The controversial national carrier, Nigeria Air, may now see the light of day in the second quarter of this year, as a request for proposal will go public this week.
The Guardian, yesterday, learnt that yet another shift in take-off date, earlier proposed for the first quarter, was due to delays in mandatory approvals that have now been granted for the commencement of the bidding phase.
Though the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, has hinted at speedy wrap up ahead of takeoff next month, findings from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) showed that the request for the Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) and Air Transport Licence (ATL) has not been tabled as at weekend.
The national carrier is to replace the defunct Nigeria Airways that ceased operations in 2003. The replacement was designed as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project with the Federal Government owning a five per cent stake.
In 2018, the national carrier and its christening in London set the minister on a collision course with the Nigerian public. Harsh criticism of the alleged prodigal roll-out at the Farnborough Airshow in London was instrumental to the ‘temporary’ suspension of the launch, earlier scheduled for December 24, 2018.
Findings then showed that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) did not also warm up to the proposed airline because it had no provision in the 2018 appropriation law. But since then to date, the project has been rattling-up votes, with about seven shifts in take-off date.
The project has racked up a total of N14.65 billion in appropriation votes between 2019 and 2022. About 40 per cent of the sum (N6.25 billion) has been channelled to working capital, consultancy and transaction advisers’ fees.
Sirika, at the weekend, confirmed the commencement for the issuance of requests for proposal to intending investors on March 8, 2022, coupled with plans to secure the AOC, constitution of a nine-man board to manage the carrier temporarily, among others.
He reaffirmed that the Federal Government would own a five per cent stake of the airline while the general public will own 46 per cent and the international partners’ airlines take 49 per cent shares.
“We will give them some weeks to respond to the request, then we will announce the winning bidder. Because government intends to own only five per cent of the airline shares, we are going to go ahead with the AOC, which has commenced since.
“I believe that by April, we should be able to have our AOC ready, which means, we are ready to start. And once the AOC is in our hands, the offices are secured, the interim board is being constituted, and when they finish signing the contract, we will announce who they are.
“Currently, they are called interim because they will hold the airline on an interim basis up to the time the investors will come and take over. The interim members are noble people, some are Nigerians, some are not. I think they are about nine of them to run the airline and they will begin operations between now and July,” the minister said.
As of yesterday, a top official in the NCAA said they were yet to see a request on behalf of the new airline, “but we expect one soon.”
The hurried April 2022 roll-out date, without technical partners in place nor the mandatory ATL and AOC in the works, raised suspicion of a government-protected airline that may circumvent standard procedure and edge unfair competition to get by.
Operators, who are apparently unsettled by the prospect, said it would be unfair for the government to be the regulator and operator at the same time, and egg on a “national airline” without transparency.
A stakeholder, who did not want to be mentioned, intoned that the “noble initiative” began with a wrong footing and has continued in errors that naturally discredit the merits.
“We live in a country where nobody can trust politicians or the government. The reason is simple, you can easily pick holes in their claims. The minister, a trained aviator and someone that should know should not say that a new airline will employ 70,000 people and expect Nigerians to clap for him. Even the best airlines in the world don’t have such numbers despite decades of operation. The figures are all in the public domain. So, when you start with a lie, you make nonsense of the whole thing.
“It is unheard of that a government borrowing to pay salaries will be funding a national carrier, albeit camouflaging with foreign investment, which has been nonexistent. In 2017, a prominent Middle Eastern carrier rejected the offer of partnership with the Nigerian Air project, advising the minister of aviation to first go and fix the infrastructure in the industry – terminals, aids, seamless connection between domestic and international flights, aids, and so on.
“These should be the priority of the minister. Fix the infrastructure! Why is he championing the national carrier, if the government is having only five per cent interest? How can he set up a start date without even naming the foreign partners? Who are the local partners? Why has it taken five years and he has not succeeded in this project? He is Nigeria’s longest-serving minister and has received every financial and budgetary support to succeed, but there’s very little to show for it,” he claimed.