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Uncertainty slows traffic, travels ahead of election day

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Election days in Nigeria come with restrictions of movement. But a few days to the 2019 general elections, motorists, operators and other stakeholders are already feeling the pinch. WOLE OYEBADE and SULAIMON SALAU write.
The dark-blue Toyota Camry cab edged slightly in the long line of cars just like it. “Airport, air-port, a-i-r-p-o-r-t”, the driver called-out for the umpteenth time. Except for the sun that shone brighter at the NAHCO garage, a stone throw from the Lagos International Airport, Ikeja; it was an unusual afternoon for the cab operators.

The driver, in his 60s, dabbed his forehead as sweat of frustration broke. An hour had rolled by since he joined the queue. He would have made two trips on normal days. Not today. He leaned on the half-opened door, with an arm on the roof top, not minding the settled brown and white dust stains. “Airport. Airport. International Air… Biko, what is happening?” he inquired of another driver. “Everywhere is dry.”

“I have seen that since yesterday,” the neighbour replied. “It is because of the election. I can’t wait for it to be over.”Indeed, the inflow of traffic, or the lack of it, inwards an airport is first felt by the taxi operators. And just as it was experienced at the NAHCO garage, the mood was not any different at the Lagos airport terminals just some days to the general elections. Air passengers filed in, but in trickles.

Except for major roads that were still fairly busy, with security operatives making deployments and moving logistics, there is a general awareness among the public about the coming election. The consequence is self-imposed restriction in movements before the D-day.
No movement

Typical of the election days in the country, movements are often restricted and cities on lockdown for security reasons. Except in dire circumstances, restriction of movement are often between the hours of 8a.m. and 5p.m., with various security personnel mounting road blocks at strategic areas. In this general election, about 30,000 security personnel have been deployed nationwide.

This total restriction of movements order applies to all, except for ambulances, fire service trucks and others on essential duties.
Airlines record mixed fortunes.For local air travel businesses, it has been a mixed fortune in operations on account of the electioneering campaigns and multiple VIP movements across the country.

Though charter and rotary wing operators are smiling to the banks over boom in patronage, their commercial counterparts are not smiling at all, given incessant flight disruptions and reduced load factor currently experienced on major networks. More worrisome is this weekend and the fortnight when general elections will hold, movements will be restricted and attendant loses for airlines due to complete shutdown of operations.

The Guardian gathered that business has been good for at least 15 charter operators. Among them are Bristow, Caverton, Executive Jet, Odengene Air Shuttle (OAS), Omni-Blue and West Link Airlines. Chief Executive Officer of one of the airlines told The Guardian that “this is the season for charter operations, and I am not surprised at the turn of events”. He confirmed that all the five aircraft in his fleet were all booked for the entire month.

He observed that the build-up started very slowly unlike the 2015 general elections. “The demand is still not overwhelming, as only two groups are demanding for the services right now. Notwithstanding, it is still a good time for our business.”Another operator, Idowu Agbaje, observed that the operations of scheduled carrier hardly align with that of electioneering campaigns.“More so, the rate of delays and flight cancellations does not help their course. So, the push of business to non-scheduled and rotary-wing operators,” Agbaje said.

Recall that even the Presidency had lately been patronising private operators for election campaign and other related assignments. Sources at the Presidency had blamed this development on depletion of aircraft in the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF). However, the headache for Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), has been in curtailing the activities of uncertified operators from tapping into the windfall. The apex regulator lately warned the general public, especially the political class, to desist from patronising illegal operators.

But on the other end of the divide are commercial operators that are directly and indirectly affected by the politically charged climate. The Guardian learnt that travels via some airports, especially the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, had lately been different, with frequent disruption due to scheduled movements. In other places, it has been the challenge of low passenger traffic, as frequent travellers are restricting movements, while some are pushing their engagements to post-election period.

Apparently to attract traffic during this period, an airline has slashed it price in a “promo offer” for passengers. The offer is valid all through February.

Operators brace up for closures
The Communication Manager of Air Peace, Chris Iwarah, said the flight delays currently experienced were unavoidable due to VIP movements, which affect the entire operations. Iwarah said: “Flights are like a chain, if it happens to a flight that is rostered for six sections, then it will delay everything that follows. Not just that, when you have VIP traffic, people going into the airport would also find it difficult. So, it is a challenge for operations.”

