• Thursday, December 07, 2023
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The N85bn fraud: How Hadi Sirika conned Nigerians

How Our Billions Flew Away

The hopes of many Nigerians were dashed few hours after Hadi Sirika, the former minister of aviation had made a static display of what was supposed to be the resurrected Nigerian carrier, Nigeria Air.

Few hours after Nigerians had celebrated the arrival of the aircraft, then videos, evidences and pictures started to trickle in showing that the said aircraft used for the static display was ‘borrowed’ from Ethiopian airlines.

Nigerians who were taken aback at this display of what they described as ‘fraud’ wondered why a government would go as far as deceiving its own citizens of floating a non-existing airline.

In 2015, when Sirika was appointed minister of Aviation, he had put forward an aviation roadmap with National Carrier as the queen project, which he promised must be delivered to the Nigerian people before the end of Muhammadu Buhari administration.

After failed attempts by other ministers to set up and successful run a sustainable national carrier in the last 50 years from Nigerian Airways to New Co, Nigerian Global, Nigerian Eagle, Virgin Nigeria, Air Nigeria and Nigeria one, Sirika had promised that the former President Muhammadu Buhari administration was going to restore the pride of Nigeria in the skies by floating a national carrier which would bear Nigerian flag.

The first display of what was supposed to be an unveiling of the airline was done in another country.

The former minister had in 2018 unveiled Nigeria Air as its new national carrier at the Farnborough Air Show in the U.K. This ceremony had raised dust as many wondered why the unveiling of Nigeria’s own airline was done in another country.

Before and after the launch of the carrier, the prospective airline continued to gulp huge sums of money, despite not acquiring a single aircraft.

N85bn spent on Nigeria Air in 8yrs

In eight years, Buhari’s administration spent over N85 billion on Nigeria Air.

Data by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and Compilation of Budgetary Allocations show that the Federal Government spent N85.42billion on transaction advisers, working capital and consultancy bills for Nigeria Air between 2016 and 2023.

Despite the huge amount spent on the national carrier, the airline has not only failed to secure Air Operating Certificate, an approval granted by a Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to an aircraft operator to allow it use aircraft for commercial flight operations, but has also not secured a single aircraft for its operations.

As Buhari’s administration was close to winding up, stakeholders reminded Sirika of the monies spent on the national carrier and his promise to deliver the project before the administration was over.

Sirika, who had already ticked a scorecard for himself as achieving 98 percent of all he promised on his aviation roadmap including the Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) facility; the Aviati)on Leasing Company (ALC); Aerotropolis, Airport concession and the development of agro-allied cargo terminals, just needed a last tick on national carrier to bid the aviation sector goodbye.

Sirika had boasted that the national carrier project was going to be the icing on the cake as he would be achieving 100 percent of his road map with the floating of the national carrier.

For Sirika, a static display of an aircraft branded and labeled ‘Nigeria Air’ would probably help achieve the ‘dream’ of resurrecting the national carrier and 100 percent achievement of the aviation roadmap.

The static display of wingless carrier

Findings show that the former minister of Aviation had contacted Ethiopian Airlines few days before the handover, to provide an aircraft that would be presented to Nigerians as an aircraft belonging to Nigeria Air.

Ethiopian Airline had obliged by repainting and rebranding one of its Boeing 737-860 Max aircraft.

Investigations show that the Boeing 737-800 aircraft has registration Number ET-APL, Mode S Q4005C and serial number: 40965/4075.

Further investigations show that the national carrier is about 11 years and and first flight with the aircraft was done on 22nd June 2012 as Ethiopian Airlines aircraft.

The aircraft became Malawi Airlines on 16th February 2014 and released to Ethiopian Airlines on 12th August 2015.

Checks show that the aircraft changed colours but ownership remains that of Ethiopian Airlines.

Alex Nwuba, CEO of Ghana-based Smile Aviation and former CEO of Nigerian-based Associated Airlines, described the national carrier as unbudgeted billions spent on frivolities, showcasing, and unveilings.

“From ribbons to Ethiopian Aircraft all in the name of Nigeria Air; from the demolition of offices of staff of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria to actual demolition of a few houses. From airport concessions to two funny concessions.

“The establishment of an unseen leasing company to Aerotroprolis even the drawings are yet to be seen. In the end we’re here pockets emptied and hopes dashed,” Nwuba said.

Two days after the static display, flight live tracker ‘flightrader24.com’ showed the Nigeria Air plane was back to Ethiopia where it was brought in from.

David Hundeyin, independent journalist, had drawn people’s attention to the flight tracker.

“Behold your freshly commissioned “Nigeria Air” Boeing 737 heading back to Addis Ababa right now as we speak, where the hurried paint job will be removed and it will go back into @flyethiopian regular service,” Hundeyin had said.

Three days after, the live tracker showed the aircraft was back to regular flight service for Ethiopian Airlines on its Addis Ababa-Mogadishu route, which appears to be the same route it flew before being brought into Nigeria and presented as Nigeria Air plane.

