By Tonnie Iredia
Many years back, the Benin Airport was one of the busiest in Nigeria. At a time when only the Nigerian Airways provided air transportation services in the country, the Benin route had many flights. In later years, Okada air operated from Benin as its main base traversing several routes almost every other hour. Notwithstanding such number of flights, each aircraft took off with a full load of passengers. Surprisingly, the Benin airport later became dormant with the coming of privatization which many thought would have built on the foundation on ground to further energize the sector. Perhaps the pace of national development and the politicization of projects helped to undermine the one-time fasting growing air transportation sector. By 1966, when the military seized power in Nigeria, Benin City, the Capital of the then Midwest Region was one of the 4 regional capitals of the nation which explained the then importance of the city. Today, the region which was one out of four is now 2 out of 36 states. It should thus surprise no one that both the city and its airport lost their past glamour.
Until a few days ago, apart the fear of being attacked by armed men on the way, travelling to Benin by air was not much different from travelling by road. Both could take the same number of hours as Benin air passengers were usually held up from morning till late afternoon through several rescheduling of their flights. Arik air which was originally the only airline operating the route suddenly reduced its operations from daily flights to 3 times a week as if the route had lost its viability. The truth however is that Arik merely decided to use Benin as the major victim of its inability to keep pace with the demands of the sector. As if to confirm this, Airpeace which sought to fill the vacuum created by Arik Air has since then maintained a daily flight with sustained patronage by passengers. In due course, Air peace began its own strategy of relegating the route through incessant delayed departures. Yet, it was obvious that one daily flight by Airpeace and 3 flights a week by Arik cannot meet the needs of Edo air travelers.
Surprisingly, having used their inadequate provision to cause artificial scarcity for the route, the two airlines also wittingly created conducive opportunity to exploit the passengers by charging higher fares on the 35mins flight to Benin compared to charges on the much longer Abuja-Lagos route. If the higher fares were meant to justify poor patronage how come such a high fare paying route was subjected to indeterminate flight schedules? Arik air in particular was exceedingly irritating as it often exhibited 419 tendencies. For some time now, the airline has developed a habit of selling business class tickets to passengers only to apologise during the checking-in process that the operating aircraft has capacity for only an all-economy flight. To get back the resultant shortfall is an impossibility; just as the trend subsists unabated. On their part, some staff of the airline have taken a cue from their airline by hoarding seats. A friend once narrated his experience on a day he had an emergency at home. He was told there were no empty seats until someone educated him on what stranded passengers do to board flights on Arik Air and some other airlines. Of course, the unwholesome practices are sustained by an ineffectual regulatory framework – a trend that is common to virtually every sector in Nigeria, be it telecommunication, banking, broadcasting etc.
It was against the background of unregulated aviation services that those of us who frequent the Benin route jumped for joy at the breaking news that AZMAN and Max air had joined the airlines operating the route. Max Air was the first to take-off. Only penultimate Tuesday, this writer was one of the passengers on the airline’s flight from Benin to Abuja scheduled to terminate in Kano. We hear this is to happen initially twice a week with a plan to make it daily shortly. AZMAN has also begun with an initial 3 times a week flight to also transit into a daily flight regime making the Benin Airport a beehive of activities. This development fits squarely into Governor Godwin Obaseki’s disposition of running Edo state with a commercial mindset. A government statement had in fact confirmed that Obaseki’s plan was to bring in more airlines to Benin so that tourists and investors would spend the night in the city. For this purpose, the last flight into Benin would be at 11.00 pm, while the first flight would depart at 6.00 am.
Our fear however is that these grandiose plans can hardly be sustained – a fear that is premised on the undue political tension in the state that could lead to a sabotage of the plans. This is why every well-meaning Edo citizen should at this point join hands with the governor to rescue the state from the yoke of stunted growth. Despite the orchestrated propaganda in the better part of the last decade, Edo never developed in the real sense. As I have said to some of my friends who are opposed to Obaseki, the charge that the governor negates their welfare is untenable because it is essentially a selfish charge. The greatest effort at improving the welfare of a people is by raising their standard of living through socio-economic development. It is therefore unfair for a group of politicians who are used to milking the state to seek to galvanize the populace into political opposition only because of their own material gain.
Edo must return to the glorious days of Samuel Ogbemudia by revamping those great sources of internally generated revenue. Industries such as Edo line which in the past served as lucrative employment providers and high revenue yielding facilities have no business closing down. It is when such old sources are revamped that the new additions being made through technology can be integrated to put Edo up there again. Whatever political potholes people are harping upon at the moment, our ‘MOU’ governor is no doubt an innovator. Only last week the governor celebrated one of the benefits of his MOUs with the cultivation of 400 hectares of land by 180 maize farmers who got 5 hectares each with the support of the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL).
So much has happened in Edo since 2016, the most enduring being the institutionalization of government business. It is heart-warming that the trend is now followed by reforms in the transportation sector as witnessed in the attraction of more airlines to the state as well as the upgrade of the Benin Airport to handle night flights. We commend the governor because everywhere, effective transportation holds the key to any economy as it forms the basis of all socio-economic interactions.