Arrested development! Now, that’s not original. It is actually the band name of one of the many musical groups that ruled the airwaves in the early and mid-1990s. But ‘arrested development’ is the phrase that readily comes to mind as soon as one lands at the Port Harcourt International Airport and is greeted by what could pass as the worst airport on Planet Earth, especially given that renovation work there stopped almost as soon as it started. It is a reminder of where we were, and where, in the recent past, we aspired to be. A dream aborted!
Yes, the story of aviation infrastructure in Nigeria was a disgustingly familiar tale – until the revolution of 2011, that is! It was that one is only just beginning to appreciate.
Terminals that looked more like abandoned goat sheds than departure or arrival lounges, toilets whose putrefying smells could send even the most courageous of scavengers scampering for safety, dysfunctional air conditioning systems that literally turned terminals to baking ovens, public address systems that produced creaking noises than audible announcements, old, outdated, dilapidated and dysfunctional carousels, thread-bare furniture, etc were the current fare. The list of the maladies at the terminals can fill a whole volume. A similar tale of woes was also obvious and noticeable, regarding safety infrastructure, leading to intermittent air disasters.
As a widely traveled person within and outside the shores of Nigeria, the differences between aviation infrastructure (and by implication, airport experience) in the Western world, and even in some African countries, including South Africa, Ethiopia and even nearby Ghana were disconcertingly nauseating! It was always a nightmare just thinking about the prospects of passing through our airports – actually experiencing it was quite some hell.
I have a strong feeling that Princes Stella Oduah, herself a widely travelled person, like most Nigerians felt worse about Nigeria’s airport experience even before she was appointed Aviation Minister. I suspect that past Aviation Ministers must have felt the same way too. But the difference between Oduah and her predecessors in office was that she decided to do something both drastic and dramatic about the ugly situation.
Being so used to empty platitudes by government functionaries, I never paid any serious attention to declarations by her that she was going to transform the sector. Even when in the course of my local travels I saw what looked like a semblance of rehabilitation works going on across the airports in the country, I still did not relinquish my skepticism in what was then termed, in my modest opinion as an ‘over-ambitious’ Airport Remodelling Programme, which took in the first Phase 11 airport terminals! Alas, I was soon to be proved terribly wrong. Not only was the First Phase fully completed and put to use, but also the Second phase, comprising another 11 airports took off with the same gusto as the first. Like the first phase, the second phase was finished and put to use, except for one or two that did not reach 100 per cent completion before she was relieved of her position in 2014.
Now, I must confess that as widely travelled as I am, I have not been privileged to visit or pass through all the 22 airports Oduah rehabilitated during her tenure. However, I have been privileged to pass through at least 12 of them – from Calabar to Kano, Port Harcourt to Lagos, Benin to Owerri, Ibadan to Illorin, amongst others. I have also read glowing tributes to the work she did in the other airports I am yet to pass through, but my airport experience at the ones I have used, while still not comparable to the feeling of complete satisfaction you get at Heathrow, JFK, Newark, Gatwick, Beijing, Sa Paulo, Johannesburg airports, amongst others, the feeling is refreshingly pleasant.
I still have very vivid memories of my wide-eyed, open-mouthed feelings and expression when I passed through the Margaret Ekpo Airport in Calabar for the first time after it had been remodeled. From one of the smallest and, perhaps, dysfunctional airports in the country, it had been transformed to a sprawling and imposing edifice, with some elegant works of art depicting some cultural aspects of the Efik nation hanging from the high walls. I witnessed a new (the first at the airport) and fully functional carousel, cooling system and bright, shining marble floors. As I and my fellow passengers were awaiting our luggage, the talk on everyone’s lips was how wonderful the airport was looking, and how nice it finally felt to have such an exciting airport experience in a Nigerian airport! Not surprisingly, the plaudits went to Oduah, and then President Goodluck Jonathan.
The experience and feeling was the same at the other airports. But nothing was like the exhilarating comfort and ambience of the former local wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja now used for private and charter jet operations. From a decrepit and neglected terminal, the local wing was now transformed to an Executive Lounge, fully equipped with luxurious furnishings. I remember fondly once when I had the privilege to travel in the company of a former deputy governor from one of the South South states in late 2013 through the terminal and he was all in awe of the work and transformation of the place which he derisively described as a “former goat shed”. The new GAT at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, begun by Oduah and completed after she left also posts similar excellent facilities and ambience.
The main terminal of the Lagos International airport also witnessed huge transformation. Not only was the terminal expanded and fitted with new carousels, cooling systems, etc, but also the waiting period for processing passengers has been greatly reduced following the quadrupling of the check-in counters. Passenger facilitation is a lot more seamless now than it was pre- 2011.
Now, I can see some readers winking at what appears to be a pure PR stunt or narrative for the former minister. But truth be told, that lady did tremendous work for a very short period of a little over three years. My gut feeling is that if her predecessors bothered to do even 20 per cent of what she did, we wouldn’t certainly be having this conversation about the state of our airport facilities and infrastructure. And this brings me to a particular refrain I often hear about the work she did.
Yes, I have also heard that the quality of work she did was sub-standard, and that just less than two years after she left office, some of the terminals she rehabilitated are suffering from lack of maintenance, and hence fast deteriorating.
To the first charge, I would say let those who came after her build on her successes, and correct whatever real or perceived inadequacies that might have been noticed. And come to think of it, if her predecessors did as much as she did, perhaps, her job would have been to paper through the cracks/faults they are mentioning now and we won’t be having this discussion in the first place.
And to those saying the terminals are already deteriorating due to a chronic lack of maintenance, all I will say is that while this attitude has been our fare ever since Nigeria was founded, time has come for a change of attitude. Luckily, we are in an era of change and lean budgets, so we have no choice than to adequately maintain what we have on ground, while efforts are made to build new ones.
But, aI write, even though progress has been painfully slow since her exit, construction work is still on-going on the four international terminals she conceptualized and commenced construction in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kano. When completed and made operational, these edifices would compare in stature, ambiance, passenger comfort, satisfaction and safety as any anywhere in the world. This, to me is the power of vision, and the edifices will stand in bold relief to the name of a woman who saw tomorrow. This is the challenge to the Oduah successors in the sector, not only to sustain the vision, but also to expand its frontiers.
As a lay traveller, I am not very conversant with the safety infrastructure Oduah was said to have put in place because I can only narrate my experiences based on the physical structures I came across and witnessed at the terminals. As I hear, safety infrastructures are like the man behind the camera, rarely seen nor heard, yet resonates loudly in safety statistics. But if media reports at the time are anything to go by, then we can also conclude that she, in fact did more in this area than the terminal buildings reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Oduah, as every human, may have had her foibles and, perhaps, frailties too, but I stand as a living witness to her giant strides in the sector.
The bigger burden and higher responsibility, therefore, lay with the current leadership in the sector not only to uphold and sustain her legacy, but also to build and improve on it. Political considerations should never be made to obliterate or stand in the way of this laudable objective-for the sake of the sector, the travelling public and Nigeria at large. We cannot afford to step back from the future.