Before Abuja Airport is Shut Down

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REUBEN ABATI
TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI, Email: reuben.abati@thisdaylive.com

A few years ago, the Federal Government of Nigeria shut down the Port Harcourt International Airport to carry out what they called repairs or was it renovation? It was supposed to be an exercise for a few weeks, but it took more than an entire year. Flights were diverted to an airport in the city at great cost to travellers, but the so-called renovation took forever. The Port Harcourt airport became a grazing field for cows, at other times, a vehicle-driving field, and for more than one year, travel to Port Harcourt, one of Nigeria’s most strategic cities was a nightmare. Each time the Nigerian government talks about fixing the airports, using the words, renovation, rehabilitation or reform, it is better to be cynical. The Sam Mbakwe Airport in Owerri, for example, was once touted as a major hub in the South East, and government spent so much money turning it into an international cargo airport for the East, but that same airport soon became flooded during the rainy season and planes could no longer land.

Both the Port Harcourt and Owerri airports are currently in a permanent state of renovation. The lives of those who wanted to renovate them at any level whatsoever are ironically and scandalously, imaginably better renovated. The airports failed, the managers smiled to the banks. In those two airports, travellers were put through enormous strain because the entire airports or sections had to be shut down. But the people, expectant as they were had no choice in the matter. The Nigerian government is so powerful; the people are helpless. The same government the people elect with their votes punishes them unjustly. The people themselves behave as if they are in bondage. This was what happened in particular when the Port Harcourt Airport was being renovated. Travellers were abused. Airlines subjected them to enormous indignity. Businesses suffered. Government failed to keep its promise. The airlines and their staff even became arrogant, failing to realize they were victims too. They treated customers shabbily and there was no way anyone could blame them when government itself was uncaring.

Looked at differently, the biggest problem is not necessarily the politicians and their appointees who sashay in and out of power, but the civil servants who run the engine room of government and who over the years have perfected a culture of graft and incompetence. They look the other way when politicians dismantle the rules, often times out of sheer cruelty and for the better part, the political leaders are guided to do so by the civil servants. Which department of government is responsible for the maintenance of airports?: The Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). I believe everybody in that agency should be lined up and caned publicly and investigated according to the law. Should they have any stories to tell about the poor state of Nigerian airports, despite the enormous amounts that are budgeted yearly, they should tell us as each stroke of the cane descends on their buttocks. I don’t consider corporal punishment a tool of governance, so I speak metaphorically, but the rot in the aviation section is so terrible, a feeling of outrage commands something extra-ordinary. Weigh that against the plane crashes, loss of lives, and the agony of air travel just because some incompetents have had to superintend over Nigeria’s aviation sector.

I am this outraged because a sad story is about to repeat itself. The Federal Government of Nigeria is proposing to shut down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, beginning March 8, for six weeks: to build a second runway and to carry out renovations. During the period, flights will be diverted to Kaduna Airport and passengers will be required to travel by rail or road to Abuja. The excuse is that the runway in Abuja is almost collapsing. The life span of a runway is 20 years and this particular runway in Abuja has been there for 34 years. Politicians come and go but one significant fellow has suddenly woken up in either the FAAN or the Ministry of Aviation and a proposal has been submitted for renovation. And that proposal is now causing so much commotion. All the characters responsible for this costly neglect and delay should be lined up and sanctioned, and that should include a thorough investigation into the possibility of this “new” project having being proposed, budgeted for and cash-backed before now. At what point did it occur to FAAN that the airport needs a second runway, and who is the brain behind the hair-brained proposal that is now before the public?

We have been told that for six weeks, flights will be diverted to the Kaduna airport. The Minister of State for Aviation (by the way, who is the Minister of Aviation?) has been quoted saying he wants “knowledge” as to how this can be managed. The Ministry has also summoned a meeting of stakeholders after taking the decision. This has been a classic case of acting before thinking, making it all appear ridiculous. The international airlines are insisting that they find this kind of thinking inconvenient. Truly so: Local airline operators are not excited either. The National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA) and the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) are protesting. Common sense, a scarce commodity at this time, should have dictated that a meeting of stakeholders should have been held before the decision was taken. But the arrogant position-holders took the decision first and then decided to invite the stakeholders as an after-thought. Ask these questions: is there an ulterior motive? Ignore common sense and present the public with a fait accompli? Is that their plan? Is politics, in the shape of further Northernization involved? And why? Make Kaduna a new hub? Shift aviation travel further North? The failure to maintain runways and observe best practices is a reflection of the Nigerian problem: our national nonsense. Besides, Nigeria is forever a victim of last minute decisions. We remember to think when it appears too late to do so. Conspiracy theories are thus enabled when those who should act rightly behave as if they are busy thinking with their orifices.

