It’s not yet clear what finally did it or who. But it was clear, almost from the start, that the country could not bluff its way through this flight. Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, had mounted the problem maddeningly and by some curious twist of fate the incoming Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, would bear the brunt for it on her second day at work.
On Tuesday, Ahmed was confronted by a group of protesters, who have somehow survived 14 years of misery, and were demanding payment of the pension arrears they earned while working with the Nigerian Airways.
The pension, estimated at about N45 billion, was not even part of what Sirika had in mind in July when he was ticking off the boxes to launch Nigeria Air, his flight of fancy. He had vowed that having apparently discovered from resurfacing the Abuja airport runway that defiance is the best medicine for public opinion, he would press on with the national carrier, come headwinds or tailwinds.
Less than 24 hours after the protesters besieged the Ministry of Finance, however, the government announced the “indefinite suspension” of Nigeria Air, laying to rest, at least for now, the multi-faceted ghosts that will continue to haunt any bogus plan to relaunch a national carrier.
Who bears the cost of this expensive folly?
In July when Sirika announced at the Farnborough air show in the UK that Nigeria would launch a new national carrier in December, I wrote a piece entitled, “Boarding, A Nigerian Flight Of Fancy.”
I argued that the proposal did not make sense and that Sirika had not made a business case because, outside his fancy, there was simply no business case to make for Nigeria Air. Ethiopian Airlines, a rare success story, is government-owned.
High taxes, multiple fees and levies, not to mention volatile fuel costs and poor regulation, make air travel in Africa 200 per cent higher than travel costs in Europe. How was Nigeria Air going to deal with that?
Which native doctor told Sirika that the only way to optimise the BASA agreement is to pour money into a national carrier when private local airlines that tried to use the slots in the past were trashed and foreign ones that tried got their fingers burnt trying to repatriate their money?
The former Minister of Education and former Vice President of the World Bank, who had also spent time consulting on the viability of the project in a number of African countries, Oby Ezekwesili, did not mince her words.
She said the project would fail for the sake of Nigeria, describing it as arrogant waste of public resources.
If Sirika cared at all, it didn’t show. He told the world at Farnborough that the government had already set aside $8 million seed capital for the launch and nothing was going to stop the delivery of five aircraft for the take-off of the national carrier in December.
Before that, a consortium of six consultants, including Lufthansa, had been paid about $5 million in May, after which another consultant – a Bahrain-based company – charged about N163 million for the stylized green-white-green livery and God-knows-how-much more in undeclared invoices.