Friday, February 10, 2017

Closure of Abuja Airport, in whose interest?

A few weeks ago, the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, told Nigerians that the only international airport in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, will be closed for six weeks starting on March 8, 2017 for a supposed “total repairs on the runway.”
The closure, he said, would allow Julius Berger to carry out total re-construction on the badly damaged airport runway, explaining that though the runway would still be put to use under the six months of rehabilitation, but the six weeks would allow the midsection of the runway to be reconstructed.
As said by him, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the reconstruction through the emergency procurement procedure for work to commence; attributing the urgency to the centrality, economy and the importance of Abuja to the general administration of the country.
DigitalSENSE Business News, gathered that the Federal Government could not afford to closure of Abuja airport for a long time as repairs had is ongoing at the runway in the last three months.
“From start to finish of the runway, it will take six months. However, we will be using the runway almost throughout the period except for about six weeks when the runway will be closed,” Sirika declosed, adding that the government accepted the design by the contractor, which entails that the runway will last for over 10 years on completion early next year.
During the closure, Sirika said, Abuja bound passengers from any part of the world will use Kaduna airport as alternative as arrangement had been concluded with Kaduna State to convey the passengers to Abuja, whilst the state government will provide security.
On the Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement (BASA) with other countries, Sirika noted government had signed BASA with 18 countries that Nigerians frequently visits and do business with, which avails Nigeria to operate air services with 18 countries.
Although initially, the National Assembly through the Senate rejected the proposal, but a few weeks later seems to have backed down without a choice,
Whereas the lawmakers seemingly bowed to pressure, they expressed reservations for the proposed diversion of flights from Abuja to Kaduna, they urged FG to put every advice into consideration, especially security.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) and the contractor, Messrs Julius Berger Nigeria Limited, were reportedly divided over the total closure of the airport during the rehabilitation work. Even as NSE called for a segmented repair model to allow landing and take-off on the runway, Julius Berger stated that it would be dangerous to work on the runway while it was in use.
The lawmakers had summoned stakeholders to a public hearing including the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi; the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika; the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Mohammed Bello; Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadiq Abubakar; and heads of aviation agencies, in addition to the Nigeria Police Force.
Outside the government, stakeholders had expressed concern over the financial and security implications of the temporary relocation to the Kaduna airport at a time the country is in economic recession, insisting that the issue is not technical but managerial. According to NSE President, Mr. Otis Anyaeji, stated that the society was against the total closure of the Abuja airport, adding that the repair work could be modified to allow flights.
He argued that the society held a meeting with the relevant agencies penultimate Monday; the outcome of the meeting confirms that it is possible to carry out the proposed reconstruction without shutting down the airport, insisting that the state of the runway presently required that it should be constructed right away.
Nonetheless Julius Berger, via its Managing Director, Wolfgang Goetsch, dismissed the NSE’s recommendations as dangerous and unrealistic, insisting that the runway should be shut down for safety reasons. Explaining, “A runway can be repaired without closing, but it depends on the scale of the repair. If there is only ups damage, then, it can be repaired in a localised manner; that means it can be shut down in the night, a spot can be repaired and in the morning it can be temporarily given edge for usage. But not with the state of the runway here in Abuja with the extent of damage and deterioration, just as Julius Berger guarantees the repairs will be completed within the stipulated six weeks.
However, the foreign airlines were concerned about the perimeter fence at the Kaduna airport, the size of its apron, whether it would accommodate a considerable number of aircraft, and if airline officials were going to be involved in the screening of passengers.
Other concerns raised by the carriers, according to the minister, are issues bordering on catering services at the Kaduna airport; how to tackle vehicular breakdown at the facility; inadequate number of boarding gates; and how to track the luggage of passengers should there be issues of missing belongings. In addition to how the various agencies of government that would function during the six-week closure of the Abuja airport would be managed.
FG further assured that all concerns are being tackled and will continue to meet with stakeholders to further handle all other concerns as we work towards using the Kaduna airport during the six-week period, as Sirika asserted “95 per cent of these concerns have been addressed and I can assure them that refueling of aircraft will not be a problem.’’
While commending the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) for concluding plans to set up security outposts and deploy its personnel along the Abuja-Kaduna road following proposed closure of the Abuja Airport. Yet, there is a big line between pronouncement and actual implementation.
Although for some political analysts, the relocation of Abuja Airport could pass as part of the rumoured islamisation of the country, hence, it offers an opportunity for the ruling party to stockpile arms for 2019 general elections, especially in the wake of the killings of over 800 Christians in the Southern Kaduna. Other school of thoughts and government have dismissed these claims, saying its all the imagination of political opponents and jobbers. Still, another school of thought said these claims can only sway when justice is brought against those Southern Kaduna killings before the closure.
What is still unbelievable is that for the runway to become badly damaged as claimed by the FG and Julius Bergers, means a lot to discerning eyes, including why should the runway, the only one at that, be left to deteriorate to a state of being described as “badly damaged” when there is an annual vote for such infrastructure. Does this mean there was no maintenance carried out, at least in the past 12 months. If yes, how did it and if not why not? Why should the Economic Financial Fraud Commission (EFFC) not be invited to x-ray this matter.
Until then, Nigeria remains at cross-road over this airport closure.

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