The announcement by the Minister of State for Aviation, Mr. Hadi Sirika, that the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA) in Abuja would be closed for six weeks to carry out major repairs on the damaged runway generated widespread controversy across the country. In-fact, the National Assembly and other interested stakeholders tried unsuccessfully to stop the closure. Considering the economic and logistics implications of the proposed closure, the stance of those who were opposed to it is quite understandable.
While the closure lasted, Abuja bound passengers from any part of the world used the Kaduna International Airport as alternative. According to Sirika, the federal government decided on the painful but logical option of closing down the Airport having realized that palliative approach would be counterproductive because it might not endure. Diversion of air traffic activities from the Abuja Airport to Kaduna was, no doubt, a very strenuous and nerve-racking experience for air travelers. Though the federal government tried as much as it could to provide necessary logistics support to lessen the pains of passengers, the situation was undoubtedly quite demanding.
It was, therefore, a big relief for all when the federal government recently announced the re-opening of the Abuja Airport 24 hours ahead of deadline. This development, indeed, came as a surprise to many Nigerians as it contradicts the usual official style of dealing with such critical national issues. A lot of people were skeptical when the federal government insisted that the rehabilitation of the runway would be done on record time. This is because in our clime, it is uncharacteristic of government to make and fulfill such promises.
No wonder an elated President Muhammadu Buhari lavishly commended the efforts of the Ministries of Transport, Power, Works and Housing, Kaduna State government, Julius Berger Plc, and others who made the feat possible. In a statement by presidential spokesperson, Mr. Femi Adesina, President Buhari said he “looked forward to such display of inter-agency cooperation and efficiency in the operation of the entire Federal Government machinery.” In his own remark, Minister of State for Aviation revealed that government decided to reopen the airport 24 hours earlier because the runway rehabilitation was completed on schedule. The minister commended Nigerians and air travelers for their resilience during the six weeks closure of the airport. He said: “I also wish to thank all my colleagues who did it all and the media and the Nigerian people for standing by us”.
Hungarian Ambassador to Nigeria, Prof Gabor Ternak, who was at the airport at the re-opening, disclosed that the model set by the federal government was novel and should be emulated by other countries. He said: “It was a surprise that Abuja airport was re-opened a day earlier than scheduled. I did not anticipate that the airport would be ready as scheduled, let alone a day earlier. This is really a change government and it speaks volumes of Nigeria to other countries of the world.”
According to the Minister of State for Aviation, the re-opened Abuja airport came with new and improved technology. For instance, the runway was rebuilt with latest technology known as the Glass Fibre Grid to provide better strength and prevent it from cracking. This is the first time that a Nigerian runway is being treated with such material. With this development, the airport will now be more compliant with the International Civil Aviation Organisation standard and best practice.
However, experts have disclosed that the new and improved Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, has, however, come at a great cost. It has been alleged that the nation may have expended over N10b in project cost and revenue losses while rehabilitation was on-going. Most prominent losers of the temporary closure are the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), hotels, business proprietors around the airport and informal sector operatives such as taxi drivers, killichi sellers (a popular Abuja dried meat delicacy), recharge cards sellers, newspaper vendors, water vendors among others.
Experts are of the view that the rehabilitation may have cost the federal government a total of N7b. This includes N5.8b that was budgeted for the rehabilitation of the runway as well as N1.134b spent on logistics for the diversion of traffic to Kaduna. Other loses include drop in revenue on account of foreign carriers that suspended Abuja operations and aviation auxiliary services that had experienced a slump in business during the closure.
Ironically, while others are counting their losses, officials of the Kaduna International Airport are counting their gains from the diversion of Abuja bound flights to Kaduna. It has been officially affirmed that over 3,533 flights and 170,150 passengers were recorded at the Kaduna airport within the period. This, of course, means huge business for the airport and business interests within its environs.
Meanwhile, in as much as it is reasonable for government officials to rejoice over the successful completion of the Abuja Airport runway rehabilitation, it is, nevertheless, important for us to learn vital lessons from the whole episode. For one, it is unacceptable that the airport had only one runway. As bad as this is, that we continue to same without proper maintenance is rather disgusting. This is the same reason why major national assets and infrastructure across the country have for long remained in disgraceful and frightening condition.
There is, therefore, an urgent need for government across all tiers to imbibe the culture of systematic maintenance and management of public assets and infrastructure. Such maintenance culture ought to become a routine and not a national emergency. This is the way it is done in civilized climes and ours must not be an exception.
Ogunbiyi is of the Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos