The management of Ethiopian Airlines (ET) has denied having interest in the controversial Nigeria Air, contrary to erstwhile claim that it emerged the preferred bidder from a ‘rigorous process’.
Group Chief Executive Officer of East African carrier, Mesfin Tasew, said Ethiopian Airlines got into the mix on the invitation of the ministry, headed by the former Minister, Hadi Sirika, to partner the already established Nigeria Air project, reports The Guardian.
Tasew said besides entreaties that had kept ET in the complicated deal to date, they were also persuaded to rebrand an Ethiopian aircraft in Nigeria Air colours just for the hurried launch in Abuja at the twilight of the last administration.
It was earlier reported that the project as a hard-sell since its 2018 christening in London. The Ministry of Aviation advertised in international newspapers inviting technical partners to own 49 per cent stake of Nigeria Air. After two months and another one-month extension, only Ethiopian Airlines showed interest in Nigeria Air.
The ministry, headed by Sirika, in disclosing the “preferred bidders” also announced the trio of SAHCO, MRS and the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) as custodian of 46 per cent private sector equities.
But barely 24 hours later, the ministry issued a rejoinder that NSIA was included in error. Litigation by members of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) has also kept the Nigeria Air project grounded in court.
GCEO of ET, however, said contrary to the make-belief of Ethiopians interest in owning and operating a Nigeria airline, the new national carrier was already established before Ethiopian Airlines was invited to partner with it.
“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,” Tasew said.
He added that subsequent litigations by local businesses in Nigeria, defamation of ET and the Ethiopian government made a withdrawal necessary, but the Nigerian government objected.
He was emphatic that Nigeria Air was established before ET came into the picture.
“It was already established by the Nigerian government before we were invited. It has its own leadership, it was doing a lot of things, it had started requesting for the Air Operators’ Certificate (AOC), and was preparing.
“So, when we came in, it was a matter of restructuring the ownership of that Nigeria Air. For your information, the logo was already defined by them, it was not by Ethiopian Airlines. And we thought that if Nigeria Air is established, the benefit will be for the Nigerian public, for the Nigerian government.
“Because 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,” he said.
Explaining the controversial launch at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, last May, Tasew said an ET airplane was rebranded on request of the Nigeria Air project handlers.
“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.”