Nigeria Air: It’s Long Road To Timbuktu

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By Fred Edoreh

It’s been like a decade that I last paid any close attention to talks about the revival of Nigeria Airways or the re-establishment of a national carrier.

Sometime in 2012, it was said that it had been revived as Nigeria Air with the partnership and management of Mr Jimoh Ibrahim and his NICON investment group and, in patriotic zeal to support its success, many Nigerians opted to fly with it on several trips to and fro London for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In September of that year, when they were to return, it was announced that the airline had closed shop on the 6th, the regulatory authorities had suspended its worthiness and operation licence, the lessors of its aircrafts had taken some of them back, it was highly indebted and had sacked over 500 of its workers for what was termed “disloyalty.”

The passengers became stranded in London with one Indian man who didn’t even understand what was going on to contend with at the stand in Gatwick Airport.

After much hue and cry, a single last return flight was arranged on September 9. Of course, it couldn’t possibly accommodate all the passengers it took to London, not to talk of those whose return dates were still days ahead.

It was said that, on that day, the crew requested a contribution of £40 from each of the passengers to enable them fuel the aircraft for the journey back to Nigeria.

The process took almost the whole day and the flight which was to depart by about 8.30am managed to take off by about 5pm, even as the passengers starved for the long hours of wait and through the journey.

The flight landed safely in Lagos, but without the luggage of the passengers. It took them days, even weeks, with several trips to the airport, to recover their belongings.

Those who couldn’t make the flight had to cough out unforeseen and unbudgeted N400,000 plus for a one way ticket on other airlines to get back home.

There was talk that they would be compensated but I didn’t hear much of that again.

What I heard was Ibrahim’s explanation that the airline was like a normal human being who can fall ill and would require either corporate surgery or treatment at the hospital.

I also heard the then Director of Finance of the airline, John Nnorom, continue to insist that all that Ibrahim did was to, on the strength of his involvement in the revival project, obtain a N35 billion aviation development loan specially granted by the government, which he allegedly converted to personal use while pretending to be reviving Nigeria Air, an accusation which Ibrahim equally continues to deny.

Sometime in 2016, I began again to hear the former Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, talk about reviving the national carrier. In fact, at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show in the UK, he unveiled the return of Nigeria Air, boasting that it will be the biggest and best in Africa.

That was, perhaps, after leading the Buhari government to approve $8.8 million as preliminary cost and $300 million as take-off cost for its relaunch.

I didn’t hear much of it again until, on May 26, three days to the end of Muhammadu Buhari’s Presidency, when I saw footages of Sirika and some fellows in a ceremony at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, purporting to be unveiling the return of Nigeria Air.

Just then, Dan Agbese of Newswatch fame immediately came to my mind. Sometime in 2022 when Sirika spoke about the revival of Nigeria Air, Agbese wrote this in The Guardian:

“The Federal Government expected applause, it received none…Not a few experts and non-experts alike criticised the decision, telling the government to find something better to do with its wealth, as in buy more SUVs for Niger Republic, rather than waste it on a new national carrier that will, at best, have its five minutes of fame in the aviation industry and sooner than later become history.”

Agbese’s scepticism notwithstanding, sometime in March 2023, Sirika got louder to announce that a revived Nigeria Air was all set and would commence local, regional and international flights before the end of Buhari’s tenure.

“Before May 29, we will fly,” he said. That snowballed into the May 26 unveiling ceremony in Abuja.

Explaining that the ‘magic’ was achieved in partnership with Ethiopian Airlines and investors, he enthused that the revival had come to a glorious realisation.

“It’s a very long journey that we started in 2016 and ended up today. There were challenges but we did not allow them to make us lose focus and today we are here,” he waltzed, further revealing that operations would commence in a few days while there are plans for the carrier to acquire 35 aircrafts in five years.

But as Agbese predicted, few hours after the cameras, we began to hear that the aircraft displayed at the ceremony was an Ethiopian Airline plane with merely a painting of Nigerian colours. This became the subject of probe at the National Assembly.

