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Inside story of govs’ obsession with new airports

There is a growing concern over proliferation of airports being established by state governments amidst viability issues surrounding existing ones and the dwindling resources at…

There is a growing concern over proliferation of airports being established by state governments amidst viability issues surrounding existing ones and the dwindling resources at the state level. What could be driving the rush for floating airports by state governments? Daily Trust Saturday reports.

Twenty-four hours before his tenure expired in Ekiti State, former Governor Kayode Fayemi inaugurated the Ekiti State Agro-Allied International Airport, located along Ado-Ijan road in Ado-Ekiti.

To give effect to the celebration, a Nigeria Air Force plane, piloted by Flight Lieutenant E.A. Balogun, landed at the airport’s runway at exactly 10:20 am amid cheers and excitement by guests, government officials and members of the public.

The elated Fayemi said the commissioning of the airport project, which started in 2019, was his parting gift for the people of Ekiti State. Consequently, he declared, “My job is done, Ekiti Kete.”

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But that was all. Almost six months later, not a single commercial plane has landed at the airport despite the huge financial resources committed into it. Not one tonne of cargo or one passenger has been conveyed through the airport after the elaborate commissioning ceremony.

The deployment of a military plane, an ATR 42, was understandable to bypass the stringent requirements for an aircraft to be certified for commercial operations. At the moment, not a single commercial airline has indicated interest in flying to the state.

Overtime, state governors have become so obsessed with implementing airport projects without considering their viability or the larger benefit to the people despite the huge public funds involved.

From Ekiti to Osun, Oyo, Edo, Abia, Benue, Lagos, it was learnt that about 10 state governments have secured approval from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to build airports without considering the commercial viability of existing ones.

Apart from the four major international airports, including the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos; the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja; Malam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano and Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA) in Rivers State, there are no fewer than 19 others managed by the Federal Government through the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).

However, the viability of the remaining airports has become a thorny issue among stakeholders and experts in the aviation sector following revelations that 18 of the other airports generate a paltry 13 per cent of the FAAN revenue. According to a recent figure, the MMIA, for instance, generates 58 per cent of FAAN revenue, followed by Abuja, 21 per cent, while Kano and Port Harcourt generate four per cent each.

Despite the poor performance of other airports in Nigeria, more state governors have vowed to commit more public resources into building an airport. Majority of them hide under boosting agro-allied exports to justify the need for an airport.

Catalogue of states considering airport projects

Findings by Daily Trust Saturday revealed that more state governments have secured NCAA approval to build airports, including governors whose administration are winding down.

The Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, was recently quoted to have said that the state would develop a new airport at Auchi in Edo North senatorial district, in addition to the existing airport in Benin.

He said, “The charting of the airport is already ongoing. We want to make sure that the approaches for landing into the airport runway are clear and safe for landing and will not endanger aircraft.

“These are the final reports and studies being conducted. As soon as we get the final approval, we will do the groundbreaking and commence construction of the airport.”

On the economic benefit of the airport, Obaseki said, “This is not a political project. Between Benin City and Abuja on this axis, which is more than 600km, there is no airport.

“From the transportation standpoint, it makes a lot of commercial sense to have an airport in Edo north. More importantly, there are emerging businesses, particularly in the areas of mining and academia.”

Also last year, the Oyo State Government unveiled plans to build an airport at Oke Ogun, in addition to the one in Ibadan, with the governor, Seyi Makinde, arguing that it would boost the internally generated revenue of the state.

While Ogun airport at Remo is taking shape, Osun is implementing a project to build MKO Abiola International Airport at Ido Osun, which the former governor, Gboyega Oyetola started.

Also, the Nasarawa State Government has developed Lafia Cargo Airport, which the immediate past governor, Tanko Al-Makura started. It was completed by his successor, Governor Abdullahi Sule. The federal government has vowed to take over the airport.

The Benue State Government also recently disclosed plans to build a new airport in Makurdi, the state capital to complement the existing one used by the military.

The Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism, Mike Inalegwu, disclosed that 12 states in the country, including Benue, secured licences from the NCAA for the construction of civil aviation airports in their respective states.

“The site for this airport is going to be at Kura, along Naka road, about 12 kilometres from Makurdi town because of the proximity to the industrial layout,” he was quoted as saying.

From the North Central to the East, Ebonyi International Airport, started by Governor Dave Umahi, is almost completed, while unconfirmed reports indicate that Abia State may start an airport before the tenure of the outgoing governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, expires on May 29, 2023.

At the moment, Abia is the only state without an airport in the South East, but the state is serviced by the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, Owerri, Enugu International Airport or the Anambra airport in Umuleri within the region, while in the South-South, Asaba airport is the closest to the state.

Why are state governors obsessed with airport projects?

Experts have queried the rationale for building new airports when the existing ones are anything else but viable. Apart from the four major airports generating 87 per cent of the revenue of the FAAN used to service the remaining 18 under its management, the increasing number of airports has not translated into increased passenger or cargo growth in the existing 18 airports.

Experts, however, said politics and not economics was the reason many state governors are committing huge government resources to develop airport projects.

For instance, players in airport development told our correspondent that it would cost between N20 billion and N25 billion to develop an airstrip, which is a smaller aerodrome, while a state may cough out as much as N50bn to develop an airport.

The Lagos State Government, which is also planning the Lekki International Airport, said the new project would cost N102bn.

The president of the Aviation Roundtable and Safety Initiative, Dr Gabriel Olowo, recently told reporters that the existing airports, apart from the four major ones, are not commercially viable, and wondered why states would be keen on developing new ones, which would now become additional burdens on the FAAN.

On the justification for cargo airports, the aviation professional said what was needed was intra and inter-state road linkages, which he said were in deplorable condition.

He said, “Regarding cargo airports, the roads to take the products to the airports are either not available or in bad shapes, with high propensity for trucks to tumble and perishable goods destroyed.  Explosive goods will also explode. Day old chicken and eggs are massively destroyed.

“States should put their heads together for the establishment of safe, functional and durable interstate road linkages first rather than conceiving the idea of new agro aerodromes.

“The airport in the western region of Ibadan and others like that are still operating below capacity. The geographical neighbouring states should cooperate on road and rail linkages and upgrade the airport to a world class standard for the service of Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, Ekiti etc, rather than individual state efforts at establishing their own airports.

“It is bad economics if airports are to deliver economies of scale. Airports maintenance programmes are not cheap and must be done routinely. All we need is to make an effort at turning the existing ones (after proper enhancement) into hubs. There must be deliberate efforts to develop hubs and not by building non-functional airport silos all over the states, overstretching the already stressed treasury.”

He added, “Airport construction goes beyond acquiring hectares of land without perimeter fencing, compromising safety of operations ab initio, constructing substandard runways that will be washed away in one or two raining seasons.

“It is a highly capital-intensive project that should be embarked upon after a robust bankable projection.”

A practitioner in the cargo allied value chain who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the existing cargo airports were highly underutilised, saying there is no point establishing new ones. He also accused state governments of embezzling “public funds using the code name agro-cargo airport.”

Another aviation professional, Comrade Olayinka Abioye, also reiterated that what is needed is not building new airports but to have a road and rail linkage to existing ones.

He said, “My take on the state governments establishing airports is very short and simple: It is a fraudulent action. It is so disgraceful that at the twilight of your regime you want to establish an airport. What about other airports that have been on ground all these while that are underutilized?

“For instance, in Edo State we have an airport in Benin. How well are we utilising? Does it mean that the airport is not satisfying all citizens or indigenes of the state to travel? The answer is no. What is the essence of setting up another airport in Auchi?

“What we need are good roads that can move people around. Good a thing, the federal government has also enacted some executive orders, some laws giving states powers to build railways. What we need is a railway, particularly when we don’t have good roads. Railway will transport far more people than even road transportation.

“So, I see the establishment of airports by state governors as a way to cover their tracks.”

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