Monday 19 November 2012

Aviation minister, Northern Marginalization and the rest of us.

Sky Watch Nigeria.
(By Joe Obi, SA(Media) to Aviation Minister.)

Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah has a distinctly quiet and unassuming mien. At times, she even appears almost vulnerable, but beneath this seeming vulnerability lies a steely resolve that almost borders on male chauvinism. It is the inner will to dare, the determination to succeed against all odds. It is this ‘iron’ determination that she has brought to bear on the resolution of the many troubles that has bedeviled the Nigerian aviation sector for decades.

On assumption of office in July of 2011, Oduah rolled up her sleeves and hit the road, hopping from one airport to another to see for herself the extent of the legendary rot in the sector. From Abuja to Lagos, Kano to Calabar, Ilorin to Port Harcourt, Yola to Enugu, the experience was humbling and more than enough to make any man’s broad shoulders drop in resignation. The infrastructural rot and decay from one airport to another was overwhelming, a stark testimony to decades of criminal neglect by the very people who had been saddled with the responsibility of care for the public facilities. But rather than  throw up her arms in self-pity, Oduah’s resolve to positively change the landscape of the aviation industry in Nigeria became more urgent, profound and unbending. 

The challenge of where to begin the rescue mission was huge as every airport terminal and facility deserved as much care and attention as the next. But the human factor, where most lives would be touched in the short term played a major role in the decision of where the salvage train would take off. 

One other unsavory experience also played a major role. During the inspection/facility tour of the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA), Kano the Minister and members of her entourage could hardly stand the sight and stench oozing out of the Hajj terminal. 

As everyone hurried out of the facility, the Minister wondered aloud how Nigerians, fellow citizens, our Muslim brothers and sisters could be made to suffer such indignity for days and weeks on end waiting at such inhumane conditions before being airlifted to Saudi Arabia to perform the Holy Pilgrimage.
“Yet, we expect these same pilgrims, after enduring this hellish conditions to pray for us and our nation while out there, this is inhuman and unacceptable”, she declared.

It was therefore not surprising to all of us who witnessed this scene when the first contract that the Minister awarded was the rehabilitation of the Kaduna and Kano Hajj terminals! Understandably, these were the first projects that were completed and Commissioned by this  Minister.

During the commissioning ceremony, the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Saad Abubakar  111 not only expressed delight at the decision of the Minister to spare a thought for the plight of Muslim Pilgrims who, year in, year out had to endure treacherous conditions at these camps by making their rehabilitation the priority of her ministry, but also made a case for the rehabilitation of the Sokoto Hajj terminal. Today, rehabilitation work at the Sokoto Hajj terminal has commenced and billed for commissioning sometime next year. To be sure, the decision to commence work in Kaduna and Kano Hajj terminals was not based on the desire of the Minister to go overboard to please any particular section of the country. It equally had no ethnic, tribal or religious undertone. It was purely based on a deep  sense of national duty and the desire to give to fellow countrymen and women facilities that dignify their humanity.  

It is also instructive that when actual reconstruction and remodeling works commenced at the main passenger terminals across the country, MAKIA, Kano took yet, another first. Today, an imposing, modern, state-of-the-art structure has emerged from the derelict building that once assaulted the psyche of airport users in that part of the country. The edifice, which will be commissioned and put to use soon, bears eloquent testimony to the desire and determination of the Aviation Minister to usher in a new and exhilarating airport experience to all air travellers and all those who have any business around the airport environment throughout the length and breadth of this country.

Apart from MAKIA, Kano other airports in the Northern part of the country are equally being reconstructed and remodeled in line with the current administration’s desire to give a fair deal to all air travellers across the country. Before the end of the year, the General Yakubu Gowon Airport, Jos, Yola Airport, Abuja Domestic terminal and Kaduna Airport will be commissioned alongside six others that have undergone complete reconstruction and remodeling under the first phase of the rehabilitation programme.

