By Suleiman Idris Alooma
After the initial misconception, misgivings, and misunderstanding that greeted the decision of the Federal government to concession Nigeria airports in phases, depending on their categories, the Minister of State (Aviation), Senator Hadi Sirika, the man handed the responsibility to turn around the fortune of the ailing industry appears to have strike the right cord with stakeholders, staff of agencies, the unions as well the media.
In the beginning
When on Monday, May 16 this year, The Minister of State, Aviation, Sen. Hadi Sirika informed stakeholders at a forum in Abuja the intention of the Federal Government to concession the Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano international airports in the first phase of a planned concession programme, not many took it serious. Stakeholders at the conference did voice their angst against such decision, some saying it will not see the light of the day.
In the estimation of Katsina born politician, “if government is able to concession the four airports successfully in the first phase, it will pay attention to providing infrastructure and developing domestic airports for optimal performance.”
No doubt the sector is face with obsolete infrastructure, equipment and facilities as well technical personnel not well trained on the one hand, while most of the business model employed and agreements entered into by some agencies of the aviation ministry in the form of various concession leaves sour taste in the mouth.
Since Senator Sirika made the declaration, staff, unions and key stakeholders has air displeasure, anger or disapproval toward the plan, thus leaving the Minister, himself a trained pilot, with the herculean task of convincing a hitherto skeptical public to buy into the good intentions of President Muhammadu Buhari administration for the industry.
The doubts, the fears
Experience they said is the best teacher. With the maxim at the back of their minds, staff and unions, notably the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), two labour bodies with the largest population of industry workers engage in protests, shutdown of facilities amidst obvious expression of fears of jobs loss and allegations of deliberate plans of handing over government assets to friends and cronies of the Minister and members of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).
As genuine as the fears appears to be, the Minister has maintained that “The primary purpose of government, especially this All Progressives Congress, APC Government is to help to promote, nurse, sustain, develop and keep businesses afloat so that they can continue to provide services and employ our people. So it is not the government of APC that will kill jobs and close down shops.”
The workers concerns were also not far fetch. The Nigeria aviation industry is replete with episode of drama ranging from the absurd to the imaginary in the employment, management, operations and business transactions in the agencies. Staffs of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) are the most avid protesters among the agencies because many a time they bear the brunt of all the rots and catastrophes that resulted from past businesses that went sour. Presently, FAAN has over 30 cases in different courts for one reason or the other apparently the outcome of failed business venture.
The concession message
Until recently, the concession message appears to have hit brickwall despite consultations with various bodies in the industry, but Sirika has consistently maintained the same stance at different forum to drive home the benefits of the concession; that the current state of facilities at Nigeria airports are a far cry from global standard and best practices in the aviation industry, and that allowing private sector involvement remains the way forward.
At one of the gathering, he enthused that “ I think we just get those guys who believe that in Nigeria they can create a hub geographically given by God to come and put in their money and create this hub, build these airports, concession them, run them and make money out of them.’’
To drive home the message He said: “Nigeria has potential to do between 70 and 100 million passengers annually, within the next five years, if the right things are put in place. The 15 million annual passengers which is the country’s current capacity can be improved upon if private investors are allowed to participate in the sector.
“Government does not have money to put into these businesses and we don’t want to sell these facilities either; so that is why we are concessioning them because it is the only way to go. Look at our airports; they are in terrible shape in spite of money spent on them by the government.” He explained.
Lamenting that the present state of the airports cannot attract the desired number of passengers to transform the country into an aviation hub, he maintains that aviation is a huge money spinner that will help the government to generate needed revenue and contribute to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country’s depressed economy.
The Stakeholder Engagement Approach
In the attempt to allay fears of job loss, prove doubting Thomas wrong and dispel deep seated rumours of outright sales of government assets to private individuals through the concession process, Sirika’s conviction is liken to that of one who imbibed the wise saying of Pope John XXIII when he said “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”
From the moment when skepticism began to build up, the engagement approach was amplified, at the different platforms; he has not failed to reassures that “Contrary to the belief of many Nigerians, concession was not the same as privatization. Concession and privatization are not synonymous,” and that “under the concession arrangement, the ownership of the airports and other facilities remain that of the Federal Government, which may not be so with privatization”.
