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Aviation ministry and the mess Oduah left behind

By Dele Sobowale

“Airports may not be certified despite the N150 bn remodeling.” PUNCH, June 23, 2014.

The story, written by Mr Udeme Ekwere, went on to inform Nigerians that “Notwithstanding the huge sum of money expended on the remodelling of the nation’s 22 airports, feelers are that none of them has met the minimum standard for certification by the regulator.”

Last year, on my SUNDAY VANGUARD page, I had published an article titled AVIATION MINISTER: TIME TO GO. Prior to that, I had also carpeted the former minister for incompetence – among other failures. The first article received a rejoinder from her Senior Personal Assistant, Mr Joel Obi. As usual, Joel Obi, disregarded the point of the article and went on to do what spokespersons for government officials do best – present half truths and outright falsehood as facts. I allowed Obi to expose himself and the Minister on my page because there was no doubt in my mind that truth will prevail. I knew that Ms Oduah would never last the distance as minister and that she would be out of office soon.

Despite the reluctance of President Jonathan to part with Oduah and the attempt to provide her with face-saving exit from office, the overwhelming truth remains unshakeable – her tenure of office had been characterised by profligacy and cheap propaganda. At least, Nigerians, except the people of her small village and the traditional rulers can now understand that all the former Minister had achieved was a colossal waste of over N150 billion remodelling airports, without touching on the core need of safety.

Yet, safety, not remodeling was what was primarily required. Given the choice between safe or aesthetically appealing airports, there is no doubt in my mind that most of us travelling by air would rather land and take off safely than be buried in the most beautiful airports.

Furthermore, part of the N150 billion was spent without approval by the National Assembly (NASS), sometimes involving loans taken, again without approval from anyone. And, most of the work was so shoddily executed that observers and other experts believe they might not last more than a few years.

One expert quoted in the report had this to say: “The remodelling project has not in any way moved us forward from where we were before its commencement. The remodelling only focused on building terminal buildings. Air safety, as far as airports are concerned, goes beyond that.”

It is quite possible that Oduah knew this but she was also probably more interested in the political capital that could accrue from cosmetic “improvements” which could be used to deceive the gullible. It was not surprising therefore when, after the  deal involving the two bullet proof cars blew open, her “defenders” were quick to point to the 22 airports remodelled without reference to the fact that it was probably one of the most expensive wastes of public funds ever undertaken by a public official acting in contravention of our laws.

But, like all lies, those pertaining to the airports and her so called achievements have now been revealed to be just what they were – lies. Many aviation experts point to the need to resurface runways on which aircraft land and take off and which should receive more attention than landscaping of airports. But, like most Ministers, whose orientation is towards awarding contracts, however worthless the value to airport stakeholders, she had gone ahead to award contracts – just to claim she was working.

Two incidents of people walking unto the tarmac to stow away on aircraft from Nigeria point to the dangers inherent in not installing adequately secured perimeter fencing in all our airports. Admittedly, that is not as glamorous as installing fancy restaurants or well lit advertising panels.

But, nobody, except kids on excursion, goes to an airport to see adverts – however ingenious. Travellers want to fly; aircraft operators want the planes to take off and land without problems and relatives, as well as co-workers, want their people back home after flying. A competent Aviation Minister must operate with one principle – SAFETY FIRST; EVERYTHING ELSE IS SECONDARY.

What we now have are 22 airports where safety had been compromised for aesthetics; function had given way to features and the nation is standing still instead of moving forward – even if the décor had been altered for the better.

But, the matter now goes beyond the exposure of an under performed former Minister, it has revealed to the entire nation the need to go and find new funds in order to address the safety issues which the former Minister had ignored. Furthermore, one of those airports, the former GATT Aviation airport is the subject of litigation which might result in the Federal Government losing the structure on account of breach of contract. When that happens, all the billions spent on remodelling the structure would have gone down the drain.

Let me end this article by recalling for our readers what was written in April last year, about Ms Oduah. They, governments and their appointees, that is, never listen. Presidents and governors don’t know when to discharge; ministers and commissioners don’t know when to quit.

If you think aviation matters are unimportant, just remember that the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 has opened the eyes of all right thinking people to the fact that those things flying over our heads are bombs. And if that is not enough, DANA Airlines crash should serve a permanent notice that those in the plane and those below are perpetually imperiled each time an aircraft flies overhead.

It is for these reasons that sane societies enact stringent regulations, to be implemented fully, before anyone can take a plane up. The Joint Committee of the House has just told Nigerians, in that reported statement, that the Minister of Aviation had been allowing several bombs to fly over our heads with expired permit. Irrespective of whether it was inadvertent error or deliberate relaxation of the regulations, the Minister stands accused of risking the lives of millions of Nigerians. This is unpardonable.

At the moment, we don’t know how many planes are in that condition. But, even if it is only one, the Aviation Ministry has failed to discharge its primary responsibility to Nigerians and it is not a recent occurrence.

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