Nigeria: U.S.$600m Trapped Fund – Foreign Airlines Mull Pull Out of Nigeria

The Federal Government’s inability to allow foreign airlines operating in the country’s airspace to repatriate their funds might in the coming days force them to suspend their operations in Nigeria.

As at July ending, the funds of over 20 foreign airlines had risen to over $600 million, and stakeholders have maintained that if the development was left unchecked, the fund could hit $1 billion before the end of 2022.

Following complaints of trapped funds, the United Arab Emirates, UAE, flag carrier, Emirates airlines, disclosed that effective from September 1, 2022, it would suspend operation in Nigeria’s airspace.

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, in response to the development, maintained that the move by Emirates airline was legitimate.

This is even as the Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, assured yesterday that the federal government was doing everything possible to resolve the issue.

Emirates which has taken the first step, said in a letter transmitted to the Minister of Aviation yesterday that it would, with effect from September 1, suspend operations to the country, citing its inability to repatriate the over $85 million trapped in Nigeria.

The airline’s statement read: “Emirates has tried every avenue to address our ongoing challenges in repatriating funds from Nigeria, and we have made considerable efforts to initiate dialogue with the relevant authorities for their urgent intervention to help find a viable solution.

“Regrettably, there has been no progress. Therefore, Emirates has taken the difficult decision to suspend all flights to and from Nigeria, effective September 1 2022, to limit further losses and impact on our operational costs that continue to accumulate in the market.

“We sincerely regret the inconvenience caused to our customers, however the circumstances are beyond our control at this stage. We will be working to help impacted customers make alternative travel arrangements wherever possible.

“Should there be any positive developments in the coming days regarding Emirates’ blocked funds in Nigeria, we will of course re-evaluate our decision. We remain keen to serve Nigeria, and our operations provide much needed connectivity for Nigerian travellers, providing access to trade and tourism opportunities to Dubai and to our broader network of over 130 destinations.”

Although British Airways refused to disclose the amount of its money trapped in the country, Vanguard gathered that it was also in the region of $85 million.

A source told Vanguard that the airline is equally mulling the idea of stopping operations to Nigeria but failed to disclose when this would happen.

Same, it was learned yesterday, applied to some other foreign airlines operating flights into the country.

It’s a legitimate demand – NCAA

Reacting to the development, NCAA spokesman, Mr Sam Adurogboye, said if Emirates, as a foreign airline, decided not to fly into Nigeria, it was a government-to -government decision.

“Their demand is legitimate. If you travel to another country to put up an investment, you will need to transfer your money back to your country.

“The airline is running a business. The government may need to invite them for talks and look for a way of assisting them in managing the development,” he said.

Fund to hit $1bn in December – Experts

Also reacting yesterday, the principal managing partner, Avaero Capital Partners, Sindy Foster, noted that the combined total of fund trapped was $600m as at this month.

She said: “If this fund is left unchecked, it could reach $1billion by the end of 2022. Emirates has taken this action to prevent their losses increasing further.

“I think other airlines will wait to see if there is any movement by the Nigerian government first. No one would want to stop a route at one of the busiest times when we are still coming out of fallout of the COVID pandemic. But airlines are run on a commercial basis.

“If the ‘math is not matching’, they will take a view and adapt to the situation they find themselves in. There are other routes that aircraft and personnel could be deployed to, where their funds are not blocked and are available to them for use in a reasonable time frame. If no resolution is found, it is quite likely other airlines will follow the path chosen by Emirates.”

On his part, the Group Managing Director of Finchglow Holdings, Bankole Bernard, stated that this was not the first time foreign airlines were facing the issue of trapped funds.

“This also happened, I think in 2016 when the total trapped fund of the airlines was far higher than whatever we have now – it was about $750m then and they were making a particular comparison because as at that time Venezuela was also going through the same challenges and they owed a lot more, to the extent that Lufthansa had to stop flying to Venezuela.

“Then, some of the things we noticed were reduced capacity, air tickets became more expensive and that is exactly what we are seeing now. But, one critical reason they are more agitated is that in 2016, after their money was held back without being repatriated, Nigeria devalued its currency and as a business person, they felt that if they had taken their money out, they would not have been affected by the devaluation.

“So, that is the fear they are nursing now because if the currency is devalued, it means that they would have lost several per cent of that money they intend to repatriate.

“The only way we can reduce or stop this agitation is that there should be a communiqué from the government, which will give them some assurances that the country is not planning to devalue and this won’t affect them and that they will repatriate their money as it were.”

Stop the subtle blackmail, stakeholder tell Emirates

However, s stakeholder who pleaded anonymity, questioned what he described as blackmail of Emirates in Nigeria over the planned halt of operations into the country.

He said: “Please do not succumb to the blackmail of Emirates and their sponsors from within. The country cannot and will not manufacture dollars for them to repatriate their so called over $80 million in Nigeria.

“When they were competing devilishly to outdo an indigenous carrier, the only airline doing direct flight to Dubai, didn’t they know of the dollar situation here before embarking on having multiple frequencies into Nigeria.?

“They do two flights out of Lagos daily and one out of Abuja daily, bringing the total to three daily flights into Nigeria and 21 flights every week,”

“Once they heard a Nigerian airline was about to start flying to Dubai, they applied to increase the Lagos frequency to three flights daily, just to stifle the airline and dominate the route. They didn’t need all these flights but they increased frequency to stifle competition. Nigerians are even angry at the figures they are publishing; they feel having been ripped off by Emirates.”

Emirates: FG doing everything to resolve crisis, $85m not blocked – FG

Meanwhile, the federal government said yesterday it was working hard to address the imminent stoppage of flight operations into the country by Emirates Airlines.

Special Assistant on Public Affairs to Hadi Sirika, Minister of Aviation, James Odaodu, said there was hope that Sirika’s effort would bring about a quick resolution of the challenges faced by Emirates and other foreign airlines in the shortest possible time.

He said: “It is an unfortunate situation and the minister is greatly concerned, just as he is concerned about the difficulties faced by domestic operators. It is hoped that, with the efforts of the Minister, the issue will be resolved sooner rather than later.”

Odaodu, however, dismissed claims that the revenues generated by the airline were blocked, noting that the challenge with the funds was that of repatriation.

“Who withheld the money? That they are unable to repatriate their funds doesn’t amount to withholding by government. As much as the Minister of Aviation has tried to assist them with relevant bodies to facilitate their access to forex, it should be noted that the issue does not fall among the responsibilities of the Ministry of Aviation,” he added.

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