Joe Obi: Stella Oduah’s Tenure As Nigeria’s Aviation Minister

It was far back in 2007 that a group of Professionals, led by the blue-blooded Princess from Akili Ozizor, Stella Adaeze Oduah came together at a time it was both risky and unfashionable, to publicly declare total support and faith in the Yar’Adua – Jonathan presidential ticket. With her crystal ball, Oduah saw very clearly that in the ticket lies the destiny of the Nigerian nation. As cruel faith would have it, Yar’Adua’s leadership was cut short by the cool hands of death and the baton naturally fell on Jonathan to bear the torch.

It was a trying period in the history of the nation, but Jonathan prevailed both as Acting President, President and subsequently in the 2011 Presidential election. Throughout this period, loyalties by politicians swayed back and forth like butterflies in harmattan wind, but Oduah remained resolute, certain in her faith that Jonathan means well for the nation. It should not be lost on anyone that Oduah played a frontline and pioneering role in the election of the President in 2011 through her novel, grassroots organisation, Neighbour 2 Neighbour (N2N). Gratefully, she was handsomely rewarded with a Ministerial appointment and deployed to the Ministry of Aviation.

Oduah is not one to rest on her laurels. For many a Nigerian politician and technocrat, being appointed to such high office is fulfilling in itself, an ultimate trophy to be taken home and placed on the mantel-piece for keeps, with scant regard for performance. Oduah was not going to settle for that. Fora virtual novice like her, the challenge of being thrown to such new grounds would have been quite overwhelming. But Oduah is driven by results, not accolades, so she aimed high for the results-set her eyes on the ball and kept her focus and sanity in a sector literally beholden by wolves. And when the sun set on her tenure last week, she walked out triumphantly; in that self-fulfilling gait of one who knows she did not disappoint herself, her family and friends, the aviation sector, the President who reposed so much confidence and trust in her, and the nation in general.

Yet it was never a roller-coaster ride. The aviation sector is naturally defined by turbulence, so it was not entirely unexpected that her tenure was characteristically turbulent from the onset. For one, her appointment was greeted with scepticism, and later; stiff resistance by the ubiquitous ‘Stakeholders’ who frowned at the audacity of the President in giving them a total stranger as Captain to pilotan otherwise technical and complex machine. It was from this group of ‘Stakeholders’, an internecine clan that had held the sector down for decades, that Oduah faced the toughest challenge and resistance throughout her tenure.

In the end, she prevailed, and was able to prove that it takes more than being a Pilot, an Aeronautical engineer, or an Air Traffic Controller to run the aviation sector. More than anything else, she has proved that with true, visionary, focused and determined leadership, government can indeed work and deliver expected results.

At first sight Oduah appears weak, even vulnerable. But behind this quiet, unassuming mien lays a steely determination. Working up-close with, and for her for two and a half years, I am not surprised how and why she achieved so much in so short a period. She is not one to be easily intimidated by challenges or distracted by some irritants. On assumption of office, in spite of the open defiance by industry ‘stakeholders’, she embraced everyone, held extensive and exhaustive consultations, empanelled committees, studied volumes of previous reports from the World Bank and other reputable international consulting firms, and burnt thousands of hours of the midnight oil to fashion out the Way Forward for the hitherto beleaguered industry.

The result of this painstaking toil was the production, for the first time in the history of the nation’s aviation industry, of an Aviation Sector Master Plan and Implementation Road. It was this document that provided the compass for the revival and transformational revolution witnessed in the sector in the past two and a half years. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would like to re-state, for the umpteenth time, that the aviation sector was in a terrible and seemingly irretrievable state of decay and dilapidation when Stella Oduah came on board in July of 2011.

All 22 federally owned airports, including the international gateways, were nothing more than glorified goat-sheds. The toilets, for instance, smelt so repugnantly pungent that even sh**t-eating dogs would curse their owners that venture to take them anywhere near them. The safety and security infrastructure, the fulcrum of safe aviation operations were in most instances unavailable, obsolete or unserviceable.

Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mr George Ureisi readily cites the instance of the deplorable state of infrastructure in the sector with the fate that befell the generators at the MMIA, Lagos. The airport, according to him was constructed in 1977 and five brand new generators came with the airport then. As the years rolled by, and as a result of poor maintenance culture and lack of foresight by those at the helm of affairs in the sector, the generators started breaking down one after the other. But in a primitively ingenious manner, the fifth generator was cannibalised to service four, the fourth was subsequently cannibalised to service three, the third and second suffered the same faith until only one generator was left as at 2011 when Oduah came on board. That explains the frequency of the endemic power failures at the airport then. The fate that befell the generators is symptomatic of the criminal neglect of the facilities and infrastructure across all 22 airports in the country pre-2011.

Today, a brand new power generating system has been procured and installed, putting a final end to the disgraceful regime of power failures at the airport, courtesy of the Oduah revolution. Now, Ureisi is seeking a national honours award for the single generator that served the airport, even if epileptically for so many years after her ‘brothers’ were so brutally dismembered by a succession of callous and insensitive administrations in the sector. The Oduah revolution has also seen all 22 federally –owned airports completely reconstructed, remodelled, and transformed.

Today the edifices wear fresh, dignifying look and ambiences comparable to other airports around the world. The icing on the cake is the commencement of the construction of five state-of-the-arts international terminals in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kano that will be delivered to Nigerians in 2015. Construction work has also commenced in 16 Perishable Cargo terminals across the country to empower rural farmers and transform rural communities. The aerotropolis project concept will also usher in industrial clusters in and around major airports in the country, creating millions of jobs and transforming airports to global cities.

In the area of safety, monumental milestones were also recorded. NAMA’s Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON), state-of-the-arts surveillance and communications equipment, airfield lighting, multi-lateration and other Instrument Landing Systems; NiMet’s Doppler Weather Radars, Wind Shear Alerts Systems, Instrument Calibration equipment; AIB’s Flight Data Analysis Laboratory, to mention but a few are some of the safety-critical infrastructure that were lacking in the industry pre-2011 but that exist today to enhance air safety in Nigeria. The Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) has been strengthened and repositioned to become the prime aviation manpower training institute on the African continent, just as the NCAA has been strengthened to provide the required regulatory oversight of the sector in line with international standards and best practice.

No doubt, the reforms institutionalised by the immediate past aviation minister have revolutionised and transformed the aviation sector positively forever. The achievements intimidated and overwhelmed her traducers. Tragically, it is this unprecedented and monumental level of achievement that disconcerted the entrenched interests in the sector so much so that they found a willing ally in the opposition (APC) elements against the Jonathan administration to orchestrate a sustained campaign of calumny against her. Within the entrenched interests in the sector are those operating without licences, debtors who, for decades have refused to meet their obligations to the agencies, those with dubious Concession and Lease Agreements, amongst others who hitherto operated with impunity but were rightfully reined in by the fearless Oduah.

To be sure, this coalition of the opposition elements may have succeeded in having their wish as Oduah is now out of their way. And with their bows and arrows actually trained at the Jonathan underbelly to weaken him more ahead of the 2015 general elections, it won’t be surprising if they move against another strong pillar in the Jonathan Cabinet.

One thing is however certain – they cannot obliterate the indelible footprints Princess Stella Adaeze left behind in the aviation sector. Obviously, those who have held the sector by the jugulars for over four decades neither wanted nor welcomed the Oduah brand of transformation that did not line their personal pockets with billions of naira of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

Personally, I was at onceboth fascinated and beholden by her work ethic and incredible amount of energy. She was driven by results and the passion with which she brought to bear on her Vision and Mission for the sector ensured she exceeded all expectations. She bows out with her head not bowed, but held up high with pride, knowing in that self-assured manner that she left the aviation sector miles ahead of where she met it and in the process, set a bar and benchmark that will take long to either match or surpass. She remains profoundly grateful to President Jonathan for offering her the opportunity to prove her mettle. And out of government, her faith in the President’s ability to transform Nigeria, as in 2007, remains undiluted.

The challenge before her successor(s) is that of keeping the dream alive and sustaining the tempo of the transformation already wrought on the sector. The fear, the reasonable fear is that this may be a far-fetched dream, after all. Not everyone, of course is Princess Stella AdaezeOduah, the Amazon of ‘’uncommon transformation’’ in the aviation sector.
Joe Obi was the Special Assistant (Media) to the immediate past Minister of Aviation. He contributed this piece from Abuja.
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