The Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika last week, during a stakeholders’ meeting in Lagos disclosed that the federal government had concluded plans to arm the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Aviation Security (AVSEC) with guns.
Although this is aimed at strengthening security at the airports and it is other security operatives not trained in civil aviation, would be withdrawn by airport authorities. The news received mixed reactions from industry operatives, as to whether it is in tune with international regulatory standards that guide airport security.
AVSEC personnel are the primary security operatives at the airports recognised and endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
They are trained and certified by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in accordance with ICAO principles on airport security.
The Minister explained that AVSEC personnel would be armed with guns in the face of current terror security threats, the invasion of airports by terrorists and the incursion of restricted areas of the airports by unruly passengers.
Sirika recalled what happened last year when Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Abuja brought in the passengers without their luggage. The passengers protested and invaded the tarmac in an attempt to stop the aircraft that brought them to their destination from taking off. That was a serious security breach, which led to the suspension of two top security officials at the airport.
Sirika said the AVSEC personnel would be retrained, well kitted, profiled and given not only guns but also sniffer dogs so that they would improve the security apparatus of the airports.
According to ICAO, only AVSEC personnel are recognised in civil aviation regulation, although such regulations are usually localised by individual countries to suit their circumstances and in Nigeria there are other security operatives who render auxiliary services at the airports but were not trained in civil aviation security.
The Minister said he had met with the Ministry of Interior on how to train and equip AVSEC officials and how to choose the type of guns they would be armed with, adding that the training was billed to kick off as quickly as possible.
“Government has decided to reposition AVSEC to make them more effective in the face of terror threats and control of sometimes unruly passengers. So we want to fashion the AVSEC in the mold of Transport Security Administration (TSA) of the US so that they will carry guns, have sniffer dogs and will be well kitted. We are going to train them more on how to carry guns.
“So we have contacted the Ministry of Interior that will choose the type of gun they will carry and the type of training they will receive,” the Minister said.
THISDAY spoke with aviation security expert and the former Commandant of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd) who expressed caution over that decision.
He said that AVSEC has about six defense layers and these include intelligence (government security/intelligence agencies); passenger pre-screening (airlines); airport access control (airport security authority); passengers/carry-on baggage checkpoint screening (airport security authority); hold or checked-in baggage screening (airport authority and airlines); airport security fences (airport authority) and on-board security (airlines/government security agencies).
He said except in real emergency situations, arms could only be carried by those manning patrol along the security fences and the invisible sky marshal for on board security.
“In other exceptional cases at the access control points and gates to security control areas. No arms must be carried at all other areas except in serious emergency when the security of the airport has broken down.
“In other words, arms are not carried by the main layers of intelligence, passenger pre screening, access control, passenger carry-on baggage checkpoint screening areas and hold/checked baggage screening areas,” Ojikutu said.
THISDAY investigation at the Lagos and the Abuja airports revealed that these days the other paramilitary operatives, especially the police and the Nigeria Air Force personnel seem to be more visible, especially at the entrance of the terminals and there are sometimes conflicting signals and directives to passengers at the entrance gates; that if the AVSEC official gives directive he would be contradicted by a counter directive to the passengers by the other security operatives.
According to industry experts, ideally before the Air Force and police personnel are deployed to the airports they ought to be trained on how to handle passengers and that they are only providing auxiliary services in order to fortify security at the airports.
It is expected that if AVSEC must carry guns they must not be very visible. One industry observer said that such guns must be very effective, like Uzi and could only be deployed at critical situations, “when there is no other alternative.”