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Tony Iredia’s Nigerian Aviation Still Too Far Behind

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By Yakubu Dati

Mr Tony Iredia, the retired former director-general of the Nigeria television authority, NTA, recently fixed his gaze on the Nigerian aviation sector and had a few interesting comments to make about it. In his article titled,’ Aviation Reforms; Nigeria Still Too Far Behind, Iredia compared Nigeria to Dubai and concluded that we are still quite far behind.

I must say that, in spite of the former NTA director-general’s criticisms, his fair comments were like a breath of fresh air to an aviation industry where powerful but selfish businessmen and women continue to spread falsehood and mount campaigns of calumny against government agencies and their heads, in order to achieve their selfish business interests.

Iredia was in Dubai along with several professional colleagues from Nigeria to attend the annual international broadcast exhibition -CABSAT 2014. According to him, “considering that the United Arab Emirate is a rich country, it was easy to appreciate the magnificent difference between Dubai, its main city and Abuja – our own self-acclaimed fastest growing city in Africa.”

Again, he noted that, “our most beautiful International Conference Centre in Garki, Abuja can only pass for a village square when compared to the Dubai World Trade Centre-the venue of CABSAT 2014. Yet, our so-called conference centre in Garki serves as a tourist centre for our fellow citizens who often travel long distances to see the marvels of Abuja.’

Iredia then shifted his scornful look to the Nigerian Aviation. He was sad over the reality that Nigeria airways, the country’s defunct national airline was no longer there and he had to board Ethiopian Airlines instead. Nostalgia aside, Iredia was not happy that he had to stop over at the airline’s home country capital, Addis Ababa before proceeding to Dubai couple with the fact that the airline did not fly direct to Dubai from Abuja, even though the Nnamdi Azikiwe airport at Abuja is international.

The veteran broadcast journalist, lawyer and media administrator who is well known for asking tough questions on his interview programme recalls that if he had decided to board the United Arab Emirates, (UAE) airline, The Emirates, he would need to come to Lagos to board the flight to Dubai. When he questioned why the airline can’t fly direct from Abuja to Dubai—capital city to capital city, he was offered a reason— ‘An unofficial source told us that for that to happen, top Nigerian aviation officials would have to be ‘seen’. This meaning that money has to change hands.

Thankfully, that was an unofficial source, of which the veracity of information cannot be confirmed and therefore, doubtful. Typically, Iredia presented some tough posers;’ Did the recent reforms by our aviation ministry consider this? If so, was it not clear that the concept of “seeing” dents the country’s image?’ however considering that Iredia could not confirm the truth of the information from his ‘unofficial’ source, his posers appeared to be hanging on a weak limb. One can say categorically that the issue of ‘seeing’ aviation officials, in which bribes are supposedly collected in exchange for routes is totally absurd. And for several reasons.

First, international routes are subject to bilateral agreements signed at ministerial level. Secondly, routes plied by commercial airlines are usually determined by economic factors rather than political considerations or sentiments. For example, if the Abuja to Addis Ababa route is not profitable for the airline, it would not do it. It certainly has nothing to do with greasing the palm of anybody.

Again, that someone of Iredia’s calibre is very much aware of the aviation reforms initiated by the immediate past Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah is a plus to the impact that the idea of transforming the Nigerian sector has made on the Nigerian society. There is confirmation from what Iredia has said and written that there was and is still a need to transform Nigerian aviation in order to move it forward to be able to compete favourably with those of other countries.

At this juncture, one should also point out that the aviation ministry in the past three years did a lot to open new international routes for Nigerian aviation. Last year, the ministry successfully negotiated and signed bilateral air service agreement with the State of Isreal, ending several decades of lack of direct flights between Nigeria and Isreal. Earlier, the aviation had granted approval to the Jordanian Airlines to fly direct between Lagos and Amman, capital of Jordan.

Nigerian aviation authorities also recorded the first direct international flight from the South-east last year, when President Jonathan commissioned an expanded and remodelled Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu. On that occasion, an Ethiopian Airlines commercial aircraft undertook direct flight from Enugu to Addis Abba.

