7 October 2012

Nigeria: Airport Cities As White Elephant Project


Recently, the minister of aviation, Stella Oduah proposed the setting up of cities (Aerotropolis) in some airports in the country. But as a typical federal government project, this noble proposal seems to have been abandoned as not much is being heard of it. JAMES UWEM examines the economic importance of the project and how its initiators hope to achieve their collective dream.

The proposed airport cities (Aerotropolis) project, which initially got an overwhelming acceptance by most Nigerians, is suddenly trapped in controversy. The project appears to be dead on arrival as typical white elephant projects, which the Nigerian government is known for.

The minister of aviation had packaged the project in such a wonderful way that Nigerians were excited, believing that it would attract huge economic components that would open multiple windows of business opportunities and the much-needed economic gains. So Nigerians believed the project was a worthwhile venture. Interestingly, unlike what usually happens to other unpopular projects believed to be against the people, the airport cities project got the people's approval.

The Aviation Village, as it is popularly called, has its prototype in the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, the Dubai World Central International Airport, The OR Tambo International Airport and a host of others across the globe. Ideally, these projects have been economically viable and have yielded enormous economic gains to these countries.

The airports have an array of world-class hotels, shops and other facilities aimed at providing visitors and passengers with the needed services. Such projects also provide employment opportunities to a good number of people on a daily basis. And the minister had promised that the Nigerian version of the project would not be an exception.

Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano and Lagos were to be used for the pilot scheme within a 24-month time frame.

Furthermore, the project is expected to boost the country's local tourism potentials. The people were also told that it would be 100 per cent privately driven and funded, hence the country would have a lot to gain. But investigation by LEADERSHIP WEEKEND reveals that there is no indication that the project will see the light of day.

To make good her promise, the minister and her co-idealists had embarked on a foreign trip to America and Europe in search of investors. A source hinted that nearly 200 minister's aides, senior staff and aviation consultants made the trip at the expense of the federal government, running into millions of dollars.

However, it is on record that Nigerians who understood the enormity of challenges associated with the rot in the aviation sector made their reservations and fears known. They said that despite the viable economic potentials of building such airport cities, the motive of the initiators may not be unconnected to personal fortunes and aggrandisement.

As if to confirm their fear, as soon as the team returned from their trip abroad, not much is being heard of the project.

The answer, however, is not far-fetched. Aside the systemic corruption that has bedeviled every sector of the country, the rot in the aviation industry is quite endemic. Nigerian airports have an unfortunate history of poor maintenance culture and a dearth of airport infrastructural investments, which in turn has worsened safety records.

To this end, an estimated N300billion is lost yearly on aeronautical services. This is against the N15 billion reported to be the internally generated revenue. Ailing airlines and other ugly issues are also discouraging. Again, it is said that Nigeria's airspace is about the most unsafe in the world.

The question, therefore, is: How would the minister of aviation and other players in that sector convince investors that Nigeria is safe and lucrative for business, especially when other African countries offer better opportunities? The foreign trip thus ended in a jamboree.

In defense of the foreign trip, the minister, who spoke through her special assistant on media, Mr. Joe Obi, said the trip should be seen as an initial sacrifice on the part of government.

"We went on a strictly business trip; it was not for a funfair, so we didn't waste funds as anticipated. We stayed in cheap hotels. Investors have shown interest in the Aerotroplis business project. Though the government funded our bills, when we commence operation it will have multiplier economic benefits for the government and the entire Nigerians," Obi said.

But stakeholders have described this venture as a white elephant project. Mr. Chidi Chukwuani , an American- trained aviation expert and chairman of National Democratic Party( NDP) said the appointment of Stella Oduah, a non-aviation expert, as aviation minister was a big mistake.

"Aviation is a sensible sector, so the appointment of a non-professional to head such a ministry accounts for the reason why we cannot get it right in the sector. There is much rot. It is unimaginable that the minister is talking about Aerotropolis when our airspace is rated as among the most unsafe in the world," he said.

Also reacting, Dr. Lawrence Ugwuanyi, former head of Philosophy Department, University of Abuja, said that Aerotropolis in itself is a good venture, but doubted the sincerity of the initiators. "It does not warrant going in search of foreign investors when there are Nigerians financially capable to invest in the project. With the security crisis in the country it will amount to insincerity on the part of government or any of its agencies to waste the taxpayers' money on foreign trips on the pretence of looking for foreign investors."

A lot of Nigerians believe that no matter how hopeless it might appear, the project is worth embarking on, at least because of its expected economic gains. The minister should therefore increase her efforts to ensure that her dreams come true as she will be remembered for a work well done.

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