When Governor Rochas Okorocha rallied most members of his cabinet and a sprinkle of officials of Dana Air under the smoldering heat of Sam Mbakwe Cargo Airport on January 24, 2017, not many thought he was going to fish out another trick from his bag of vaunted rescue mission projects.
Nearly one year after, indeed, just days away from the first anniversary of the much-hyped Imo Air, there is a pall of silence and official secrecy over what now appears a shady deal superintendent by Okorocha with active connivance from troubled Dana Air management.
January 24, 2017 in a well choreographed script, both Dana Air and Governor Okorocha had arranged a rebranded Dana Air aircraft to touch down in Owerri. It was a 140-seater aircraft with Imo Air boldly written on its body. Every attempt was made to create a semblance of genuine business initiative. An enthusiastic crowd (seemingly hired) burst into delirious joy as soon as Imo Air appeared in the skies. Okorocha would lead the orchestra, and he did in his usual filibustering manner.
As the aircraft taxied to a stop and the motley crowd surged towards the airport’s perimeter fence to catch a glimpse of the ‘new Imo Air,’ Okorocha said in measured tones:
“This is a happy moment in the state. The aim of going into the Air business is because I want to drive traffic to Imo State as Imo is genuinely becoming the fastest developing city outside Abuja and Lagos. For this, there is need for more airlines to cushion the effects of high traffic coming to the state.
“Imo government does not have an operating air license. So we needed to partner with a good and qualified airline operator. Hence, the choice of Dana Air because of its proven track record and sincerity of purpose. The Imo Air will be operated by Dana and we have a contract of ten years with them. We have five of this aircraft and the first one has just landed and four other ones will start operation in few weeks time.
“The International Cargo Airport will soon kick-start to supplement the efforts of Imo Air. In our pursuit of making Imo better, Imo International Cargo Airport will soon commence operations. Work is going on smoothly and by April God willing, the fastest international cargo plane will arrive Imo State. This, we believe will help drive up commercial activities in the state. Imo is a hub for business and there is no better place to invest now in Nigeria than Imo State, as in spite of the recession the state is still flourishing and progressing because of its visionary leadership.”
The governor further regaled his audience saying, “Already, about 200 of our indigenes have applied to work in the new airline and we want to employ them in the airline. Also, there is 10 per cent discount for all Imo Indigenes who fly with the airline.”
Collaborating the governor, the Chief Operating Officer of Dana Air, Mr. Mbanuzuo Obi had during the launching of the airline said, “The partnership between Dana and the good people of Imo State will create employment and better working relationship for the state. Imo Air is in safe hands and the choice of Dana Air for the partnership is an excellent choice as Dana Air is registered with International Air Transport Association operations and security treasuring”.
First indication Imo Air may have been a scam
Okorocha’s knack for pursuing grandiose projects without strategic focus have always raised concerns. There were immediate questions over the governor’s wild claims regarding Imo State’s ownership of the MD83 aircraft which was introduced to indigenes as one of the five aircraft to be operated for the state by Dana Air.
Early reports suggested that Okorocha had lied. The McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft, with registration number 5N-SRI, which Okorocha claimed to have purchased, allegedly belonged to Dana Air. The airplane was reportedly 26 years old as at the time the governor was claiming Imo State ownership of it.
Further searches conducted by Ripples Nigeria online showed that without an Air Operators Certificate (AOC), the so called Imo Air had cleverly stayed off the cyber space, choosing instead to remain an anonymous actor without even a booking office or ticketing stand anywhere. Pretensions toward any form of transparency were further blighted by the confusions created over brand identity. The venture which began as ‘Imo Air Operated by Dana Air’ has switched to “Imo Operated by Dana Air”.
Attempts made by Ripples Nigeria in November, 2017 to verify if Imo Air was a registered business entity threw up bewildering findings. The feedback was a ‘no show’. As demanded under the Companies and Allied Matters Act 1990, Imo Air had not been listed at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC)!
‘Imo Air project is the single biggest fraud’
Competent sources familiar with the Imo Air project allege that Imo Air is a huge fraud perpetrated against the people of Imo State by Okorocha in collaboration with Dana Air. Our source claimed that he currently had in his possession, a document of approval from CAC to run an airline with the name, Imo Air limited.
