BY ROTIMI DUROJAIYE
Last week, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria called for the arrest of the immediate past Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, over what it described as the “fraudulent” Nigeria Air project.
In a statement signed by the group’s national coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, and made available to newsmen in Owerri on Wednesday, the human rights advocacy group said that the hurriedly unveiling of Nigeria Air by Sirika on May 26, the last official day of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, was suspicious.
The group also called on the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to swing into action and probe the former minister now that the Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Aviation had separately declared that the project was a fraud.
“The interim Managing Director of Nigeria Air, Captain Dapo Olumide, told legislators on Tuesday that the aircraft paraded as Nigeria Air plane belonged to Ethiopian Airlines and not Nigeria whereas Sirika paraded the aircraft as being owned by Nigeria.
“This is fraud of the highest order and the lawmakers have labeled it so, including the suspension of all activities regarding the sham called national carrier.
“The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) must swing into action now that both the upper and lower chambers have declared the project as a fraud. The anti-graft agency must swiftly arrest, investigate and prosecute the ex-minister if found culpable.
“There are a lot of questions that Sirika must be made to answer, including the whereabouts of the N85 billion splurged on the project.
“In fact, aside from that the so-called national carrier has not secured a single aircraft for its operations, it has also failed to secure an Air Operating Certificate (AOC) from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA),” he said.
Also disturbed by happenings in the nation’s aviation sector, a group, Concerned Northern Forum has demanded arrest and investigation of Sirika, for alleged fraud.
“Olumide admitted that the Boeing 737-800 aircraft used to unveil the country’s national career was a legitimate chartered flight from Ethiopian Airlines”
In a statement on Thursday by its chairman, Ali Mohammad, the group said their call followed the recent disturbing revelations by relevant stakeholders at the public hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation relating to the purported launch of the country’s carrier, Nigeria Air, by the ex-minister in the twilight of the outgone President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
The forum, particularly, highlighted the portion that said the brandished aircraft was allegedly rented from Ethiopian Airline.
“No wonder the unveiling was quick. No details were made available, no one has the eyes to say he saw any feature of the plan or anything,” Mohammad said.
He added: “The airline is yet to secure an operating licence for full flight and the minister was so adamant and insisted on going ahead with the unveiling, even when there was a subsisting court order. The whole project was driven by lies, deception, corruption and personal benefits, amounting to billions of naira.
“This is deception and breach of trust that should not go unpunished. Hadi Sirika must be brought to face the law. It is also a disregard for the rule of law and entire justice system to proceed on a matter against order of a competent court of law.
“The minister has acted with so much impunity on several occasions, as if the law cannot get to him. He has continuously operated as a tyrant, refusing to listen to nobody – aviation experts, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), who advised against this project.
“This national embarrassment and waste of resources would have been averted if he had listened to advice, yet Sirika went ahead knowing it was a charade to deceive Nigerians and pocket billions to himself.”
Genesis of controversial project
The Federal Government had in July 2018 unveiled the much-awaited new national carrier during the Farnborough Air Show in London, United Kingdom.
In eight years, the Buhari administration with Sirika as the arrowhead spent over N85 billion on Nigeria Air, as shown in data by the National Bureau of Statistics and Compilation of Budgetary Allocations between 2016 and 2023.
At separate meetings with the interim Managing Director of Nigeria Air, Captain Dapo Olumide, on Tuesday, the Chairman of the Senate Aviation Committee, Biodun Olujimi and the Chairman of the House Committee on Aviation, Nnolim Nnaji, both agreed that the launch of Nigeria Air was a fraud.
Olumide admitted that the Boeing 737-800 aircraft used to unveil the country’s national carrier was a legitimate chartered flight from Ethiopian Airlines.
He said the aircraft returned to Ethiopian Airlines after the unveiling.
Sirika unveiled an aircraft supposedly belonging to Nigeria Air amidst pomp on May 26, but a week after, the national carrier was yet to fly. Tongues are wagging over what has become of the aircraft on display.
Where is Nigeria Air? This is a question in the lips of many Nigerians. Some have asked for the website of the new airline for flight bookings which is presently non-existent. But a check on the Ethiopian Airlines’ aircraft ET-APL which was unveiled on May 26 showed the aircraft has returned to Ethiopian Airlines’ service.
