Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: Princess Oduah Under Fire Over N7.4 Billion Airport Contracts - National Assembly Plans Probe

Port Harcourt — Massive remodelling works that costs N7.5 billion are going on at 11 airports in Nigeria, but their integrity is put to question because the fund in use was not captured in 2011 budgets, contracts were not bidded for, and evaluation of contractors was not properly done

The 'remodelling work' going on at 11 of Nigeria's airport at the rate $60 million (N7.4 billion) have raised hopes that finally some officials in government offices have taken up the gauntlet in order to modernise the infrastructure at the air terminals. At the nation's airports in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Yola, Owerri, Benin, Kaduna, Ilorin, Sokoto, all sorts of overhauling are taking place in what Aviation Minister Stella Oduah tagged an emergency measure. A 16-page all-colour glossy publication tagged "Nigeria Aerotropolis" inserted in a daily newspaper last Wednesday underscored the grandeur of the new approach to the task ahead.

Speaking with journalists earlier, the minister said, "What we are doing goes beyond remodelling of the airports. We are actually doing restructuring and reconstructing of the airports. We are just starting to go round the airport. We are doubling the sizes of those terminals and changing all the facilities and utilities within the airport. So, you can't call that remodelling. It is restructuring and reconstructing. That is what we are doing to ensure that passengers have safety model of transportation and we want to ensure that passengers have value for their money. Most importantly, we want every Nigerian and stakeholders to be proud of our airport environments. It's a total transformation of the aviation sector."

In spite of the feverish renovation projects, an indication that all has not been well over the 'good works' emerged in May when aviation experts began to raise questions over the projects. And on July 27, one Captain Dele Ore, who claimed to be the president of Aviation Round Table (ART), stunned journalists in Lagos when he alleged that the calm and unassuming aviation minister rained insults on him in a telephone conversation. According to Captain Ore, : "At 11:13am, July 27, 2012, the Minister of Aviation Princess Stella Oduah called me from a number 08055024340 and she showered unprintable insults on my person threatening my life while promising to deal with me. This conversation lasted for three minutes and eight seconds, and she claimed that I have been writing rubbish, lies, and fabrication about her in the media. She accused me that I am the one spoiling the industry and grounding aviation to a halt in Nigeria. 'You are nothing, you're a useless old man and I will deal with you."

When Sunday Trust asked Captain Ore why he was against the modernisation project at the airport, the aviation activist responded thus: "There is a provision made in the Civil Aviation Act that the funds be held in Trust for all Nigerians by the NCAA. The Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) fund is also supposed to be utilised for the development of the aviation industry in Nigeria. The BASA fund is an accumulated fund as a result of the imbalance in the bilateral air service agreement with other countries. The BASA fund has accumulated and it is a lot of money. There is a disclosure as to how much the former Minister Mrs Fedelia Akuabuta Njeze left. And since she left, so much has been paid into the account with the CBN. Question with the fund is, 'who is authorised to spend it?' Nobody is supposed to touch the money until it is appropriated by the National Assembly, based on what the money is to be spent on. You can therefore ask, 'how much of the money has been appropriated by the National Assembly in the last two years? How much is left? How much has been collected since Mrs. Njeze left and how much is the balance now? These are the questions. If you take BASA funds and use it for projects, what is it appropriated for by the National Assembly? Were the projects bidded for? Did it go through due process?"

Captain Ore added that "If the funds are not used judiciously, there is no future for our children in the industry. I believe that we should prioritise. If the funds are being used properly, then how many meteorologists have we trained? How many maintenance engineers, how many air traffic controllers have we trained? How many of the students have been given scholarships? What have we done to build manpower that is lacking in our industry? What have been done to build maintenance facility? The BASA fund is supposed to be used to develop Nigeria's aviation industry. So, there is nothing wrong with using part of the money to build manpower, but it should be applied for and obtained properly. I don't know where the funds for remodelling of the airports are coming from. I don't know anything about remodelling because that is the least of our problems in this country. The government said it doesn't have money because of too many competing interests from other sectors. That is why it set up the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission. Government says public private partnership is the way to go. Now, suddenly money has come from somewhere and we are remodelling. God will save us."

