Reuben Abati: A Testimony About the Abuja-Kaduna Airports
I have just returned from Abuja travelling through the Kaduna airport. As we disembarked from the aircraft and moved towards the arrival section, I could hear an announcement being made. The diction of the announcer was clear. She didn’t sound like those On-Air-Personalities (OAP, they are called) who speak as if they have hot water on their tongues. Airport continuity announcers in Nigeria tend to imitate these OAPs.
This has been for me a great source of irritation. The last time I travelled from Lagos to Abuja, for example, I missed my flight because I just could not figure out what was being said. I was stranded because someone chose to speak fake English. The electronic boards at Nigerian airports where they are available, are unreliable and so, you invariably have to rely on those announcements.
The way I go round this sabotage is to keep asking people, or going to the departure gate to find out if the flight had been called or not. So, when I got to Kaduna and found a difference, I was glad that the bad habit at the Lagos and Abuja airports had not yet been exported to Kaduna. It was also the first time I would travel in that direction since the Abuja airport was shut down and traffic was diverted on March 8, to Kaduna, to allow the Federal Government repair the damaged runway in Abuja. Six weeks, they said it would take. I found myself in Kaduna five weeks later.
I met an upgraded Kaduna International Airport. The upgrade is not yet completed but I hope when the diverted traffic from Abuja disappears, the uncompleted parts of the airport will be sorted out and the airport can be put to better use, and not abandoned, and the investment would not be allowed to waste. At the arrival section, a group of persons reiterated the announcement that had been made as we arrived. “Free buses to Abuja are available, please join the buses outside to take you to Abuja, show your ticket and boarding pass please”. Another lady said: “if you want to travel by train, please join the buses outside to take you to the train station, it is free.” This got me curious.
It turned out that the Federal Government had indeed made arrangements to make life easier for persons who had to travel from the Kaduna airport to Abuja. I took a look at the buses. Chisco buses. Coaster buses. I also spoke with a few persons who had travelled through the Kaduna airport en route Abuja. The feedback was positive. I was told the bus ride takes about three hours, the train ride about one hour, twenty minutes. But one guy differed.
“I think,” he said, “it is better to charter a cab. If you take a cab, you can get to Abuja in about two hours. If you take the bus, you may have to wait for the bus to fill up, and then for security reasons, the drivers will not drive fast, if you are not careful, you could be on the road for four hours.”
“I guess security is more important than speed”, I said.
“But they will go and drop you at the Abuja airport, and you will spend another one hour getting to the town, and in that case, you will still have to take a cab and pay.”
“Why Abuja airport?”
“That is what they do”
“But come to think of it, is it possible they will go and drop people in front of their homes?”
“Well, I am a man in a hurry. Time is everything. I don’t take the bus or the train. I just take a cab and move.”
“What of the helicopter shuttle?”
“I am sorry I don’t know anything about that. It is better and cheaper to take a cab.”
“And how much is that?,” I asked.
“Between N25k and N30k. But you can also join with other people. If two other persons join you to take a cab, you’d end up paying at most N10k.”
“But is it not better to go with what government has provided, for security reasons?”
“There is no serious danger on the road, particularly if you travel during the day, and not wait till it gets dark. There are policemen and FRSC men keeping watch all the way to Abuja. You don’t have to worry about anything. I have been on this route every week since they shut down the Abuja airport.”
I had an appointment to keep in Abuja and time was not on my side. I could not afford a four-hour journey, so I embraced the guy’s advice, and took the cab option, and just as I had been told, the road to Abuja was safe and stress-free. I made it in good time and did not miss my appointment. On my way back, two days later, the trip was even smoother and faster. But I ended up not travelling after spending so much time at the airport. My return ticket was wrongly booked: instead of Kaduna to Lagos, I had a Lagos to Kaduna ticket! This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though.
It gave me the opportunity to take a better look at the airport. At the VIP section, and elsewhere, the staff appeared polite and helpful, obviously delighted with their assignment. Free drinks, coffee and water, were offered at the VIP section. The missed flight also gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my friend and colleague, Umar Sani who lives in Kaduna. Umar Sani the Cat as I call him, is the Media Adviser to former Vice President Namadi Sambo.
I spent the night in his house, and as always we shared reminiscences. We exchanged views about the present and worries about the future. This was accompanied by day-long enjoyment of dollops of pounded yam, freshly prepared pepper soup with fish from Kogin Kaduna, delicious ram suya, and Hausa music from the old masters. One particular Hausa musician caught my attention, he actually sounded, beat by beat, like the late Yusuf Olatunji were it not for the difference in language.