Hundeyin, again tweeted: “The ‘Nigeria Air’ Boeing 737-800 has had its hurried wrap job removed and is now back in regular service for @flyethiopian on its usual Addis Ababa-Mogadishu route – the same route it flew as recently as last week before being “commissioned” in Abuja by @hadisirika,” Hundeyin stated.

It was therefore, not surprising, that the House of Representatives has faulted the Nigeria Air purported launch of May 26, 2023, stating that Sirika, and other proponents sought to hoodwink the country.

Nnolim Nnaji, Chairman of the House Committee on Aviation, declared the launch of Nigeria Air a fraud.

The Ministry of Aviation claimed Nigeria Air was only unveiled and not launched, which the committee dismissed as an attempt to divert the lawmakers’ attention.

Members of the committee were shocked when Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) disclosed that the aircraft bearing Nigerian colours was on a chartered flight to Nigeria.

Dapo Olumide, Interim managing director of Nigeria Air, had also confirmed the aircraft used to unveil the country’s national career was a legitimate chartered flight from Ethiopian Airlines.

Olumide said the aircraft returned to Ethiopian Airlines after the unveiling. He said this before the Senate Committee on Aviation.

The Committee members expressed misgivings towards the unveiling of the national carrier during a meeting with Olumide; the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Aviation, Emmanuel Meribole; as well as heads of aviation agencies.

At the meeting, Biodun Olujimi, chairman of the Senate Aviation Committee, wondered why Hadi Sirika, the immediate past Minister of Aviation, hurriedly unveiled a national carrier on the last day of the Muhammadu Buhari administration.

Airline operators’ position on Nigeria Air

Few days to the arrival of the aircraft, Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON) had described the commencement of Nigeria Air as a flagrant disobedience of the orders of the Federal High Court of Nigeria which halted the said moves by the minister to float the airline until the determination of the substantive suit brought by AON against it.

The AON also alleged that the process of acquiring AOC for Nigeria Air is only at the stage one, contrary to Hadi Sirika, minister of aviation’s televised statement that the Nigerian Air AOC process was at the concluding stage five.

In a statement by Obiora Okonkwo, spokesperson, AON said they had noted with dismay the comments by the former Minister of Aviation to the effect that he would commence operations of Nigeria Air before Monday, May 29, 2023.

The AON said: “All of these statements and actions are in flagrant disobedience of the orders of the Federal High Court of Nigeria which halted the said moves by the minister to float the said airline until the determination of the substantive suit brought by AON against it.

“We make bold to respond because of the myriad of inquiries from concerned and patriotic Nigerians and industry stakeholders who have either called or sent messages over the Minister’s comments.

Okonkwo stated that while AON welcomes the establishment of more airlines in Nigeria because the skies are big enough to accommodate all but AON is against any contraption that is shadowy and not in the best overall interest of the country.

He called on the former Minister to come forward, defend and counter the submissions of AON suit.

He also stated that it was very disturbing that a Minister is desperately hoodwinking the entire nation into accepting a massively flawed process just 72hours to the end of his 7-year tenure in office as Minister of Aviation, even as the courts have halted him.

“Stakeholders are worried that his actions may create problems for the incoming government of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

“The government of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu should not be blackmailed into accepting a contraption that would definitely and ultimately hurt the Nigerian economy and destroy millions of existing jobs in favour of one or two individuals and a foreign country by this hurried last minute desperation.

“The aviation minister is aware of the different court orders against him and Nigeria Air. He should be aware that he is courting a charge of contempt of court as he is not above the law and cannot freely disregard the courts.

“AON is also aware, like the Minister and promoters of Nigeria Air, that the process of acquiring Airline Operators Certificate (AOC) for Nigeria Air is only at the stage one, contrary to his televised statement that the Nigerian Air AOC process was at the concluding stage five.

“The world is watching the regulator, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), on this Nigeria Air and its AOC process,” Okonkwo stated.

Read also: Hadi Sirika, Buhari’s poster boy, flies kite as Nigeria Air

Will Nigeria Air ever fly?

Many have since asked if Nigeria Air would ever fly again despite the issues surrounding it.

Many stakeholders are calling for a forensic audit of the process of Nigeria Air and many regard it as a scam, which the former Minister used to delude Nigerians, after over N85 billion was spent on the Nigerian carrier programme.

John Ojikutu, Executive Secretary of Aviation Round Table (ART), a think-tank body in the industry, advised that the project should be discarded.

“There should be flag carriers at least two: one regional and continental and the other intercontinental from the existing carriers. National Carrier as being envisaged will end up as government carrier and die like the Nigeria Airways,” he said.

Ojikutu added that no government of any developing country has the financial resources to solely finance an airline, not even the USA the largest economy in the world has a national carrier but flag carriers.

“Please discard what Sirika is doing with the industry at quarter to go,” he said.

Other stakeholders are of the view that if the national carrier must be floated, it must be done in a transparent manner and all stakeholders must be carried along in the process, as this was what Nigeria Air lacked in the first place.

Despite the disgrace and the embarrassment he brought to Nigeria, Sirika was “handsomely rewarded” by Buhari with Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR), during the hurriedly packaged 2023 National Honours that have remained controversial.