State governors and white elephant airports
State governors’ angling for more airports is a misplaced priority that the National Assembly and Federal aviation authorities should discourage as it amounts to prodigal awards of state resources. Though bereft of how to run them efficiently, Nigeria already has an unwieldy list of airports that are enough to go round almost all the 36 states. And rather than infatuate new airports for selfish gains, the state governors should shift focus to road and rail networks for regional connectivity, which will pool sufficient passenger and cargo traffic to justify economics of existing airport infrastructure.
A country is only as attractive as its ports of entry. But the Nigerian airports have consistently been an eyesore and for obvious reasons. The country has amassed some 26 airports than the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) can effectively manage. Of the lot, only the duo of Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, have sufficient local and international passengers to be viable and self-sustaining. The others, including Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna, Enugu and so on, are racking up operational cost and debts year-on-year. A three-year account of expenditure (2017-2019) recently published showed that a facility like Katsina Airport earned N250.8 million in three years, yet recorded an operational cost of N1.58 billion. Ibadan Airport recouped N349.2 million but spent N1.39 billion in three years. Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar, netted N540.8 million in earnings, yet spent N2.50 billion, and so on. The humongous deficits and debt burden readily foreclose development or efficient operations that are expected of such facilities.
Neither FAAN nor the Federal Government did set out to run the aviation business at a loss. Indeed, a large chunk of these airports were erstwhile owned by the state government that got tired of their losses and hurriedly discarded the asset to the Federal Government, to offset its enormous debt. Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, had recently boasted to the House Committee on Aviation that more state governments had expressed readiness to transfer ownership of state-built airports like Kebbi, Dutse, and Gombe to the Federal Government, describing it as a sign of aviation growth! Meanwhile, FAAN is running at a loss operating those unviable airports, and in the process of handing over Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano Airports to the private sector under a concession arrangement.
It is, therefore, curious that some state governors are still working hard to railroad scarce resources to build more airports in their domain. Ogun State, which has proximity to Lagos and Ibadan airports, is aiming to build another airport, though currently turned between Gateway Agro-Cargo Airport, Ilisan that Gbenga Daniel started in 2005, or another cargo airport at Imosan Village, Wasimi, started by Ibikunle Amosun in 2015. Osun State is sandwiched in-between airports in Ibadan, Akure and Ilorin. Yet, Osun has an unfinished airport business in Ido-Osun for which the former administration of Rauf Aregbesola committed state resources. The same narrative applies to Ekiti, Benue, Ebonyi, Nasarawa, Kogi and Yobe. Clearly, the high-capital intensive projects have neither economic justification nor logic outside of being self-serving.
The Senate House Committees on Aviation and Appropriation recently had a heated debate on airport proliferation without economic basis. The Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Barau Jibrin, and his deputy, a former minister of aviation, Stella Oduah, both pushed for more airports to be built, on the premise of serving 200 million Nigerians and economic growth. Their counterpart in Aviation, Smart Adeyemi, rightly countered the argument citing the profligacy of expending billions of state resources on more airports, where less than 12 million Nigerians actually travel by air yearly.
The Appropriation Committee, more like the governors, turned logic on its head, assuming that more airport infrastructure will attract air traffic, where evidence actually supports creating the right environment to naturally attract private sectors to invest in airport infrastructure.
And by the estimate of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a modern airport requires at least five million passengers yearly to be viable. Except the duo of Lagos and Abuja airports, before COVID-19, none of the other aerodromes ever boast of such traffic, and a reason the government keeps running airports at a loss and a disincentive for further proliferation.
The National and State Assemblies should discourage states’ governors from such highfalutin political projects. If states that already have airports are incurring losses and summarily giving the facilities away to the Federal Government, then what is the justification for new entrants? The idea of wishing to build an airport during one’s tenure is, in this instance, a stale ambition. Basic needs across the 36 states are indeed overwhelming. While schools and health services are in their parlous conditions, gaps in road infrastructure are yawning. Many states have both agro and industrial prosperity to distribute, but for a terrible road network that is inaccessible to all. And to abandon all those for some white elephants that would at best enable the governor and few elites to flyover decadence and administrative negligence beneath is not in the interest of public good.
Federal aviation authorities should also be more professional in their approvals and succumb less to political entreaties. Aviation is a highly regulated global enterprise with a big price tag on it. Therefore, granting fresh approvals to airports that are unviable ab initio is a disservice to the entire aviation sector.
Across the board, there should be a paradigm shift emphasising quality rather than quantitative approach to problems. Fewer facilities that can function efficiently and effectively are preferable than having many wrongheaded projects that will soon become an albatross on successors. The political class should learn the virtue of creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Current realities do not support such flights of fancy as having an airport nearby.