Mad rush for state airports

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AT a time of monumental economic squeeze, such as Nigeria is currently experiencing, many wrong choices and misplaced priorities embraced by state governors when the economy was booming are bouncing back to haunt them. One of these is the indiscriminate building of airports across the country, which ignored the basic needs of the citizens.

Driven principally by political considerations, personal aggrandisement and loads of free oil cash flowing from the Federation Account in Abuja, governments at state and federal levels ignored the essential requirement of commercial viability as they embarked on one airport project after the other. Even when the next airport was just less than an hour’s drive from their bases, some governors still felt the inordinate need for new airports to complement their status as private jet owners. The result is that the country’s entire landscape is now dotted with odd assortments of abandoned and unviable airport projects.

However, with the harsh economic reality occasioned by the continually tumbling oil prices, many of such governors have now been brought back to earth. Unable to discharge functions as basic as the payment of workers’ salaries and pensioners’ stipends, or meeting obligations to contractors, many state governors no longer think of how to complete their pet airport projects; the concern now is about survival.

Of the 25 airports managed by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, experts say only the two in Lagos and Abuja are viable. While many may disagree with this claim, statistics of passengers that pass through these airports easily confirm that it is not far from the truth. For instance, in 2013, 7,261,178 passengers passed through the international and domestic wings of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, while 3,945,897 passengers patronised Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja. Next were Port Harcourt Airport (1,220,306 passengers), Aminu Kano Airport (327, 267 passengers) and Imo Airport (267,532 passengers), according to data quoting the National Bureau of Statistics.

While many of the airports were envisaged as status symbols, others came up merely to facilitate the airlift of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. This point was made by a former managing director of the now-defunct Nigeria Airways, Mohammed Joji, who reportedly claimed that the “only reason why these states want to build airports is because of the Muslim holy pilgrimage, Hajj, which is done yearly. Other times, the airports are left unmanaged until the next Hajj period, which is not right.”

The airport in Dutse, Jigawa State, shows the ridiculous extent to which governors go to build airports. Aside from lacking the necessary facilities to function optimally, reports have it that a former governor had to enter into an agreement with an airline which operated twice-weekly flights, bringing in between five and 15 passengers per flight. This is a colossal waste of public funds, the repercussion of which is being felt in this period of economic crunch.

In Birnin Kebbi, the airport there is functioning because the Kebbi State Government subsidises its maintenance to the tune of N5 million monthly, according to reports. “The airport has a total workforce of 210 from the state and 22 from the Federal Government,” the Airport Manager, Umaru Mande, was quoted as saying. For this reason, the state government, Mande said, had to approve N4.5 million monthly for salaries. These mushroom airports pose risk to lives. Last month, at another airport in Bauchi, passengers had to disembark from their flight using an improvised ladder.

In spite of the unviable nature of these airports, other states, among them Ekiti, Osun, Ogun, Delta, Anambra, Nasarawa, Zamfara and Abia, are insisting on this unwise path. For a state like Ekiti, with internally generated revenue of only N3.46 billion in 2014 – according to the NBS – its fascination with owning an airport is indeed surprising, when one is lying under-utilised in Akure, Ondo State, just about an hour’s drive away. The same goes for Ogun’s proposed cargo airport, a mere stone’s throw from Lagos.

The truth remains that many governors have robbed their citizens of the benefits of good governance because of their predilection for frivolous projects. This is traceable to the monthly dole from Abuja, which is a strong reason for the Federal Government to stop the idea of giving bailout to states. With Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo’s figure of over 100 million Nigerians living below the poverty line, how many people can afford the cost of flights in the country?

In other parts of the world, the main considerations for siting airports are economic viability and health concerns. In the United Kingdom, where there is an ongoing debate on the expansion of the Heathrow Airport, the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said factors that would carry the day include the potential benefit to the region and the impact of airport expansion on “carbon targets, noise and air quality,” the UK’s Telegraph online reported.

All over the world, government involvement in the building and running of airport facilities is reducing to just regulatory. For instance, the London Gatwick Airport, formerly owned by a Spanish company, Ferrovial, was bought over by a United States-based investment fund, Global Infrastructure Partners, which has a Nigerian, Adebayo Ogunlesi, as the chairman. GIP, which also has 75 per cent interest in London City Airport, has added Edinburgh Airport in Scotland to its collection.

These are just but a few examples that illustrate a global trend which Nigerian government at all levels cannot ignore. It will be wrong for state governors to continue to use taxpayers’ money to maintain and build white elephants when they can easily make money by privatising such projects. Besides, left in competent and financially viable private hands, such projects will also deliver quality and efficient services.

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