About a fortnight ago, the Federal Government disclosed its intention to build ten new airports across the country.
According to the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, the new airports will be sited in Anambra, Benue, Ekiti, Nasarawa, Ebonyi and other undisclosed places. The Federal Government, he said, has already taken over the airports in Kebbi, Osubi, Dutse, and will soon take over the one in Gombe.
Sirika disclosed all this when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Aviation to defend his Ministry’s 2021 budget proposals.
While there is nothing wrong in building airports in areas where they are sorely needed, especially because of the vastness of the country, the reasons given by Sirika for the construction of some of the airports in areas already served, or close to other airports, are quite untenable. For instance, the reasons given by the Aviation Minister for Lokoja airport is spurious, and betrays a lack of understanding of the uses of the various modes of transportation. Going by its proximity to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja, the reason for building the alternate airport can only emanate from mundane calculations which include the political desire to score points by building an airport in every state of the federation.
According to Sirika, Lokoja is an important northern town, a cosmopolitan town, a mini-Nigeria that is extremely very important in growth and development of the country. “We have a lot of agricultural activities there. There is fishery; there are perishable items of production and so on. So, establishing an airport there is quite apt. For me, it is something we should have done long ago for its importance.”
Unfortunately, the minister’s assertion portrays the uncoordinated nature of Nigeria’s transport sector, and lends voice to the stringent call, overtime, for a national transport policy. Lokoja, Nigeria’s confluence town of the two big rivers –Niger and Benue –is supposed to be a focal point of inland water transportation in the country. As a matter of fact, this was recognized right from the colonial days hence it harbours the headquarters of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA).
Regrettably, the town has not been able to play its expected role in inland water transportation in the country. The river port there has been allowed to decay, and rendered impotent to perform its leading role in movement of goods and people all over the country. Lokoja is a town that can be accessed by water from any part of the country. This means that agricultural products, especially fish for which the town is known could be distributed across the country by inland waterways.
In fact, Lokoja is naturally cut out for inland water transportation. But hear the Minister of Aviation talking about air transport as the preferred means of transportation of fishes and agric products from Lokoja. It is unfortunate that when Nigerian government officials want to justify their spurious projects, which costs are almost always inflated, they come up with every argument, no matter how senseless and uneconomical they sound.
A government whose economic policies are planned and coordinated will not establish an airport in Lokoja for the purpose of evacuation of agricultural products when the town’s location and endowments dictate inland water transportation as the best mode of transportation, followed by rail. With modern inland water transportation, there is no part of the country that cannot be reached from Lokoja the same day. Citing evacuation of agricultural products, perishable or not, as reason why Lokoja needs an airport insults the sensibilities of transport planners and economic experts.
Political consideration rather than economic consideration has always been fingered as a major reason for establishing airports in Nigeria. This is why most of the existing airports are unviable, and not able to generate revenue for their maintenance. Yet government wants to establish more of such unviable airports.
The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), recently confirmed that 18 out of the 22 airports under its control are unviable, blaming the unviable airports scattered all over the country for its poor earnings and revenue shortfall over the years. The revenue shortfall is now in excess of N65 billion.
Except Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, and Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA), Rivers State, none of the other 18 airports has sufficient revenue to cover the cost of their operations, as they have been incurring huge losses. It is the excess revenue from the high-traffic Lagos and Abuja airports that is used to cushion the operational cost deficits incurred by the unviable airports. In spite of this cheerless scenario, Sirika is pursuing the establishment of new airports with glee.
Captain Ado Sanusi, the CEO of Aero Contractors, once said in an interview that Nigerian airports are not generating enough funds that can be used for their maintenance because they are not commercially viable. He maintained that political, rather than economic consideration was the major reason why some airports are built in Nigeria. He cautioned that commercial viability should be a critical factor in considering where airports should be located. But in a country where politicians and top government officials want Federal Government airports in their towns or villages, this caution is largely ignored.
With the economic hardship imposed by Covid-19, and the critical economic condition of the country, one expects that government should embark on projects that will benefit the greater majority of Nigerians, and which could be executed and run with lesser funds. Airports are for the elites and will continue to benefit the elites.
But if the desire is to enhance the movement of goods and people around the country, inland water transportation and rail transport which are the preferred modes of transport all over the world in such circumstances should be given top priority. This is the way to go if real economic development is the target.
It is high time government officials began to think of the masses and the general well-being of all rather than that of a few individuals. There should be an end to selfish, ethnic and political interests overriding the economic interest of all.