It started with theatrics and ended with even more theatrics bordering on convoluted corruption with all the shades of financial fraud, international embarrassment and national image battering. The story of Nigeria Air scripted by Hadi Sirika, the Minister of Aviation in the Muhammadu Buhari government embodies everything that is wrong with Nigeria as regards public funds administration, fiscal prudence and impunity of public office holders.
Within the five years the national swindle lasted following the unveiling of the logo in 2018, it has been a roller coaster of tomfoolery and deceit by one man intent on scamming his own country. And he succeeded, strangely, under the nose of ex-President Buhari, his kinsman whom many had thought would cleanse the country of the miasma of corruption.
The Nigeria Air saga is a well-scripted movie produced and directed by Sirika. Here is how the day dawned for the botched airline. On July 18, 2018, Sirika stepped out with raw brazenness to scam his country. He chose the most auspicious occasion and venue to kickstart his aviation Ponzi scheme through which he has caused the nation to bleed through her nose. Sirika was leading a Nigerian delegation to attend the Farnborough International Airshow in London.
The airshow attracts aviators from all over the world every year. This was the venue and moment that Sirika chose to display his mastery of make-believe which is what the Nigeria Air saga has come to be. On that occasion, he unveiled the logo of a supposed national carrier, Nigeria Air. It has since turned out a scam of the most bizarre order. In a last minute show of shame, just on the eve of transitioning into a new democratic dispensation, Sirika would follow up his airshow fib with a felonious chattering of an Ethiopian Airlines plane, temporarily coated with Nigeria Air logo and flown to Nigeria in what has now been exposed as a show of shame. The National Assembly has called Nigeria Air a scam. It remains so until proven otherwise.
The unveiling of the logo of the anticipated national carrier was done with fanfare. This was the first Red Flag, but not many Nigerians read the script accurately. Sirika was in a hurry to unveil what has not even been given the operating license to fly. He allegedly paid $600,000 to a firm in Bahrain to design the Nigeria Air logo. He later denied paying such humungous amount, but failed to disclose what it actually cost the nation to engage a foreign company to design a logo that many Nigerian companies could have done even better. By outsourcing the design of the logo to a company in Bahrain, Sirika showed disdain for local content and capacity. He engaged in a needless venture that caused capital flight and added more pressure to the already struggling naira.
Contracting the designing a logo of a supposed national carrier to an offshore company was not only an unpatriotic act, it also showed Sirika’s lack of understanding of the concept of product nationalism. These days and these times, nations patronise home-made products and services to grow local content. This applies to both developed and developing nations. Besides, this is the logo of a national carrier which in itself represents the sovereignty of Nigeria. Why should a foreign firm determine and design the symbol of Nigeria’s sovereignty when there are many firms in Nigeria that can discharge such duty with a sense of patriotic duty and a touch of excellence.
While the dust of the controversial logo was just beginning to settle, Sirika went into what appeared as inactive mode. But in reality, he was working behind the scene, convincing President Buhari and his kitchen cabinet (cabal) that the Nigeria Air dream was a fait accompli. Sirika was among the closest ministers to Buhari and it was not a difficult task getting the President to nod in the affirmative to every suggestion on the fraud-riddled Nigeria Air misadventure.
So, while most Nigerians thought the project had flown into oblivion with the logo design scam, Sirika flipped the page and started another chapter in his Nigeria Air book of many scandals. And it turned out that it was not just the ordinary Nigerian on the street that thinks the Sirika adventure is a scam, the National Assembly thinks so too. The 9th House of Representatives Committee on Aviation was blunt when it said that the National Assembly had no role in the purported unveiling of Nigeria Air or anything related thereof.
In the aftermath of the noise generated by the Sirika show of shame, the House urged President Bola Tinubu to constitute a high-level Presidential Committee to undertake a holistic review of the processes of the Nigeria Air project. Rep. Nnolim Nnaji who chaired the Committee on Aviation said: “We want to put on record, that the Committee and indeed the National Assembly had no role in the purported launch of Nigeria Air or anything related thereof”. He expressed the displeasure of the Committee at the desperation of Sirika in going ahead to flag off the operations of Nigeria Air in spite of a standing court injunction against such.
The verdict of the Committee was that the exercise was “highly opaque, shrouded in secrecy, shoddy and capable of ridiculing and tarnishing the image of Nigeria before the international community. “The Committee and indeed the Parliament is not opposed to Nigeria having a National Carrier, as a matter of fact having a National Carrier is highly desirable to us as a people and Nigeria, as a nation,” the lawmaker said.
The Committee consequently directed the Federal Ministry of Aviation and its partners in the Nigeria Air project to immediately suspend flight operations and every other action with respect to Nigeria Air. “Looking at the total amount required to fully start the airline which is put at $250 million, the Nigerian government and its citizenry can raise these funds without necessarily subjecting itself to the ridicule we have been exposed to by this recent episode,” the Committee said.
