BEING a strong believer in state control of the commanding heights of the economy, President Muhammadu Buhari has never hidden his desire to float a new national carrier for the country. In November last year when the Nigerian-born President of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Mr. Muyiwa Aliu, visited him in Abuja, the President trumpeted the “serious pressure” on him from “patriotic Nigerians” to set up the airline.
It was not surprising when three months ago, activities heightened towards actualisation of the project. Minister of State, Aviation, Alhaji Hadi Sirika, indicated in May a deadline set by the President for the unveiling of Nigeria Air by December 2018. Then, on July 18, 2018, Sirika went to the Farnborough International Air show, London and unveiled the logo of the putative Nigeria Air. He disclosed that it would need $308.8 million as startup capital and $8.8 million as “pre-startup capital”.
According to him, the Federal Government would only hold five per cent equity in the supposed national carrier, though conclusions had not been reached as to who the supposed private sector operators would be. An elated Sirika added further that the airline would take off with five aircraft and increase to 30 within five years, targeting 81 destinations.
However, the Minister shocked the nation penultimate Wednesday after the Federal Executive Council meeting when he announced the indefinite suspension of the Nigeria Air national carrier project. He did not give reasons for the decision, though the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, later explained the action was taken due to “investor apathy”.
When the logo of the aborted Nigeria Air was unveiled with fanfare, many Nigerians who shared the “patriotism” and “economic” reasons that the President justified for his enthusiasm to embark on the national carrier were delighted that the venture was in sight. While we shared in this euphoria, we had called attention to the unpaid benefits of staff of the defunct Nigerian Airways liquidated in 2003, which amounts to over N45 billion. Aviation professionals and workers’ unions had also openly vowed to “sabotage” the new national carrier unless these debts and other outstanding issues were settled first.
It is gratifying to note that government has released N22.68bn to offset part of the benefits.
The suspension of the venture signifies another costly policy failure, following equally expensive but failed similar attempts by the Obasanjo and Jonathan regimes. The government failed to do a simple feasibility study but blundered headlong into the venture, only to retrace its steps after spending huge sums chasing shadows.
We call for a probe of this policy failure, especially the allegation that the rather simplistic logo of the aborted Nigeria Air was designed by a foreign firm. We demand full disclosure of all that happened.