Anger over national carrier launch suspension in Nigeria

Lagos (AFP) –


Leading figures in Nigeria's aviation industry voiced shock and anger Thursday after plans to relaunch a national airline, 15 years after the collapse of a former flag carrier, were placed on hold.

The government in July announced at a glitzy presentation at Britain's Farnborough Airshow that Nigeria Air would begin operation at the end of the year.

The new airline was to replace Nigeria Airways, which collapsed in 2003 as a result of government interference, inefficiency, mismanagement, debts and corruption.

But on Wednesday Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika said the plan had been suspended for strategic reasons, without giving details.

A presidency official who asked to remain anonymous told reporters the delay was due to funding.

"The Economic Management Team (EMT) chaired by the vice president (Yemi Osinbajo) did not give the go-ahead," the official said.

"(The) EMT recommendation is that government should not set up a national carrier with public funds. EMT wants the ministry of transportation to instead accelerate the search for a strategic investment partners who will finance and manage the new airline."

He said there was no provision for the project in this year's federal budget.

"In the absence of a borrowing plan for government participation, the president ruled against spending money that is not in the budget," he added.

Online, Nigerians reacted angrily to what they perceived as waste of money on launching the project, which the government had said would be "private sector-driven".

The government pledged to cover start-up costs of $300 million (256 million euros).

Many commentators demanded to know how much had already been spent on the launch and branding at a time when the economy is recovering from recession.

- Industry disappointment -

In the last 35 years alone, more than 40 airlines that have actually got off the ground have gone bust in Nigeria while domestic travel is dogged by delays and cancellations.

Foreign airlines dominate the most popular international routes to Europe, North America and the Gulf.

The general secretary of the National Union of Air Transport Employees, Olayinka Abioye, described Wednesday's suspension as "very sad" and "unfortunate".

"An airline flying our flag would have been a symbol of national pride and prestige. It would have created jobs for our people and brought in needed foreign investment," he said.

"The initial concern was that the private sector which was to be the driver of the project was not carried along," he said, saying it was wrong to have launched the project overseas.

Supo Atobatele, editor-in-chief of Air Transport Quarterly and a former spokesman of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, said a national carrier was still necessary.

"Nigeria is a regional aviation hub because of its huge population, leaving a yawning gap in air travel," he said.

"The coming of a national carrier will boost competition, improve services and reduce air costs."

He said rather than being the financier, government should partner tested local and foreign investors to manage the proposed airline.

Bids should be advertised for investors and the process should be fair and transparent, he said.

"The mistakes of the past should be avoided. We should not go back to those things that caused problems for Nigeria Airways."