It’s been six years since Capt. Hadi Sirika assumed leadership of the local aviation sector with a cabin-full of promises to transform the sector for good. If gains have been made, they are yet to impress stakeholders. WOLE OYEBADE reports.

The polo game started on a shaky note for the Nigerian side. Barely a minute into the first chukka, Team-Africa took the lead. Minutes into the second chukka, it was two-nil.

Though it was an exhibition game to herald the third ICAO World Aviation Forum (WAF) hosted by Nigeria, the symbolism of the score-line should as well reflect Nigeria’s strength in African aviation. A two-nil deficit was not looking good.

Team-Nigeria (representing ICAO), captained by Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, showed more urgency on the horseback and rallied a shot in before the second chukka ended.

The game got more intense to the delight of spectators that had over 40 Aviation Ministers and delegates from 70 countries, all seated at the Guards Polo Club ground, Abuja.

Quick exchange of passes and pace saw Capt. Sirika netted a goal. At the end of 45 minutes of play, the match ended 6:4 in favour of Team-Nigeria.

For many at the December 2017 WAF-3, the significance was more of good things to come from aviation in Nigeria. When Sirika stepped up the stage at the forum proper, he did not fail to highlight at least six goal areas through which Nigeria will announce its aerial presence to the world.

Code-named ‘Aviation Roadmap’, Sirika reeled out an agenda to float a new national carrier, concession all 23 airports, set up a Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility, facilitate Aircraft Leasing firms, build aerotropolis and have a transformed aviation workforce. With all these in place, Nigerian aviation has arrived. But the victory party was held too early.

Great expectations
For most of the 95-year history of Nigerian aviation, stakeholders have been angling for square pegs in square holes at the leadership of the critical sector. President Muhammadu Buhari’s choice of Sirika as Aviation Minister – a trained captain and practitioner in local aviation – was the fulfilment of that ancient dream.

“Having a seasoned technocrat, who lives, eats, dreams about aviation, and has his entire family dependent on it, is a good omen that the Buhari administration brought to the aviation sector,” Hakeem Akinnifesi said. “We’ve never had it so squared.”

And Sirika sauntered in with great expectations of tackling the problems at the root. Besides selling the ‘Aviation Roadmap’ at stakeholders’ fora, Nigeria hosting the WAF-3 in Abuja, the first time the global summit had been held outside ICAO’s headquarters in Montreal, Canada, was a bold statement of the capability of the minister, on and off the polo turf.

However, the years following the feat at WAF-3 have not impressed stakeholders like Akinnifesi. Erstwhile optimism has been dampened by delays in the implementation of the Aviation Roadmap itself. In the last six years, the sector is an administrative suspect lacking in the Board of Directors. Workers’ condition of service is poorer.

The facilities are decrepit and untold pressure on the beleaguered workforce and operations with attendant pains on air travellers.

On account of hurriedly floating a new national carrier and concessioning the major airports, stakeholders feared that they were getting shoehorned into uncertainties in the twilight of Buhari’s administration.

Long walk to airport concession
Team-Africa has apparently regained the aerial lead in the last couple of years. Aviation powerhouses like South Africa, Ethiopia, and even Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal have stepped up the modernisation of airport infrastructure.

Unfettered by the pandemic disruption, Ethiopia has completed its new terminal at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa. Laced with biosecurity and biosafety features, the terminal is part of Ethiopian Airline’s 15-year plan of Vision 2025 to become one of the leading airlines globally. The airport has a capacity for at least 22 million passengers a year.

Nigeria’s bid to measure up airport efficiency for about 12 million yearly passenger traffic only gained traction recently with the invitation of bidders for the four main airports in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.

Aviation workers’ unions that have rarely warmed up to the idea of concession consistently faulted the belated move, describing it as a “concession within concession” and a tailor-made for crisis.

The rationale is that the big four are beneficiaries of a 2013 $500 million loan deal between Nigeria and China to build four new terminals for the four airports. Abuja and Port Harcourt currently use the new terminals, while those of Lagos and Kano are not yet completed.

General Secretary of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Ocheme Aba, observed that there is no clarity on the question of the semi-concession that already exists through the Chinese loan facility.

Aba added that a cursory look through the Outline Business Case (OBC) showed that the promoters were unsure of the concept to adopt between Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) and Rehabilitate Operate and Transfer (ROT).

“This apparent confusion, to us, stems from an established fact. In these particular terminals (Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano), there is nothing to build or rehabilitate,” Aba said. “In that case, if there should arise a need for expansion in the terminals (which is not envisaged in another 25 years), then the Green Fields concession option (which means building new terminals) would have been more applicable.”

New national carrier remains a dream
After its christening in London in July 2018 and an indefinite suspension the same year, the plan to float the new national carrier has received a new takeoff date in Q1 of 2022. It is coming at a time when Ethiopia Airline has consolidated its dominance in Africa, distressed South African Airways has made a rare comeback, RwandAir of Rwanda, Kenya Airways and even Air Senegal are strategising for the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) agenda.

