Nigeria Air, “fake” airline and real scandal of the Buhari era,What was to be one of the symbols of the end of Muhammadu Buhari’s mandate will perhaps be one of the last scandals of his presidency at the head of Nigeria.
On May 26 – three days before the official term of the outgoing head of state – aviation ministry officials unveiled with great fanfare the “first plane” flocked in the colors of Nigeria Air. But the hearings conducted since Monday, June 5 by a parliamentary committee have revealed that the “alleged launch” of Nigeria Air is “surrounded by gray areas, opaque, and likely to tarnish Nigeria’s image internationally. »
The communication operation was derailed even before it began with the publication of a video, which went viral, showing the device on the tarmac of Bole International airport, in Addis Ababa, on the morning of May 26. “If you pause the image, you will clearly see that this aircraft is registered by Ethiopian Airlines under the number ET-APL”, said Nigerian journalist and whistleblower David Hundeyin on Twitter, who revealed the case the same day.
While the outgoing Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, poses for the photographers in front of the device, the journalist continues his investigation online and quickly demonstrates that the plane purchased in 2010 by Ethiopian Airlines regularly flies between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu. “On the FlightRadar tracking application, we can see that it (…) disappeared for five days in Tel Aviv (to be repainted) before reappearing in Abuja, where it was “inaugurated” fraudulently”, advance David Hundeyin on Twitter, screenshots in support.
“Unfair” and “opaque” deal
Since then, the ET-APL plane has regained its Ethiopian colors and resumed its connection with Somalia. As for the Nigeria Air site, which went online on May 26, it still does not allow reservations to be taken. “It is not only corruption, but above all blatant incompetence”, denounces David Hundeyin, reached by telephone in London where he lives. “It was very clear that they were never going to get an Air Operator’s Certificate on such short notice. They could have made sure to come up with an exit plan, To instead of which they came to parade in front of this plane, announcing that thirty others would soon be commissioned! », enrages the journalist.
On May 30, the Nigerian Parliament’s Aviation Committee convened an emergency meeting with “all connected individuals and agencies” to this company “extremely controversial”. The project to establish a Nigerian national airline was unveiled in July 2018 at an aeronautical fair in England, before being suspended two months later. Critical voices were already worried about the astronomical cost of such an operation, while corruption and mismanagement had already precipitated the ruin of the previous national carrier, Nigeria Airways, in the 2000s.
But the idea continued to gain ground, supported by the Minister of Aviation. The signing of an agreement with Ethiopian Airlines in September 2022 relaunched the machine in the home stretch of Muhammadu Buhari’s mandate. According to the terms of this agreement, the Ethiopian company would hold 49% of the capital of Nigeria Air, while the Nigerian government would only control 5%. The rest would be in the hands of a consortium of three Nigerian investors.
This progress very quickly came up against the rebellion of the Nigerian air operators (AON), worried about an offensive on prices which risked leading, according to them, to “the liquidation of several local companies in six months”. In November 2022, a federal court in Lagos ordered the government to suspend its partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, after eight domestic carriers appealed against a deal “unfair” And “opaque”.
This court decision obviously did not prevent the Minister of Aviation from announcing “the launch of Nigeria Air”, at the end of May, much to the chagrin of local airlines. On May 25, their legal adviser wrote to the Attorney General of the Nigerian Federation denouncing an attempt to “circumventing the court ruling (…) in order to claim that Nigeria Air commenced operations (…) on the very last day of the outgoing administration, possibly with the aim of covering up various breaches of Nigerian laws, among others. »
Since then, the permanent secretary of the ministry of aviation admitted to parliamentarians that Nigeria Air had not obtained its air operator’s certificate, and the company’s acting director admitted that the plane which paraded on the tarmac from Abuja airport on May 26 was an Ethiopian Airlines chartered flight, licensed to fly into Nigeria for forty-eight hours.
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Convinced of the appearance “fraudulent” of this operation, the parliamentary committee asked the new Nigerian President, Bola Tinubu, to completely suspend the activities of Nigeria Air and to launch an in-depth investigation into the subject. Questions remain unanswered, in particular on the use of the funds committed to this adventure and which would amount to 85.42 billion naira (nearly 171 million euros) over eight years.
“Unfortunately this shows the bad faith of many people in government circles, who will push any idea, even if it is not economically viable, in order to enrich themselves personally,” sighs Cheta Nwanze, head of the analysis firm SBM Intelligence, in Lagos. He regrets that the previous government completely trampled on the court decision obtained by the local companies in 2022. “Unfortunately, despite the statements of the parliamentary committee, I fear that no one is really being prosecuted in this casehe finally notes. This would obviously send a very bad signal about the impunity of the leaders in Nigeria. »