Tuesday 5 February 2013

The Lagos International Airport

Aviation Nigeria

THE relative improvement on facilities at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos is worthy of acknowledgement, both as a welcome break from what was clearly an embarrassment to Nigeria, and as a measure of further improvement needed. An airport is a visitor’s first point of contact with a country and first opportunity to develop an opinion about that country. Airports are also a sort of display window through which countries portray themselves as worthy of any foreigner’s visit for leisure or business.

In the early 1960s, former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, the man whose government transformed Singapore into the development miracle it is today, ordered a comprehensive beautification of the road that led to the nation’s airport. Trees and flowers were planted and hawkers removed. Lee Kwan Yew’s express intention was to portray Singaporeans as disciplined and hardworking people to visiting tourists and business people.

The attempt being made to reverse the neglect, which has made MMIA, by far the biggest entry point into Nigeria, an eyesore rather than a positive advertisement of the country’s ambitions or potentials should therefore be encouraged. The trouble with this modest effort is whether the renovation, which the Ministry of Aviation is carrying out at the airport, and 11 others in the country, will be sustained.

For most of the past 20 years, the state of the MMIA has largely been a reflection of the poor state of governance in Nigeria. Under Military Head of State, General Sani Abacha, the airport was like an airstrip in a high security garrison, a reflection of the siege the country was under. Soldiers and other security officers fiercely accosted visitors to the airport. This siege was lifted with the advent of democracy in 1999. But the airport for long remained dirty with malfunctioning conveyor belts, air conditioners and toilets. The terminals were shabby and overcrowded. Once in a while, travellers who had the misfortune of using the airport broke into tears in the humid arrival hall after an endless wait for their luggage.

The renovation by the Ministry of Aviation may be limited in scope, but it represents an uncharacteristic display of responsibility by a government agency. The airport’s deterioration was almost in proportion to the rise in Nigeria’s oil income and allocation to the Ministry of Aviation. The renovation undertaken from mid 2012 has seen the arrival and departure halls expanded and spruced up in terms of look and feel. The airport now looks far more befitting. The renovation, of course, could have been carried out with less obstruction to the movement of travellers and other activities but it is salutary that the Ministry of Aviation has at last been touched by the embarrassment of having the country’s major airport look like an unkempt provincial bus terminal.

There is still a lot to be done, for instance about the chaos outside the airport, which foretells the one inside. The car park has become choked and is also poorly maintained. Lawlessness rules as cars, most of them belonging to highly influential Nigerians, are still parked on the roads leading to the arrival and departure halls, seriously obstructing the flow of traffic. Certainly the airport authorities need to be stricter in enforcing traffic regulations.

Besides, there is need for policy consistency. Under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Federal Government settled on a policy of developing and operating airports through Public Private Partnerships (PPP). Murtala Muhammed Airport Domestic Terminal Two was developed by Bi-Courtney Aviation Services under this policy. Has the Federal Government abandoned PPP as a means to develop the country’s aviation infrastructure and why, if this is the case? The current trend in aviation is to have airports developed and managed by private investors while governments focus on regulation and safety, areas in which Nigeria remain challenged severely. What is important is to embrace due diligence in choosing the partners. Brazil, a much richer country, in December 2012 announced a plan to attract $9.2 billion of private sector investment for the Rio Airport and 270 regional aerodromes under concession arrangements.

The renovation of airports by the Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria/Ministry of Aviation has attracted its share of controversy with allegations of opaque procurement and poor design by aviation experts. The rationale of spending millions to upgrade financially unviable airports all over Nigeria is also suspect. The private sector is better skilled at undertaking the ministry’s proposed plan to incorporate revenue-generating facilities such as shopping malls at the airports as a means of enhancing their financial viability. The financial risk involved in these schemes is better left to private providers, including their banks or financiers, rather than allow a frittering of public funds with no one taking responsibility. Government should enhance the procurement process under which private developers are chosen, rather than abandon PPP as a policy option. Policy coordination and coherence in government is vital, to save public funds from being expended on projects that can be more efficiently and cost effectively undertaken through PPPs. The Brazilian example is quite instructive, in this connection.


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