Get it: The decision to shut down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja and move traffic to the Kaduna airport for six weeks has not been properly thought through. Poor thinking is the enemy of good governance. There is no guarantee to start with, that the renovation and rehabilitation can be completed in six weeks. Remember Port Harcourt and Owerri. We have been told nevertheless, that this is a good decision. But the timing is unwise. We are moving passengers to Kaduna at a time that same state and city is in turmoil. Thousands are being slaughtered daily in Southern Kaduna. The crisis has both religious and ethnic undertones. And now we are moving more Nigerians to the North, so they can get killed at the airport on or their way to Abuja? Who in his or her right senses would like to travel through Kaduna at this time?

A standard travel advisory should be: travel through Kaduna at your own risk and commit possible suicide. And to this: let no paid vuvuzela tell me the roads are safe and that the rail line to Abuja does not pass through Southern Kaduna. Also consider this: Government says it will provide buses. Who will bear the cost? Traveling from wherever to Kaduna to reach Abuja is likely to be more costly in every sense. Will the airlines bear the cost? Or the already aggrieved travellers will be subjected to extra cost and pain? Foreign airliners have already rejected the Kaduna airport. It is by every international standard a poor airport. It can’t even accommodate a crowd. Why would government subject travellers to obvious chaos and behave as if it does not matter. Copy this:

“The Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika, however, said total closure of the Abuja airport runway was inevitable, judging from the worrisome level of dilapidation…. (I see)
The minister assured of adequate security of travellers on transit by road from Abuja to Kaduna and vice versa, adding that the Ministry of Defence, the Nigeria Police, National Security and Civil Defence Corps, the Directorate of State Security and other agencies will provide cover for airlines and passengers. (Really?)

“We’ll increase the number of security personnel around Kaduna Metropolis; we’ll have traffic officials in every village and intersection. There’ll be members of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), fire fighters and ambulances at certain strategic positions. Police and the Air Force are to provide aerial patrols, complemented by ground police. (Bribery and extortion loading…)

There will be intelligence gathering. There will be bus coaches, train services, specialised car hire services and helicopter shuttles from private operators. But government will provide shuttles for passengers,” he assured. (Talk is cheap, truly)
This is precisely why the Ministry of Aviation should reconsider its stand. Stakeholders including foreign airlines should be carried along before any further step is taken and that has to be in line with international best practices. Everybody involved should admit that we are dealing with a Nigerian crisis. Nigerians who travel by air don’t deserve to be punished. They have suffered enough already. The airlines can’t even get enough aviation fuel in Abuja, not to talk of Kaduna.

Let no one forget this: Abuja is a strategic city. Those who travel there do so with a purpose. It is the city of adventurers not settlers. It is the city of the Federal Government. People go there to sort out government matters including contracts and other matters. Shutting down the Abuja airport is like shutting down the city, and perhaps the entire country. The Ministry of Aviation makes it sound as if this is inevitable, but we must tell them, and tell them again, that the Kaduna airport is not ready and to repeat the Port Harcourt experience in Abuja would be sad and counter-productive. It is not for nothing that the international airlines are already protesting that they don’t want to go to Kaduna. The argument about fixing the runway to make it safer is okay, and we all know why nothing is ever properly maintained in this country, and why projects of six weeks end up taking one year, and more, so don’t tell me the obvious, but government decisions no matter how well-meaning, should be governed by good thinking. A mismanaged renovation of the Abuja airport could result in months of avoidable agony and disaster for the Nigerian economy.

  • Gary

    Shameful that a so-called international airport was built for a new federal capital with only one runway.
    Even more shameful that for 34 years, including the critical 20 year lifespan of the sole runway, nobody in successive governments thought it fit to build more runways or expand the airport to cope with increased passenger volume.

    Yet budgets were passed and bureaucrats paid to manage this and other airports in Nigeria. Including the government in which Mr. Abati served as Media Adviser.
    Now here he is expressing righteous indignation and expects the rest of us to share his belated outrage at seeing the light after the fact.
    Thanks but no thanks.

    • Don Franco

      Dear Gary,
      No country has been cursed with latter-day-saints like Nigeria is with with Mr. Abati; with the cowardice of the skulking hyena, he now reminds us of the imperativeness of maintenance of national transport infrastructure, while he could have done the needful while he was in a position to do so; I’m sure he’ll retort that he wasn’t the Minister of Aviation under GEJ; but ask him whether he’s now a commissioner of aviation under PMB, to be writing such banal and verbose treatise on airport planning?
      People like Mr. Rueben Abati who contributed to getting us in this horrible mess should be quiet and not rub salt to our wound.

