Ethiopian Airlines (ET, Addis Ababa International) had secured aircraft for Nigeria Air (NWB, Lagos), the planned joint venture national airline that remains on hold pending re-assessment by new Aviation Minister Festus Keyamo and legal action by the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON).

In an interview published by Nigerian Daily Trust newspaper, Ethiopian Airlines Chief Executive Officer Masfin Tasew Bekele is quoted as follows: "Hoping that the airline will materialise, we had signed lease agreement from Canada to lease three B737 MAX, which are one-and-a-half years old. They are brand-new aircraft. Now, Nigeria said no, we don't need it."

ch-aviation has reached out to Ethiopian for clarification.

In July 2022, a consortium led by Ethiopian Airlines won a tender process for a 51/49 public-private partnership (PPP) with the federal government. Despite earlier statements by Tasew suggesting that Nigeria Air would debut in October 2023, the startup's certification process remains suspended following the appointment of the new aviation minister and ongoing legal challenges from the AON concerned about unfair competition.

Well-placed insiders told ch-aviation that it was likely that Ethiopian Airlines would demand its rights after having made commitments on winning the PPP tender for Nigeria Air with the approval of the Nigerian President/Council of Ministers in 2022.

According to Daily Trust, Tasew said the federal government had requested Ethiopian Airlines to continue with the groundwork for establishing Nigeria Air pending a vacating of the court case, insisting that the government was not cancelling the project.

Relating the background, Tasew said: "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, a request came from the Nigerian government asking ET (Ethiopian Airlines) to participate in a bid and help the Nigerian government set up a Nigerian flag carrier. It came in writing."

He said Ethiopian Airlines initially hesitated to assist in setting up Nigeria Air but reconsidered due to Abuja's insistence. Ethiopian Airlines submitted a proposal and was chosen by the Nigerian Ministry of Aviation to partner in establishing the national airline. The Nigerian government wanted the majority of investors to be Nigerian institutions and to hold a 5% share for government presence and facilitation. While there were discussions and agreement on many points, some differences remained in specific aspects of the partnership.

While preparing the shareholder agreement for the new national carrier, Ethiopian heard about Nigerian airlines objecting to the project and considered withdrawing. Still, the Nigerian government insisted that the project was strategically crucial for Nigeria and should continue, promising to give Ethiopian a decision, and the airline agreed to wait for it.

"In the first place, it was not our initiative; it was the initiative of the government. Now, if the government wants us to cancel the project, it is fine with us. We have no problem. If the government want us to continue with the project, the government has to solve the legal case in court. Otherwise, we are willing to support the Nigerian government in the establishment of the national carrier. So, we leave the decision to the Nigerian government," Tasew continued.

"We have no issues; we will not be disappointed if it is cancelled. We are just there to help. And if the parties ask us to help, change their mind, or change their strategy, we are fine with that. This is what we told the Minister: that we respect whatever decision of the Nigerian government," he concluded.