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Airports: Politics, patriotism or profit

By Ray Ekpu
01 December 2020   |   3:44 am
Currently Nigeria has 31 airports. Twenty six of them are operated by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). The others are run by State Governments that own them.

Currently Nigeria has 31 airports. Twenty six of them are operated by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).

The others are run by State Governments that own them. There are also a number of airstrips and airfields owned by either the Nigerian Airforce or multi-national oil companies. A lot of pride and pleasure can ooze from these numbers.

These numbers say that Nigeria’s aviation industry has taken off and is flying high. Not true. These numbers can lie to us if we only listen to the pilot’s alluring voice that tells us that we will be cruising at 31, 000 feet above sea level. On the ground the airports are not cruising. Only four of them seem to be smiling to the bank: Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano and Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa.

The rest are barely surviving. The reasons that have helped the big four to thrive are high passenger traffic, location in towns that have strong business enterprises and their access to non-aeronautical revenue. The ones that are finding it difficult to breathe are disadvantaged on those three grounds. Despite this dire situation some state governments have just built (Bayelsa) or are building (Anambra) or are planning to build (Ekiti) their own airports. Not too long ago FAAN had to withdraw its services from Gombe and Kebbi airports over their failure to pay security and fire cover charges which were said to run into millions of naira.

As Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State started in January this year to build a state-funded airport in Awka, the state capital, some analysts have queried whether or not an airport in Awka was a desideratum and whether it is sustainable. Awka is 60 kilometres from Enugu and 42 kilometres from Asaba where there are airports already. The proximity to the two airports would ordinarily prescribe that the Anambra State Government invests its money in something else. Last week Chief Obiano, invited a number of people from Anambra and beyond to come and take a peep into the airport he is building. We spent hours inspecting the vast airport where five contracting companies are working feverishly to deliver the airport for use in April next year.

The airport has a 3.7 kilometre runway, an 11-storey control tower, two taxi ways leading to the apron and a 400 person capacity terminal building erected on three floors. We were told that the runway is constructed in such a way that an aircraft can land from either side. The runway lighting is CAT II which will enable an aircraft to land even in the worst weather condition. Besides, the airport is conceived largely as a cargo airport even though it will also carry passengers. Airpeace Airline is negotiating to build a hanger at the facility for the servicing of aircraft. Chief Obiano is optimistic that the airport will, unlike several other airports, thrive because of the entrepreneurial acumen of industrialists who form what is known as the ONA industrial complex (Onitsha-Nnewi-Awka). Onitsha has the largest market in West Africa. Nnewi is famous for its automobile cluster of which the famous Innoson Automobiles owned by Mr Innocent Chukwuma is a well known example. Nnewi also has many manufacturing industries such as the Ibeto Group, Coscharis Group, Omata Holdings, Chicason Group etc.

The estimate is that Nnewi town alone controls about 80% of the motor parts and motorcycle parts market in Nigeria. They are experts in adapting foreign technology to local needs. So Nnewi is also the headquarters of fabrication which is nicknamed the Taiwan of Nigeria. The industrial triangle is completed by Awka, which provides the third leg. Chinua Achebe said this of Awka: “Awka has a certain kind of aura about it because it was the place of the blacksmiths that created implements which made Agriculture possible.”

Now Awka has added to its persona the aura and clout of the capital of a state that has come to be known as the “Light of the Nation.” It has at least 15 three-star hotels and is ranked at number 14 in internally generated revenue. The State also boasts of the Agulu lake crocodiles and the world famous Ogbunike caves which is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Igbo Ukwa Museum which is filled with fantastic ancient metal crafts and bronze artifacts is a major tourist attraction too. I was told there is a group of ultra-rich Anambrarians who have formed a club called Club 100. The membership of this club is defined by their wealth and their desire to be their brother’s keepers. Every week they troop into Anambra from wherever they are to support and fraternise with their club members who are either wedding or burying someone or taking a chieftaincy title. Each of them donates a mandatory one million naira to the celebrant.

That means that the celebrant has the sum of 100 million naira for his ceremony. If you needed any evidence that Anambrarians are rolling in opulence this is it. Anambra’s land space is occupied by several billionaires per square metre. Is that an exaggeration? Take a trip there. The opulence is there, poking its fingers into your eyes. Chief Obiano, with a degree in Accountancy and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Lagos has an affinity with figures. As a former banker he knows a thing or two about how businesses can succeed or fail. He says that his airport project will be a success. This optimism may give Anambrarians the assurance that he must have crunched the numbers. The State’s Commissioner of Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr C. Don Adinubi shares the Governor’s sunny optimism about the airport project. C. Don, as he is popularly known, thinks that what will make the Awka airport project successful is the fact that the private sector will be fully integrated into the project. If that happens then the airport has a bigger chance for success than some of the airports that now operate only on a single revenue stream: aeuronautical revenue. The Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL) which runs the second domestic terminal in Lagos called MM2 is said to be the most viable airport facility in Nigeria. The reason is because it makes a lot of money from non-aeronautical services.

These include supermarkets, body fitness centres, car parks for about 2000 cars, bookshops and newspaper stands, eateries, advertisement hoardings etc. Part of the reason it succeeds is because it is a private-public-partnership that is not hampered by bureaucratic impediments or the meddlesomeness of partisan politicians or the social service mentality of government officials. Some of the airports that are failing in Nigeria today may not have been set up with the profit motive and sustainability in mind.

Some of them were set up either to inflate the ego of the State Chief Executive or to impress their citizens who have been wondering why “we don’t have an airport of our own” or simply as a desirable amenity for their people even if there is no tarred road that can convey people from their homes to the freshly minted airport. Owners of existing airports today must think of what services they can offer to both airport users and non-airport users. These will have to be services that are non-aeronautical in nature to capture the interest of the general public. With the sharp decline in government revenue today, many airports set up for reasons of prestige, patriotism or illusions of grandeur will gradually wither and die for lack of patronage.

The owners of those airports must therefore begin now to do a rethink that must involve opening up those airports to private sector participation and paying dedicated attention to non-aeronautical revenue streams. The thinking around the establishment of the Awka airport seems right because Anambra has a vibrant manufacturing, export and import and industrial complex. But, of course, the devil is always in the details. Let us wait and see whether or not Obiano will deliver next year an airport that will be profitable and sustainable.