So the transformation of the Nigerian aviation which was also known as aviation reforms was multi-faceted and it indeed addresses all the areas Iredia talked about and a lot more. But Iredia has pointed us to good example, which is the hallmark of statesman-always seeking out for the progress of his society.

It is on record that aviation ministry has been at loggerheads with a few individuals with fraudulent concession agreements and contracts through which the country was being milked by these private businessmen. The cancellations of these concessions and the consequent return of those duties to the aviation agencies has resulted in a phenomenal jump in government revenue from aviation sector by more than a thousand per cent! Please beat that.

Before President Jonathan’s massive infrastructural development programme for the country’s airports, one would recall that even the premier international gateway, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport terminal usually looked like an overcrammmed missionary school assembly hall during peak hours when passengers are travelling out of the country. Built over 35 years ago, without any new development the Murtala Muhammed international airport like many other round the country, simply could no longer cope with the demands of today’s aviation market. We knew we need not go to Dubai before we realise this fact. That informed the quick intervention of Mr. President in the sector.

Through the massive, radical remodelling programme for 22 airport terminals scattered around the country, President Jonathan literally dragged Nigerian Aviation out of its stone age. Apart from scrammed facilities, most of the airports were designed for passenger traffic only. They couldn’t handle cargo, especially perishable cargo such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Little surprise that Nigeria is absent from the list of African countries like South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia even Ghana that all make hundreds of millions in United States dollars from the export of these produce. I’m sure that Iredia is aware of our losses in that area and how the reform is changing that.

The redesign and reconstruction of some of these airports to include cargo handling facilities that would benefit Nigerian farmers and other exporters are the steps taken so far in that direction by the aviation ministry.

As Iredia noted,’on arrival in Dubai, it was like a new world. The International Airport alone has several terminals.’ This shows clearly that airports need enough terminals for adequate passenger handling capacity. But here in Nigeria, you will recall that one private airport terminal owner, Dr. Wale Babalakin does not want additional terminal capacity to be built to cater for growing passenger traffic in Lagos, the country’s commercial hub.

He wants everybody to use one terminal only. He fought against the expansion and the redesign of the General Aviation Terminal, GAT and opposed the granting of approval to Lagos State government to build a new airport that is now ongoing at its Lekki Free Trade Zone!

What would Iredia also say about the giant carcass of a building which lies facing the MMIA2,the domestic terminal on the highway leading to the international airport .This was supposed to be a 5-star hotel completed five years ago. That has not be achieved till date and the structure which looks abandoned hosts dangerous reptiles now. Yet the owner of the moribund structure would not let go, he wants to hold down the development of that facility that would enhance the airport until when he has the money to construct. Nigerians and foreign visitors must wait. these were some of the forces of retrogression that the former minsiter had to fight against in order to get things to change for the better in the Nigerian aviation sector.
Now it is important to impress it on Iredia work are in progress for Nigeria to own five new, state-of-the art international airports to be located around the country, including Lagos and Abuja. Presumably, these airports would be able to rival those at Dubai. But more importantly, these would satisfy the needs of Nigerians especially for cargo facilities that can handle perishable goods meant for export This would help generate foreign exchange and improve the lots of Nigerian farmers.
Of course, Iredia also felt strongly about the absence of Nigeria Airways.

Let me say that has been in the plan in the last two years. Indeed, the former minister was not happy about the lack of a national carrier for the country and made determined efforts to remedy the situation before her exit. Yet some were very critical of her moves even though the benefits of having a national airline are quite clear.

In Dubai, Iredia also saw rows and rows of duty-free shops, shops and shops and wondered what was happening to Nigerian businessmen and women. Why can’t we have such shops all over our airports? This is the answer: the Aviation Roadmap we have contains much more than that. Yes, it is time to move at faster pace, I agree, because turning back will be too dangerous for the standards already set for the sector.
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Yakubu Dati is the Coordinating Spokesperson, Aviation Parastatals, wrote from Lagos

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