By Simon Kolawole
Sometime in 2000, I travelled to South Africa for a week. It was the first time I was spending more than three days at a stretch outside Nigeria. I spent time looking closely at the country. As I saw more of it closely, I was inevitably depressed. I saw a country that was running well, compared to Nigeria. Good roads, beautiful street-lighting, uninterrupted power supply and excellent service delivery at hotels, eateries, malls and government offices. The Oliver Thabo International Airport, Johannesburg, was so sweet; everything was functioning well.
On returning to Nigeria very early one morning, I made to use the toilet at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos. One of the attendants whispered to me: “Oga, sorry, there is no water o!” I was virtually in tears. For years, I kept asking myself: what exactly is our problem in Nigeria? What does it take to keep water flowing in a toilet? Is it impossible to change the carousels? Is it unholy to have functioning cooling systems? Is it criminal to keep an airport decent? Will Nigeria collapse if we modernise these airports? How much will it cost us?
Now you can imagine my delight when a few years ago, our airports began to wear a new look. For the first time since I started using Nigerian airports, I saw a co-ordinated and sustained initiative at rehabilitating and modernising them. MMIA, described as our premier airport, had not experienced any major makeover since it was inaugurated by Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo in March 1979. It was one of the modern airports in Africa then. My uncles used to go to the airport just to have a drink and behold the beauty. But it became dilapidated over the years and we seemed to have closed our eyes to the dreadful state.
The latest effort at rehabilitating the airports, I would later learn, was the brainchild of the then Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, who had launched an aviation master plan to change the sector comprehensively: in terms of safety, security, revenue model and infrastructure. Initially, I was very impatient with the speed of work. The Enugu airport, for instance, looked like it would take forever to start. At the Lagos end, a lot of work was begging to be done, but my consolation was that at least we had got something started and the results were showing gradually. I was ready to be patient. After all, I normally don’t complain about bad traffic on a road that is being built I usually call it “good problem”.
When Oduah ran into a storm last year over the BMW armoured car affair, I was very reluctant to join the campaign for her sack. For the first time in a very long time, I could see physical changes taking place at the airports all over the country and I was ready to forgive Oduah any sin she had committed. I saw these changes with my own eyes. I didn’t base my judgment on third-party accounts or media reports. Some people were complaining that the contracts must have been inflated. Someone said the roof in Lagos was leaking. There were a lot of negative comments which were not totally unexpected in a country where good things hardly happen and even when they happen, our natural instinct is to discount them.
The real reason I reluctantly supported the removal of Oduah was because of the Nigerian factor: the very day a public officer is removed, the projects conceived by him or her will most likely stall. For various reasons, mostly selfish and illogical, the successor will try to truncate the projects. The most common reason, which will not be publicly stated, is that it was the previous officer that brought the contractors and enjoyed all the “benefits”. The new officer will therefore want to discredit the project in order to bring his or her own contractors. Only God knows how many good projects have been stalled all over the country because of this retarded reasoning.
No sooner had Oduah been dropped as minister than my fears became confirmed. And that is tragic. A system is supposed to serve the state, not individuals. One of the reasons I respect Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola till tomorrow is that he never abandoned any of the projects initiated by his predecessor, not even the ones he did not fully agree with. I know for a fact that he was not too comfortable with the narrowing of the Ikorodu expressway to accommodate the BRT lane, but he was wise enough to know that this was going to be a great project. Continuing your predecessor’s project does not diminish you in any way.
As I write now, not much work is going on at the airports. The projects that were getting close to completion last year are now being halted. I am not seeing progress at MMIA. A similar story is playing out at other airports. Why? Intrigues have taken over. I smell a rat. The Senate Committee on Aviation has come into the fray, announcing that “debts” are crippling the aviation sector as a result of the rehabilitation and remodelling projects and that budgets were not approved by the Senate. With elections coming next year and politicians in desperate need of cash, I sincerely hope that we are not about to see the termination and re-awarding of contracts that will set us back by a few years.
From what I have read so far about the remodelling and rehabilitation programme, funding is from different sources. One, federal budget, as approved by the National Assembly, starting from 2013. Two, bilateral air service agreement (BASA) funds, whose expenditure was also appropriated by the National Assembly in 2013. Three, internally generated revenue of the aviation agencies, which has been on the rise following increases in parking fees and all that. Four, airport development levy on passengers, which is planned. Five, a special security levy on international travel that will also last from 2014 to 2018.
To put it in simple English, the financing of the projects was pre-planned for a five-year period. To talk about “debts” is to try to ignore the plan. I am by no means saying if there is anything untoward in the projects, it should be ignored. I am not that stupid. We should never sacrifice accountability. My hunch, however, is that this is a storm in a teacup. I am smelling 2015. It would be