The Federal Government on Friday took delivery of the first plane of the country’s national carrier, Nigeria Air, amid protest from local airline operators that it was contrary to a court order, which barred the government from taking further action on the project.
The government received a Boeing 737 aircraft which flew into Abuja from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in readiness for the commencement of local flights.
Speaking at the unveiling ceremony, in Abuja, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, claimed that “no law stops development in Nigeria” in response to airline operators’ claim that the government action was in disobedience to a court order.
The minister noted that the delivery of Nigeria Air was an indication that the country would achieve great things in the aviation industry.
According to Sirika, Nigeria Air Limited is a private sector-led airline, with only five per cent of the company owned by the government, adding that the rest is owned by a consortium of entrepreneurs in Nigeria and entrepreneurs in the Ethiopian Airlines consortium, which had been in the pipeline since 2016.
“There were challenges, but we did not allow them to make us lose focus, and today we are here,” Sirika said. “We pray that it will be good for our country, its people, its future, and humanity.”
Sirika also addressed concerns about ongoing litigation, insisting that the launch of Nigeria Air Limited was not sub judice.
He said that the constitution of Nigeria allowed the government to continue bringing developmental projects to the people and that the focus on aviation was essential to the country’s economic growth.
“In the process of establishing an airline, there are conditions set by the regulator, which is the NCAA. So, this airplane will be here and we will commence the demonstration flight to show that we can do it.
“It is normally around 0-40 hours but it can be less. It can be five or even two hours and this is to ensure that we are able and have the capacity to do it,” the minister said.
According to him, Nigeria Air is targeting the 35 aircraft mark, but it has to be gradual to achieve it.
“You don’t come in one day to dump the airplanes and you don’t come in one day and start going to London. So, it is a gradual process and the aircraft will be coming after another until the five years that we reach the 35 aircraft mark,” he asserted.
Meanwhile, Airline Operators of Nigeria faulted the launch of the project in the last day of the current administration, arguing that it was a violation of court orders on status quo ante.
AON described the unveiling of the national carrier as a last-minute disobedience of court order, an attempt to muddle the water through a phantom project, and an effort to “rubbish” the Buhari-led administration.
A lawyer to the AON, Abubakar Nuhu Ahmad of the Nureini Jimoh (SAN) Chambers, in a memo to the Attorney General of the Federation, on Thursday, drew attention to the pending suit number: FHC/L/CS/2159/2022, challenging the “shady deals, deliberate infraction of the Nigerian laws and self-enrichment/corruption,” against the Federal Ministry of Aviation on the Nigeria Air project.
Ahmad said that in the said suit, the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos headed by Justice A.L Allagoa, granted three separate orders of injunctions, restraining the Federal Government from taking any step about the Nigeria Air project.
He noted that while the administration would hand over on Monday, May 29, 2023, “the Minister of Aviation, Sen. Hadi Sirika, is planning to circumvent the court orders on Friday, May 26, 2023, being the last working day of this administration, and possibly to cover up the various infractions of Nigerian laws, amongst others.
“The minister is planning to hurriedly bring in two aircraft and pretend that Nigeria Air has commenced operation. Aside from moral justification for commercial operation after the last day in office, it is a clever way to violate the court orders, whether or not it will cover for corrupt actions raised in the suit and deliberately meant to violate court orders for self-serving purposes,” Ahmad stated.
According to him, the court gave the order upon receiving the application of the AON, urging the court to stop the national carrier deal and withdraw the Air Transport Licence already issued to Nigeria Air by the Federal Government through the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
One of the plaintiffs in the suit against Nigeria Air, a former Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency and Managing Director of Topbrass Aviation, Captain, Roland Iyayi, while reacting to the Nigeria Air aircraft to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja said, “This is nothing short of a monumental fraud by the minister. The aircraft that was flown in today has a registration is ET-APL and it’s a Boeing 737 8max belonging to Ethiopian Airlines. This particular aircraft was operated by Malawian Airlines one of ETs other subsidiaries but failed.
“The point here is, this aircraft is not Nigerian, so it cannot be said to be an aircraft acquired for the purpose of Nigeria Air but my instincts tell me what the minister has done is to hurriedly arrange with ET to fly an aircraft into the country for the purpose of hoodwinking Nigerians further that this indeed is the first aircraft in a series of aircraft for Nigeria Air.
“Nothing can be farther from the truth because the fact of the matter is that this aircraft will be leaving Nigeria later today or tomorrow and flying to Turkey. We have checked out on the flight radar the routing of this aircraft and the schedule and it is evident that it is only transiting Nigeria for this show, which is a big farce as far as I am concerned.
“I see this as a monumental fraud by the minister and it does not augur well for the integrity of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, because essentially you cannot in one breathe be told by the court to stay action on a project pending the determination of the substantive matter yet you went ahead and violation of every court order that has been issued on this matter. You flew in an aircraft and even went ahead to invite the press, government officials and even traditional rulers for the purported unveiling of the airline.”
According to him, this is in contempt of a court order and indeed the outgoing minister of aviation must be fully sanctioned and he must be brought before the court and the full weight of the law be put to bear on him.
He argued that the country cannot continue to be lawless, an act which had been dissuading foreign investors from investing in Nigeria.
“It will discourage any well-meaning business person who wants to come into Nigeria because if you know where you want to invest has no law and order, what is the point going in there?” he continued.
Also, speaking on condition of anonymity, a stakeholder in the industry said, “We all know what Nigerians can do. This is more about what they should do. If they have any genuine interest and love for the future of their country and this industry! The registration number is ET-APL. This is an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft previously leased to Malawian Airlines one of ETs other failures. It was returned and is in active service with ET.
“I was not born yesterday and I am not going to act dumb to indulge anyone’s antics. I look forward to the day when Nigeria will genuinely have an airline which can serve the nation’s interest and not personal interest. It is far from achieving that in my opinion.”
Furthermore, the Chief Commercial Officer of Ethiopian Airlines, Lemma Gudeta, expressed delight in being a part of the historic unveiling of Nigeria Air as a foreign company operating in Africa for 77 years.
Speaking at the unveiling ceremony, Gudeta highlighted the importance of Ethiopian Airlines as “the custodian to work on the development of Nigeria Airways” and expressed the airline’s commitment to supporting Nigeria’s economic growth.
“We strongly believe that our presence here in Nigeria will enhance people-to-people and business-to-business links between the most populous nations in Africa.”