Before Abuja Airport is Shut Down By Reuben Abati

A few years ago, the Federal Government of Nigeria shut down the Port
Harcourt International Airport to carry out what they called repairs or
was it renovation? It was supposed to be an exercise for a few weeks,
but it took more than an entire year.

 Flights were diverted to an airport in the city at great cost to
travellers, but the so-called renovation took forever. The Port Harcourt
airport became a grazing field for cows, at other times, a
vehicle-driving field, and for more than one year, travel to Port
Harcourt, one of Nigeria’s most strategic cities was a nightmare.

Each time the Nigerian government talks about fixing the airports, using
the words, renovation, rehabilitation or reform, it is better to be
cynical. The Sam Mbakwe Airport in Owerri, for example, was once touted
as a major hub in the South East, and government spent so much money
turning it into an international cargo airport for the East, but that
same airport soon became flooded during the rainy season and planes
could no longer land.

Both the Port Harcourt and Owerri airports are currently in a permanent
state of renovation. The lives of those who wanted to renovate them at
any level whatsoever are ironically and scandalously, imaginably better
renovated. The airports failed, the managers smiled to the banks. In
those two airports, travellers were put through enormous strain because
the entire airports or sections had to be shut down. But the people,
expectant as they were had no choice in the matter. The Nigerian
government is so powerful; the people are helpless. The same government
the people elect with their votes punishes them unjustly. The people
themselves behave as if they are in bondage.

This was what happened in particular when the Port Harcourt Airport was
being renovated. Travellers were abused. Airlines subjected them to
enormous indignity. Businesses suffered. Government failed to keep its
promise. The airlines and their staff even became arrogant, failing to
realize they were victims too. They treated customers shabbily and there
was no way anyone could blame them when government itself was uncaring.

Looked at differently, the biggest problem is not necessarily the
politicians and their appointees who sashay in and out of power, but the
civil servants who run the engine room of government and who over the
years have perfected a culture of graft and incompetence. They look the
other way when politicians dismantle the rules, often times out of sheer
cruelty and for the better part, the political leaders are guided to do
so by the civil servants. 

Which department of government is responsible for the maintenance of
airports?: The Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). I believe
everybody in that agency should be lined up and caned publicly and
investigated according to the law. Should they have any stories to tell
about the poor state of Nigerian airports, despite the enormous amounts
that are budgeted yearly, they should tell us as each stroke of the cane
descends on their buttocks. I don’t consider corporal punishment a tool
of governance, so I speak metaphorically, but the rot in the aviation
section is so terrible, a feeling of outrage commands something
extra-ordinary. Weigh that against the plane crashes, loss of lives, and
the agony of air travel just because some incompetents have had to
superintend over Nigeria’s aviation sector.

I am this outraged because a sad story is about to repeat itself. The
Federal Government of Nigeria is proposing to shut down the Nnamdi
Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, beginning March 8, for six
weeks: to build a second runway and to carry out renovations. During the
period, flights will be diverted to Kaduna Airport and passengers will
be required to travel by rail or road to Abuja. The excuse is that the
runway in Abuja is almost collapsing. The life span of a runway is 20
years and this particular runway in Abuja has been there for 34 years. 

Politicians come and go but one significant fellow has suddenly woken up
in either the FAAN or the Ministry of Aviation and a proposal has been
submitted for renovation. And that proposal is now causing so much
commotion. All the characters responsible for this costly neglect and
delay should be lined up and sanctioned, and that should include a
thorough investigation into the possibility of this “new” project having
being proposed, budgeted for and cash-backed before now. At what point
did it occur to FAAN that the airport needs a second runway, and who is
the brain behind the hair-brained proposal that is now before the
public?

We have been told that for six weeks, flights will be diverted to the
Kaduna airport. The Minister of State for Aviation (by the way, who is
the Minister of Aviation?) has been quoted saying he wants “knowledge”
as to how this can be managed. The Ministry has also summoned a meeting
of stakeholders after taking the decision. This has been a classic case
of acting before thinking, making it all appear ridiculous. The
international airlines are insisting that they find this kind of
thinking inconvenient. 

Truly so: Local airline operators are not excited either. The National
Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA) and the Airline Operators
of Nigeria (AON) are protesting. Common sense, a scarce commodity at
this time, should have dictated that a meeting of stakeholders should
have been held before the decision was taken. But the arrogant
position-holders took the decision first and then decided to invite the
stakeholders as an after-thought. 

