In case you missed the story, three of Nigeria’s top airports were this year rated among Africa’s worst 10.  Africa’s.

Sleepinginair Sonala Olumhense Syndicated ports, which surveys travelers for its ratings, named Port Harcourt, Abuja, and Lagos alongside airports in Africa’s poorest and troubled areas.

In other words, Nigeria’s top three airports numbered among Africa’s bottom 10.  And no other country contributed more than one entry to that list.

The website also took a look at the top five airports on the continent.  South Africa’s Oliver Tambo, in Johannesburg, Cape Town International, and Durban King Shaka International took the top three spots.  The other two were Houari Boumediene International, in Algiers, and Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa International. 

Some people around the world may have been surprised by these two lists, but it is difficult to believe any Nigerian was shocked. 

Except, of course, a lazy Nigerian organization trying to demonstrate some relevance, and predictably, the Federal Airports Authority denounced the report.  It claimed, but offered no proof, that some other organizations have in fact rated Nigerian airports positively. 

Actually, every Nigerian airport is good, perhaps very good.  But that is usually on the first day, at the commissioning.  There is electricity, the place is contractor-clean, the air-conditioning works, there is no strange odour, and there are tissues and soap in the toilets.

But then the Minister leaves, perhaps never to return, and the tragedy begins to mount.  The facility lacks management and is forced to run itself along the logic of motor parks rather than a place where air travel is conducted. 

In the past two years, on the back of free-and-easy Chinese loans, there has been some effort to change this.  In July 2013, Nigeria signed a $500 million loan agreement with China under which the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, (CCECC) would construct several new terminals in our frontline airports: in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.

Nigerian aviation Ministry official Joe Obi said CCECC President Yuan Li told the Nigerian delegation in Beijing that his company would deliver the four new airport terminals in March 2015.  He also assured the Nigerians that the quality of work to be done at the airports will be of international quality comparable to similar projects executed by the company in other parts of the world.

Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation Stella Oduah was positively dancing. “We promised to give the nation international airports befitting the stature and standing of Nigeria as the giant of Africa and today’s ceremony is a significant milestone towards the achievement of this objective,” she said.

She expressed confidence that when the airports were completed, they would boost Nigeria’s position as the natural hub for commercial aviation business on the African continent, and take their rightful place on the world aviation map.

In February 2014, Ms. Oduah told reporters in Port Harcourt that such progress had been made that those four terminals would be completed even earlier, by December 2014.

That would be about this time.

“The process has been accelerated because we started on a very rough note. People should try to be appreciative of what this government has done in the aviation industry. We have been able to showcase that aviation is pivotal to the economic growth of Nigeria. By December all the construction would have been completed.”

Ms. Oduah is no longer in charge of the Ministry, but as a Nigerian I do hope that some journalists will report comprehensively on these projects, including whether they are all being completed on schedule, and according to the promised standards and specifications. 

As an observer, I know that a key part of Nigeria’s development nightmare is that it is often difficult to identify what objective is at stake, as key players abandon or manipulate projects along the way.

In September 2012, for instance, Ms. Oduah announced that the Ministry had put into play a “three-phase road map” to develop the sector.

The first, she explained, involved simultaneous remodeling and construction of 11 airports to give them a face-lift.  Cost: N106 billion borrowed from China.

The beneficiary airports of that phase were: the MMA and the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), in Lagos; the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja; and the Port Harcourt International Airport; Akanu lbian International Airport, Enugu; Kano; Margaret Ekpo International Airport, Calabar; Yakubu Gowon Airport, Jos; and the airports in Yola, Kaduna and Owerri.

At that time, Ms. Oduah said the projects were already 80 per cent completed and would be in use within weeks and month.  Work on the remaining airports would commence thereafter, she said, and all 22 FAAN-managed airports would be wearing a new and modern look shortly.

All of that was before the $500m loan Chinese loan for the four airport terminals, which came under the second phase of the road map.

Following her departure, the government has, as usual, developed other ideas along with its new point men.  First, the interim Minister, Samuel Ortom, said the government was considering a partnership with Chinese investors to float a new national carrier for Nigeria. 

He announced that the Ministry had accumulated N174 billion in debt, in the course of providing infrastructure at the airports, and that it was therefore going to “prioritize” some projects. 

Nkiru Oye­jeocha, who chairs the Commit­tee on Aviation of the House of Representatives, rejected the N174 billion debt report, saying, “We know that monies have been appropriated for most of the projects that you have been doing in aviation.”

The committee also alleged fraud in the $600 mil­lion loan deal with China for the construction of the new airport terminals.  On a visit to MMA, they alleged that about $10 mil­lion out of the $100 million counterpart funding by the Federal Government had been “misappropriated.”

Last week, the new Aviation Minister—and Ortom’s successor, Osita Chidoka—announced that Nigeria will now produce an Aviation Master Plan.  What Ms. Oduah was working with was apparently just a road map.

That formally lay to rest some of the more interesting ideas Ms. Oduah was pushing, especially the Nigeria Aerotropolis project.  She had told the Ad hoc Committee of the House probing the FCT Land Swap for the project that the project would 10 million jobs, and generate N100 billion annually.

Still, there may be hope.  Mr. Chidoka rated all Nigerian airports, except MM2 in Lagos, as currently performing below average.

“It is regrettable that most of our airports are underperforming,” he said.  “Our airports are rated poorly by Skytrax. We must do a quick turnaround. We must change the perceptions we have outside as a result of our bad airports. The airports are the first contact with any country; so, we must change that perception.”

It would be interesting to see how far he goes.  There has never been a shortage of Nigerian officials who know what is wrong.   The challenge is to do what is right.

And changing perceptions is so much tougher than constructing a building or a terminal.  And an airport is peculiar, because it must be managed on the move, 24 hours every day, a science that seems foreign to us.

 

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