Last year, the NCAA reported that at least three out of every four flights were delayed, with most of the airlines unable to ensure on-time departure. Iwarah, however, added that the development is positive as a whole, “because it is seasonal and there must be a country before we can talk of business.”

“We see it as part of the sacrifices we have to make for the country to make progress. Since it is general election, there will be shutdown at some point, but instead of loses, we are more concerned about the safety of our passengers. If it is part of keeping people safe that movements are restricted, then it is part of the sacrifices we have to make as an airline,” he said.Public Relations Manager of Dana Air, Kingsley Ezenwa, said further that they were resorting to pre-boarding mechanism to manage flight disruptions and keep operations stable.

“We have also started talking to passengers that have booked to travel on election days to reschedule their flights,” Ezenwa said. A trader, Wale Obayo, who often shuttles between the north and Lagos, told The Guardian that the business had to close shop for some weeks, citing uncertainties around the election.

“Nobody wants to be caught up in violence of any type. If the travel is avoidable, the best bet is to avoid it for now,” Obayo said. Chief Operating Officer of Cita Petroleum, Olasimbo Betiku, reckon that the election period affects all facets of human life, and the air travel sub-sector is no exception “with everything on the value chain responding to the law of demand and supply.”Olasimbo was, however, confident that businesses would return to status quo once the elections are over.

Customs on red alert at borders
The Nigerian Customs Service, (NCS) has also assured the public of effective strategies to tighten all the land borders in a move to combat any means of illegal inflow of arms and ammunition that may jeopardies the peace of the country at this election period.This position, which was confirmed to The Guardian yesterday by the National Public Relations Officer of Customs, Deputy Comptroller, Joseph Attah, is apt, in view of the rising apathy among stakeholders on the security at the nation’s porous borders at this election period.

This comes on the heels of recent developments whereby some arms, ammunition and other dangerous materials were smuggled and intercepted by the officers, after escaping through the borders.But he said the Customs had deployed more officers and intelligence, (including other measures that were not disclosed for security reasons), to fully secure the borders.

Attah said the Customs is always ready to protect the borders, but at this critical period in the history of Nigeria, the officers have mapped out strategies to tighten the borders against smuggling of contrabands.He said: “In recent times, the NCS has set out actions in ensuring tighter security at our borders. It is not only because of elections, it is because it is our statutory duty to ensure that nothing harmful enters the country. That is what we have been doing, and that is what we will continue to do.”

He gave further details, saying: “We understand that the period of election calls for extra vigilance and apart from the physical measures that we are talking about such as massive deployment of officers to the border lines or increasing the level of our intelligence, I do not think it would be in the interest of security to go into some other details. But, I can assure you that we are on red alert to ensure that as far as Customs duty is concerned, we do not do anything less than that.”

It would be recalled that the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Zone A of Customs, last week intercepted bales of illegal police uniform, tear gas canisters, and other paraphernalia of the Nigeria Police.Coming some days to the general elections, the Customs Area Comptroller of the unit, Muhammed Aliyu, said the uniforms were concealed in a Toyota Sienna space bus, heading out of Lagos.

Aliyu explained that the illegal uniforms are threat to national security, as it is destined to get to the wrong hands, especially at this critical moment in the history of the nation.He added that ranks, belts, berets and police badges with identity cards were part of what were intercepted by the unit.

The CAC said: “The seizure is a threat to national security because the uniform can be used for kidnapping, Boko Haram insurgency, or elections. But generally, it threatens national security.”Giving details on the police paraphernalia seized, he said: “We have the ranks of sergeant, inspector, with the belt and badges on the ranks, even though the identity cards have no name on them.The CAC who further disclosed that the vehicle was intercepted on Lagos road, promising that the service would ensure that the offensive goods are not allowed into the country.

“They were intercepted along the road on the highway and what we know is that it was caught on Lagos road en route another state. The seizure is of great concern because it concerns the national security. The quantity alone is not the concern, but the havoc it will cause.For instance, one bundle of this uniform can accommodate about ten persons and Nigerians will complain about atrocities of police, without knowing that they are not real police, but impostors,” he said.


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