MORE QUESTIONS OVER USE OF FUNDS

While Captain Ore queried the minister's priority, another civil society group, which claimed to be Whistleblowers monitors, in a petition it claimed to have sent to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), alleged that the contracts for the remodelling projects did not pass through due process. In the petition, signed by one Suleiman Kazeem, its National Coordinator, the group said, "Under the law, the procedure for accessing and spending from the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) fund required that any expenses from this fund must be budgeted in the annual budget, appropriated by the National Assembly and approved by Mr President.

"Unfortunately, since the resumption of Mrs Stella Oduah and Mr George Uriesi as Minister of Aviation and Managing Director of FAAN respectively, this has not been done. Today, over $76 million and another $13million have been diverted to various projects without following due process and the laid down procedures in the Bureau for Public Procurement Act. These contracts were neither publicly advertised nor contained in any of the Federal Government's Tenders & Procurement bulletins."

When Sunday Trust contacted the Special Assistant (Media) to the Minister, Mr Joe Obi on this allegation, he responded thus: "I think I will start by saying due process was dully followed before the contracts were awarded. All the processes leading to how the funds were accessed and contract awarded followed due process. You must know that before you access the BASA fund, you must get approval from the presidency. The Senate and House of Representatives must also give approval and as you are aware the $60 million in question was already earmarked for airport and aviation development before she came in as minister. We are lucky that before the minister came in somebody had already started the project. The former minister tried to access the fund, but he couldn't. She started afresh, she wrote and got approval from the presidency to access the fund. All I'm saying is that all the things that are required to access the fund were met by the minister and she also fulfilled all the requirements leading to the award of the contracts."

Mr Obi added that though there were no advertisements for tender by contractors before the jobs were awarded, the minister obtained some concession from the Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP) to go-ahead with the award of the contracts under certain conditions in the BPP Act. Also, a legal aide to the Minister, Barrister Mark Jacob, told Sunday Trust that the BPP gave the minister a kind of waiver that allowed her to embark on the execution of the airports remodelling project without passing through the due process.

However, an aviation expert who is close to the House of Representatives committee on aviation told Sunday Trust at the weekend that "the minister is progressing in error," because her request to utilise the funds were not granted by the committees. According to him, "Ministers always consider this BASA fund as free funds and they dip their hands into it under whatever guise. In this case, I would tell you that what the minister is spending in the remodelling project was not captured in the Appropriation Act. When she asked for the lawmakers' approval to utilise the funds, she was asked to go and bring the engineering design, ensure the projects are advertised and bidded for, and proper evaluation of contractors done. The various committees refused her request, but, somehow she accessed the funds and went ahead with her project. We don't know how she did it."

Also, members of the Aviation Committee in the House and the Senate, who spoke to Sunday Trust at the weekend, said there was an impending probe into the airport projects, because the funds involved was much more than what petitioners have bandied around.

WORK IN PROGRESS BUT AT SLOW PACE AT AIRPORTS

The renovations at Aminu Kano International Airport in Kano will ensure the upgrading of arrival and departure lounges of both domestic and international wings of the airport, and terminal two. A visit to the airport revealed that work is still in progress at the sites though they ought to have been completed by June this year. An official of Golden Ways Traveling Agency told Sunday Trust that despite the shortcomings registered, when completed, the airport will regain its vigour: "Now, with the massive on-going remodelling, restructuring and reconstruction of 11 airports in the country today, one can say a great chunk of that airport's problems has been solved. But the problem is the slow pace of the whole work. We were promised that we will conduct this year's Umrah operations, using the upgraded international departure wing, but we have not been using it now," he stated.

Hajiya Binta Dhacko is the Proprietress of Classic Air Travels Agency. When contacted on the renovation taking place at the airport, Dhacko said even though the renovation is yet to be completed the move had indeed upgraded operations in the airport.

She said, "It is visible to everyone to see that really there are renovations taking place in Malam Aminu Kano International Airport, and it really affect our mode of operation in a positive way. Now we have conveyance buses, which were not available some years back. In fact, the airport was relegated to a local airport. But the current attempt in renovating the airport has helped in reviving it to a more dignified International airport."

