Ethiopian Airlines has finally broken its silence over its involvement in the controversial Nigeria Air project launched by the last administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The largest airline in Africa through its Group Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Mesfin Tasew disclosed that the airline was almost withdrawing from the deal but it was prevailed upon by the federal government.
This was in spite of the pending court case instituted by the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), which had got an injunction stopping the project.
Former Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika had floated the airline on May 27, which did not see the light of the day as it was later discovered that an aircraft belonging to ET was used to conduct a demonstration flight against the dictate of the process for the establishment of a new airline.
But in an interview with some Nigerian journalists in Addis Ababa with the transcript sent to our correspondent, the Airline’s CEO stated that the East African carrier never had any plan to set up an airline in Nigeria but was invited by the federal government to partner with it to establish a national carrier, Nigeria Air.
Tasew said, “Ethiopian Airlines didn’t have any intention or plan to set up an airline in Nigeria. In May of 2022, when I took my current responsibility (as Group CEO), a request came from the Nigerian government asking ET (Ethiopian Airlines) to participate in a bid and help the Nigerian government to set up a Nigerian flag carrier. It came in writing.
“Initially, we didn’t want to go into that. We said we have other initiatives in other countries and we were busy. But the Nigerian government insisted that Ethiopian Airlines is an African airline, it has to help the Nigerian government in setting up the national carrier. So, we had to respect them.
“We serve the Nigerian public and government by flying to four cities in Nigeria; we couldn’t say no, we cannot come and help you. So, we had to submit a proposal, we had to respect the Nigerian government.
“And we thought that the Nigerian government had choices, ET being one; because they had also requested other airlines in the Middle East, Europe to participate in the bid. I don’t know whether they participated or not. We submitted our proposal and we received a letter from the Ministry of Aviation, saying that Ethiopian Airlines has been selected to be a partner to set up the airline.”
It would be recalled that the federal government had unveiled Ethiopian Airlines as the equity partner for the airline with 49 per cent stake while the FG would have five per cent share with the remaining 46 per cent going to Nigerian investors.
Tasew added, “Then the Nigerian government wanted the structure of investors to be Nigerian investing institutions and the Nigerian government wanted only 5 per cent shares to ensure that they have presence in the airline and to facilitate the establishment of the airline. We had a lot of discussions, we agreed but we had some differences in some points.
It also explained that the federal government requested for Ethiopian Airlines aircraft painted on the Nigeria Air logo for the inspection of Nigerians and the airline agreed.
“At one point, the leadership of Nigeria Air, which doesn’t include Ethiopian Airlines, asked us to bring aircraft painted with the Nigerian logo to facilitate the progress of the Air Operators’ Certificate. So, we agreed with that, we took out one of our aircraft, we painted it with the Nigerian logo, we flew it, it was for demonstration by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) for their inspection. So, after two days, we brought back the aircraft, repainted it with the Ethiopian logo and it is flying. So, while we were here, waiting for the decision of the court, now there was a change of government that took place.”
The Airline CEO said while the Nigeria Air would not kill the domestic carriers, the local airlines are not dependable.
“When we talked to the Nigerian government, why do you want to set up a new airline? They said they don’t have dependable airlines within Nigeria and they wanted an airline that can provide dependable service that departs and arrives on time; that doesn’t cancel flights on the domestic market and also on the international market.
“The Nigerian government believes that airfares charged by foreign airlines are so high that the Nigerian public is at a disadvantage. So, the intention of the Nigerian government was to set up a very, very strong, reliable, dependable national carrier that services both the domestic market and the international. And we believe in it. That is why we wanted to move forward with it.”
The ET GCEO’s comments had been generating divergent reactions from the industry with some stakeholders accusing the federal government of undermining the local airlines.
Secretary General of Aviation Roundtable, Mr. Olumide Ohunayo said the Nigeria Air case was an embarrassment to Nigeria.
He said, “I think this thing has played out well, the government has not only embarrassed the nation and our pride, they also brought down our airlines to describe them as not competent and strong when you were given the responsibility of revamping the industry with your numerous roadmaps and to go and discard the airlines like that, that was horrible.
“What we cannot take away is that we have the highest number of domestic airlines in the African continent. They might not have as many aircraft as their counterparts but we have the most airlines in Africa and that is a pride for us.”
He said for other airlines not to bid for the project showed that the project was not being done properly, adding, “They had to practically go and beg Ethiopian Airlines, who had robbed it on our face that they were begged and they were not really interested, that means there was no bidding.”