By Pini Jason
LAST week, the Minister for Trade and Investment, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, was meeting with some stakeholders in trade and investment, and I presume, some investors too. As usual the issue of cost of doing business in Nigeria came up.
And as usual, the clichéd promise Nigerian government officials make to investors was generously made. As I watched this formality go on, I wondered if the Honourable Minister himself appreciates how unfriendly the investment climate in Nigeria is.
To put it mildly, it is a crime to want to invest in Nigeria, unless you have your eyes on such soft targets like petroleum subsidy! But first, let us consider the arrival of an investor into Nigeria.
You probably have noticed that nobody is talking stridently about the 20:2020 any more. Ask yourself, which country that wishes to be one of the 20 biggest economies in the world in the year 2020 would build itself cubicles for international airports?
I have said it once here that Nigeria is a very user unfriendly country. Thus, our airports are the most user unfriendly airports in the world! At our airports, it is push- push, shove-shove. This is a product of our makeshift and potakabin mentality. We have a small country, Third World, we-are-not-ready-for-it, concept of ourselves.
Processing passengers through our so-called international airports is a torture. It is characterised by pushing, shoving and confusion such that, often, passengers forget their valuables at the screening point. I would have thought that adequate space helps in thorough screening of passengers.
Space is itself part of security. Our Red and Green channels are actually not channels. There is no channel behind which customs officers could observe the behaviour of passengers. They are just red and green markings on the exits!
You may not like it if I said that you can put the Murtala Muhammed International Airport and the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport inside Terminal Five of Heathrow Airport and still have a space for Aminu Kano International Airport. But let us go to the Kotoka International Airport, Accra.
I used that airport for the first time in December 1976. I used it again in November 2008. I can tell you that no expansion work had taken place there. This is because it was a cavernous airport from day one. It was built with a sight to the future! Here the popular excuse is, we will get there! With the money we throw around, we should be arriving at certain destinations in our development efforts!
Vision into the future
At the time the so-called international airports at Ikeja was constructed, we had enough money and space to construct an airport that mirrored our vision for the future, but we cheated on ourselves! Our planners at that time were people with stunted vision and could not see beyond their nose.
The Murtala Mohammed International airport mistake was repeated at Abuja. We took off with a makeshift Nnamdi Azikiwe International airport that later became the local wing while we built yet another cubicle called international wing.
I wonder if our planners and those who accept the stupid designs their foreign consultants give them understand the health need always imperceptibly incorporated into airport designs. In most flights you sit for a minimum of six hours with no more exercise than walking along the cabin isle or using the toilet.
Most of the frequent fliers are senior citizens. Thus, in major international airports in civilised world, where people do not cheat on themselves or steal from themselves, apart from providing ample space for airport handlings, deliberate effort is made to provide for the health of travellers.
You walk a long distance from the plane to the immigration, within which time you get circulation back to nearly swelling legs and get your heart pumping again.
In some airports like Oliver Thambo International in Johannesburg, some portions of the stretch to the immigration hall are raised to task the heart a bit. But here we have airports where you are made to jump from the plane to immigration hall and hop down to baggage claim area where you push and shove and quack at one another with creaking trolleys as if in a wheel chair game!
And yet some racketeers charge you for trolleys and N1000 for service charge in a most user unfriendly airport in the world! The only friendly thing you get is: “oga we are loyal o!” Or “oga wetin you chop remain?”
If you are waiting for or seeing off a passenger in any of our airports you have to stay outside in the sun or rain. Our local airlines make you come to the airport two hour before departure because checking in a war. There is no guarantee that the flight will take off on schedule or that checking in would begin as soon as you arrive.
Inside the checking in area, there are no seats even for an elderly passenger to rest his or her legs before checking in. If she has heavy loads, relations are not allowed to help her to the checking in counter, which is not a restricted area.
She must pay for airport porters. If you think that this has anything to do with security, then somebody has to go back to security school. The clever idea is to keep people to the barest minimum in a cubicle that is not enough for passengers.
The Honourable Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Stella Odua, on assumption of office, undertook an inspection tour of major airports in the country. I wonder if she inspected the toilets at the International airports! Most of us, including our planners and leaders, came from the culture of latrines.
