By Leke Baiyewu
The Federal Government has dismissed threats by foreign airlines to suspend operations in Nigeria over their inability to repatriate their blocked forex from the country.
Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, stated that Nigeria would fare better should foreign airlines boycott the country, as the government has developed the capacity to face the challenges.
Sirika made this known in Abuja on Monday at the continued negotiations following the intervention of the House of Representatives in the conflict between the Nigerian government and some operators under the International Air Transport Association.
Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, had called the roundtable over threats by Emirates Airline and British Airways to suspend their operations in Nigeria.
“Nigeria under President Buhari has shown the capacity and audacity to stand up in difficult moments to do the right thing to help the country,” the minister stated.
Sirika recalled that when the regime led by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), came into power in 2015, there were about $480m blocked in Nigeria. “That year, we were in recession and revenues had dwindled,” he said.
According to the minister, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, then said that the country would either “earn or borrow it (forex).” He noted that at that moment, the regime had not started borrowing. He stressed that Buhari asked Emefiele and the then Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Kemi Adeosun, to resolve the problem, “which was done.”
Sirika, however, stated, “Mr Speaker the problems of the country did not stop. It continued and worsened. I sympathise with the airlines if they are having any monies yet to be repatriated to their country because indeed, we signed Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreements. I do sympathise. We are doing our best to resolve the issues.
“Nigeria is the only market for most of the airlines and they have been enjoying this market from amalgamation (of the Northern and Southern Protectorates) in 1914 till date. I expect that if Nigeria is in a difficult moment, there should be some level of understanding from the other side.
“We have a 215 million market – highly mobile. Nobody has announced that we are not giving this money out to the airlines for repatriation. We are saying give us some time. If you are disagreeing, you are supposed to come to us and we sit down and we negotiate and give you what we have, in the hope that we will finish paying.
“What I have problem with is the threats. Every country would threaten Nigeria that they would not fly to Nigeria again, that they would not give Nigerians visas, they would not do operations, they would shut Lagos and Abuja.
“Please countries have been shut completely and they did well. There are examples in Asia, Middle East and even Europe. We are not afraid of being shut. It would make us to do much better. It would make our schools and hospitals do better because necessity is the mother of invention. We would begin to go to our own hospitals and our schools.
“When you stop coming to Nigeria, it does not make any sense. We are not threatened. When you begin to threaten Nigeria – a 200 million market which you need, you do not have a case and I have a problem with that. I have been doing everything to ensure this is paid, but you can only give what you have.”
Earlier, the governor of the CBN noted that if the apex bank wants dollars to meet the import obligation of Nigerians or Nigerian companies, there are only two sources to get the forex, “either we earn it or we take a loan.”
Emefiele said it was unfortunate that earning forex had become a problem “due to what all of us know is associated with under-recovery of the differential between the landing cost and pump price of Premium Motor Spirit (petrol).” He added, “At the same time, taking a loan has become impossible because flows have dried down.”
The CBN governor stressed that the government “would have to continue to manage the little that we have until things improve, and I am sure we are doing everything possible to see what can be done to get things to improve.”
Emefiele stated that since 2016, the regime had always accorded priority to airlines for them to be able to repatriate their funds.
He said, “So, I am surprised by the kind of comment I hear from IATA because they know themselves that they were accorded extreme priority in their allocation of foreign exchange to IATA and the airlines. But the issue is not granting Nigerian airlines the opportunity to fly in your country.
“When you allow Air Peace or any other Nigerian airline to fly into your country, what it would do is that it would charge naira just like we also expected foreign airlines to charge naira. But under BASA, every penny that the foreign airline sells in tickets must be converted to dollars and taken away while Nigerian airlines charge naira. It will not come to CBN to say it wants dollars, so that naira sits.
“I can tell you that the number would be more than half, if you give Nigerian airlines opportunity to fly into your country. You cannot be flying 21 landings into Nigeria and yet a Nigerian airline cannot fly even one into your country. Those airlines, if they want to fly into your country, you intimidate them, use sniffer dogs to intimidate them and they cannot land.
“When they land, you do not allow them to do the most important checks for their aircraft to be able to take off and land back in Nigeria. You are making life difficult for the country, taking advantage of a country of over 200 million, with the largest population and economy in Africa. Whether you like it or not, it is the country with the largest market. You have to give Nigeria a chance. You cannot continue to trick Nigerians.”
Emefiele pointed out that IATA has the responsibility to get Nigerian airlines to fly on the basis of reciprocity. “Don’t come here to tell us that it is not your business. I can also tell you it is not my business as well, after all, I was not a party to the BASA agreement that was signed,” he stated.
The CBN governor noted he was doing everything he could to provide dollars for the airlines to repatriate.
“How can you come here and begin to tell us that you were not a party to BASA, and for that reason you are not interested in the concept of reciprocity, when you know that would benefit your country and our country? That is unfortunate,” Emefiele stated.