By LOUIS IBAH
AT the arrival section of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Ikeja, Lagos, passengers coming into the country on board an Ethiopian Airways flight are made to wait longer than normal before picking up their luggage due to a minor fault with the baggage carousel.
With passengers getting agitated, an attempt was made by airport officials to offer explanation while also appealing for calm and patience from passengers. But rather than assuage the anger of passengers, it was a loud protest. “When will all these excuses end on the poor state of Nigerian airports,” screams one angry passenger. “When will this project be completed? For how long will we continue with this rot and inefficiency at our airports,” retorted another angry passenger with a hiss.
The agitated passenger who gave his name as Theophilus told Daily Sun that, “I work in Abu Dhabi and I left this country early 2013 when work on the remodelling of this airport began. Don’t you know that the Lagos airport is the mirror of Nigeria and that this is a rich country and everything about this airport should be of international standard?
“This is 2016, and they are yet to complete the project. Does this depict a country that is serious and determined to fix its strategic infrastructure?” he queried.
It didn’t take more than 12 minutes for the baggage carousel to be fixed for passengers to pick up their baggage and exit the airport. But even after picking up his luggage, Theophilus remained angry with the slow pace of work at most of the nation’s airports and also the rot in the system.
It is indeed the same sad sentiments that are shared by many other Nigerians who travel through various beautiful and well managed airports particularly in Europe, America and Asia, and on their return home are made to go through what could hardly pass for a standard shopping mall overseas, let alone an international airport.
“The airports in Nigeria have remained like an expensive construction site,” Theophilus told Daily Sun. He pointed at the abandoned car park project at the MMIA as he stepped out of the arrival hall. “No one knows the actual cost of this projects and no one can even tell the year or month or date it will ever be completed,” he added.
In 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan launched an Aviation Master Plan, a set of new intervention projects across the industry starting with the remodelling of 11 airports to international standards, and the equipping of 22 other airports with the latest state-of-the-art safety and navigation radar, lightning and thunder detection equipment to achieve safe navigation in the Nigerian airspace.
Key finance and donor institutions (that hitherto had shunned the industry) such as the World Bank, AFC, IFC, USEXIM, Chinese Exim and Citi Bank had seen in the reforms a new window to unlock the country’s aviation sector potentials and assist it diversify the economy. These donor agencies became actively involved in various loan deals, offering consultancy services as well as direct financing for some of the major ongoing projects in the industry.
“An estimated $2.2 billion must have been attracted and spent in the sector and these funds came from both public and private sectors,” said an analyst who wouldn’t want to be named.
“The most pronounced which we all know was the $500 million loan secured from the Chinese Exim Bank for the construction of four new international airport terminals in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano,” he added. But the government even had a bigger vision for the sector aside the remodelling of existing airports and the construction of four new airports in Port Harcourt, Lagos, Abuja and Kano. Additional 14 new perishable cargo terminals were to be constructed across the country with aerotropolis (airport cities) built around the international airports.
The then Minister of Aviation, Ms. Stella Oduah, spoke so laudably of the inherent benefits to Nigerians and the economy at the launch of these projects. She said prior to the launch of the projects, the overall contribution of the sector to national GDP was an abysmal 0.4 per cent, but on completion, the projects would raise the figure to about 6 per cent.
“The aviation sector and the airports we inherited were unacceptable to us and Nigerians. We therefore commenced a paradigm shift to an aviation sector that will create the platform for business opportunities for local entrepreneurs and attract foreign investors and serve as an enabler for such other sectors as agriculture, oil and gas and tourism and generate employment and contribute significantly by up to 6 per cent to national GDP, which is a pivotal role in our national economic development and self-sustainability,” Oduah said.
Most analysts, however, estimate that more than $2 billion has so far been expended on the projects. But despite that expenditure, Nigeria’s aviation infrastructure remains one of the worst in the world. From the Lagos to Abuja, Calabar, Owerri, Enugu, Ilorin, Kano, Sokoto, Kaduna, Ibadan, Port Harcourt airports, the state of infrastructure has not risen above what could be considered as “above average.”