In the villages, latrines are where you did dirty business. They were, therefore, constructed a distant from the house, hidden from sight. In the cities, they occupied the back of the yard so that the night soil men could carry on their business unseen.
Then urbanisation turned latrines into toilets and they could be incorporated into the house. It became fashionable to have toilets in-suite, that is, inside the bedroom. The world has since moved from toilets to restrooms. At international airports today you could shower, shave, change clothes and feed babies in restrooms.
Restrooms and not latrines
What we have at our international airports are not even up to the standards of toilets. At Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja, they are worse than latrines. They are all shallow swimming pools. Water is on the floor instead of inside the water closets.
The water closets are broken. They hardly flush. They stink like latrines. The toilet rolls are kept by the cleaner who dispenses them to users for exchange of tips. At the local wing, one of the female cleaners, utterly shameless, once ran after me: “Oga you want toilet roll?”
I shouted back at her: “Do you want to help me unzip and probably hold my thing while I urinate?” She scurried away. That did not stop her from reminding me as I came out: “Oga we dey here O!”
At the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, the toilets cannot accommodate three people without their brushing against one another. At the local arrival, only two people at a time can manage the toilet. I try not to take any liquid in the flight to avoid having to queue for the use of the toilet on arrival!
At the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, the word for the toilets is, disgrace! The questions that constantly prey my mind are, why do we shortchange ourselves? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we love planning for insufficiency?
What is it in the head of our leaders that makes them confine us to backwardness? Where did we get this kiosk mentality?
I noticed that there is reconstruction or refurbishment going on at some of these airports, including the Abuja airport. The local airlines have been relocated to the international wing. This exercise has shown that the so-called international wing is even inadequate for the local flights.
The international wing is shared into cubicles for the local airlines and the agony of passengers is further aggravated. But we can endure it if the understanding is that at the end of the exercise we would have user friendly airports.
I don’t know the scope of work at the Abuja airport, whether it involves expansion. If it does not aim at the ease and convenience for processing passengers, then, the exercise would be another waste of money.
I do not know if the Federal Government is undertaking the reconstruction jobs going on at some of these airports. If it is, then the question is what has become of the talk about concessioning of the airports? Has the plan been abandoned? Why? Politics?
Whether we like it or not, the only sensible direction for our economy is privatization. Most of the things that work overseas and for which we drain our foreign exchange to go and enjoy are in private hands. The airports should be concesssioned while the Federal Government prescribes and regulates the minimum standards of operation without such regulation amounting to infliction of nuisance by civil servants.
What we have today as International airports at Abuja and Ikeja should be the minimum standards for local airports. And only private funds can provide that. Whether an airport or road is build and operated by Chinese or Japanese, it will still be on our soil and providing jobs!
My friend Otunba Segun Runsewe at the National Tourist Development Board is talking tough about making Nigeria a tourism hub. I have heard the talk about Nigeria being the aviation hub of West Africa. There is the talk of financial hub, investment hub and shipping hub.
All these hubs need seriousness in providing the facilities that make our country user friendly. Last week, we were rated 135 among 138 countries where it is very difficult to do business, that is, counties considered user unfriendly.
We must remember that whenever we talk about investment the operative word is “attract” investment. This presupposes that an investor is not Red Cross. You have to “attract” him. That is, you must make the prospect of investing in your country more attractive than competing options like acquisition and mergers readily available in his clime.
With so much to do in the Aviation industry to get it up to standards acceptable, I am surprised that the Minister of Aviation is preoccupying herself with the distraction of floating another national carrier. No matter who is selling her that idea, she should perish the thought.
It is a scam. She has said that the Federal Government would not invest a kobo in the project. Then, why is it her business? Whatever goodwill the Federal Government will invest in such a project should better be extended to any two of the Nigerian airlines struggling to keep our flag out there. Like what she did for Arik to get it flying Abuja-Heathrow again.
British Airways planes have the Union Jack colour at their tails. British Airways is NOT owned by British Government. Virgin Atlantic is owned by former drummer boy, Sir Richard Branson, not by the British Government.
The Honourable Minister should find out what the British Government does to help these airlines to represent everything British and do same for our private airlines. But first, she should give us airports that represent what we truly think of ourselves as a people.