21 February 2014

Nigeria: Concerns Grow Over Airport Projects After Oduah's Exit

With the removal of Stella Oduah as Minister of Aviation, many industry operators and stakeholders are concerned about the completion of the ongoing airport projects.

In spite of the controversies that dogged Stella Oduah's tenure as the Minister of Aviation, many airport users were anxious that the tremendous work she was doing at the airport should not be truncated. While there were calls for her to be sacked over the allegations levelled against her, many Nigerians were equally worried that if she was sacked the fate of the remodelling programme would hang in the balance.

Although the supervisory minister, Samuel Ortom, had assured stakeholders that the good programme laid out by the former minister would be continued, but doubt that the projects could be continued and completed is still spreading like early morning fog during Harmattan because of the tendency of succeeding leaders to abandon works not completed by their predecessors in Nigeria.

Many in the aviation industry contend that airport facilities would be worse than they were before 2011 if the uncompleted projects were not completed and are allowed to rot as obtained in the past. But the former Minister of Aviation, Babatunde Omotoba, is optimistic that the work would continue because the airport transformation and remodelling programme is part of the overall agenda of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. He said that Oduah executed the agenda of the federal government so the next minister would also abide by the policy.

Oduah's Tenure It was not Stella Oduah's achievements that impressed her name and her image in the minds of many Nigerians; it was the controversies that attended her tenure as the Minister of Aviation. The armoured car saga and the alleged certificate forgery, all tended to dent her tenure. However, what air travellers would be seeing every day, long after she has gone, is the legacies she left behind at the airports in terms of infrastructural transformation of airport terminals.

Evaluating her tenure, industry analyst and former president of Cabin Crew Association of Nigeria, Olu Fidel Ohunayo,said Oduah worked really hard to put her footprint in the sands of time, with a strong character, courage, determination to fight and "unfettered access to Aso Rock".

"She simply refused to be a wakapass Minister. Also she utilised the accumulated BASA (Bilateral Air Service Agreement) funds running into millions of dollars which is meant for the development of the industry. The money was practically wrestled from the vault of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to the warm custody of the NCAA (the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority) by Mrs. Njeze (the preceding Minister) shortly before she left office under the habitual pre and post-election cabinet reshuffle that brought Ms Oduah as a replacement and Oduah instantly hit the bulls eye with the funds," Ohunayo said.

He remarked that Oduah started well with the appointment of professionals as agency heads, completion of safety critical projects initiated by her predecessors, remodelling of the terminals, segmentation of terminals, dismantling and non-recognition of "padi-padi concessions", checking excesses of licence for rent operators and other corporate abuses in general aviation.

"In tackling these issues she stepped on very powerful toes, these toes were naturally angry but less potent when compared to the ethnic bigots, praise singers and latter day specialist that surrounded her. Also some of agency heads and known predators cum operator in the industry gave her the wrong dosage laced with arrogance and idol worshiping."

Ohunayo said Oduah in concert with her transformation team were able to manage the crisis emanating from the industry, but badly mismanaged bullet proof and certificate scandals, and instead of responding to the allegations as quickly as possible they chose to ignore the enquiries and sat in the comfort zone of "doing the needful".

He said although Oduah may be out of the Ministry of Aviation but her programme and policies should not be jettisoned and identified such projects as but not limited to the airport remodelling, capturing of requisite revenue from non-schedule operators.

"while we tweak the aviation master plan and policy, we must review the grade placement of some personnel recruited and all contracts, agreements and concession that lack the ethos of competition and transparency," he said

Also travel expert and the organiser of Akwaaba African Travel Market, Ikechi Uko, described Oduah's tenure as a hugely successful one, saying that the standard she set for herself and the expectations of the industry found a common ground in what she was able to do in so short a time.

Uko reviewed are performance from three areas: the areas of policy, travellers and the area of airports and airlines. He said that Oduah did not achieve much in the area of policy because of the dogged battle by the National Assembly that clamoured that the former Director-General of NCAA, Dr Harold Demuren must go. The situation remained tepid for about one year when decisive action was not taken. There were many public hearings at the National Assembly. And when a new Director-General was appointed he was delayed for long before taking up his appointment.

