Federal government on Wednesday announced immediate suspension of its widely publicised national carrier because the nation’s Economic Management Team (EMT) did not approve it when it launched, sources familiar with the matter have revealed.
Sources at the presidential villa told this newspaper Wednesday night that the EMT recommendation was that the federal government should not set up a national carrier with public funds.
EMT is chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
Mr Hadi Sirika, Nigeria’s aviation minister, announced the cancellation on Wednesday shortly after the cabinet meeting. The minister later posted the announcement on his Twitter page.
Sirika said: “I regret to announce that the Federal Executive Council has taken the tough decision to suspend the National Carrier Project in the interim. All commitments due will be honoured. We thank the public for the support as always.”
Sirika gave no explanation for the development, which has in the last few hours generated heated debate among Nigerians.
But a presidential source familiar with the matter last night said the EMT wanted the ministry of transportation to instead accelerate the search for strategic investment partners who will finance and manage the new airline.
In the absence of a borrowing plan for government participation, a source said, the president ruled against spending money that is not in the budget. Promoters of the idea of the new national carrier were therefore asked to work towards 2019 budget if any government investment is to be involved.
The cancellation announcement comes barely two months after Nigeria unveiled the proposed airline at the Farnborough Air Show in England on July 18.
Critics and industry experts raised concerns over the project when it was launched in July, with many suggesting that Nigeria cannot afford it at this time.
Among the critics was former education minister, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili, who argued that the process was not completely transparent.
But the government dismissed all concerns raised, saying the airline would begin operation before the end of 2018. During electioneering in 2015, Mr Buhari had promised to establish a national airline.
In July, shortly after receiving the Outline Business Case Certificate of Compliance for the establishment of the airline from Mr Chidi Izuwah, Director General, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), Sirika, a former pilot, boasted that the airline would be viable. He also said Nigeria will receive the first set of five airplanes for the airliner on December 19, with projections that the airline will make profit in three years after operations.
The proposed airline was expected to gulp $8.8 million preliminary cost and $300 million as take-off cost.
Nigeria’s defunct carrier, Nigeria Airways, became moribund due to corruption and poor management. More than a decade after the national career stopped operations, however, the numerous controversies surrounding its winding up have not been resolved.