We own the airports, foreigners should not dictate to us




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Some foreign busybodies have embarked on the attempt to treat Nigeria with the sort of contempt we don’t deserve – unless we allow them. We should firmly resist the attempt.

The issue at stake is the concessioning of four Nigerian International Airports – Abuja, Kano, Lagos and Portharcourt. Incidentally, they are probably the only four profitable airports in Nigeria today. The rest, whether owned by the federal or a state government, are losing money. Most of the state government owned airports have always been nothing more than great monuments to somebody’s ego kept going by governments at great costs. The FG cannot however touch them. Even the loss generating airports are untouchable. No private investors will touch them. That is the point of this article today. Government has called for bids from the private sector for the exclusive right to manage our “crown jewels” in the aviation sector.

Ordinarily, there would have been no objections from me. I have been a long term supporter of the idea of allowing the private sector to manage such businesses. They invariably do a better job. Examples include the operations of airlines, the GSM revolution and schools. Left to NITEL, Nigerians would still not have up to one million operating lines. There is no dispute here about privatisation being a better option most of the time. However, every rule has an exception which calls for taking a closer look.

Airports represent one of those exceptions calling for prudent concessioning. With our airports, giving them to the highest bidders might generate more revenue immediately only to give Nigerians more pain in the long term. Even the financial considerations are complex rather than simple. Here are the reasons.

Very few cities in the world are like London which has two international airports – Gatwick and Heathrow. Every other international airport enjoys an unchallenged monopoly within a large area. And, we all know the financial advantages which monopolists enjoy with respect to charges for services. It is

invariably a matter of “take it; or leave it”.

You frequently don’t need to be a brilliant manager once given a monopolistic situation to make money. By its very nature, it is almost like having a licence to print as much money as the public will allow you. Consumers have no alternative. Obviously, if we are embarking on such a move our charity should begin at home; not abroad. We should allow Nigerians to have the first opportunities to enjoy our four monopolies. Is this xenophobia? Yes, it is. It is financial xenophobia – to which I readily plead guilty. Foreigners don’t do us any favours. Why should we do them any?

Nigerians should also not allow themselves to be deceived by claims of superior expertise. Already, there are Nigerians managing airports – small and big. I don’t want to disclose names now; because meanings might be read into the message. But, they will present themselves at the right time once there is a national consensus that we should allow fellow Nigerians to manage our airports.

That is not all. Airports are strategic security assets. Right now, we determine who enters our airports. Hand them to foreigners and we no longer enjoy absolute control of the ports. That cannot by any stretch of imagination be in our own interest. The feeling in some quarters that we can allow citizens of “friendly nations” to operate the airports overlooks the fact that national interests can change an ally today to an adversary tomorrow. With our airport under their control, we would have placed our country in mortal danger on account of a short-sighted decision made by us.

The strategic positions of the four airports also should caution us. Kano, Lagos and Portharcourt are located within striking distances of all our oil and gas installations, as well as our industrial centres and military units. Our fellow Nigerians can at least be trusted not to betray us and allow incursions into our country from any airport.

THE WAY FORWARD

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask for what you can do for your country.” US President John Kennedy, 1917-1963.

There are several steps we can take to ensure that indigenisation of airport concession is a reality.

First thing we do, let’s advise all the Senior Advocates representing various foreign interests to forget the idea of seizing our airports for their clients. I am aware that the briefs could run into upper eight figures or lower nine. That is a lot of money for anyone – even Jeff Bezos – to forgo. But, there are some ideas whose time is past. Allowing foreigners to manage our airports is one of them.

Second, if they will not give up willingly, then the Nigerian people should force them to stop; not by violence. But, by rising up in the former three regions – East, North and South – and refusing to surrender our airports to non-Nigerians. Fortunately, this is a non-partisan issue. It is not an APC versus PDP matter; a North against South affair, it is not religious or ethnic. It involves all Nigerians irrespective of who they are. So, there should be no difficulty acting as a nation to make this happen.

Third, it is probably a wise idea to allow bidders from each of the three regions – East, North and West – to have the right of first refusal. That way, nobody feels cheated by the arrangement. I have deliberately left out Abuja for now. But, once the basic idea of indigenisation of airport concessions is accepted an innovative idea for the concession of Abuja will be presented.

Fourth, the advocacy must be led by the people. In 2022, all politicians will be totally engaged with 2023 elections. Unless the Nigerian people are alert to their responsibilities, we might wake up one day to be told that non-Nigerians have won the rights to manage our airports. By then revocation of concession agreements might be impossible; or, at least costly.

Those of us old enough to remember should recollect what happened when Lagos state was mindlessly ordered to discontinue its metro line project in 1984 by the Federal Military Government. Millions of dollars were forfeited.

Any way we look at this matter, it is vital that we pre-empt the issue of foreigners taking over.

Finally, it is an established fact that people learn faster by doing things themselves than by observing others perform. We will never close any knowledge or skill or attitude gap by watching others doing things for us. Management of airports calls for accumulation of bodies of knowledge, skills and attitudes which can be learnt, mastered and eventually improved upon. We can only achieve global standards by rolling up our sleeves and doing things ourselves.

There is very little doubt in my mind that young Nigerians, male and female, if challenged can manage our airports up to world standards. They can master the sciences and the arts of airport management. Imagination is not lacking; neither is the desire and will. What has been lacking is the opportunity for them to do great things. Let us give them the chance now with our airports.