      • “Korede

        Note that Abati is back in his familiar terrain. He was on sabbatical when in government and I’m sure there was little or nothing he could do other than projecting the image of the president then even if it involved telling lies. He has made valid points here. I only hope this government will prove him wrong.

        • austin

          Right there Sir. He had a job to do then. Let us always take the message even if we do not like the messenger.

      • Toby

        So sickening comments. His write up is full of wisdom. You take it or leave it and remain in bondage.

  • Daniel Obior

    When a second runway was built at Heathrow, the airport was not shut down. All over the world, airports are continuously rebuilt, renovated and refurbished as necessary. They are not shut down during such works. There is always something wrong with the way things are done in Nigeria. That is one of the million problems with Nigeria.

    • austin

      It’s because there are no consultancies with most government projects. Normal road projects are are measured in cost per km without a proper design to hold the contractor to. Why? Because it gives room for padding, graft, variations, poor quality work hence repeats, and etc. Some contractor, aided and abetted by ministry personnel, claimed ability to execute in 3weeks. The plan is to get started first and later reverse the schedule showing why it cannot be achieved in the stated time knowing fully well that there are no repercussions for such breeches. There are always ways to blame the client for not providing certain requirements and making it government’s fault. They are in connivance with the government reps, remember? Abati’s fears are well grounded.
      A proper design going through conceptual, front end and detailed engineering would have found a way of ensuring project execution with minimal disruption to airport operations. This was what obviously happened at Heathrow.

    • Ekpetu

      The country is not cursed. The people??? Well…

      • Toby

        No difference. Interchangeable.

      • Daniel Obior

        What makes a country? The people.

    • Michael Kadiri SocioPolitical

      Wanna laugh?
      Honorable Minister R Fashola said in an interview on Channels yesterday that it takes up to one year to design a road.
      It is amazing how otherwise sane people enter government and do the most magical demonstration of madness ever. It is sometimes so funny that you want to laugh, until you realise that this is all real life!
      They say corruption is our problem. I think it is mental illness on a grand scale!

    • FrNinja

      A new runway takes between 3-5 years to complete. To fix an existing runway will take 30-60 days. He is taking the least disruptive option. However, the choice of Kaduna is curious to reroute international flights. Kaduna is not a functional international airport. Kano or Lagos which are would have been better options. However, where Sirika has dropped the ball is on concessioning the airports. He has been all talk and no action. He has also in vindictive style penciled down only four of the five main international airports for concessioning – Kano, Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt wickedly skipping out Enugu.

      • Daniel Obior

        Surely, taking a longer time to build or fix something while business still goes on in a facility is less disruptive than shutting down the entire facility, albeit for a shorter period.

        • FrNinja

          Of course it is. But what are the risks when you have had almost three plane crashes in 2016 because of a bad runway? Nigeria tends to react to events rather than plan because of the parochial worldview of its servants in public office. Key infrastructure and systems take a back seat to personal enrichment and political agendas. Hiring is based on ethnic sentiment and friendship than actual merit and it shows. Former Aviation Minister Stella Oduah was buying bullet proof cars and inflating contracts for window-dressing shoddy airports like MMA and the rest. Unsurprisingly, a little wind blew off a part of one of her expensively but shoddily reconstructed terminals in Enugu recently.

          Nigeria.gov is a disgrace and Sirika should quickly concession off all its international airports to global operators so that the country can learn the proper way of running an airport. Of course do not be surprised that two years in, he is playing the typical northern script of pretending to be for privatization while in reality dancing on the side of goverment control.

          • Daniel Obior

            Your argument is akin to not daring to cross a road for fear of being knocked down by a vehicle. There is inherent risk in everything, though to different degrees. The trick is to manage properly taking cognisance of risks involved. I however, fully agree we do too many things the wrong way, in this country.

          • FrNinja

            You don’t understand aviation risk and no it is not akin to crossing a road for fear of being knocked down. There are over 50 plane take-offs and landings from Abuja every day. Around 15,000 a year. Over 4 million passengers a year. You don’t wait for a plane crash while you are building your second runway. I am with Hadi Sirika on this.

          • Daniel Obior

            You do not understand the concept of risk management. Busier airports all over the world with more plane take-offs and landing per hour than the total Abuja traffic per day, carryout repairs, modifications and refurbishments, without shutting down completely. The trick is to ensure proper management of the processes taking cognisance of attendant risks involved.