At the international airport in Port Harcourt, workers are worried over the slow pace of work aimed at remodelling the airport. Sunday Trust learnt that reconstruction work, which was said to have started in January this year, is still at its first phase with major reconstruction going on at the Airport terminal by Inter-Bau Construction Limited. The workers under the umbrella of Air Transport Services Senior Staff (ATSSSAN) and the National Union of Air Transport Employee complained that current reconstruction and remodelling of the Airport has taken too much time than necessary and were disturbing activities.

The Secretary of the ATSSSAN, Alhaji Abul Razak Animashaun told Sunday Trust that by now the workers were expecting 80% completion of work but lamented that it is currently still at 50%.

"Work is going on as you can see but we are not comfortable with the slow pace at which it is going. By now we expected that the work will at least 80% completion but as it is now, it just at 50%. The slow pace of work is really affecting activities here. We appeal to the Federal Government to do something in order to fast-track the work," he said.

The Head of the Department of Public Affairs of the Airport, Ola Ogundolapo, told Sunday Trust that the delay in the reconstruction/remodelling of the Airport is as a result of the rains but that it will be completed at the end of this month. But Barrister Jacob told Sunday Trust that the delay was caused by the distractions from the minister's critics.

WE'RE IN A CRISIS SITUATION - INDUSTRY PLAYERS

Mr. Jens Bischof, a member of the Lufthansa passenger airlines board-sales and revenue management, said besides the fact that there are too many levies in Nigeria there are also huge infrastructure challenges in the nation's aviation. For instance the "introduction of the five percent sales tax and fuel tax doesn't help aviation business. It's a complex operation here and quite expensive, so additional cost doesn't help. The infrastructure deficiency is there as well. We would advice the government that if transportation is key to its economic growth, they have to support the aviation industry.

"We have to build the right aviation infrastructure, air traffic control, safety standards, supervising of safety standards, and so on and so forth. We can support these if possible through our Lufthansa Consulting business unit. We can see facilities at the airports being upgraded. The sooner they finish the better for us all. Nigeria is the hub of Africa and it deserves a proper airport infrastructure. Growing aviation business depends on infrastructure and aviation infrastructure is also central to a nation's development. The construction that we see, gives me hope."

Mr Akin Oni, the Managing Director, West African Business Unit, Bristow helicopters commented: "We have been in Nigeria for 55 years and the biggest challenge we see in aviation in Nigeria is infrastructure. Close to infrastructure is financing. This is for us all Nigerians. We have got to fix infrastructure. It is unacceptable the state of the infrastructure in Nigeria today. There is no reason for it. The next thing is financing. If you fix financing, you can substantially fix the infrastructure issues. I went to Tanzania last year. They don't have an all singing and dancing airport, but it works. We are not asking for the latest and the greatest, but let the basics be put in place and let them work. We can do it. Coming very close to these is manpower. We are talking about a maintenance hangar for Nigeria, but has anyone asked where we would get the engineers from? Would you run it with foreign engineers or still send aircraft outside even with the hanger? We are struggling today, looking for Nigerian engineers. We don't have engineers. We are almost in a crisis situation. People complain about expatriates but the reason we have expatriates is because we don't have qualified Nigerians and that is the truth.

He added that "Training will remain a challenge unless we build the organisations to do so. How many people can you train in Zaria and Ilorin? Ilorin is already struggling. Where else can you take them to in Nigeria? The Air Force, in the past, used to produce their own people and put them, but even the Air Force is struggling. Today, a lot people who train as pilots would have to go to South Africa, USA, UK etc. These days Kenya and Ethiopia have joined and are having good training schools. Why can't we have the same here? If we are dependent on Zaria to produce the kind of manpower we have, with their limited resources, we certainly have a long way to go. The manpower challenge is a major one. We can see it. With all the money we spend at Bristow today, we still can't meet our requirement to run our business on a day-to-day basis. For, as long as the gap is there, you must bring foreigners in."

Written by Shehu Abubakar, Turaki Hassan, Chris Agabi, Ibrahim Musa Giginyu and Bashiru Abdullahi

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