Besides its better airport infrastructure at Kotoka International Airport, Ghana has scored another point ahead of Nigeria in signing a deal with Boeing to acquire three 787-9 Dreamliner to restart its national carrier. Senior vice president of Commercial Sales & Marketing for The Boeing Company, Ihssane Mounir, had pledged that Boeing would help Ghana relaunch its airline.

The proposed national carrier, Nigeria Air, is a public-private partnership that accrues only five per cent to the government. To date, the airline has not requested an operating licence, has yet undisclosed partners, no equipment or office – all of which are reasons for stakeholders to be worried about its fate in the post-Buhari era.

Chairman of West Link Airline, Captain Ibrahim Mshelia, said that the dream was no longer feasible with Nigeria putting the cart before the horse at the 2018 London christening.

Mshelia noted that no country hides a public-owned airline from its people only to show up with its unveiling at international airshows and expect the investors to buy it.

“People go to airshows to showcase their products. You saw how Overland and Ibom Air performed at the Dubai Airshow and made orders. That is where you show your track record, meet financiers and manufacturers for orders. Nobody goes there to unveil the name of an airline,” Mshelia said.

A top official in the sector was also not impressed. On a scale of one to 10, he scored Sirika’s performance ‘four’. He said Sirika was probably the most supported and favoured minister of aviation ever, “but his achievements are few”.

“Considering that he is Nigeria’s longest-serving minister of aviation, with strong access to the presidency, he is a failure. No minister has ever served for four consecutive years on that seat.

“Going into the business side of things was a mistake. Government has no business running any commercial enterprise and our history has consistently shown that. What he ought to have done before now was to fix the infrastructure at our airports for airlines to increase utilisation of their fleet and thrive. We have not seen any of that in six years. It is a shame.”

Where are the governing boards of agencies?
Perhaps one of the issues that agitated aviation workers the most is the conspicuous absence of governing boards of directors for the agencies. President Buhari had five years ago approved replacements for the former boards but the new ones are yet to be inaugurated, allegedly in preference for “a one-man” leadership at the helm.

The responsibilities of the board include fixing the terms and conditions of service for employees, review of yearly reports of the management for submission to the President, presenting yearly budget estimates of the agency to the minister, record-keeping, and audit of the agency among others.

Stakeholders alleged that the governing boards were deliberately kept at bay to enable the minister to gain “overbearing control” of the five aviation agencies, and it has slowed the pace of growth and eroded checks and balances in the aviation sector.

A union leader in the industry, Olayinka Abioye, is one of those that felt at ease having an aviator finally mount the cockpit of Nigerian aviation in 2015.

Abioye, like others, has been the least impressed with the six years of flight. He affirmed that though the minister enjoyed optimum support of stakeholders, attempts to implement unpopular and outdated ideas were his undoing.

He said: “Sadly, the Minister came in as an insider and professional but clearly missed the runway and crash landed on his promises to the industry at large. It’s so painful for some of us who love him so much, to witness these episodes of unfulfilled promises. On the scale of 1 to 10, I will score the minister ‘4’.”

Unimpressive scorecard
Abioye noted that the minister scored high on Abuja runway rehabilitation. However, the same could not be said of the rehabilitation of the Kaduna International Airport terminal that got “humongous” votes and yet uncompleted to date.

He added that Sirika showed some commitments in terms of employees’ well-being only “when it suited him”. He did help former Nigeria Airways’ workers to secure their severance package and he also attempted to secure NAMAs Service Conditions “because Air Traffic Controllers threatened industrial action.”

“So many waters had passed under the Aviation bridge so much so that if truly the Minister loved the workers as the drivers to help him crystalise his lofty goals, he ought to have paid attention to workers welfare, including their happiness since it is often said that a disgruntled worker is an accident waiting to happen.

“Aviation, being the wheel of the nation’s economic growth, should have been given the highest possible priority but we can’t seem to see anything positive. One year to go, one would just expect the minister to begin clearing his table in preparation for his political ambitions (in the Katsina guber race).”

Chief Operating Officer of a local airline said they felt a little impact, though could have been better off with good structures and an enabling environment for investors.

He noted that the airline operators felt the minister’s impact in the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on aviation equipment, the COVID-19 palliative and recent push back on aeropolitics. The regulatory agencies have also done well in improving safety records, which would not have been without the support of the minister.

“I will score the minister ‘three’ points for that. He could have done better in improving the face of infrastructure and business environment, if not for the distractions of trying to become an operator at the same time. We can only hope that the mega projects will not become an albatross a year after.

“I insist that the function of the ministry is to design good policies for growth and draw up plans on how and when to achieve them. I have not seen much of that core responsibility and it explains why we are grounded on the same spot, while others are cruising,” he said.

Aviation consultant, Alex Nwuba, reckoned that Nigeria has succeeded in mouthing aviation development in the last six years, rather than achieving anything worthwhile. He scored the minister ‘one’ over 10.

“Excellent delivery on projects, zero on vision. The future will be driven by vision, not projects. The foundation of the future is a clear and articulate vision in motion, not more documents,” Nwuba told The Guardian.