More than a decade after, relics of weather-stricken and decrepit airplanes belonging to the now defunct Nigerian Airways lay abandoned in the local wings of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. The rotted aircraft, which value runs into several millions of Naira, now serves only as a memorial to a once bubbling national carrier that brought international pride to Nigerians. At its peak of operation, the airlines’ asset was valued at over $6 billion and flew to major capital airports around the globe.
The story of the national carrier is a story of an elaborate bribery, stealing and asset-stripping plan by both staff and government officials responsible for overseeing the operations of the airline-an esoteric scam perpetrated by staff and companies that largely never existed.
BD SUNDAY in the course of investigating the collapse of the airline was furnished with unbelievable number of assets of the company that was sold off by either the aviation ministry officials or top officials of the airline.
“Nobody bothered to ask if the airline was making money or not. They just massively stole the wings out of the airline,” our source, a former senior staff of the airline that wished to remain anonymous, told BDSUNDAY.
“Most of us were shocked at the brazen level of open corruption that went on there. And it just went on as if it was with the consent of the head of state,” he said.
What our sources described would read as pure tragedy with the shadowy figures and lavish props that you would usually find in movies-free flight tickets for wives and concubines, flight delayed because a minister is held up at a naming ceremony, prostitutes and pimp of ministers and airline officials summarily employed as air hostesses or in managerial positions and sent to some undisclosed training in an undisclosed location. There were also staggering sums of money, those budgeted for the airline and those earned from its operations which just disappeared from the view, imprest accounts set up for girlfriends and secretaries which holds several millions of Naira and monies diverted to private account for aircraft maintenance even when the aircraft maintenance had been carried out by technical staff of the company.
Over N6 billion was stolen under the close supervision of two managing directors of the airline (names with held) between 1993 and 1999. This approximated figure is extracted from the report of the Justice Nwazota-led Commission of Inquiry that was set up shortly before the death of late President Musa Yar’Adua. The only head of state to date that has ever moved to examine the extent of rot that brought down the airline. Another N25 billion is estimated to have vanished into thin air between 1990 and 2003 when the airline crumbled.
“Nobody accounted to anybody,” our source said. “We just saw some madams who joined the company yesterday, suddenly become our bosses, flying all over the world with our bosses.”
At the core of the looting is a mafia-style turf protection scheme, laced with kickbacks and favouratism. The scheme gained ground in the mid to late 1980s and became perfected in the 1990s. According to our source, top departmental officials would secure their procurement contract turf and would bulge contract invoice to the airline.
What many Nigerians did not know is the epic scale of fraud that went on in the company and the complex web of money moving structure set up to cover their track. Our investigation found that some the company’s top officials set up phantom companies to complement the services of their department and award contracts that mostly don’t exist. The cost of the contracts is equally as outrageous as the speed with which mobilisation fee is paid. Once the fee is paid all documents relating to the contract vanishes from file cabinets.
In most cases, when questions are raised, it is quickly tied to ‘hajj operation.’ And when the heat becomes too much, they simply bribe the ‘noise’ makers and the story dies. The rest of the money, which is the tiniest amount, is then shared to staff that shreds the dirty files. In other cases they (the staff) are rewarded with free tickets for vacation to Europe.
A national airline that symbolises the rising profile of the country as an independent nation was central to Nigeria’s strategy, and that gave birth to Nigeria airways. At one time it was the biggest national carrier in West Africa and one of the biggest in Africa accounting for more 40 percent of international flights out of Nigeria and over 90 percent of local flights. Its collapse is something that transcends outrage for a company once regarded as an emblem of Nigeria’s success and rising global profile.
Nigeria Airways limited was founded on August, 23, 1958 after the dissolution of West African Airways Corporation (WAAC). It was wholly owned by the Nigerian government, and served as the country’s flag carrier until it ceased operations in 2003.
The company kept growing steadily after its creation and in march, 1970, its employment rose to 2,191 staff, comprising of eight air crafts’: one Aztec, one DC-3 and six Fokker F27s that worked on a domestic network and regional routes that extended west, as far as Dakar, operated in pool agreement with Ghana Airways. The European list of destinations included Frankfurt, London, Madrid and Rome; all serving with VC10s chartered from BOAC.
The company was rebranded on January 22, 1971, as Nigeria Airways. Until a new Boeing 707-320C entered the fleet in 1971, Boeing 707s were leased from Laker Airways and Ethiopian Airlines to fill the capacity shortage left by the crashed aircraft on the Lagos to London route.
While President Muhammadu Buhari is concluding plans to create a new national carrier for the country, none of those indicted, for the fraud and misappropriations that led to the collapse of the airline have been prosecuted, convicted or made to return stolen money. BD SUNDAY understands that some of those indicted are still very active in the Nigerian aviation industry and might even benefit from the FG’s plan to restore the National carrier.
Speaking with BD SUNDAY on the none-prosecution status of those who ran the national carrier underground, Monday Ubani, former chairperson, Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja Branch, said President Buhari should not embark on a mission to revive the Nigerian Airways without first bringing to justice those indicted by the Obasanjo-initiated commission of enquiry.
According to him, prosecuting individuals involved in the annihilation of the airline and recovering of the stolen monies would serve as deterrent to incoming officials of the proposed national carrier by the President that the era of fragrant abuse of authority in the country was over.
“The President’s plan is a very laudable one. He should therefore, ask for the Justice Nwazota-led commission of inquiry report on the management of Nigerian Airways. That will be a good point for him to start. Without bringing to book those who killed the airline the President would be starting on a wrong footing should he invest the scarce resources in reviving the national carrier; he must first of all tackle endemic corruption in the civil service before he can achieve something tangible. Otherwise, what befell the former national carrier would happen again. President Buhari is seen by many Nigerians as Nigeria’s last hope to sanitise the system; and the issue of how Nigerian Airways was run down is too important for the President to overlook, since he is interested in reviving the airline”, he said.