On Thursday, June 1, 2023 when it was checked, the aircraft operated Addis-Ababa-Mogadishu and Mogadishu-Addis-Ababa flight. As the flight radar showed, the aircraft – a Boeing 737-860 – actually returned to ET service on May 31, 2023; four days after the aircraft returned from Abuja.
The aircraft must have been on ground for four days to undergo the necessary repainting and checks prior to returning it to service after the May 26 reception which was also welcome with a ceremonial water salute by officials of the Aerodrome Rescue and Fire-fighting Service unit of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria.
The unveiling was the last major engagement carried out by the former minister before his exit and it was to him a fulfillment and a delivery of the core component of Muhammadu Buhari’s Aviation roadmap.
Sirika had promised two days before the unveiling that the Nigeria Airplane would arrive on May 26 when criticisms were high about his inability to deliver on the national carrier.
And like he promised, the aircraft arrived amidst fanfare at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
Shortly after the minister’s statement that the airplane would arrive on May 26, the Airline Operators of Nigeria raised an alarm over an alleged move by the minister to arm-twist the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority to waive key regulatory requirements and grant AOC to Nigeria Air.
The Chief Executive Officer of Aero Contractors, Capt. Ado Sanusi, while speaking on a television programme, said it was one thing to have an aircraft on ground and another for the aircraft to fly.
He said as far as he was concerned, based on the regulatory provisions relating to the start of airline operation, it was impossible for the national carrier to start flight operation.
According to him, it is practically impossible for the airline to start commercial passenger operation in two days’ time given the rigorous process involved which he believed would not be waived by the regulatory authority, NCAA as the whole world was watching.
“There’s a very important and vital component of getting an AOC which is the demonstration flights. Of course, there are waivers that the Director General of the NCAA has the power to give, but the demonstration flights are critical to safe operations and I do not think he would give that waiver.
“So, it is practically impossible for the airline to take off in the next two days. It is not possible because they have to do the demonstration flights, the five phases have to be completed, the international community is looking at us to see actually whether we are following what the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) stipulated in their recommended practices and laid down procedures for commercial carriage of passengers internationally,” Sanusi said.
The process of acquiring an AOC involves five rigorous stages. The phases include pre-application. At this stage, the intending carrier is expected to make initial enquiry or request about NCAA’s certification; obtaining of Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) and advisory; provision of forms to prospective applicants’ NCAA receives.
Phase two includes document compliance. At this stage, an intending carrier is expected to show evidence of financial capacity to undertake the business, proposed commensurate Insurance Policy and/or insurance arrangement being put in place and duly completed Personal History Statement (PHS) forms and two passport photographs in respect of each of the directors of the company.
At this stage, the NCAA is expected to seek security clearance from the Presidency on behalf of the applicant. However, phase three of the exercise is the Demonstration Phase, while the fourth and the fifth phase include inspection and issuance of certificates.
Also, a start-up airline, according to regulations, is expected to start with a minimum of two aircraft for it to be granted an AOC.
But in the case of Nigeria Air, the NCAA denied the airline further steps in the process of its AOC for failure to adhere to the step-by-step process.
The failure to follow the process was made known to the Nigeria Air Managing Director in a letter signed by Capt. O.O Lawani for the Director General of the NCAA.
The letter tagged, “Re: Request to Proceed to Phase Two of AOC Certification” with reference number NCAA/DOLTS//GEEN/Vol. III/16123 was dated June 2, 2023.
The letter read, “The authority is in receipt of your letter dated 25th May 2023 on the above matter.
“Quite contrary to our earlier letter of 16th May 2023 which enumerated the documents to be submitted with Formal Application Form OPS 002, your letter of request to proceed to phase two has no inclusion of a Formal Application Form, the necessary documents referenced in the Formal Application Form. Hence, the certification process cannot progress to Phase Two without these required documents.”
With the letter, it was clear that the airline had barely proceeded from stage one of the AOC process and therefore cannot progress to the next stage.
When the Director General of the NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, was asked about the airline sometime last year, he disclosed that the carrier was undergoing security clearance.