  • princegab

    Abati has cultivated the habit of landing where he shouldn’t. How dare he counted self as not one among Nigeria’s mismanagers? Has he refunded 50 million naira to the EFCC?

    • “Korede

      This is secondary. Do not throw away the message because of the problem of the messenger. Abati will sort himslef out with EFCC but his message here is germain. I pray it does not come through as he painted. All he mentioned about Portharcourt Airport are incontrovertible facts.

      • princegab

        That is who we are, hope this fg is able to deliver on “change”. Abati has lost the moral right to tell all “Good news”. He should have resigned from GEJ administration if he was honest and love Nigeria. Even now, abati dose not see anything wrong with last administration.

    • Toby

      Trash. You sound as one who may need to refund something to your employer or friends or family.

      • Manuel Tobby

        Why are you every where writing claptrap defending this hogwash that profer no single alternative in the entire article. Was abati not of every single thing he wrote? ??

        • Toby

          Trash, young man.

  • Pot and kettle

    I’m not a fan of this government, but I really don’t understand the directionless rant of this article by Ruben.
    It’s full of scaremongering and doesn’t proffer any alternative line of action.
    As a very frequent traveler in and out of Abuja I don’t look forward to the extreme inconvenience of going to Kaduna, but it is what it is and I won’t ascribe a northernisation agenda to this situation.
    On the issue of costs it is clear that getting passengers between Abuja and Kaduna should be the responsibility of the government since they shut down the airport.

    • Toby

      You will not understand if you are a spectator.

  • Nelson Ahaneku

    Why is Abuja airport contract always recurring, whether under “corrupt regime” of Obasanjo/Jonathan or “saintly” Buhari administration? The contract for renovation of Abuja airport was awarded to JBN sometime ago? What is this renovation again?

  • Samuel Okezie

    This is the cold truth…….there is not enough highly experienced Project Managers and Directors capable of developing an Airport Reconstruction and Mitigation Strategy in Nigeria. Such Project Managers are usually found in Mobil, Shell and other big Oil Companies. Their skills-set is generally restricted to Oil related engineering projects. Some of these guys are now retired but very experienced. They have transferable skills set that can deliver better quality projects than anyone in our Civil Service or the talentless politicians (Imagine Amaechi). It is time we start hunting these men out of retirement, they usually live abroad but some of them would love to serve the Government for free.(Just pay their running costs). For such a project you appoint some of these men to head the ‘Clients Team’ (Government Team). They would develop the program together with reasonable quality and experienced Contractors like Julius Berger. if the task is well understood and there are no money issues, a Contractor like Julius Berger should not over shoot its delivery target by more than 25%. For something as straight forward as existing road refurbishment, it should be a sprint to the finish.

  • samG60

    Will I as an airline passenger that wants to travel to abuja after arriving the airport in Europe 2-3 hrs before the flight, spent minimum of 5.5 hrs on the flight to kaduna, travel by bus for 3plus hrs to get to abuja on death trap roads? The Kaduna-Abuja road is in a terrible state, and there hasn’t been any maintenance or repairs carried out on it since this govt came into office. How will I in my right mind put myself through this? But what truly bothers me though is the govt has been in office for almost 2yrs now and this is more than enough time to have built a new runway, so that the new one would be used while the old one is being repaired. Surely the runway didn’t get into a state of disrepair overnight. Why will you want to completely shut down air access to your federal capital? this is absolute madness. Who will take your country seriously looking from the outside? And how come most single runway international airports are able to maintain and repair their runways without a complete shutdown while Abuja can’t do the same?

    • Dan

      As Dr. Abati alluded in his article, this whole thing is a scam to harness some funds for 2019. Fraudsters.

  • KlasJ

    Abati allowed emotions to becloud his objectivity.

    First, the project under consideration is not to build a second runway but to rebuild the only existing runway.

    Secondly, Abati was in government in 2011 when his principal endorsed the Senate resolution to cancel the contract already awarded to Julius Berger to build the second runway in Abuja airport on account of inflation of the contract price. If the contract had been reviewed rather than canceled, there would have been an alternative runway in the airport latest by 2014.

    If there had been second runway, the public wouldn’t notice when one is closed for repairs since there will be an alternative as obtained in any well-run international airport.

    • Toby

      Still doesn’t get it. I love Agbati’s beautiful write up. Full of wisdom.

      • Manuel Tobby

        Which wisdom? The wisdom he couldn’t give to GEJ for 5 years ,or borrow Stella Oduah in legendary great work on our airports across the country? ??
        Do you know the difference between wisdom and just mouthing? ???
        Where was he with his wisdom when Stella Oduah closed port Harcourt and owerri airports? ???

