Before Nigeria’s aviation becomes a laughing stock

Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja

Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja

Democracy is said to be, amongst other things, a system of political administration that allows for clear choices, for reasoned arguments, for the oiling of the wheels of development. Yet, when one considers some of the things people get up to in Nigeria it becomes imperative to wonder whether, for us, democracy does not mean wrongheadedness. Just one example will suffice to elucidate this problem.

It was announced not long ago that the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, one of the busiest airports on the African continent, would be shut down for three months. This announced plan to shut the airport is not because seismologists have suddenly found that the grounds of the airport are faced with imminent devastation due to a natural disaster of the sort of earthquake or landslide or volcanic eruption.

No. Those in charge of matters of aviation plan to shut the Abuja Airport because repairs must be effected on its runway! For the simple reason of repairs, the airport would close for business for upwards of three months while the hundreds of flights that touch down at Abuja would be diverted to Kaduna, some 240 kilometres away! While this curious development leaves the international community wondering about our sense of judgment and sense of priorities, what becomes of the thousands of workers that earn their living at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport? Would they be sent packing? Or would they be sent on paid vacation? Or would they be simply forgotten as non-existent commodities?

Outside the obvious economic adversity sure to come from an outright closure of the Abuja Airport, there are other equally gruesome considerations. There are risks associated with shuttling from Abuja and other distant centres of population concentration to Kaduna to board flights. The Abuja-Kaduna highway is particularly prone to vehicular accidents. The contingency of increased usage of that road by travellers to foreign lands usually perceived to be privileged can only excite adventurism and daredevilry in armed robbers and other violent criminals. More than anything else, the incessant killings by herdsmen in southern Kaduna raise the threat to would-be users of the Kaduna Airport by countless notches.

These are dangers that are clearly avoidable. In Biafra during the civil war, the Uli Airport was not closed for a single day despite the fact that it was bombarded almost every night by fighter-bombers of the Nigerian Air Force. Air raids happen this moment and, next moment, trained workers move in and repair all damages, filling craters and leveling up the runway with a solid slate of macadam. That was five decades ago. But in the year 2017, Nigerian authorities are on the verge of closing the country’s Number One connection to the outside world for three months because a runway is to be repaired.

It beggars belief. It calls to serious question the sense of judgment of those who purport to direct Nigeria’s affairs. For those who love this country, the shame is overpowering. Yet, there is an urgent necessity to save face, to point to an alternative that is reasonable, viable and bereft of the pointless complications inherent in an entire closure.

The volume of air traffic at Abuja is increasing exponentially. This means that, whether or not our aviation “experts” appreciate it, the construction of a second runway is inevitable sooner rather than later. May we suggest that, instead of embarking on the foolhardy enterprise of shutting down the Abuja Airport, those touting the harebrained venture should spare a thought for the wisdom of the emergency construction of a second runway that could be completed in the three months that has been slated for mere repairs of the existing runway. The main advantage of this option is that, while the new runway is being constructed, the old one would remain operational. Thus, the embarrassing contingency of shutting down an international airport on flimsy grounds would be averted.

The construction of a runway is not exactly a faculty of rocket science. There is nothing in it that is not thoroughly understood by construction companies operating currently in Nigeria. We have been told that a whopping N5 billion is required for repairs on the old runway. People who should know are insisting that a new runway may cost just as much.

Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that the cost of repairing the existing runway and building a new one is not an issue here. I urge the National Assembly to intervene and approve emergency funding, even to the tune of N10 billion at least for the projects. Once this is done, the runways could be ready for use in no more than six weeks. If necessary two construction giants – Julius Berger and CCECC, say, could be awarded the contracts, working from opposite ends.

To recap, this is the argument: Do not shut down the Abuja airport. Construct a second runway. Once it goes into operation, the old one could be repaired. It is the only sensible choice open to us. The Nigerian Airways since went into oblivion, to the eternal embarrassment of the thinking segments of this country. We cannot allow the total closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport because a runway is to be patched up. That would make us the world’s laughing stock.

• Prince Nwoko, former member of the Federal House of Representatives, was the chairman of the House Sub-Committee of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).

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