By Felix Onuah
ABUJA (Reuters) -Nigeria is aiming to release money from foreign airlines’ ticket sales, held up by dollar shortages in the country, and has already started making some payments, Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika said on Thursday.
Nigeria is facing severe dollar shortages, forcing many citizens and businesses to seek foreign exchange on the black market, where its naira currency has progressively weakened.
The dollar shortages have made it difficult for some foreign airlines that sold tickets in the Nigerian naira to get their money out of the country.
A spokesperson for the global airlines industry association IATA said last week that Nigeria was withholding $743 million in revenue earned by international carriers operating in the country, the highest amount owed by any nation.
Sirika did not provide a timeline for releasing the trapped funds. He said Qatar Airlines had $201 million blocked while another $216 million was owed to IATA airlines.
“We are doing our best to get the monies released,” Sirika told reporters in Abuja.
He added that Emirates airline had got most of its funds out of Nigeria and had around $35 million that still needed to be released.
President Muhammadu Buhari in February directed the central bank to increase the amount of foreign currency allocated to Dubai’s Emirates, after the airline suspended flights to and from Nigeria because it was unable to repatriate funds.
Oil is Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner, but rampant crude theft in the Niger Delta and years of under-investment have hit output and strained government finances. For a few months last year, Angola overtook Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer and exporter.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Jane Merriman)