  • nkoyo

    Point of correction please, abuja airport is being shut to repair existing runway . At the so called stakeholders meeting where the Minister of State Aviation spoke down at we the people that voted them in ,for 2hours( half of the time singing praises of himself) while stakeholders input was for just 30 minutes, it was clear that he was not ready to entertain stakeholders input and had the monopoly of knowledge about the entire process for the movement of operations to the Kaduna Airport.

    We were told that the 2nd Runway will be part of the deliverables of the proposed concessionaires of the Abuja airport. I believe that simple logic would require the funds they have slated for renovating Kaduna and the attendant cost for providing security et all ,should have been used to start the 2nd runway. Will a concessionaires initial task be to provide funds for a new runway?

    The logistics nightmare of the proposed movement has not been thought through. If an Abuja passenger wants to take a 7 or 8am flight at Kaduna , the drive to the Abuja Kaduna expressway say 30 mins , then 2 hours on the expressway and another 30 minutes to the airport on arriving Kaduna; clearly one cannot leave Abuja at 4am except on a suicide mission. Spending the night in Kaduna would then be at the expense of the passenger and vice versa if your flight back to Kaduna arrives after sundown.

    An international flight with 200 to 300 passengers plus local flight with 80 to 100 persons exactly how many hotel rooms are there in kaduna?That is just 1 fight each ,oh what a nation.

    They claim they will provide buses free to convey passengers , could somebody please tell me how passengers luggage will be conveyed ?Who is going to bear the liability for lost luggage in between Kaduna and Abuja?

    The entire seat of government will be shut down for no less than 3 months, the lives , property and revenues that will be lost during this period will be enormous , what beats my imagination is that the entire FEDERAL EXECUTIVE COUNCIL has accepted this disaster about to happen. Please note you will all be held responsible for this crap being dished out to the citizens of this nation.

    • samG60

      Please educate them. You can’t believe how seething in anger I am that this was even ever contemplated. Absolute madness. This is the absolute height of unseriousness.

    • okbaba

      A plan hatched by the minister and Kaduna State governor will never take cognizance of the people’s input. A predetermined end is already in sight and lets just swallow it all.

      • Dan

        What do you mean by ‘let’s just swallow it all’? This is simply unacceptable and should be rejected. The Senate should be supported to reject this application of poor judgement by the ego-tripping Minister Sirika.

  • Gary

    Shutting down the only airport in a capital city is simply ludicrous. Just wondering whatever happened to the newly opened Abuja-Kaduna rail link? Were we not told it is a fast rail line so why is it not an interim option to move passengers between the cities with shuttle bus/train service tied to flight schedules?
    Fifty plus years after independence, there’s no single airport in Nigeria with a rail link as an alternative to road travel.
    Yet our big men travel round the world and not one of them ever thought of replicating what they see elsewhere at home for the benefit of the citizenry. Shame.

  • 0swal0

    Please Buhari don’t punish us for nothing. Think things through and take the right decision. Remember that your last effort cost Daddy GO his job.

  • Spyman29

    Both the Port Harcourt and Owerri airports are currently in a permanent state of renovation. The lives of those who wanted to renovate them at any level whatsoever are ironically and scandalously, imaginably better renovated. The airports failed, the managers smiled to the banks. Mr. Abati, the Government you served in was responsible for what you wrote above

  • Amukoko

    We just don’t plan. Or, shall l say, we don’t believe in proper planning. Or, better still, we don’t believe in planning at all. PERIOD!

  • obinnna77

    Mediocrity. The way of the Niger.

  • Dekunle Andrew

    Stupid country

  • caltu

    It seems that Dr. Abati is bouncing back in style. Good to read him. Port Harcourt airport closure is better forgotten than recounted. It was the height of insensitivity by a government. That should never happen with Abuja and if this government knows that it is not ready to stick to six weeks, they must find a better alternative.
    Reading some contributions give one the impression that the comfort of travelling is more important to the commentators. I do not think so. Safety of our travelers should be paramount. If this runway is unsafe for landing aircrafts and consequently endanger the lives of passengers, why should it not be shut down now and necessary repairs carried out. It is no use politicizing the matter.
    Suddenly it is being alluded that it can also be a northern agenda to go to Kaduna. Do we need to shut Abuja to develop Kaduna? Perhaps Reuben having been in government knows certain things and can see what we cannot. But does it really matter, so long as there is safety of life and properties. There is hardly any problem without solutions. I totally agree that the stakeholder must be part of the final decision. That is the way it is done in other clime.

  • moribund9ja

    That’s exactly why Nigeria is a mega Zoo. And it must remain that Zoo forever. AMEN!