In these airports, one still finds an endless list of non-functional facilities inside the terminals including dilapidated structures, unpainted walls, poor air conditioning systems, no comprehensive flight information display systems, absence of communication facilities to allow passengers access wi-fi and the internet, absence of comfortable and secured seats for passengers, poor toilets and other conveniences facilities. There are still poor perimeter fences that allow just anyone access to the airports, leaking roofs, non-functional conveyor belts, no self-check-in facilities, automated gates for security and passenger tracking, air field lighting systems and other navigational facilities on the runways such that most airlines had to shut down during harmattan seasons and the absence of car parks, among others.
Commenting on the state of the airports, one analyst stated at the end of the Jonathan government: “I am not saying nothing had been done by President Jonathan on the airports; I give him full credits as certainly having invested in the airports more than his many predecessors.”
“But what I have noticed is that the state of the Nigerian airports simply moved from having very poor infrastructure such that Alsatian dogs could not use the toilets to having only enjoyed a massive first-lift that could permit Alsatian dogs defecate with reasonable ease.”
What went wrong?
Apart from the fact that mid-way into the execution of the projects, the government ran out of cash as earnings from crude oil happened to commence a nosediving journey but the other major factor that appeared to have really marred the various airports’ remodelling, reconstruction, new airport terminals, aerotropolis and perishable cargo terminal projects was corruption.
“The problem of Nigeria is also part of the problem we are having in the Nigerian aviation industry,” said Noggie Meggission, President of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON).
“What that means is that the same issue of corruption, insincerity, nepotism, pride, leadership problems that have plagued the Nigerian state, also worked against aviation,” Meggisson added.
Daily Sun learnt that there was a high level of graft in the form of misapplication and misappropriation of funds for some of the projects by various government officials. Some top officials of aviation parastatals and ministry became so rich overnight that stories started flying about in the industry as to who was richer among some of the staff.
One official told Daily Sun how the unions in the industry wrote petitions to the anti-graft agencies like the EFCC and ICPC to audit the accounts of parastatals in the industry. The official also said on several occasions, attempts by the Senate and House of Representatives Committee on Aviation to call for the accountability of voted sums for projects was thwarted by the affected officials in the aviation ministry as well as the parastatals.
Towards the fourth quarter of 2014, the level of leakages in the system became so outrageous that contractors who had kept faith to contract terms and were sourcing for funds externally on credit to execute their projects had to park out of sites on realising that they could no longer be reimbursed.
The battle to ascertain the actual debt profile on the Nigeria’s airport rehabilitation project created a rift between the National Assembly and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
The Senate Committee on Aviation, which first announced the debts arising from the remodelling of airport projects to contractors put the figure at N174 billion, noting that the ugly trend had marred the continuation and completion of some of the ongoing projects as some contractors had downed tools in protest to non-payment of monies for project execution.
The same position was also held by the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, which, while on an inspection of the domestic and international wings of the Lagos airport, faulted the huge debt, alleging fraud and noting that appropriate legislation was not made to cover some of the contracts.
FAAN, which manages the airports on behalf of the Federal Government, however, made available to Daily Sun a data faulting the N174 billion debt, alleging that the figure was inflated by N26 billion from the actual debts of N148 billion. The agency also said it was heavily owed by some airlines operating in the country for services it was rendering to them.
Today, apart from the privatised MMA2 terminal, which bears a semblance of what an airport should look like, the rest of the airports have one or two projects either uncompleted, stagnated or abandoned.
The way forward
Meanwhile, the Buhari administration appears to have yielded to stakeholders’ demand for the probe of how funds were disbursed and utilised for the various projects at the airports. Already, the hammer has fallen on the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) where its top officials were picked up recently by the EFCC and are currently standing trial for various allegations of graft in the disbursement of funds for navigational aids projects in that parastatal. There are, however, calls for the probe to be extended to the other parastatals, especially FAAN, which manages the airport projects, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which regulates the industry, as well as top officials of the Aviation Ministry that supervised the projects.
But the privatisation or concession of the airports to private sector management firms, many analysts say, remains the best panacea to stem the rot in the nation’s airports, including corruption.
Proponents of privatisation argue that at no time does Nigeria require to privatise and unlock the full potentials of its existing airports than now when income from crude oil is dwindling following the crash of the price of the commodity at the international market.
Privatisation of the airports is one decision that the government must take as soon as possible as the country no longer has that kind of money to continue to commit into new infrastructure at the airports, most of which are not even viable economically. They are better left in the hands of private sector investors, who will find the money to invest in them and also manage them efficiently.