But how dare Ethiopian Airlines? Arguably Africa’s biggest National Carrier and a leading light in the continent, degrade itself to such low levels? Flight data showed that the plane was originally owned by Ethiopian Airlines with its first flight recorded on 22nd June 2012 as part of Ethiopian Airlines fleet. Then it became Malawi Airlines on 16th February 2014 after it was leased to Malawi by Ethiopian Airlines. It was, however, returned to Ethiopian Airlines on 12th August 2015. Investigation showed that on 26th May 2023, when the aircraft landed in Abuja, it had Nigeria Air colours without changing ownership. Thus, many Nigerians called it a “grand deceit.”
The economic implications of Sirika’s mischief are conscience-wrenching. The senseless waste of $600,000 on foreign talent to design the logo of the national carrier is another Red Flag. Sirika’s show of shame is also capable of stimulating foreign investors not to take Nigeria seriously. It can also spur them to believe that in Nigeria, anything short of standard or truth, can pass.
On documents carried in aircrafts that operate as National Carriers, Article 29 of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation (ICAO), stipulates that: “Every aircraft of a contracting State, engaged in international navigation, shall carry the following documents in conformity with the conditions prescribed in this Convention: Certificate of registration; Certificate of airworthiness; Appropriate licenses for each member crew; Journey log book…”. These are questions that Nigerians should be demanding answers to, as to whether these criteria were met.
Also, being that the aircraft with which Sirika scammed Nigerians was an in-use and registered Ethiopian Airlines plane, Article 18 of the same Convention forbids dual registration of aircrafts across states. “An aircraft cannot be validly registered in more than one State, but its registration may be changed from one State to another,” it states. Sirika merely borrowed, used, and returned an already registered aircraft in another country.
Furthermore, Article 21 provides that when a “contracting State undertakes to supply to any other contracting State or to the International Civil Aviation Organization, on demand, information concerning the registration and ownership of any particular aircraft registered in that State, each contracting State shall furnish reports to the International Civil Aviation Organization, under such regulations as the latter may prescribe, giving such pertinent data as can be made available concerning the ownership and control of aircraft registered in that State and habitually engaged in international air navigation”.
It remains to be seen whether Sirika and his drama crew met some of these criteria, at least. If not, international aviation regulatory bodies, including the ICAO are encouraged to do the needful. By now, aviation stakeholders who followed the fictitious show of shame are imploring President Tinubu to wield the big stick. If states like Akwa Ibom in Nigeria’s southern region can be doing so well with the establishment and sustenance of a top-notch local carrier – Ibom Air with the limited resources available to state coffers, then what excuse does Sirika have for not being able to truly establish a national carrier with the vast resources at his disposal?
Truly, Sirika subjected Nigeria to a spectacle of global ridicule. Aside huge money wasted on the project, there was also erosion of investors’ (local and international) confidence in the Nigeria aviation industry. While the sum of N5 billion was earlier earmarked to kickstart the project, Sirika confirmed that only N3 billion was released. He said only a part of the N3 billion had been spent so far. But in his traditional secrecy, he refused to mention the exact amount spent.
Part of the ridicule was the role Sirika and his team conceded to Ethiopian Airlines to play in the project. Ethiopian Airlines was announced as the preferred bidder. Sadly, in the agreement, Ethiopian Airlines was only to bring expertise, not funding into the project, but it would keep the most critical management positions.
And then more ridicule. On Friday May 26, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, a Boeing 737-8000 aircraft said to be over 10 years old landed as the first ever aircraft of Nigeria Air.
The Founder/CEO of Air Peace, Nigeria’s biggest airline, Allen Onyema, while evaluating the Nigeria Air project, urged President Tinubu to disband everything about the project, calling it a “fraud and national embarrassment.” He spoke on Arise News Morning Show shortly after the last episode on the Sirika project.
Onyema who appeared visibly miffed, said everything about Nigeria Air was a sham and an embarrassment on the nation. He accused Sirika of “masterminding a national fraud” and deceiving everybody including President Buhari into believing that he was up to a genuine business. He lauded some stakeholders who refused to be used by Sirika to perpetrate the fraud. He singled out Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO), the aviation ground services provider, for saving Nigeria from incurring huge losses in the Nigeria Air deal.
Industry experts listed some requirements for establishing an airline to include obtaining air transport licence, airline operating permit, air operator certificate, and foreign carrier operating permit. It also requires registering an aircraft, and aerodrome certification. Nigeria Air did not obtain all of these before it was formally unveiled three days to the expiration of Buhari’s tenure on May 29.
Nigeria Air has an ownership structure of 49 per cent held by Ethiopian Airlines, 46 per cent by Nigerian private investors, including SAHCO, MRS and other institutional investors, and five per cent by the Federal Government. Even this has been criticized as handing ownership of a national flag carrier to a foreign nation which some describe as an affront on Nigeria’s sovereignty.
Aviation stakeholders have urged President Tinubu to commence public investigation with a deliberate intention to bring all those involved in the scam to justice.