“I applied to the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) through my lawyer to ascertain the availability of the name, Imo Air Limited. I did this so that I can have a company registered in that name. And in their reply I got this document of approval.
See document below:
“This means that Imo Air Limited is available. In other words, it does not exist anywhere, nobody is operating business with that name. I have always known that whatever Rochas has said about Imo Air Limited is a fraud and that he set out to defraud Imo people with it. I say so because for there to be Imo Air, he must apply through the Imo State House of Assembly to the effect that Imo State government wants to run an airline. This is because to run an airline requires a lot of money.
“How much does it cost to buy an aircraft? Okorocha claims that his government has only been able to buy a few aircraft and that they are being managed for Imo State Government by Dana Air. So, the questions remain as follows: What did it cost to buy these aircraft? From whom did he buy these aircraft? What are the registration numbers of these aircraft? Did Imo State House of Assembly approve in the state budget that Imo State Government should own an airline and approve money for the state to buy aircraft when we have multiples of needs?
“So from day one I knew that Okorocha had set out, like he always does, to defraud Imo State and I had to go and apply for a company in the name of Imo Air. The first one I applied for was approved a couple of months ago, this document you see is the renewal of the earlier approved one.
“One other thing is that Okorocha by early this year advertised dubiously that Imo sons and daughters who want to work as air hosts and hostesses in Imo Air should apply. Why would a governor take his fraud this far, knowing that even when, as they claimed that Dana Air is operating so called Imo Air on behalf of Imo State Government, there is no way the state could have employed air hostesses because Dana will use its pilots and air hostesses to run the airline. That is supposing the airline existed, but it does not.”
Our source claimed that he personally counseled Okorocha on the perceived fraud inherent in the Imo Air project. “I told them that this is a fraud and this thing will be thrown open at the appropriate time…”
“The Imo Air project is the single biggest fraud. Rochas should show us which airline he has bought with our money. He should show us when he had the license and approval to run an airline and he should show us when the Imo State House of Assembly ever passed and he signed into law approving that he should expend some amount of money to buy an aircraft and to run an airline.
“He has to explain to us at what point he handed this airline to Dana Air. This is because he said that we have an airline called Imo Air limited and it doesn’t exist,” our source alleged.
“I have flown Dana recently. I have flown it once or twice in the past. At the beginning when this fraud started they used to write on the aircraft Imo Air operated by Dana Air. Now they have cleaned the area where they wrote Air and are now writing Imo Operated by Dana Air.
“I’m considering completing the process of the registration so that I can have the license to Imo Air because the truth is that we expect the airport authority to come clean on this issue. We expect the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to come clean on this issue, we expect Dana Air to come clean on this issue that there is nothing like Imo Airline.”
In search of facts; Sealed lips everywhere!
Probe into the processes leading up to the execution of the Imo Air project took Ripples Nigeria to Owerri where our Reporter kept vigil for five days investigating the State House of Assembly interventions, and seeking other official responses to troubling developments.
At Sam Mbakwe Airport, Owerri, there is absolutely no sign of partnership between the Imo State government and Dana Air. An official of the collaborating airline simply mumbled, “Dana Air and Imo Air are the same thing,” when asked by our Reporter to guide him to Imo Air ticketing stand.
There was also no such thing as rebate of 10% on tickets for would-be indigenes hoping to leverage Okorocha’s promises as pledged at inception of the airline. This Reporter was denied any such concession when he made to bid for a ticket on a Lagos-bound flight.
See interaction with Dana Air Staff at Sam Mbakwe Airport Owerri
Conspiracy of silence at Imo State House of Assembly
Did Imo State House of Assembly approve of the Imo Air project? Ripples Nigeria made strenuous efforts to get answers from principal officers of the House.
First, a telephone call was put through to the Speaker of the Assembly, Mr. Acho Ihim. While his phone rang repeatedly, he neither picked nor returned the call. Consequently, the Deputy Speaker, Ugonna Ozuruigbo, was contacted and having been briefed on the reason for the call, he advised a meeting with the Assembly Clerk, Mr Chris Duru for information on the matter.
A meeting with the Clerk was successful after a second attempt. Told about the essence of the chat with Ripples Nigeria, he retorted, “How does it concern me? What is Imo Air all about? In this place House of Assembly, we make law, so what concerns Imo Air with House of Assembly?
