In every other part of the world, international airports are usually a microcosm of the country at large. It provides the opportunity to assess the perfect or imperfect functionality of that country. If there is sanity at the airport, it reflects how organised the country is.
In other words, the situation at the airport provides a near perfect parameter to measure the internal workings of a country. For first-time visitors to Nigeria, the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, would send a wrong message about the nation.
Whether departing or arriving through the airport, the situation remains the same. There seems to be a deliberate effort by the taxi hire service operators to turn the airport into a motor park. Illegal hawking activities, unauthorised porters and sometimes near facilities collapse and chaos at the NAA Abuja have tarnished the reputation of Nigeria.
More worrisome is the alleged involvement and collaboration of various strata of security formations and the touts. There have been debates of who should take the larger chunk of the blame for the chaotic situation at the airport.
While genuine car hire service providers blame security operatives, the passengers and the image of the country at large are left at the mercy of the touts and hawkers.
It has degenerated to some car hire operators allegedly robbing passengers along the now notorious Airport Road, car theft and vandalism at the airport and disappearance of passengers’ luggage, among other nefarious activities, are now common.
The menace of touts
Painting a clearer picture of the confusion, the war between genuine car hire service operators and touts, the chairman, NAA Car Hire Services, Ekwueme Wilfred, told Daily Sun that the activities of touts in the airport have not only impoverished them, but also heightened the rate of robbery attacks on passengers and car theft.
Exonerating his members from the worrisome mobbing of the passengers on arrival, he said: “They are touts and we have been doing everything possible to ensure that we degrade them but what may surprise you is that there are so many people involved in the cartel network.
“The military personnel collaborate with them in canvasing for passengers for the touts for financial rewards. The Road Safety officers, Civil Defence and even FAAN security are also encouraging touting at the airport by giving them passengers for monetary rewards.
“Their uniform made it possible for them to operate easily and smoothly because Nigerians can easily trust them since they are in uniform. Most times, they approach passengers on arrival and order a tout to take them to town. They would get their reward, which ranges from N500 to N1,000, once the touts conclude the bargain with the passengers,” he said.
Lamenting the menace of touts, Ekwueme further said: “We have confronted the security agents, including taking the matter to their commandants. However, our efforts could not yield much positive results because, at best, they would change the team only for the new ones to continue with the same activities.
“FAAN security instructed us to constitute a five-member task force to clean the airport of the mess. We are hopeful that it will yield positive result because they have been clamping down on them and their cars. However, we are worried about the increasing number of touts because they now outnumber the genuine car hire service operators.
“The task force can only do little because of their collaboration with the security and para-military agencies. They operate on a daily basis because they have seen this place as a cash cow and fertile marketplace. We have reported their activities to the airport manager, who promised to streamline the loading format at the airport.
“Again, we intended to bring mobile court to ensure that any arrested tout would face judgement immediately. But we could not do much because the then airport DPO was transfered and the new one who told us to give him time to study the proposal has not been able to do anything.
“These touts have given us a bad name because there have been cases of robbery of the passengers. From the security report we have, some of these touts would pretend as if their cars developed fault along the way, only to rob the passengers of their valuables and abandon them helplessly. Lamentably, they would blame the robbery on the car hire operators because they don’t know the difference between the touts and genuine operators.
“The passengers are not helping matters also because most times, when we approach them to patronise the genuine car hire operators, they complain of high charges, preferring to take the cheap ones and end up being robbed. Again, the touts charge lower than us because their turnover is higher than ours,” the car hire service boss lamented.
He added that, “The other challenge we are facing here is lack of space to accommodate our members. We are sharing the available space with the FAAN staff, resulting in plans to push us out of this place. The vehicles belonging to our members could not enter the only available parking lot. This situation has pushed some of our members into touting.
“They merged three car hire service operators, comprising Airport Car Hire Association of Nigeria (ACHAN), Viko Nigeria Limited and DJM, to stay together under one loading bay even when ACHAN has over 1,000 members.
“Ideally, all the car hire operators are expected to stay at the local wing of the airport, leaving only those whose turn it is to load at the international wing. Any other person seen canvasing for passengers should be arrested as a tout.”
