The 22-year-old man arrested with suspected explosion devices at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos on Monday raises questions about how fortified the airport facilities are against such threats.
After the initial terror attacks at the Federal Capital Territory in Abuja in 2011, the federal government made efforts to physically fortify the airport facilities in Lagos by blocking the façade of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport with pillars so that vehicles cannot railroad into the terminal. This was to prevent suicide bombers from taking vehicles to the entrance of the terminal.
Since then, there had been joint efforts by security operatives that work around the airport, as well as other airports in the country to secure aviation facilities. Many Nigerians have become security conscious, so do security agencies but that does not mean that the airports have watertight security as there are still porous areas. It will be difficult for any suicide bomber to have easy access to these airport facilities because people are alert and security conscious. But aviation security experts say the security system at the airport still underutilise intelligence and has not fully applied technology to fight terror and other crimes.
It was because security operatives were alert that they noticed the unusual things about the suspect that was arrested on Monday at the airport. Despite the efforts to improve security at the airports, experts believe more needs to be done. But security alertness saved the country what would have been a great embarrassment, apart from the possible human toll and economic consequences. Explosive Devices The suspect was arrested last Monday at the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) Annexe facility, known as CENTREX, about a kilometer to the international terminal of the airport, opposite the airport cathedral. The suspect's conduct was said to have given him away as he frantically made calls and looked askance at everywhere, adorned in slovenly, faded clothes.
Few days after the incident, police have confirmed that the suspect was actually sent to bomb the airport along with other persons who are still at large. If they had succeeded, the consequences on air transport in Nigeria would have been disastrous. Coupled with the Ebola threat, international airlines would have reviewed their operations into the country. This would have caused Nigeria huge economic losses.
A top security operative at the airport told THISDAY on Wednesday that he interviewed the suspect at the airport police station, Beesam Junction. "Initially we thought he does not understand English but there was something I said that jolted him. He said, 'Look at you, how fat you are; and people are dying at the other side. I will not talk to you again,' so when he said this the police took him away from us," the official said.
Security Upgrade The official said what happened was an eye opener to the security operatives at all the nation's airports, noting that it is the responsibility of the Aviation Security (AVSEC) of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and other security operatives to reorganise the security structure at the airport.
"It is an opener to all of us. It is not as if the device could have killed more than three persons, but it would have given signal to the world that the insurgents have taken over the whole country. It would have given serious credit to the insurgents," the official said. THISDAY learnt that although security equipment and personnel have been deployed and fortified at the airports, but there are still room for security breaches. One, the personnel from AVSEC is inadequate; two the security equipment already provided are not effectively manned due to paucity of personnel and two, security equipment are yet to be deployed to some sensitive areas of the airport.
"When the Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka, was inspecting airport facilities last Monday (August 11) he spoke to a female security personnel at the GAT (Murtala Muhammed Domestic Terminal 1) and she said that she works 7 to 7, which means that she comes by 7:00 am and leaves by 7:00 pm and the Minister was distraught. The personnel are in adequate; we need more personnel," the official said.
THISDAY also learnt that since the past three years, AVSEC has not sent any of its personnel on training. FAAN management would cite lack of funds. Recently, the security department was said to have requested that two screening machines should be deployed to the two entrances (departure) of the international terminal of the Lagos and two at the exit (arrival) but the request was ignored because of the cost of installing the machines. There were old machines that were replaced with new ones acquired recently for the central screening area. The request was that four of these old machines should be deployed. ICT and the engineering company said that it would cost N5 million to install them and FAAN said it could not afford such money. The suspect having access to the airport environment shows that the threat is real. "The mere fact that he was caught at the airport shows that they are within the corner; that we need to do something urgently," the official also said.
Inadequate Personnel The federal government under the tenure of Stella Oduah as Minister of Aviation acquired X-ray machines and other security equipment but enough personnel have not been recruited and trained to maximise the use of these equipment. This has led to inadequate number of personnel manning the screening machines and conducting the profiling of passengers being checked to travel. This gives rise to delays in processing passengers.
THISDAY learnt that many of the security officials work over time and those who monitor the x-ray screen spend hours on the screen against the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommended 20 minutes per officer.
It is believed that when an official spends more hours monitoring the content of passengers' luggage he would lose concentration and inadvertently allow prohibited objects, including well concealed bombs, guns, knives and other dangerous goods and drugs to pass through. Informed source disclosed to THISDAY that the number of AVSEC officers working at the nation's airports is only 1,396, that the department needs additional 2,916 to make up the total of 4,312 needed to effectively man the security posts at the airports.
Out of about seven machines available at the D Wing departures, only two were being manned so all the passengers had to go through these machines, including the cabin crew of airlines. On a particular day, the slow screening of passengers delayed facilitation and consequently the take-off time of flights, as many airlines, including Lufthansa, South Africa Airways and Arik Air came to the central search at both the E and D wings to call out their passengers. An AVSEC officer in charge of proceedings that night explained to the angry passengers that those who had finished their duty who were supposed to leave by 7:00 had to stay till late in the night because there were not enough staff, adding that those that would take over from them were not there. "They bought machines but they refused to recruit and train staff. These people who are helping me now have been here since 1:00 pm; they are supposed to have left by 7:00 pm, but they have to help but I cannot tell them to continue to stay. So those of you who know those in authority should tell them your experience so that they will get more workers for us," the AVSEC officer said.
Perimeter and Security Fencing Many airports in the country don't have comprehensive security fence; the same with perimeter fencing, which barricades the airside of the airport from encroachers and other unwanted persons. Last year, a 13-year-old boy sneaked into the airside of the Benin airport and entered the wheel well of Arik aircraft which brought him to Lagos. There was buck passing on who should take responsibility but it was obvious that FAAN did not have both security and perimeter fencing at the airport. Also few years ago people gained access to the Lagos airport and stole INEC computers imported for the 2011 elections. They gained access through the broken fence along the Akowonjo area of the city.
Asked whether a stowaway could still steal into the aircraft in any Nigerian airport, the Deputy Managing Director of Arik Air, Captain Ado Sanusi, said it was still possible because adequate security measures had not been made to fortify the airports.
"Yes it can happen again if an airport is not fenced; if the security and perimeter fences are not in place and if they are in place but are not being monitored, the fences can be breached. The security of the airport lies with the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). Do I think our airports are safe? Yes, they are safe but there is room for improvement. There are things we can do to ensure that the security level has increased, especially in the area of patrolling the airports because of stowaways and the rest," Sanusi said.
The suspected suicide bomber arrested at the Lagos airport on Monday has sent alert button to authorities concerned in ensuring that the airport be further fortified. But the General Manager, Public Affairs, FAAN, Yakubu Dati, said the suspect would not have accessed the airport terminals because of the tight security infrastructure and personnel deployed in the area.