Reminded that the House ought to have passed a budget empowering the Executive to undertake the Imo Air project, Duru fumed and said, “Budget for what? Is that what you want to find out?
“Did you go to the Executive to ask them? You should go to the executive arm who spent the money to ask them first. That’s where you go to first.
“Listen, you go to people that spent money to ask question not us, we make law here.”
Not even members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were willing to come forth with answers. The member representing Aboh Mbaise state constituency, Mike Iheanetu said, “I have nothing to comment on Imo Air. The reason is because I do not know what arrangement was on ground about the airline, I do not know what happened along the line and I still do not know what is happening now. So, I will not be able to know what to say next.
Probed further, he said, “My brother, when I say I do not know anything about it I do not know anything about it.”
…And from the Executive
Governor Okorocha’s team has also kept sealed lips. While the Chief Press Secretary (CPS), Sam Onwuemeodo, pulled all tricks to stay away from the controversy, the governor’s Adviser on Trade and Investment, Barr. Rex Anunobi would rather the office of Governor’s aide on Aviation be contacted. He too worked to scuttle all attempts at addressing issues relevant to Imo Air by refusing to make himself available for a chat.
As at the time of the inquiries, Imo State had no commissioners, only nominees who were inaugurated two weeks after the trip to Owerri.
When contacted, Onwuemeodo, said he was in Abuja with the governor, and asked that our correspondent call back later to know when he would be in town.
On his part, Anunobi, said he was not competent enough to speak on the Imo Air project. He directed Ripples Nigeria back to Onwuemeodo for clearance and to get the contact of the governor’s adviser on Aviation, whom he said was the right person to comment on the matter.
Several calls later put to Onwuemeodo went unanswered, and a text message sent to his mobile phone, to oblige us the phone number of the governor’s adviser on Aviation, was also not replied.
Meanwhile, a Special Assistant to the governor on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), Anayochukwu Abasiodu Idiong, who offered to speak on the project, said, “Your question is not found on any basic fact, if somebody starts a business and …he couldn’t meet up, how does that amount to criminality. How is it an offence?
“You have to be in the business to understand why the person has not acquired what he said he’ll buy. So, that’s why I’m asking you how is it an offence, or criminality. Aviation is an expertise business, the issue doesn’t call for any allegation”.
On claims that the governor has not kept his promises concerning the Imo Air project, Idiong retorted, “Promise as what? Was the aircraft supposed to be given out to Imo people? If you start a business with one aircraft, you have to monitor.
“There are lots of technicalities which you and I should understand. I want to say that the governor’s statement wasn’t a promise; it was a projection, so you can’t say he promised five aircraft. How can he promise that? Is he dealing in aircraft?
At the Imo State Government House, the Special Assistant to Okorocha on Electronic Media, Dr. Ebere Nzeworji, said he would not respond to the issues except but that he needed approval (he did not mention whom he needed the approval from).
He however assured that he was going to speak to one or two people who could provide answers to some of the issues raised. But he never did.
Dana Air dumps corporate governance for secrecy
Not bothered about the damage the Imo Air scam has done to its corporate reputation, the management of Dana Air resisted every attempt to get it to respond to official inquiries on the much criticized deal between it and Imo State government.
Its Communication Manager, Kingsley Ezenwa, who demanded a formal questionnaire did not only refuse to respond to all issues raised, but also called off earlier promises to speak with Ripples Nigeria on the matter.
Below is a copy of the letter with acknowledgment of receipt by Dana Air staff
While the Imo Air project remains shrouded in top level secrecy with no perceived benefits to citizens of Imo State, it continues to arm his opponents with sufficient ammunition to rattle his administration which has been buffeted by serious allegations of nepotism, mismanagement and fraud.
And, for troubled Dana Air, it’s active involvement in this very opaque deal casts serious doubts on its promises to carry on business transparently, and puts a stain on its operations.
A member of the ruling APC in the state, who refused to be named, said he was equally unhappy with the Imo Air issue, and that there is a need for the anti-graft agencies in the country to demand that Governor Okorocha, and Dana Air, come clean on the Imo Air project.
By Ebere Ndukwu …
RipplesNigeria… without borders, without fears