Each time the question on why concession the facilities crops up, the response has been visible for any to see vis-à-vis what is on ground, “Our infrastructure in aviation and transportation is dilapidated. They are not ideal. They don’t attract customers. They don’t show our nation to be in tandem with global happenings,”
Experts in the industry has affirmed that the engagement methodology is yielding result, it looked a hard nut to crack abinitio, but the outcome of series of such engagement they say is yielding fruit.
After a full day engagement with different stakeholders that include airline operators, service providers, staff of agencies, the media and neutrals in Lagos on November 12th. The responses of speakers are indications that the coast is clear for the smooth flight into concession with anticipated turbulent already overcome.
Stakeholders who spoke at the event held at the Sheraton Hotels showered praises on the efforts and achievement of the Minister so far attained since assuming office. Their expressions serve as the needed impetus needed to move the industry to it Eldorado.
A former Presidential flight Captain and leading voice of the well respected industry think tank, Aviation Round Table (ART), Capt. Dele Ore, commended the minister for the best he has achieved within the short period of been in office, driving the concession message, the removal of import duty on aircraft and spare parts among others.
The erudite retired pilot said: “We can see that the minister is looking at the recommendations that we have made in the past and is implementing it. there is need to buy into the airport concession initiative pursued by government because the Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika is aligning his thoughts with what experts have canvassed in many years”.
Similarly, airline operators are not left out in the goodwill message to the federal govt by affirming their support for concessioning the airports. Managing Director of IRS,Alhaji Ishiaku Rabiu, his counterpart at Medview Airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole both affirmed that if the nation’s airports are to compete and attain their potentials, concession remains the best option.
Alhaji Ishiaku sanctioned the concession initiative saying the country cannot miss this opportunity to give birth to effective and efficient airport management. He explained that concession will help address the deficit in airport infrastructure. Bankole told the gathering that “airline operators have resolved to support airports concession initiative if it will bring about good services.
Operators are comfortable with the option if adopting concession will bring about efficient services. He further said “On behalf of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), all we want is service. We do not get that kind of service in Nigeria. So, if it would take concession of airports for us to get the kind of service that would bring us at par with other parts of the world, then by all means concession is the way to go.”
The gathering was also informed that past similar ventures embarked upon by government did not attain breakthrough due to lack of operators knowledge on how such agreements work.
Expert on Private, Public Partnership (PPP), Dr. Chukwuma Katchy said unlike in the past, with adequate knowledge of the essentials methodology of concession, Nigerian can be rest assured now that the industry will make a quantum leap forward soon. He said: “Past concession plans failed because of lack of knowledge. Again, the concessionaires were able to write concession agreements in their favour.”
Signposts to success of the concession
Following the structure put in place so far, industry experts are pointing toward a glamorous aviation sector when the federal government must have completed all the plans of the turnaround. Mr. Solomon Ohiomah, Chief Executive of SafeCrest Consulting and labour relation expert in the aviation industry told our correspondent in Lagos that the Minister has exhibited genuine openness and sincerity that has endeared him to the heart of those who initially received the concession plans with opprobrium.
He said looking at the different bodies set up to midwife the plan; nobody can doubt the intentions of government any longer.
Mr. Solomon reiterated that “the inauguration of two key committees, the Project Steering Committee and Project Delivery Committee that would pilot the policy implementation from take-off to ensure a safe landing is a pointer to achieving the desires of the administration.”
According to the minister, who doubles as the chairman of the Project Steering Committee, the two bodies will provide the general direction, and steer the course of Public Private Partnership project concessions in the Aviation sector.
He reiterated that the driving force behind the federal government’s resolve to concession the airports were the over-riding national interest in ensuring the establishment and sustenance of world-class standards in both infrastructural development and service delivery.
There is no doubt that the critical phase of the task before Sirika- that is getting the approval of those directly affected by such decisions of government has been accomplished, but for a pilot who has handled numerous turbulent across skies in the course of his voyage around the world before venturing into politics where he also pushed several motions through as a parliamentarian in the National Assembly, the desire and drive to turn around the country’s aviation for the greater benefits of it citizens appears a similar terrain. As it is now, the flight is airborne with an experienced commander in the cockpit, however, stakeholders, staff of agencies and the world awaits a safe landing.