But the night became darker when we received the news of the sudden and untimely death of Gordon Obua, our former colleague who served as Chief Security Officer to President Goodluck Jonathan. Obua, like many of the Jonathan boys, went through a lot in the last nearly two years. Umar Sani and I tried to reach many of our other colleagues. One said he was scared about tomorrow and what else would happen. Another said he was so sad, he just chose to go to bed. The grief was deep and widespread; the shared emotion was touching. Everyone worked with the CSO. Nobody can access the President or any part of the Villa, without an encounter with the CSO and his team. The Presidential Villa is not an ordinary workplace, it is, every part of it, a security zone.
Our return journey to the airport the following morning was less excitable, marked as it was by unspoken thoughts and pregnant reflections. I made it to Lagos.
Looking back, the Federal Government and the Kaduna State Government, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and other stakeholders who were involved in managing the process of diversion of traffic from the Abuja airport to Kaduna deserve our commendation. They have not done badly at all. The airport handled many flights daily, including international flights by Ethiopian airlines – the only foreign airline operating in Nigeria that embarked on a voyage of faith and support to Kaduna. I am aware that some travellers have had cause to complain about the lack of a seating area at the ticketing section in Kaduna, the insistence of the airlines on cash payment, the absence of restaurants and Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), and the relatively relaxed security around the airport at certain periods of the day. Nonetheless, I offer a pass mark.
Hadi Sirika, the Minister of State for Aviation and Nasir el-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State both promised that there would be no problem. They have so far kept their word. We may just have found in the management of the rehabilitation of the Nnamdi Azikiwe airport, and the diversion of traffic to Kaduna, a template for inter-governmental co-operation and government-civil society strategic interface on key national issues.
When the idea of the diversion was first mooted, we were all skeptical. Foreign airlines operating in Nigeria kicked, other stakeholders in the aviation sector protested, the general public was worried. I wrote a piece titled “Before the Abuja airport is shut down” (January 10) in which I gave voice to these concerns. I accused the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria of incompetence and inefficiency, citing the mismanagement of the renovation of the Port Harcourt and Owerri International Airports. In other countries, airport runways are not abandoned for 21 years, and if they have to be repaired, the entire airport is not shut down and travellers put through discomfort. In Glasgow, Scotland, an entire runway was fixed within weeks of off-traffic operation, at night. I later wrote another piece – “A visit to the Gusau Institute” (February 7) in which I complained, parenthetically, about the horrific nature of the Kaduna-Abuja road and the likely threat to travellers.
Criticism obviously helps but that is if the concerned party is willing to listen. Optics also matters. Stakeholders complained previously about the shambolic state of the Kaduna airport. I met a better airport, in varying stages of improvement. I wrote about the bad state of the road linking Kaduna and Abuja. The potholes seem to have been fixed. It also seems as if the state Governor has appealed to the bus drivers on that road to drive more carefully, the motorcyclists to stay off the highway and the trailer-drivers to be more circumspect. I also complained about how difficult it was to get information on the purchase of train tickets between Abuja and Kaduna. The Nigeria Railway Corporation may still have a lot to do to improve the quality of its services, but it managed in the last six weeks, to attract significant interest and patronage. Governance is not as difficult as it is made to appear- just do what is right and put the people first.
What remains all things considered, is the need to place greater emphasis on the value of maintenance culture as an element of the infrastructure management process. We tend to wait until everything breaks down in this country before we attend to them. We prefer the fire-brigade approach and although we love infrastructure, we do not have in place a system for maintaining assets. We have problems because we run government with the mentality of children. Children love new things, and are impressed by toys. But in due course, they spoil the toys or they get distracted and abandon them. In the same manner, government sets up structures, impresses itself and the public and then moves on until everything collapses. This institutionalized culture of waste and leakage is deplorable. It falls short of best practices elsewhere.
The Minister of Aviation says the Abuja airport is now ready and that it will be back to business on the promised date of April 19. He has taken journalists to the airport to assess progress. The Vice President and the Minister of Information also visited. The promptitude with which the Abuja airport renovation has been handled is un-Nigerian. I actually don’t mind if the Ministry of Aviation takes additional two weeks to get everything properly in place. When eventually traffic returns to the airport, the Federal Government and the Kaduna State Government should work together to ensure that the hopes that have been raised about the Kaduna airport are not dashed. The investments made there in the last six weeks should be well-managed and the still on-going upgrading of the airport should be completed.