The other six include the Port Harcourt, Enugu, Calabar and Murtala Mohammed International airports, as well as the Benin and Owerri airports. This is not forgetting the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), Lagos that was commissioned a few weeks ago. This is unprecedented in the history of the aviation sector in Nigeria; where 11 airports are simultaneously being transformed from the 19th century structures that use to dot our airport landscapes to the 21stcentury architectural masterpieces that stand tall and high today at different locations in the country.

The second phase of the Reconstruction and Remodeling programme has also just taken off in the remaining 11 federally-owned airports across the country. This, in addition to the five new International terminals to be built in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, Enugu and Calabar from early next year from a concessionary loan facility from the Chinese EXIM Bank. We are also not talking about 11 Cargo/Perishable terminals, about six of which will be sited at airports in the North.

Now, I have taken deliberate steps to outline the infrastructural development works the present aviation minister is currently executing across the country, particularly in the North in the light of the recent unwarranted and orchestrated campaign of calumny against her on spurious claims that she is anti-North or marginalizing the North.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I make bold to state that no Aviation Minister; including those of Northern extraction, in the past three decades has embarked on projects that impact in very profound ways, the entire aviation industry, including aviation infrastructure in the North like Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah. We were therefore taken aback, and to be sure, genuinely shocked when allegations of marginalization of the North by the minister started appearing in the media.

The first was the false claim that a certain Cargo terminal meant for the North East was diverted to Asaba, the Delta state capital. Nothing can be further from the truth as all originally designated Cargo terminals, including those to be sited in the North remain where they are.
The second, yet unfounded allegation was that the  Minister refused some foreign airlines landing rights into the Abuja and Kano International airports. The airlines in question are Emirates, Etihad, Turkish and Asky airlines.

Now, landing/entry rights, or frequencies as they are usually called in aviation parlance for foreign airlines are a function of Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) between Nigeria and the country(ies) of origin of the airline(s) in question. For instance, the BASA between Nigeria and the UAE confers on airlines emanating from that country, including Emirates and Etihad, seven frequencies each into Lagos, Abuja and Kano International airports. To date, Emirates and Etihad are operating flights into Lagos but are yet to activate or take up the opportunities provided in the BASA to fly into Abuja and Kano. These two airlines do not need any extra approvals from the Minister before commencing operations into the two cities. What is required of them is just a notification and a schedule to commence operations into these destinations in which they already have entry/landing rights.

Turkish airlines have frequencies into Lagos as of today, while fresh negotiations between Nigeria and Turkey are ongoing to review the BASA to allow for additional frequencies into Kano. It is however instructive to note that because of the desire by the Minister to have Turkish airline fly the Kano route, she has already granted provisional approval to them pending the review of the BASA.

As for Asky, the Ministry is unaware of its intention to operate into Kano. Information at our disposal indicates that the airline wrote to the Kano State governor seeking rights into the Kano International airport!
The point has to be made, however that some of the airlines with approved frequencies into Abuja and Kano are yet to take up this opportunity. Some of them clearly stated that the Kano route is not “economically viable” for now hence their delay in operating into the city. 

Even KLM that had been operating into Kano for years suddenly withdrew, citing low patronage as the reason. All entreaties by the Aviation Minister to dissuade KLM from pulling out of Kano, or persuade them to return have since proved futile. It must be noted that even when frequencies are granted, individual airlines still have to make their business decisions regarding the propriety or otherwise of plying any particular route. 
This is in spite of the balancing act the Minister is daily grappling with regarding complaints emanating from domestic airlines who feel that opening up more internal routes for foreign airlines is inimical to the interest and growth of their operations.

It is without question that the Aviation Minister is only doing what is right for the industry and the nation, without necessarily looking out for any applause or to please certain primordial interests. So whoever is dishing out false information of her alleged anti-North posture, when the facts speak to the contrary, clearly has an ulterior motive. But Nigerians, and the ordinary man on the streets of Kano or Potiskum knows who has served the interest of the North better between Princess Oduah and her traducers.


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