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Nigeria Air, Hadi Sirika: Understanding the failure of the Buhari administration

One of the clearest symbols of the failure of the Buhari administration was former minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika trying to pool the wool over…

One of the clearest symbols of the failure of the Buhari administration was former minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika trying to pool the wool over the eyes of Nigerians presenting a hastily repainted Ethiopian Airline plane chartered for the trick at high cost to claim that he had delivered on his mandate of delivering Nigeria Air before the end of his mandate.

The tragicomedy was not funny because Nigerians knew about the billions spent on the project with nothing to show for it. Maybe the big question was why was he reappointed to deliver on this mandate when he had been given the opportunity in the first term of the administration but had failed miserably?

For his failure, he was promoted from junior to senior minister in 2019 and his “empire” carved out of the Ministry of Transport so that he would have sole authority on the matter. The signal was clear, the reward for failure under Buhari was promotion. 

It would be recalled that in September 2018, Hadi Sirika’s Nigeria Air project was suspended by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), dashing the hopes of many Nigerians that would have loved to see a Nigerian Carrier that we could proudly call ours to ferry us around the world and make a lot of money as British Airways, Emirates, Air France etc. are making out of our resources.

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We know the difficulties of government ownership of airlines and what led to the liquidation of Nigeria Airways in 2004 so when Minister Hadi Sirika announced in December 2015 that his strategic objective as aviation minister was the establishment of a private sector successful national airline for Nigeria, I put him on my “I like” list.

With the suspension of the project and the knowledge that it was all Hadi Sirika’s fault, I feel bitter because he could have succeeded if he had consulted widely and planned well. Instead, he conducted one of the most opaque attempts to establish a project in Nigeria with no information, almost no consultations and absolutely no transparency. His second failure is even more painful even if it was expected. 

I have followed the airline issue closely and noticed that between December 2015 and July 2018, Minister Hadi Sirika on numerous occasions assured Nigerians that the project was on course but he never gave any details on what was being planned. I noticed that a lot of aviation stakeholders were asking questions on what the plans of the minister were but there was no response. It became clear that for him, the airline was his personal project and he did not see the need to discuss with stakeholders and create a consensus on the best strategy to adopt.

Given the total information blackout from the minister, a lot of speculations arose that he was planning to use the assets of Arik and Aero airlines taken over by AMCON to start the new line. Others speculated that he was begging Qatar Air and/or Ethiopian Airways to come and set up an airline for us. Speculation became the sole mode of engagement because the minister refused to engage with anybody. 

It was only in July 2018 at the Farnborough International Air Show in the United Kingdom that Hadi Sirika announced that the name of the proposed new National Carrier is ‘Nigeria Air’ and that the proposed national airline would be unveiled before the end of 2018.

Then came the bombshell – government would invest $300 million in the new venture and own only five per cent of it. With great fanfare, he then launched the logo of the airline for which he had paid some foreign company $600,000 and multiple criticisms arose. The most effective I recall was the tweet by Mustafa Chike Obi, former Managing Director of AMCON who tweeted on July 21, 2018 – why was Nigeria paying $300 million for only five per cent of the new carrier while Air France/KLM had paid $286 million for 31 per cent share of Virgin Atlantic. The tweet went viral and there was massive reportage in the media that the minister was planning a scam.

It was in this context that the next day, the minister announced that the entire bill for the start-up would be borne by government, which would have 100 per cent and not five per cent ownership and would subsequently sell 95 per cent to the private sector.

It was incredible that even at that stage Hadi Sirika was not willing to share basic information on the strategy for the establishment of the airline. After assuring Nigerians for three years that the project would be 100 per cent private, he turned it into a 100 per cent government project and did not even want to tell Nigerians. 

Part of the problem was that the same Minister Hadi Sirika had refused to inaugurate all the governing boards of the parastatals in the aviation sector despite repeated admonishing from the president, the APC party chairman and the Central Working Committee of the ruling party. He, therefore, single-handedly ran the entire aviation sector. This meant that he was all-powerful and it pleased him that he was master.

For his second term from 2019 boards were not even appointed for the parastatals in the aviation sector to please him. President Buhari made it a one-man show. In his last two weeks in office, Sirika reorganised the entire ministry, added aerospace to it, appointed new managing directors and directors and even boards for the parastatals. Clearly, having served and failed for the eight years he was there, he decided to stamp his mark of failure on the future of the aviation industry. 

In 2018, it was the Economic Management Team (EMT) led by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo that examined the Nigeria Air project and discovered with consternation that the minister had committed the government to major and immediate investment to set up the carrier despite knowing fully well that the project had not been budgeted for. Meanwhile, somehow, $8.8 million preliminary cost had apparently been provided by the government. What the money was spent on had not been explained up till now.

It was symptomatic of the Buhari regime that for all these failures, he was promoted and asked to deliver the same mandate he had failed to perform earlier. Currently, Nigerians are correctly calling for a probe on Sirika’s second failure. President Buhari may be the only human being that could believe giving him four extra years would produce a different outcome. Today, we are still in stage one of the five-stage process of establishing an airline after eight years of work by Hadi Sirika. 

The real issue about Sirika was that he was close to the president and therefore could act with impunity, fail in his assignment and remain in power while running the ministry as a personal fiefdom. How could the president even consider major structural re-organisation of the ministry in his last week in office knowing fully well that the Tinubu administration was coming in?

The bigger picture of course is that the lack of scrutiny extended basically to all other ministries and in the coming weeks and months we will start learning details of how other ministers ruled and ruined the country. May accountability return to governance. 


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