In what seems like a U-turn, the federal government has announced the indefinite suspension of the national carrier project.
The decision was disclosed yesterday in Abuja by the minister of state for aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika through his twitter handle, @hadisirika.
The tweet reads,” I regret to announce that the Federal Executive Council has taken the tough decision to suspend the National Carrier project in the interim. All commitments due will be honoured. We thank the public for the support as always. Hadi Sirika.”
The minister, while briefing journalists, however, said the decision was strategic and dismissed claims that the suspension was due to pressure from stakeholders and the political atmosphere.
He said, “Today in Council, the federal government of Nigeria has decided to suspend the National Carrier project for some strategic reasons and we would advise you in due course.
“The decision has nothing to do with the pressure from stakeholders because we have explained, as a government, that for 40 years; since 1978 to 1980 when decision was made to liberalise the sector, we saw the coming of Okada, Arco, ABC, Bellview, and so on. We have seen their coming and their exit and, right now, we have got Medview, Air Peace, Arik; we have got all of these people with permission to go international.
“We have given them Banjul, Dubai, London, South Africa and everywhere. Of course, none of them is meeting the need of Nigerian people to have a robust national carrier and that is to say that something is amiss. This was the intention of government – to set up a carrier that would deliver this service to Nigerian people.
“So, the service is needed and that is why the federal government went ahead to appoint a transaction adviser to continue the process. So it has nothing to do with pressure. There is no pressure.
“You and I know that the service is not being delivered in Nigeria. Locally and internationally as well, prices of tickets are astronomical within international routes and certain routes in Nigeria that ought to be developed are not developed. In the past, Nigerian Airways was doing Makurdi, Sokoto, Calabar, Maiduguri with BC10 and full.
“So, with this absence, this gap is there. With all the number of airlines flying the country, this sudden growth to 20 airplanes, we have seen it in Okada, Kabo, Arik and many others, but the service is not being delivered. So there is no argument from stakeholders to say we should not proceed, no.”
On whether the national carrier project was motivated to achieve political ends, he replied: “I think those saying it was politically motivated are being very unfair to Mr. President.”
Sirika noted that even before he was appointed the aviation minister, the rector of Nigeria College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Captain Abdulsalam Muhammed, had already been appointed the chairman of the task force for the establishment of a national carrier.
“ Shortly after Mr President was sworn in, they handed over the report to government and government gave me the report and asked me to implement – to set up a national carrier. So it had nothing to do with politics. It is strategic; let’s leave it at that. It has been suspended for now,” he said.
On how the international stakeholders would perceive the decision, he said: “Since there is lot of international engagements and banks, consulting companies and all, I wonder how they will believe in us, that we are serious again in future.
“But I believe it is very clear and they know we are serious. The amount of time and resources spent in the last two and half years trying to get to the end of this procurement speaks for us and also the viability of the project, especially the Outline Business Case that has been developed has shown to the world that this is a serious venture and this is serious government and we are serious to do it, and since I said it is strategic, it is part of the strategy; whenever we come back, our government or a future government, I am sure the international community will believe in us and will believe the reasons that led to suspending it for now.”
‘Why FEC Suspended National Carrier Project’
Meanwhile the federal government has explained why it suspended the national carrier project indefinitely.
According to a presidency source, the Economic Management Team (EMT) chaired by the vice president did not give the go-ahead.
The source explained that EMT’s recommendation was that government should not set up a national carrier with public funds.
He said, “EMT wants the ministry of transportation to instead accelerate the search for a strategic investment partner who will finance and manage the new airline.
“In the absence of a borrowing plan for government participation, the president ruled against spending money that is not in the budget. Promoters of the idea of the new national carrier were therefore asked to work towards 2019 budget if any government investment is to be involved.”
LEADERSHIP recalls that Nigeria Air was unveiled on July 18 at the Farnborough International Airshow in London and operations were scheduled to begin in December.
At the unveiling, Sirika had said the airline will be managed by private investors with the federal government owning a five per cent stake in the business. He had stressed that the government was fully committed to fulfilling the campaign promise made by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 to establish a new national carrier to replace the defunct Nigerian Airways. He had set December 2018 deadline for the airline to begin operations with a minimum of five aircraft.
Suspension Will Give FG More Time To Plan – Stakeholders
Expectedly, reactions have trailed the federal government’s suspension of the national carrier project.
Aviation stakeholders said yesterday in Lagos that the suspension of Air Nigeria project would enable the federal government to plan properly on how to float it to stand the test of time.
Mr Ikechi Uko, a travel and tourism expert and the promoter of the Akwaaba Travel and Tourism Market, said the move by the government was not surprising, especially as the country was approaching the 2019 general elections.
He said, “It is not surprising because the timing was wrong. I think it is a positive thing that we do not ruin a national aspiration. The way it was going will not have yielded the desired results. “For me, it is good news that people can now go back and plan properly. After the elections, we can now focus on the project with the help of other Nigerian airlines because they have to be carried along.”
On his part, Mr Olayinka Abioye, the general secretary, National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), said that a good foundation for the new national carrier was not laid, particularly as the ex-workers of the defunct Nigerian Airways were still agitating for their entitlements.
“It is a noble thing for Nigeria to have a national carrier. We stand for it and we will continue to advocate for it because the benefits are humongous.
“However, we are not surprised about the suspension, because we said it loud and clear that the outstanding N45 billion entitlements of ex-Nigerian Airways workers have to be paid,” he said.
Abioye added that members of the aviation unions had already staged a protest before the acting finance minister, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, who had promised to look into the issue and get back to the unions.
“It is a welcome development, and I think we should go back to the table and do all that is necessary,” he added.