Nigerian Airports – Back To The Future By Joe Obi

Nigerian Airports – Back To The Future By Joe Obi

It is all too easy to forget the pains of yesterday once you are out of a deep, wrenching hole. All of a sudden, the comfort of today becomes all too familiar, all too normal to the point of convenient complacency, and even selective amnesia. Under the circumstance, you even forget that you won the new comfort on the back of severe pains; and probably personal sacrifices. This is the story of the Nigerian aviation sector. No. The Nigerian airport user.

2011. My recollection is so vivid I could almost slice it with a knife. Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah had just assumed office. After looking at the Hand-over Notes, read mountains of files and took scores of hours of briefing and de-briefing from MD’s/CEO’s of the aviation parastatals and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, she looked distinctly depressed. The contents of those files and sessions of ‘oral testimonies’ spoke of a sector in dire straits. There were capable of breaking down the strongest of mortals. From the roads leading up to some of the airports, to the entrance gates, the terminal buildings and to the toilets, it was one long narrative of rot, decay, and dilapidation- the result of decades of criminal neglect of the sector by those in whose care the sector was entrusted.

The broken ceilings, creaking fans, malfunctioning screening machines, escalators and air-conditioning systems, obsolete and unserviceable conveyor belts, leaking roofs, 18th century Avio bridges, poor electricity supply systems, old and non-existent fire-fighting equipment, uncut grasses around the airside, derelict 18th century architectural structures all spoke of overwhelming need for immediate intervention. With the decay so stupefyingly obvious, it continues to confound the Minister to date that most, if not all her predecessors did nothing to redress and address the situation.  She however vowed that she was not going to lend her name and reputation to the ignominious list of those who came, saw, but did nothing.

Thus fired up by some form of righteous indignation, Princess Stella Oduah, who at first harboured some doubts about the veracity of the contents of her marathon briefing sessions, rolled up her sleeves and hit the highway. As she hopped from one airport to another, her worst fears were not only confirmed but also aggravated by the reality on ground. In a rare period of dry humour at one of the worst-hit airports, the Minister remarked that those that put down the ‘’State of the Industry’’ for her Hand-over Notes actually did a poor job of it. Reason: a lot of graphic detail about the extent of rot and dilapidation was not captured. She added then that if she had relied solely on the Hand-over Notes and briefing sessions, she would have grossly underestimated the challenge facing the industry. Thank goodness, she undertook the tour and was better educated, better prepared for the gargantuan task ahead, and a lot wiser never to rely on third party information.

Distressed and humbled as she was by the extent of rot in the system, Oduah still found inner strength to face the challenge. A few months later, an oven-fresh Aviation Master Plan and Implementation Road Map; the first of its kind, rolled out from the mill.  Ever since then, she has not looked back. The sector too, has not looked back.

First to receive attention and decisive intervention were the Pilgrims terminals in the Kaduna and Malam Aminu Kano International airports, Kano respectively. During the commissioning ceremony, eminent politicians and Muslim Islamic leaders effusively applauded the Minister, a Christian to boot, for being the one and only Aviation Minister to give a thought to the plight of Muslims who hitherto endured dehumanising conditions for days and weeks at the camps en-route the Holy land. Today, it is doubtful if anyone still remembers how inhospitable those terminals were and how much pilgrims suffered in those terminals on their way to the Holy Land before the coming of Oduah.

‘’ If I come to your house, the impression I take away about your personality is the condition of your sitting room’’, I have heard the Minister utter this refrain innumerable times while advancing arguments for the rehabilitation of airport terminals. With this ringing ceaselessly in her ears, Oduah commenced the simultaneous (again, the first in the history of the sector) reconstruction, rehabilitation and remodelling of 11 airports in the First Phase. Airports considered in this First Phase include the Murtala Mohammed Internal Airport (MMIA), Lagos, the General Aviation Terminal, (GAT) Lagos, the GAT (Abuja old domestic terminal), and the Benin, Kano, and Enugu, Yola, Jos, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, and Ilorin airports.