He said, “The only thing I can tell you is that the promoters of that airline have applied and their AOC is ongoing. I don’t have any assurance of when the licenses would be. You see, when you apply for AOC or any certification, some issues are not completely under the purview of the NCAA like seeking security clearance for the applicant, security agents do that.
“I don’t have control over security agencies to give such clearances. They have applied and it is ongoing, we are waiting for security clearance.”
On April 1, 2022, the NCAA published a public notice to intimate the general public of the registration of the proposed Nigeria Air and on June 3, 2022, the airline was issued an Air Transport License (ATL) which is a precursor to the issuance of AOC.
Trouble however started when the minister unveiled the shareholding structure of Nigeria Air, showing that Ethiopian Airlines – the biggest airline in Africa – would have a controlling share of 49 percent. ET also demanded to appoint a Managing Director and some key management positions in the start-up carrier.
But the AON representing domestic airlines took the Federal Government to court to challenge the shareholding structure which it argued was designed to give Nigeria Air an advantage over other domestic airlines. In addition, they feared it could be an avenue to open the domestic market to Ethiopian Airlines.
The case was still in court when the launch came up on May 26 which is currently generating ripples in the industry and raising more questions about the intention of the immediate past government on the national carrier.
The Chief Executive Officer of TopBrass Airlines, Capt. Roland Iyayi, said the controversial launch of the airline had justified the fear of the airline operators who challenged the whole arrangement in court.
“It is very clear that the former minister had no clear intention of setting up a national carrier. What he was trying to do was to set up a private airline disguised as a national carrier because he was saying that the Federal Government would hold only five percent, then of course that cannot be a national carrier. And then all the questions we asked about institutional investors and all the people who supposedly own 46 percent were not answered. So, we actually have a lot of issues with that and that is why the AON decided to go to court to get clarifications. As it is now, we may have been proven right.“
AON later issued a statement hailing the NCAA for not succumbing to pressure to issue AOC for the airline.
According to the AON, the aircraft that was used for the static display in Abuja on May 26 was not the first flight of Nigeria Air into Abuja.
“This is because Nigeria Air has not commenced flight operations as required by law. Nigeria Air has not been issued with an Air Operators Certificate (AOC) by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which is the legal authority for the issuance of such certificates and as such, cannot conduct flight operations. Further to that, the aircraft is an Ethiopian Airline property that, even during the static display in Abuja, operated with an Ethiopian registration number as ET-APL. A further check at Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) will show that the flight entered Nigeria as an ET flight.”
“Prof. Obiora Okonkwo, AON spokesperson, said, “It is capable of causing Nigeria to be blacklisted by aviation safety agencies like the US FAA and the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency)”
Prof. Obiora Okonkwo, AON spokesperson, said, “It is capable of causing Nigeria to be blacklisted by aviation safety agencies like the US FAA and the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency).
“Further implications include that airlines of those countries will not come into Nigeria, and Nigerian airlines will not be allowed to operate into those countries. It also means that Nigeria will definitely fail the upcoming ICAO audit and, by way of further penalty, lose its FAA CAT-1 Certification. Nigerian airlines will also not be able to lease aircraft to boost their operations because no lessor will trust the safety certification process of the NCAA.”
Aviation experts say the return of the aircraft to Addis was an indication that no launching was done and are calling for enquiries about what transpired.
Principal Partner, Avaero Capital, Sindy Foster, said the launch on May 26 “was more of a theatrical performance than the launch or kick off of any airline.”
Nigeria Air not fraud – Buhari’s ex-aide
However, former President Muhammadu Buhari’s Special Assistant on Digital Communications, Bashir Ahmad, has insisted that the Nigeria Air was not a fraud.
Ahmad said the Aviation Ministry had signed most of the necessary documents regarding Nigeria Air.
He noted that most of the operational certificates and offices have been issued and opened.
Tweeting, Ahmad wrote: “Nigeria Air is NOT a fraud, the Aviation Ministry has made significant progress towards its realization.
“Branding unveiled, partnerships and agreements signed, most of the operational certificates issued, and operational offices opened. Nigeria Air will fly to make Nigeria proud.”