By Emma Agu
Ethiopian Airlines made history, Wednesday, March 8, 2017 as the first foreign carrier to comply with the diversion of flights from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, otherwise known as Abuja Airport to Kaduna International Airport. Understandably the airline had earlier signaled its willingness to support the diversion, to make way for a six-week closure which would allow for overdue resurfacing of the runway of the Abuja Airport.
When the Ethiopian Airlines’ Boeing 787 landed in Kaduna with 110 passengers on board, the airline gave practical fillip to the pan African dream and put an official stamp to its partnership with Nigeria. It also sent an unambiguous invitation to other foreign airlines to support the country’s ambitious plan to raise airport infrastructure to global standards.
To be sure, the closure of the Abuja Airport marks a watershed in the history of aviation in Nigeria. It also heralds a new era of decisiveness in executive action. The decision to close the airport for rehabilitation had ignited fierce debates. The nation was held in awe as the aviation ministry, and by extension its bigger brother, the ministry of transportation, engaged other stakeholders in a battle of wits over whether the Abuja Airport should indeed be closed for repairs that bothered essentially on safety.
A major issue on the table was the case of the airport’s runway which had been due for rehabilitation for the past 14 years. To make matters worse and the repair most imperative, there had been incidents involving some foreign airlines. If that was the case, why were foreign airlines particularly opposed to the decision even when some of them operated in more dangerous climes all over the world?
The aviation ministry headed by Senator Hadi Sirika, an aviator himself, stood its ground, backed, fiercely by the uncompromising Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, minister of transport and of course the presidency. Anyone with an inkling of how these matters pan out in Nigeria will be proud of the way the aviation ministry has handled this controversial issue. Perhaps of greatest importance was the fact that even as the controversy raged on, the government remained focused, choosing at all times to address the doubts raised by stakeholders.
First was the issue of the suitability of the Kaduna International Airport as the alternative to Abuja. Government swung into action. Two weeks before the closure, Captain Mohammed Joji, chairman, coordinating committee on the relocation of operations of Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja to Kaduna International Airport, reported that the Kaduna Airport had been rebranded with modern equipment, in line with international best practices. The rebranding involved the installation of strategic aviation equipment such as lighting system, distance measuring equipment, some other aviation facilities as well as solar power. At the same time, Nuhu Alkali, an Assistant Inspector General of Police and chairman, ministerial security subcommittee on the relocation of operations, from Abuja to Kaduna, pledged that everything had been put in place for 24-hour surveillance on the airport, Kaduna and environs as well as the Abuja-Kaduna thereby allaying the fears of commuters over security.
Concurrently, Hadi Sirika and Engineer Saleh Dunoma, managing director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), literally relocated their offices to the Kaduna Airport, all in an effort to deliver the project on schedule just as Raji Babatunde Fashola, minister of works, transport and housing and his team did a yeoman’s job rehabilitating the Abuja-Kaduna Road.
I want to hazard a prediction here: Going by current events, what looks like turmoil, presently, could turn out to be the catalyst for the emergence of a virile aviation sector in Nigeria.
My optimism is anchored on three reasons. First, in the aviation minister, President Buhari had put a round peg in a round hole. Sirika, a pilot, has had a long association with the aviation sector. In the hackneyed parlance of the corporate world, you would be right to say that he possesses ‘cognate experience’. The second premise is the acute benchmarking of performance, as has been amply demonstrated in the upgrading of the Kaduna International Airport. That means that we can rest, assured that the job will be delivered. Thirdly, the aviation sector roadmap under Sirika, encompassing developing Lagos into a very strong regional hub, the decision to concession some airports for greater efficiency and comprehensive restructuring aimed at better synergy, are all signs of a robust disruptive vision with the prospect of shaking off inertia and business stagnation.
The landing of the Ethiopian Airlines flight at Kaduna, less than 24 hours after the closure of Abuja Airport is a tribute to the tenacity of the ministry of aviation and an indication that, backed by the political will, this country can muster the competences to address its many infrastructure challenges.
As we commend the ministries of transportation, aviation and works, transport and housing, we appeal to all stakeholders to give untainted support to the bold and timely initiative to place the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport on the footing of global best practices. Let us not forget that the rehabilitation project is anchored primarily on considerations of safety.
If anything, all stakeholders, including the foreign airlines, should laud the Federal Government for taking the step of resurfacing the runway 14 years after it had fallen due for overhaul.
Besides, as can be seen, rehabilitating the Abuja Airport has impacted positively on two other major national assets: the Kaduna Airport and the Abuja-Kaduna Highway which have been rehabilitated as part of this laudable developmental effort. As a matter of fact, it is hereby recommended that the same zestful and focused approach should be applied in completing the remodeling/rebranding of the Port Harcourt International Airport and other infrastructural undertakings of the administration. At any rate, that will be quintessentially Buharic, going by his antecedents at the Petroleum Trust Fund and the business approach of Acting President Osinbajo.
It is in the light of the above that one is persuaded to appeal to the foreign airlines to emulate the worthy example of Ethiopian Airlines and reconsider their rejection of Kaduna Airport as a stop-gap measure. We acknowledge that the security challenge in Nigeria is real; same goes for other countries with varying degrees of intensity. Howbeit, it is also a known fact that these same airlines operate in some of the most dangerous places on earth, places that are more dangerous than Nigeria. Still on the imperative of a partnership for progress, it should be placed on record that, so far, Ethiopian Airlines is the only foreign carrier that flies in and out of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu since international flights commenced there three years ago.
What is reassuring is that the Federal Government has taken steps to boost security, upgrade airport facilities, motivate the personnel and generally introduced measures to enhance safety and stress-free commuting to and from the Kaduna airport.
That said, the ministry of aviation has a duty to continually strive to create the much-needed stakeholder buy-in for its policies, programs and projects. Sirika needs to ensure that all stakeholders, especially staff who are likely to be relocated to Kaduna for the stop gap operations, are sufficiently motivated; that they are galvanized to take ownership of this national assignment. In addition, the Federal Government should leave its doors open to continue to dialogue with the foreign airlines with a view to establishing a win-win result in this delicate yet necessary undertaking. On its part, the National Assembly has demonstrated, time and again, that it can be trusted to do the needful in situations of national emergencies. This is one such situation where the nation summons the only group whose members could legitimately pull the purse strings to stand up and be counted. I trust they will.
*Emma Agu is publisher of Zest Traveller, a tourism magazine with emphasis on aviation, the nation’s heritage, travel and hospitality