response to the aspiration of millions of Nigerians at home and in the diaspora who feel the devastating impact of the absence of a national carrier or a formidable, reputable Nigeria private international operator since the ill-advised liquidation of Nigeria Airways.  Since its liquidation, some domestic private airlines had done a great deal to provide services at the domestic level and, limitedly, at the regional level.  But attempts on international level have been somewhat woeful, try as much as the two airlines that attempted did.  Today, there is no Nigerian domestic airline operating inter-continental flights in spite of the fact that seven of them are designated on over 20 international and regional routes.

So, when the president appointed Hadi Sirika Minister of State, Transport, with specific responsibility for aviation, quite many a person believed that the president had an eye on the sector.

This perception was re-enforced by Sirika, when in 2016, at theShehu Yar’dua Conference Centre, Abuja, he unveiled a comprehensive aviation roadmap in an event that was packed full of stakeholders, which included airline operators, aviation unions, service providers, bankers regulators, travel agencies, serving and retired professionals in all facets of the aviation sector. In fact, the who and who in the industry were there.

Again in April,the minister, at the newly built Air Force Conference Centre, Abuja, unveiled the six transaction advisers approved and appointed in all the areas of the roadmap following the advertised call for Expression of Interest and competitive bid.  In that forum were the elites and the unions of the industry.  There were legislators, bankers, service providers, airline operators and industry professionals, serving and retired as well as two main regulators: the NCAA and the ICRC.  The minister had promised to hold another stakeholders’ forum when the transaction advisers’ report was ready.

When in August, Sirika, unveiled the logo, livery, ownership structure and funding requirement at the 2018 UK Farnborough Air Show, a good number of Nigerians were taken aback, arguing that “Charity should have begun at home”; that unveiling should have been done at home first.   Despite the spontaneous criticism of the unveiling abroad, millions of Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief as they looked forward to a new dawn, a new national airline that would, as it were, wipe away tears and national shame.  The support for Nigeria Air was so overwhelming that it almost drowned the voices of the few but well-placed vociferous critics.

This is why when, on Wednesday September 19,the aviation minister put out a terse press statement to the effect that the federal government has suspended the Nigeria Air Project, both the few happy and applauding critics of the suspension as well as the millions of the expectant joyful Nigerians who were looking forward to a new dawn were awe-struck and bewildered.  The first group who clapped saw the suspension as a prophesy come true and prayers answered. While the second group saw it as hopes dashed and future truncated. Even at all these, everybody today is still at a loss over what happened, more so as Sirika gave no explanation.

This worrisome situation has further been pushed almost to the limits by the discordant tunes coming from the ministers of information and aviation, Lai Mohammed and Hadi Sirika respectively. From Lai, the Nigeria Air was stepped down because there were no investors while from Hadi, there were at least six potential investors which included two reputable airlines, three reputable financial institutions and the two leading global aircraft manufacturers, who all have not only expressed interest in Nigeria Air but have offered incentives.  This discordance has also made Nigerians curious on why the suspension of Nigeria Air was not part of the usual post-FEC meeting press briefing that fateful Wednesday which such a major decision should have been.  All these have unfortunately given rise to six dangerous schools of thought that have left Nigerians wondering whether the Nigeria Air suspension is a kind of the elephant which the six blind men of Indostan went to see.

In all these, the painful aspect is that our nation and its people are the losers.  The suspension is an international embarrassment and a question mark on the integrity and reliability of our cabinet given the known fact that the stated due processes, from the advertisement for EOI and Bid, the choice of the Transaction Adviser, the approval of the Adviser’s Report up to the ICRC issuance of the Outline Business Case (OBC) – Certificates were discussed and approved by the FEC.  Further, worrisome is the failure of the government to tell Nigerians who the national carrier is supposed to belong to, what actually happened and whether the suspension is indefinite or temporary.  The domestic and international publics are left in quandary on such a major national issue.  I happen not to be a politician but I know that success or failure of the Nigeria Air will be a political campaign issue. If it succeeds, it will be a great plus-story for the government.  But if it fails, it will be a great harvest for the opponents and opposition.  Any which way, the ball is in the court of the government.  And since politicians know how to manage their affairs, for untutored politicians like us to cry will be attempting to be more Catholic than the Pope.

All said and done, the government owes the citizenry an explanation.

Aligbe is an aviation consultant



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