There is a new development as Arik Airlines Ltd., Nigeria’s largest flight operator, halted domestic flights for a second day after a union under the West Africa nation’s airports authority stopped its planes from flying yesterday in Lagos.
The union insists that the airline must pay 18 billion naira ($114 million) for the use of airport facilities it owes, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria Director-General George Uriesi said on state-owned Radio Nigeria.
Today, the following text message was widely circulated across the country:
“Due to persistent hostility of the Ministry of Aviation, with a minister who is demanding a 5 percent equity in a business where she has no investment…and FAAN management, which has culminated in the use of FAAN staff to stop the airline operations and lock in checked-in passengers in Lagos this morning, Arik Air has suspended all domestic operations until further notice. This issue [borders] on personal interests and not payment of bills; since FAAN has been collecting.”
Officials at the airline have claimed that the carrier was forced out of business for refusing to part with 5 percent of its corporate shares as Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah, demanded.
Speaking this evening to SaharaReporters, a senior official of Arik defended the airline’s account of the source of the company’s woes. “It is a pity that a minister can cause so many problems for an airline just because she did not have her way,” the official said.
Ms. Oduah is regarded as one of the closest ministers to President Goodluck Jonathan. In the 2011 general election, she served as treasurer for Mr. Jonathan’s campaign. The Arik source claimed that the minister pressured owners of the airline to hand her a 5 percent stake in the ownership of Arik, asserting that she was making the demand on behalf of President Jonathan.
The shady and crisis-prone airline is believed to be owned by interests who benefited massively from grand corruption during the administration of Governor Peter Odili of Rivers State and the tenure of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The source at Arik also accused the Aviation minister of instigating Arik workers to go on a strike that grounded the airline’s domestic operations today. The workers reportedly went on strike to pressure their employers to pay debts owed the Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). “Is it not curious that workers at a private airline are going on strike to demand that their employer should pay debts owed to the federal government?” our source asked. He added, “That should tell you that something fishy is happening, and also who is behind the nonsense.”
Another source in the aviation industry said she agreed with Arik’s assertion that Ms. Oduah was behind the airline’s trouble. She told SaharaReporters that Ms. Oduah’s actions against Arik were related to the recent controversial decision to let Dana Airline resume flight operations after one of the airline’s planes crashed early June in a heavily populated area of Lagos, killing close to 170 people.
“We have received reports that minister received hundreds of millions of naira [in bribe] from Dana authorities to restore their license to operate,” said the source. She added that the Dana management was actually surprised by the urgency with which their airline’s license was restored. “You should bear in mind that Dana had not paid a quarter of the insurance payments to families of the casualties in the June 3rd crash of Dana Flight 992 in Lagos,” said our source, an aviation expert. She said it was eye-opening that the management of Dana issued a statement claiming that they had not bribed anyone to influence the restoration of their license.
The aviation source also recalled that the restoration of Dana’s license coincided with a bizarre order by a federal high court judge effectively stopping a coroner inquest that was initiated by the Lagos State government at the prompting of Femi Falana, a human rights attorney.
The controversial court order arose from a suit filed in Lagos by a hitherto unknown group by the name of “Civil Aviation Round Table Initiative.” In a curious twist, the federal government took the same position as Dana in its response to the lawsuit. Shortly afterwards, the Jonathan administration restored Dana’s license as Ms. Oduah openly declared that the government had made a huge mistake in suspending the airline’s license in the first place.
Ms. Oduah is also believed to be the spirit behind a renewed effort by the federal government to create a national airline for Nigeria. The country has had a terrible record of maintaining a national carrier, with previous attempts hobbled by bureaucratic bottlenecks, financial mismanagement, and poor technical management.