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In 2002, I boarded a DC-10 for a Lagos – Accra flight on the now-defunct Ghana Airways. This was my first time directly traveling from one African country to another by air, so I had the chance to compare Lagos Airport and Accra Airport very closely, being just 45 minutes away from each other. My impression of Kotoka International Airport then was that it was a cozy, adequate airport that did what it said on the tin. It did not however, hold a candle to Murtala Mohammed International Airport. In my 12 year-old eyes, Lagos Airport was playing in the Champions League, while Accra Airport was at best competing for the Championship playoffs.
In the intervening 18 years, I have been to Ghana several times, and each time I noticed a slight shift in the balance. It was not that Kotoka Airport was getting better, so much as MMIA finding new and innovative ways to disappoint. Sometimes it would be filthy toilets. It would be the non-functional escalators. It would be the tired, raggedy baggage claim ramp. It would be the smell of the terminal building. It would be the Immigration and Customs personnel embarrassing their uniforms. Sometimes the lights would go out and the terminal building in West Africa’s busiest airport would be plunged into darkness.
A few weeks ago, nearly 10 years since my last visit to Ghana, I boarded an Air Peace Boeing 737 to Accra, and what I met there left my travel companion and I quietly seething with rage.
Nigeria Should Not be Competing with Ghana
The point has been made elsewhere that Ghana now attracts more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) than Nigeria both absolutely and proportionally. Depending on who is making the point, it is either a story of fantastic policy success by the Ghanaian authorities or one of woeful failure on the part of the Nigerians. Comparing the biggest airports in the economic capitals of both countries however, tells a very clear story about which of them currently takes foreign investment serious.
It is probably no news to most people that Kotoka Airport has undergone a major facelift over the past decade, giving it the look, feel and functionality of a regional European hub as against the basic, barely adequate airport I met in 2002. What most people probably do not know however, is that this is only the Ghanaian government’s first phase of investment into Accra Airport. With Terminal 2 dedicated to local flights and Terminal 3 dedicated to international flights, the now-disused Terminal 1 is being redeveloped for use by a Fixed Base Operator offering the full gamut of technical and allied aviation services to airlines in the region.
A Fixed Base Operator is an aviation servicing firm that offers services like aircraft maintenance, spare part sales, aircraft sales and rentals, pilot training and so on. Clearly KIA’s air traffic is not significant enough to justify such an investment, which leads to the obvious conclusion – they expect that Lagos Airport will continue to lack such services, so KIA is being positioned as a nearby and preferable alternative for airlines operating in West Africa. In other words, Ghana is betting that Nigeria – which by rights should be the undisputed aviation hub of West Africa – will not get its act together, and is positioning itself to benefit from the dysfunction.
Perception is Everything
When one exits KIA after a straightforward and stress-free immigration process, the first sight the greets one is the silhouette of an ex Ghana Airways DC-10, which has been repurposed into a fancy restaurant.
In the background, one sees the warm outlines of a thriving downtown business district. Without a word being spoken, a first time international visitor to Accra is told very clearly that Ghana is a country with ambition. Whether this turns out to be true or not subsequently, the first impression has been made.
Before exiting MMIA on the other hand, you must experience the ordeal of a creaky baggage claim system and a rude lady asking (for some reason) for your baggage claim tags before you will be allowed to leave the building. Upon leaving the building, dozens of touts screaming “BROS TAXI! SIM CARD! CHANGE DOLLAR!” immediately descend on your luggage – whether they are trying to shepherd you into their taxis or trying to steal it, you can never be certain. The only sight in view is the desolate carcass of what was once the car park, and then a hotel that never got past foundation level.
The immediate and unshakeable impression of Nigeria that one gets at MMIA is that of a hollowed-out carcass – a country on the road to nowhere. Again this may not necessarily be true in practise, but perception is a very powerful thing. So powerful in fact, that my travel companion who was on her first visit to Ghana already decided that she wanted to go back and spend some time there. Who knows how many potential tourists and mid-sized investors have chosen our Anglophone neighbour over us, simply because the experience of Murtala Mohammed International Airport is intolerable and unacceptable?
Aviation minister and self described “Buharist” Hadi Sirika continues to make noises about concessioning MMIA to the private sector, so that it can function at a level comparable to the nearby MM2 airport (in my opinion the best run airport in Nigeria). There has been pushback from interests in the aviation sector who benefit from the status quo, along the lines of “privatizing will result in job losses at FAAN.” The obvious retort to this is that the net value of investment and tourism brought into Nigeria and the resultant jobs created if MMIA is properly run by a profit-directed entity will far outweigh any purported short term job losses. But that of course, assumes that Mr Sirika is being sincere with his alleged concessioning efforts after five years of status quo.
He is after all, the man who recently urged airlines to start flying unviable routes for the sake of patriotism. If his track record is anything to go by, Nigeria still has at least another three years of international embarrassment to suffer through, as the country’s largest airport presents a very telling story about us to any foreign visitors.