As summoned, both the Managing Director of the new Nigeria Air, Dapo Olumide, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Aviation, Emmanuel Meribole, tactically rescaled the essence of the May 26 event to a clear variance with the impression Sirika conveyed.

“This is not a launch of the airline. We have no airline. It was a chartered flight. When you have money to charter an aircraft, you can paint it any colour you like. It was to come to Nigeria for 48 hours. It has nothing to do with the airline launch,” the MD said.

“(the launch) has a process to go through with the regulators. We have phases one, two, three, four and five until you get the AOC (Air Operation Certificate). Until then, you don’t have an airline,” he explained.

Meribole concurred that “we have not gotten an AOC for us to do official launching. The process is ongoing. The unveiling is “aspirational” to allow people to see.”

My question is: For which people to see what? An aircraft licenced to Ethiopian Airlines and painted in Nigerian colours being displayed in Abuja as Nigeria Air?

Also, having not completed, not even achieved half of the process of certification, what was the compelling need for the unveiling ceremony?

Was it to amuse and massage President Buhari’s ego before he left, to deceive the people with a false sense of achievement or possibly to justify an spending that may yet be under wraps until tomorrow tells, or all of the above?

I am not alone in my disgust and suspicion. The House Committee on Aviation has recommended that all persons involved in the possible “fraud” be questioned and all appropriations made in respect of the “shenanigans” of reviving Nigeria Air since 2016 till date be audited.

As Agbese would put it, it is funny but the seriousness of the matter does not afford us the luxury of laughing.

Gabriel Olowo, a Nigerian who was Managing Director of Varig, a Brazilian Airline, and an industry player for over three decades says the problem with airlines operation in Nigeria is caused 30% by the mismanagement of the owners but 70% by the government.

This perhaps would explain the experience of Richard Branson who had earlier bought into the Nigeria Airways revival project with his Virgin Group in 2004.

When he came to Nigeria in 2001 to launch the four-times weekly Lagos-London route of his Virgin Atlantic Airline and to request further seven weekly slots, then President Olusegun Obasanjo cornered and talked him into a partnership to revive the national carrier.

The deal was consummated in 2004 with Virgin Atlantic acquiring 49% stake in what then became Virgin Nigeria while the government and local investors retained 51% stake.

According to reports, the arrangement was to enable Nigeria effectively utilise the 16 flights per week allocation on the Lagos-London route and dominate domestic and regional routes.

In the memorandum, Branson said, it was agreed that Virgin Nigeria would operate from the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, with the cutting edge of providing quick and convenient domestic connection for passengers to other local destinations.

Under the arrangement, Virgin Nigeria as a national carrier recovered it’s place as a preferred airline, airlifting over 1,000,000 passengers under two years, providing over N3 billion in profit to the Nigerian partners and planning to open shop in Abuja as well as increase flights to Kano, Abuja and other top domestic destinations.

Just then, “yawa” bust. Under the succeeding government, Virgin Nigeria was ordered to relocate to Terminal 2 of the Domestic Wing built under concession by Wale Babalakin.

The new directive would compromise Virgin Nigeria’s business strategy but, hoping that the government would protect its newly revived national carrier, Branson thought to engage the authorities to see reason.

While he was at the negotiation, thugs marched on Virgin Nigeria offices and stands at the MMIA and left them with smashed properties.

Branson did not recover from the psychological horror and it was only a matter of time before he bolted from the scene.

First he divested into Nigeria Eagle Airline and eventually pulled out completely, giving room for Jimoh Ibrahim to take over as Nigeria Air.

From then, with all that story of the London 2012 Games flight, the sound and fury, motion without movement of the Sirika era, including the Farnborough show, the latest May 26 “aspirational” unveiling and the House Committee’s description of the ceremony as a fraud, it has indeed been a long journey for Nigeria Air with lots and lots of tales by moonlight or, should I say robbery in broad day?

This country, my brother!

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