"On the practical part of it, in terms of airport infrastructure I will rate her very, very high. Nobody in the past had taken such comprehensive look at the airport infrastructure situation. She has done the most."

Uko however regretted that Oduah did not realise her plans to establish a national carrier, so by the time she left foreign airlines still dominated Nigeria's airspace and the existing domestic carriers are not strong as should be expected.

"What I commend her most for is that she did not shy away from the concessionaires that were holding the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) by the jugular. She took then head on. A lot of people would have shied away from it but she moved head on."

Uko observed that her ability to contend with the media attacks and critics and was still able to focus on the job should also be commended, "but her failure to deliver a national carrier was a major flaw."

Concessions For the first time since the controversy started the federal government was able to take a definite stand on the concessions of AIC Limited, the Bi Courtney Limited and the Maevis Limited under Oduah as the Minister of Aviation.

FAAN gave AIC Limited land near the international airport terminal at the Lagos airport to build a hotel facility, but after many years the company failed to develop the facility so FAAN took back the property citing security issues. AIC went to Arbitration which ordered FAAN to pay compensation. FAAN refused to pay compensation, saying that the amount it was asked to pay, US$ 47, 584, 000 was too high.

FAAN had accused Bi Courtney Limited of extending tenure of its build, operate and transfer concession from the agreed 12 years to 36 and also deviating from the terminal design, but the company insisted on the agreement which defined the tenure as 36 years and extending the terminal to the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) area.

But it was the nullification of concession of Maevis Limited, which took charge of the collection of revenue for FAAN that sent the workers into jubilation. Before the appointment of Oduah, the workers had clamoured and fought for the nullification of the contract, but Maevis had its agreement that defined the contract with FAAN, although the agency described it as lopsided.

A senior staff of FAAN and executive member of Air Transport Service Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), told THISDAY on Tuesday that if the Maevis concession was not aborted FAAN would have become bankrupt by 2012.

"We would not have been able to pay salaries any more. By 2011 salaries were being delayed; the same with allowances. If we pay allowances then it means that allocation of money to the airports would be delayed. They were just using our revenue; that concession was a bad one. It was a lopsided concession, skewed in favour of the agent."

But critics who defended Maevis said that the company had a concession that was duly signed by FAAN and therefore must be upheld.

Chief Executive Officer of Things Remembered, a concessionaire at major airports in the country, Adeola Omikunle, spoke about Stella Oduah's tenure and the controversy that trail some concessions in the aviation industry. Omikunle said that Oduah succeeded in bringing a change unprecedented in the history of Nigeria's airports in terms of infrastructural transformation and safety.

"I have been operating here, it has been a beautiful experience all along. Now what l see is that when passengers come in now, this is the gospel truth, what they say is that this is actually rebranding Nigeria, a rebranding that is not on the pages of newspapers. They appreciate the facilities. Air travel has been made more comfortable and airlines are now more aware of their responsibilities. That equally leads to increase in both passengers and cargoes both domestic and internationally," he said.

Omikunle also spoke on why some concessions are dogged by controversies and attributed it to lack of sincerity.

"The only controversial ones (concessions) we have seen so far involve big firms like Pan Express and Maevis; others are just petty traders here and there. I think especially in the case of Maevis the bottom line is sincerity of purpose. With sincerity of purpose you will have a good partnership. Now they have another kind of concession with AVITEC, the arrangement is that they collect concession on behalf of FAAN but the draft is being written on FAAN's name which makes it pretty beautiful because there will be no argument when the money collected goes to FAAN purse, at the end of the day AVITEC gets it commission," Omikunle explained.

Under Oduah it became clear that the nation's aviation industry was being underutilised as huge source of revenue for government and for Nigerians. If the Aerotroplos programme, which include the fresh cargo exports and the clustering of businesses around the airport is carried out in tandem with the Aviation Master Plan, money generated from the sector would outstrip that of oil over time.

Though the minister is gone, efforts should be made to continue her lofty ideas and programmes for the good of the aviation industry and Nigeria at large.

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