In another unprecedented first, the second phase of the remodelling programme continued with the simultaneous reconstruction of the remaining 11 airport terminals. So in one fell swoop, (within 18 months) all 22 federally-owned airports received attention by way of facelift. Now, we have to properly put this in context. The newest airport as at 2011 was about 30 years old; and within those three decades, Nigeria has had scores of Aviation Ministers who neither found it imperative, nor even expedient to as much as repaint the airports buildings!

Today, from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt, Lagos to Calabar, all 22 federally-owned airports are wearing a new and enchanting look, courtesy of the remodelling programme. Now, some critics have attempted to chip away at this monumental feat by the Aviation Minister by describing the transformation of the terminals and lounges from the once-disgraceful ‘animal sheds’ to the present-day architectural masterpieces as mere cosmetic showpieces. Fortunately, this is not resonating with majority of airport users and passengers who are witnesses to the dramatic changes that have taken place.

For starters, no one can describe the expansion of the MMIA, Lagos by more than 200 per cent (Immigration Counters increased from 9 to 30, Screening Machines from 6 to 12, amongst other interesting features) as mere cosmetics. Nigerians and foreigners alike who passed through this airport during the high traffic yuletide season experienced seamless facilitation, the first painless experience in decades! The cooling systems have replaced the deep-frying ovens of yester-years. The same goes for the Malam Aminu Kano International airport, Kano. Kano airport, for the records, was constructed in 1952 and no manner of rehabilitation or maintenance whatsoever had taken place at the airport prior to 2011. Today, Kano airport stands in bold relief as signpost for the possibilities that come with visionary leadership.

We are not even talking about the new Toll Gates at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and MMIA, Lagos, the GAT (where Arik Air and others operate from) Lagos, or the GAT, Abuja now designated for Charter and Pilgrims operations. One cannot also imagine what anyone would say derisively about Enugu, the newest international gateway to the East. Or the Benin, Owerri, Ibadan, Yola, Kaduna, Jos, Maiduguri, Sokoto and Illorin airports, amongst others that are now wearing modern-day airport terminal ambiences. We can go on, and on, and on!

Ordinary Nigerians who use these terminals today speak effusively of a true, new dawn for the sector. Tragically, their authentic voices are daily drowned by the cacophony of vituperations by a small clique which is fighting teeth and nail to redefine reality. Fortunately, we not only still warehouse photographs and video clips of what these airports looked like pre-July 2011 for the few sceptical Thomases, but more intriguing is the fact that the ordinary passenger out there sure knows the difference.

One major refrain we hear is that the ‘’finishing’’ at some of the sites is below standard. Now, it is entirely within the rights of Nigerians to make comments on their perception of the quality of work done at the airports. But what must not be lost on us, without making excuses for indigenous contractors is that all the projects were handled by Nigerian   architects and engineers. To be sure, this prevents capital flight, and gives opportunity for our architects and engineers to grow on the job. What’s more, we are all too familiar with the charge that local contractors are always sidelined in preference to their foreign, often less technically qualified counterparts!

What I however consider most critical in this regard is the fact that a Minister dared to do something different where others before her looked the other way. I daresay say that If someone before Oduah had as much as done a ‘poor’ job of rehabilitating the derelict infrastructure at the nation’s airports, I am pretty sure Oduah’s job would have been a lot easier-to paper through the cracks, ‘mistakes’ and charges of ‘poor finishing’ being maliciously levelled  against her today. So folks, the foundation has been laid, and let’s give credit to whom it is due.

But whether due credit is accorded her or not, the irreducible fact is that the character and architecture of the nation’s airports, as well as passengers’ travelling experience has changed positively forever. They would never be the same again, in spite of the huge temptation by a few to indulge in selective amnesia. We can’t possibly forget so soon where we are coming from, or can we?

To their credit, majority of Nigerians without personal bile for the Minister know, and acknowledge this reality. They know what the airports and their travelling experiences were yesterday; and what there are today and would therefore not be fooled by anyone attempting to alter or redefine reality.

It is the awareness of this acknowledgment by majority of Nigerians that is giving Oduah boundless joy- and motivation, to exceed her personal expectations.

Joe Obi is the Special Assistant (Media) to the Honourable Minister of Aviation. He contributed this piece from Abuja.

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