The biggest news in the nation’s aviation sector came alive again recently when the highly discussed Nigeria Air project became another investment joke. The Federal Government, on September 20, announced the suspension of the Nigeria Air project at a Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting. The decision was taken following the complexities of the processes leading to the final take-off of the airline.
Nigerians were expectant of the Nigeria Air project for so many reasons. When the defunct Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL) was liquidated by the Federal Government in 2004, its demise contributed in retarding growth of the nation’s aviation industry. The success story of NAL is still aptly amplified by some existing projects put in place alongside the airline. Under Nigeria Airways, the country developed its aviation training school, the Nigeria College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, developed international destinations where Nigerians loved to travel to and also linked different parts of the country by air.T he fact that many indigenous carriers had failed to match the records set by the defunct national carrier raised hope that Nigeria was indeed ready for another airline after the costly experiment with Virgin Nigeria.
Memories are still fresh at another attempt involving Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, which, however, collapsed. Other attempts to float a national carrier such as ‘Air Nigeria’ and ‘Nigerian Global’ were not successful after spending huge public resources. For the fact that Nigerian carriers are weak and fragmented, they have not been able to harness the market for their own benefit, making foreign airlines the beneficiaries.
Hence, the Federal Government, through the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, was convinced just like President Muhammadu Buhari that Nigeria indeed needed an airline she could call her own in the true sense of it and not airlines that masqueraded as flag carrier airlines. As expected, Nigerians were promised a very robust corporate governance framework right from inception with strong measures to keep the venture firmly under private management and control – free from government interference. It is rather unfortunate that no sooner had the launch of the brand name and logo been concluded, Nigeria Air evaporated into thin air to the consternation of Nigerians.
The project was highly criticised at the initial stage, as those in the know had faulted the arrangement between the Federal Government and its partners. The initial steps taken by the minister were proven to have been on the wrong side immediately the airline was launched at Farnborough, United Kingdom and the announcement that the carrier would become operational on December 19, 2018, as the Federal Government denied knowledge about the project.
The announcement was received with mixed feelings with many accusing government of shrouding the entire project in secrecy while others backed Sirika’s dogged efforts at bestowing the nation with a functional carrier. Appalling was the announcement that the initial capital for the airline would range between $150 million and $300 million in the first few years of operation, even though the private sector partner was yet to be identified. The most plausible inkling that the project would not fly at the appointed date was in the acquisition of aircraft. Although, government had engaged in multiple talks with aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing and Airbus, it was learnt that none of them gave its commitment to the project. Also, government felt it would not be laying a solid foundation to start a national carrier using old aircraft, which might be provided if they were to lease planes for start-up.
There were also indications that the Federal Government couldn’t raise the funds needed to set up the national carrier within the short deadline it gave itself. Although having a national carrier has its merits and demerits, the latter are basically what obtain with the involvement of government in business activities as poor performance, inefficiency and waste become the hallmark, especially in a country like Nigeria where corruption is rife. On the other hand, the merits include the capability to promote the abundant tourism industry as well as generating revenue for the country. Despite the fears being nursed over government’s plans for the new deal, having a national carrier would make it possible to enjoy the benefits of Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA), which allows international and commercial air transport mechanisms to freely move between territories. As at today, most of the bilateral agreements are in favour of foreign airlines at the expense of domestic ones. This would be corrected with a national carrier in place.
Those genuinely clamouring for a national carrier are impressed with the success stories of continental ones like Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, Egypt Air and South African Airways that have become formidable and efficient airlines. Ethiopian Airlines alone currently flies to over 80 international destinations across five continents with over 200 daily flights. As Nigeria Air project goes into vapour, we advised the Federal Government to take urgent steps towards setting up a truly befitting airline. We also commend the Federal Government for sincerely distancing itself from the project, which would have placed the country in a servile spot.
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