Ask these questions: is there an ulterior motive? Ignore common sense
and present the public with a fait accompli? Is that their plan? Is
politics, in the shape of further Northernization involved? And why?
Make Kaduna a new hub? Shift aviation travel further North? The failure
to maintain runways and observe best practices is a reflection of the
Nigerian problem: our national nonsense. Besides, Nigeria is forever a
victim of last minute decisions. We remember to think when it appears
too late to do so. Conspiracy theories are thus enabled when those who
should act rightly behave as if they are busy thinking with their
orifices.

Get it: The decision to shut down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International
Airport in Abuja and move traffic to the Kaduna airport for six weeks
has not been properly thought through. Poor thinking is the enemy of
good governance. There is no guarantee to start with, that the
renovation and rehabilitation can be completed in six weeks. Remember
Port Harcourt and Owerri. We have been told nevertheless, that this is a
good decision. But the timing is unwise. We are moving passengers to
Kaduna at a time that same state and city is in turmoil. Thousands are
being slaughtered daily in Southern Kaduna. The crisis has both
religious and ethnic undertones. And now we are moving more Nigerians to
the North, so they can get killed at the airport on or their way to
Abuja? Who in his or her right senses would like to travel through
Kaduna at this time?

A standard travel advisory should be: travel through Kaduna at your own
risk and commit possible suicide. And to this: let no paid vuvuzela tell
me the roads are safe and that the rail line to Abuja does not pass
through Southern Kaduna. Also consider this: Government says it will
provide buses. Who will bear the cost? Traveling from wherever to Kaduna
to reach Abuja is likely to be more costly in every sense. Will the
airlines bear the cost? Or the already aggrieved travellers will be
subjected to extra cost and pain? Foreign airliners have already
rejected the Kaduna airport. It is by every international standard a
poor airport. It can’t even accommodate a crowd. Why would government
subject travellers to obvious chaos and behave as if it does not matter.
Copy this:

“The Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika,
however, said total closure of the Abuja airport runway was inevitable,
judging from the worrisome level of dilapidation…. (I see)

The
minister assured of adequate security of travellers on transit by road
from Abuja to Kaduna and vice versa, adding that the Ministry of
Defence, the Nigeria Police, National Security and Civil Defence Corps,
the Directorate of State Security and other agencies will provide cover
for airlines and passengers. (Really?)

“We’ll increase the number of security personnel around Kaduna
Metropolis; we’ll have traffic officials in every village and
intersection. There’ll be members of National Emergency Management
Agency (NEMA), fire fighters and ambulances at certain strategic
positions. Police and the Air Force are to provide aerial patrols,
complemented by ground police. (Bribery and extortion loading…)

There
will be intelligence gathering. There will be bus coaches, train
services, specialised car hire services and helicopter shuttles from
private operators. But government will provide shuttles for passengers,”
he assured. (Talk is cheap, truly)

This is precisely why the Ministry of Aviation should reconsider its
stand. Stakeholders including foreign airlines should be carried along
before any further step is taken and that has to be in line with
international best practices. Everybody involved should admit that we
are dealing with a Nigerian crisis. Nigerians who travel by air don’t
deserve to be punished. They have suffered enough already. The airlines
can’t even get enough aviation fuel in Abuja, not to talk of Kaduna.

Let no one forget this: Abuja is a strategic city. Those who travel
there do so with a purpose. It is the city of adventurers not settlers.
It is the city of the Federal Government. People go there to sort out
government matters including contracts and other matters. Shutting down
the Abuja airport is like shutting down the city, and perhaps the entire
country. The Ministry of Aviation makes it sound as if this is
inevitable, but we must tell them, and tell them again, that the Kaduna
airport is not ready and to repeat the Port Harcourt experience in Abuja
would be sad and counter-productive.

 It is not for nothing that the international airlines are already
protesting that they don’t want to go to Kaduna. The argument about
fixing the runway to make it safer is okay, and we all know why nothing
is ever properly maintained in this country, and why projects of six
weeks end up taking one year, and more, so don’t tell me the obvious,
but government decisions no matter how well-meaning, should be governed
by good thinking. A mismanaged renovation of the Abuja airport could
result in months of avoidable agony and disaster for the Nigerian
economy.