By Modupe Gbadeyanka
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has been urged to probe the immediate past Minister of Aviation, Mr Hadi Sirika, over the controversial Nigeria Air, which it said it gulped N15.9 billion.
Last Friday, as promised by Mr Sirika, a Nigeria Air-branded aircraft landed at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja, but hours later, it returned to Ethiopia after it was discovered that the aeroplane had a registration number of Ethiopia Airlines.
There have been controversies surrounding the proposed national carrier for more than six years but the Minister promised that it would become a reality before the end of the administration of Mr Muhammadu Buhari, who handed over the country to his successor, Mr Bola Tinubu, today, Monday, May 29, 2023.
A Nigerian-based anti-corruption group, SecureWorld and Liberty Initiative for Peace (SELIP), wants the EFCC to investigate Mr Sirika for allegedly committing fraud and economic sabotage.
In a petition to the anti-money laundering agency, the group said the unveiling of the national carrier was against a directive of a court, which stopped the process.
In the notice addressed to the EFCC Chairman, Mr Abdulrasheed Bawa, the organisation, through its Executive Director, Mr Mark Adebayo, averred that the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos headed by Justice A.L Allagoa, in a suit filed by the Airline Operators of Nigeria, had granted three separate orders of injunctions, restraining the federal government from taking any step about the Nigeria Air project “but the Minister in a desperate bid to cover up the monumental fraud in the deal elected to flagrantly disobeyed an order of a court of competent jurisdiction and produced a sham called unveiling of Nigeria Air flight last Friday.”
“We are compelled to bring to your attention that the aircraft purportedly unveiled on Friday, May 26, 2023, by Minister Sirika, as the first flight of the national carrier, Nigeria Air, is still in active service of Ethiopia Airlines. We can confirm that the aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 with the registration number ET-APL, has since left the country this weekend for Turkey according to a check on the flight radar; it only transited Nigeria for the farce of a show put up by the minister.
“The flight landing in the country with Ethiopia Airlines’ registration number means Nigeria Air has no Air Operator Certificate. No aircraft can be registered in Nigeria without the carrier having an AOC, which means that the aircraft does not belong to Nigeria Air either as leased or owned equipment. So, Sirika should not be allowed to fool Nigerians,” the group said in the petition.
The group urged the anti-graft agency to make Mr Sirika account for N15.9 billion that has been committed so far to the project by the federal government, alleging that the desperation by the minister is geared towards covering up the misappropriation of funds and monumental fraud.
“The unveiling was a desperate attempt to justify the N15.9 billion appropriated by the federal government to Nigeria Air since 2016.
“The phantom project has continued to lick up budgetary provisions; N1.3 billion was allotted to it in the 2023 budget with an additional N700 million as ‘working capital’ and N200 million as consultancy fee; so, the minister must not be allowed to hoodwink Nigerians with the ‘importation of a rented aircraft into the country and pass it off as a step to the commencement of the operation of the airline days to his exit from office. This act of fraud and economic terrorism must not be allowed to go unpunished,” the petition read.
The group countered Mr Sirika’s claims that Nigeria Air Limited is a private sector-led airline, with only five per cent of the company owned by the Nigerian government, a consortium of entrepreneurs in Nigeria with 46 per cent, and the Ethiopian Airlines with 49 per cent.
“There’s no agreement with the stakeholders in Nigeria, so on what basis has a painted plane be brought in to deceive Nigerians?
“The lack of transparency on funding and alleged zero consideration for local players and national interest is frightening as the proposed Shareholders’ Agreement which is yet to be signed the, reserves all Executive Directors positions for the Ethiopians with Nigerians as deputies,” the group said.
“We have confidence that the EFCC will do justice and timely, too, to get to the bottom of this scam and save Nigeria’s Aviation Industry from the impending doom,” it noted.