Omololu Ogunmade in Abuja
The Joint Senate Committee on Aviation and Anti-corruption wednesday cleared the Chairman of NICON Group of Companies, Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim, of the allegation of diversion of N35 billion of the N500 billion aviation intervention fund released by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) through the defunct Air Nigeria.
Appearing before the committee in the National Assembly wednesday, Ibrahim said his moribund airline, like others, never received a dime from the aviation fund. He said he took over Virgin Nigeria including an outstanding debt of $250 million which he said was offset through all assets from his groups of companies.
According to him, NICON group, to which Air Nigeria belonged, had approached United Bank for Africa (UBA) which was also Virgin Nigeria’s banker to secure a loan of N35.5 billion which the bank obtained from the Bank of Industry (BoI).
Ibrahim further explained that the airline secured another $40 million loan from the Afrexim Bank, which he said had been fully paid back, adding that he ran the airline for only two years before it was grounded by the regulatory agencies.
Ibrahim further disclosed that he bought the airline from UBA Capital, an arm of the UBA and sold back the airline to the agency with all its assets and liabilities.
He further explained that the defunct Virgin Nigeria was owned by two categories of people which he grouped into Category A and Category B. According to him, category A comprised the original owner, Richard Branson, whom he said had all the powers while category B consisted of a group of Nigerian investors who owned 49 per cent of the shares.
He said Branson offered the shares to investors at $1 per one as he listed institutional investors in the company in Nigeria to include Wema Securities, adding that with the agreement of all, his group of companies bought the airline 100 per cent.
Ibrahim further explained that following a meeting held on the indebtedness of Virgin Nigeria prior to its acquisition, he sought a loan through its banker from UBA which the bank took from the intervention fund as he insisted that he never had access to the intervention fund neither did he apply to CBN, the custodian of the fund for it.
He described as unwarranted an allegation that he obtained N35 billion from BoI, saying it was not his business to bother where UBA obtained loan for his airline. “If UBA borrowed from BoI, how does that concern Air Nigeria? Virgin Nigeria didn’t apply to BoI. It gave fund and UBA and UBA gave loans to Air Nigeria,” he said.
Responding, UBA reminded Ibrahim how Air Nigeria wrote an application for N41.5 billion loan in 2010, explaining that the bank was only able to secure N35.5 billion from BoI, whose repayment he said was extended for a period of 15 years with the intention to free the fund for the airline’s meaningful use.
The bank however, claimed that there was no cause for alarm as the N35 billion it secured from the intervention fund through BoI was not a bad loan because it is being serviced. But it was slammed by the committee which said its interest was not the loan being serviced but rather banks’ decision to rob the aviation sector of access to the fund.
While arguing that the aviation fund was hijacked by the bank at the expense of intended beneficiaries, the committee’s co-chairman, Senator Chukwuka Utazi, lamented that the money that was meant to enhance the effectiveness of the airlines was hijacked by banks which he said used the aviation sector to get the fund.
He made the statement in agreement with Ibrahim that no airline had access to the bank as earlier claimed by some banks.
He said: “This money didn’t get to any airline but is in coffers of the banks. The airlines are on oxygen. They only used the aviation to get such loan and servicing it while the aviation industry is suffocating. Some Nigerians have to go to Ghana to board British Airways because it is cheaper from there. When you are on board aircraft in Nigeria, you have to send a message to your family that ‘if you land, fine, but if not, so be it.’
“Simple, simple things that we need to put in airports are not there. Nigeria is shortchanged. We are confused but the veil has been lifted. When we are through with our report, this is our discovery of what happened. CBN collected money, it is being serviced but the airlines are not serviced,” he lamented.
Also speaking, a member of the committee, Senator Adesoji Akanbi (Oyo South), regretted that both the CBN and commercial banks have robbed the airlines of the opportunity to enjoy the intervention fund meant for their use.
“The money didn’t get to aviation sector. The airlines have not enjoyed the intervention fund. CBN and banks are not helping matters. It is banks that are owing the sector and not the sector owing banks,” Akanbi said.