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Nigerians rue failure of NASS oversight functions

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Messy accusations, denials and counter-accusations have continued to trail the unveiling of the national carrier, Nigeria Air on May 26th, sparking outrage, calls for better oversight functions, and improved governance.

Establishing a national carrier was one of the most anticipated projects that many Nigerians prayed that the Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government would deliver during its tenure.

Nigeria Air was a lofty initiative of the Buhari administration to serve as an official national carrier. The commercial airline, stipulated to be a Boeing 737 national carrier, was billed to have 51 per cent of its equity owned by the Nigerian government and people, while foreign partners would have the remaining 49 per cent.

Also, the then Aviation minister, Hadi Sirika, who midwifed the project hinted that the Air Nigeria carrier would generate over 70, 000 jobs when it begins operation. It was based on some of these promises that many hoped for the materialisation of the Nigeria Air project and the wait lingered for so long.

Nigeria Air was supposed to take off in December 2018 after its launch in July 2018 at the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom; however, that never happened. Sirika assured the Senate Committee on Aviation in October 2020, during the budget defence session, that the project’s plan would be completed in 2021, but that never came to be.

In addition, Sirika stated again on November 23, 2021, following the Federal Executive Council, FEC, meeting, that the airline’s operations will begin in 2022. It never happened again. Sirika then declared in 2022 that the date had been moved to July, which never materialised.

The date was postponed again to December 2022 after the aviation minister disclosed that an agreement has been reached with Ethiopian Airlines among other investors. Hopes were dashed again as the December deadline was not realised and was again shifted to the first quarter of 2023, but by the end of March, the minister reassured that Nigeria Air will fly before their handover date, May 29th.

Finally, with only three days left in Buhari’s presidency, Minister Sirika and his team unveiled a Boeing 737 800 Max with ‘Nigeria Air’ inscribed on it, registration number ET -APL, Mode S Q4005C, and serial number 40965/4075 at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja, in a bid to launch the much-touted national carrier.

But the aircraft had barely taken flight when it was uncovered that the reported Nigeria Aircraft was a borrowed aircraft from Ethiopian Airlines (ET), repainted and rebranded in Nigerian colours.

It was also discovered that the unveiled national carrier airlines which reportedly gulped over N85 billion was yet to procure an Air Operating Certificate (AOC), which is a needed approval issued by Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to aircraft operators to allow it use aircraft for commercial flight operations; besides, the purported Nigeria Air has not secured a single aircraft for its operations.

According to findings, the former Minister of Aviation contacted Ethiopian Airlines a few days before the transfer to obtain an aircraft that would be presented to Nigerians as a Nigeria Air aircraft. Just two days after the aircraft was exhibited, a flying live tracker revealed that the Nigeria Air plane had returned to Ethiopia, where it had been brought in from.

The unfolding shenanigans raised fears that much-hyped Nigeria’s dreams for a domestic airline have crash-landed. David Hundeyin, a Nigerian investigative journalist, who was at the forefront of uncovering the alleged scam, described the current government’s silence as a testament that there won’t be any distinction between the Buhari administration and the Tinubu government.

However, even with the government’s silence, Nigerians’ outrage resonated loudly as the national carrier project was tagged a ‘con job’. The uproar triggered calls and pressure on the government, especially the EFCC to not only arrest and prosecute the former Aviation minister but to also conduct a forensic audit on the whole process of the Nigeria Air project. On social and terrestrial media, the anger of Nigerians has been wild.

Astounded by the outcry heralding the Nigeria Air unveiling drama, the House of Representatives joined the fray and faulted the purported launch on May 26, 2023. They registered their concerns and expressed their dissatisfaction with Sirika, tagging the airplane project as a fraud.

Hon Nnaji Nnolim, who is chairman of the House Committee on Aviation, further called for a resolution asking the federal government to suspend the operation of the domestic carrier.

That scathing comment and indictment from the lawmakers seem to have irked the former minister to finally break his silence on the matter. During the live interview which aired on ARISE Television on Sunday, Sirika did not deny every accusation of fraud but launched a counter-accusation upon the House Committee.

Also, the minister while praising Ethiopian Airlines, dropped a statement that Air Peace leased ‘two’ Boeing 777 aircraft on a monthly lease fee of $250,000, parked the aircraft for several months and incurred losses of $19 million, while all the aircraft engines and landing gears became due for replacement when the airline was ready to fly. Sirika also disclosed that Air Peace stopped flying to Dubai because it lacks capacity.

