President Muhammadu Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari

A Lagos based aviation expert has urged President Muhammadu Buhari to ignore the Ahmed Joda transition committee’s recommendation to merge certain existing domestic airlines to form the nucleus of a new national carrier for the country.

Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), one-time Airport Commandant, Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) and now Secretary, Aviation Round Table (ART), handed down the advice while speaking exclusively with Aviationline executives in his office recently.

According to him, who pays the over N190 billion debt being owed by the airlines for services rendered to them by aviation agencies, suppliers, oil companies and financial institutions, among others.

“This is another way of robbing Peter to pay Paul should this plan sail through,” Ojikutu said during the interview.

He said the federal government cannot continue to be a Father Christmas doling out millions of Naira to rescue the investment of private individuals, wondering what happened to the over N200 billion intervention fund approved by former President Olusegun Obasanjo administration.

“It is an open secret that a number of airline operators allegedly collected this money and diverted it to other ventures while a bank seized the opportunity of the scheme to recover its loan facility from a particular operator whose airline has since ceased operations,” Ojikutu further revealed. The retired air force chief, who doubles as a security expert and aviator, wondered how and why airlines should owe aviation agencies or anybody at all since they don’t carry passengers on credit, pointing out that airline tickets are sold in cash and not on credit.

It will be recalled that the Ahmed Joda Transition Committee set up by President Buhari following his victory in the last March 28 presidential elections had, submitted an 800 page report. The document, which Aviationline learnt contained the recommendation that certain airlines, said to number 12 whose debts total about N132 billion and their management has been taken over in the last three years by the Assets Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), a federal government agency, be merged to form the nucleus of the new national carrier.

According to the recommendation, the new national carrier to be established through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) would essentially provide services to the Central and West African routes.

Investigation by Aviationline revealed that AMCON intervention in 2012 involved N132 billion lifeline injected into the operations of Arik, Afrijet, Albarka, Chanchangi, Bellview, Caverton, Continental, Air Nigeria, Aero-Contractors, IRS and Savannah Airlines in order to save well over 7,000 jobs that were on the line then. Less than three years later AMCON was called upon again to rescue five of the 12 airlines with a combined debt portfolio of N190 billion.

It will be recalled that by the time Air Nigeria halted operations it had a debt overhang of $225 million (about N347.7 billion) in its portfolio while IRS, which also has ceased operations, owes about $55 million (about N84 billion).

Grp. Capt. Ojikutu said that while it is desirable for Nigeria to have a national carrier to fly its flag in all its destinations across the globe, it will not augur well to build on the ashes of existing debtor airlines.

“It is true a national carrier will confer national pride on the country apart from arresting capital flight expended by Nigerians that patronise foreign carriers. But who pays the debts of these airlines at the end of the day,?” the retired air force chief asked.

“I think the objective of bringing in AMCON into the management of the ailing airlines, in the first instance, was to recover the debts owed by them but now the debts remain unpaid and now there is a suggestion that they (the debtor airlines) should be transformed into a national carrier; it is not acceptable,” he explained.

According to him, recovering the debts should precede any future plan the federal government may have for the airlines; three years are enough for AMCON to put the airlines on the path to recovery.

The retired air force officer argued that the airlines belong to the private sector while AMCON is a public sector organisation, pointing out that, merging the ailing airlines to become a national carrier tantamount to putting the burden of a few individuals on the tax payers in the country.

Rather than agree with the Alhaji Joda Committee’s recommendation, President Buhari should set in motion adequate steps to recover the debts such that the business of their creditors to continue to provide services to the entire aviation sector can receive a boost again.

While seeking the exalted office of president, Buhari had promised Nigerians to revive the defunct Nigeria Airways by injecting into its service the serviceable aircraft in the presidential fleet said to number about 10 aircraft and being maintained with tax payers’ funds without yielding any profit into government coffers.