“We want to find solutions to the problem,” he said, adding: “We want to form 10 companies that will absorb our members. Already, FAAN has approved seven. We want them to give ACHAN the same treatment they give to Viko and DGM. We don’t want them to continue to look at ACHAN as an association instead of a company. The situation will also minimise touting.”
Drastic low patronage
For them, it has been an endless lamentation of low patronag.
“It is difficult to compare the situation we find ourselves now with the past. It is terribly bad now and has even resulted to our members dying. We cannot quantify it in monetary terms and it has even forced us to crash our charges, pegging it at N5,000 or N6,000 due to the charges from FAAN.
“Previously, we paid annually but now FAAN introduced pays-as-you-go. We have rejected it because it will impoverish us further. They want to charge N500 each time any of our members load, excluding the toll gate fees. Paying N800 pay trip is outrageous.
“It was cheaper paying annually because it would also take care of the gate pass, charged N20,000 annually. They should allow us streamline our activities and condition of service, or we will stage a protest,” the group said.
Lamentations of airport security
At the office of the Aviation Security (AVSEC), it has become a recurring decimal to see a large haul of arrested defaulters, but they are set free hours after.
A senior official of the unit told Daily Sun in confidence, that weak interrogation and prosecution by the police has thwarted their efforts. “The truth about some of these allegations is to look at it in the wider perspective. The management has its share of problems because this airport has no perimeter fence.
“The porous nature of the airport does not allow the security men have effective control of the entrance and exit into the airport. We have one million and one entrance and exit routes into the airport. No matter the number of security persons recruited, it would be difficult to control the porous nature of the airport.
“As for the car hire operators blaming touts for robbery, most of their members are touts. We constituted a task force to arrest the situation.
“However, by virtue of our standard operational procedure, we can only arrest and transfer to police for interrogation and possible prosecution.
“Once we arrest and hand over to the police, what becomes of them, we don’t know. But, surprisingly, the same people we arrest will return to the same place. In that case, we should know who to blame. Periodically, we raid those hawking bags, keys, food and drinks, among others, hand them over to the police, but we still see the same people back on the spot soon after.
“The passengers are not also helping matters, especially as regards those carrying their bags inside the airport. We often send security to arrest them, traffic will build up because of the ongoing construction, and since aircraft is not a taxi to wait for anybody, the passenger in a hurry to catch his flight will get help from the boys but any attempt to arrest the boys, will incur abuses and harassment from the passengers.
“We have equally had reports of airport car touts robbing passengers along the road. However, we must blame any passenger who falls victim because they usually avoid the genuine car hire park perhaps because of the price difference. When passengers resist the temptation of patronising roadside touts, it would be easy to trace those behind the nefarious activities,” he said.
Cries and manipulation by mobile and trolley operators
There have been battle cries from airport trolley pushers claiming that the exploitation their employers mete to them has forced many of them to adopt the extreme measure of “remote controlling” passengers with juju to get extra cash.
Narrating their ordeal to Daily Sun, a trolley pushers who pleaded anonymity said: “Any passenger who puts his bag into the trolley will pay N800, yet at the end of the month, the company pays the pushers that work 24 hours on shift basis of one day off, one day on as little as N19,000.
“Those ones helping the passengers to carry their bags are better opportune because they don’t render account to anybody but they are constantly at the mercy of the airport security.
“Some passengers are generous to us but they must, however, be prayerful because the juju some of our staff use here to get money from them is too effective. Some of us use juju to get money and manipulate deployment inside the lobby to get money from returnees.
“Many of my co-workers have volunteered to take me to a herbal home, if I want to make money from passengers. But they have also confessed that they cannot account for the money they are making because many of the passengers did not make their money through honest means.
“They regard the generosity of the passengers as blood money from occultism, rituals, robbery and other nefarious sources. Some of us have also progressed to next level because of help from passengers,” he said.
FAAN insists activities belong to the past
Although other security agents could not react to the involvement of their personnel in the allegations, the airport management, FAAN, claimed that such activities now belong to the past.
The FAAN spokesperson, Henrietta Yakubu, admitted that though there was reports of car theft last year, the airport has been sanitised.
“All these incidences you mentioned now belong to the past. I challenge you to visit the airport now.
“We just relocated the car hire service operators, which has stopped touting activities. We have equally checkmated the menace of the hawkers and I urge you to use our conveniences to confirm whether they are unkempt as claimed,” she said.