On the lawmakers, Sirika claimed that high-powered individuals contributed to thwarting the actualisation of the domestic airline project, and alleged that Hon Nnolim Nnaji requested to be given five per cent of the Nigeria Air share for him and his people. He also slammed the aviation committee for conducting what he described as a “predetermined hearing”.

Miffed by the allegations levelled against his committee, Hon Nnolim Nnaji, in a swift statement accused Sirika of lying against him and described the former Aviation minister as a drowning man struggling to grab anything on his way to survive the barrage of attacks he has been receiving since his controversial unveiling ceremony of the so-called Nigeria Air.

The lawmaker termed Sirika’s accusations of demanding a five per cent share of Nigeria Air as “spurious” and an attempt by the ex-minister to deviate from the subject matter.

The Air Peace management responded with their salvo, also labelling the former minister as a liar for what he said on the ARISE interview. Air Peace’s Chief Operating Officer, Toyin Olajide, clarified that they never stopped the Dubai operations because of lack of capacity and that they never incurred a $19million loss as alleged by Sirika.

She then urged the general public to disregard the “lies told by the former minister of Aviation against Air Peace during the Arise TV Interview”.

With the scandalous controversy, it can be deduced that Nigeria’s move to launch a domestic airline was all a hoax.

And Nigerians while registering concerns, stressed that the failed Nigeria Air project reveals the gaps in government oversight functions. They called for greater transparency and accountability among all tiers of government.

For Sonnie Ekwowusi, a legal practitioner and Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the African Bar Association, the Nigeria Air controversy is a litmus test on the seriousness of the Tinubu administration’s drive to fight corruption in Nigeria.

“The lesson to be learnt is that we all need to fight corruption because for eight years they were talking about us having a national carrier. We all bought into it because it was a good idea.

“We have seen countries running successful national carriers like Kenya Airlines and Ethiopia Airlines. We trusted and hoped that the government would be serious, without knowing it would result in this scandal. So much money was put into this, only for us to hear that it was all a fraud,” he said.

Ekwowusi argued that the minister and all that were involved must not go scot-free but must be held accountable for failing on the national carrier project.

“These are the kind of people that EFCC should be chasing to arrest and prosecute”, he said.

“And if the Tinubu administration is serious about fighting corruption, these are the kind of cases he should be going after. They can’t be only interested in arresting Emefiele and releasing the others.

“The failed Nigeria Air project smeared Nigeria’s image and shows that corruption doesn’t help anyone. The government should act because if corrupt officials are not prosecuted but are allowed to go scot-free, the country will continue to sink,” he added.

Also dissecting the situation, a writer and researcher, Oluwafunminiyi Raheem of the Osun State University, Osogbo, said that the scandal goes beyond government oversight.

He sighted that unlike in the military where there are chains of command, government MDAs have hierarchies but were never obeyed.

“What we have seen over the years is consistent abuse of power by those who occupy these offices who believe they can always get away with any wrongdoing,” he said.

“If you recall when the former Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole dismissed the Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme, Usman Yusuf for fraud and insubordination, the Presidency annulled the dismissal on flimsy grounds.

“Although Yusuf’s dismissal was eventually effected by the same Presidency, the deed had already been done and that is that nobody was prosecuted or jailed.

“As per the Nigeria Air saga, it is an unfortunate incident in our national life and it is my wish that somebody will be called to account for such a mess and national embarrassment.

“It goes to show that certain ministers in the last administration were simply running the show without presidential oversight, else, how do we explain that the former Aviation Minister spent 8 years in office without bequeathing the nation a befitting national carrier”, he added.

On the lessons learnt from the controversy, Mr Raheem affirmed that people should be held accountable for their actions to serve as deterrence to others.

“Secondly, the government should use the National Executive Council as a reporting mechanism to know what is wrong or right in a Ministry. Third, the Freedom of Information Act needs to be strengthened so that anybody can access policies carried out within the MDAs and report any infraction to the necessary quarters.

“Performance indexes should be given priority to measure what is being done, else such occupiers of a particular office should be relieved of their duties,” he stated.

Also Mr Johnson Imoghinmi, a retired pilot, urged the government to establish strict laws and regulations to prevent corruption in the aviation industry.

According to him, these include proper regulations and transparency on procurement, safety measures, and operational procedures.

He said, “Transparency is crucial in combating corruption. Airlines and aviation companies should publicly disclose their financial transactions and corporate governance practices.

“Again, it is very shameful that Sirika deceived the entire nation for eight years of his time as Aviation minister. So the government should also promote reporting mechanisms and encourage whistleblowers to come forward with information about corruption.”

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