Despite huge investments, unviable airports dot states

Nigeria’s drive to connect every state capital to the national air network has led to a proliferation of airports, with subnational entities establishing airports in their domains. While air transport infrastructure is widely recognized as a catalyst for socio-economic development, experts emphasize that viability must be the primary consideration for such projects. Despite having the highest number of airports in Africa, many of Nigeria’s airports are not viable for passenger flights and other activities.

The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) manages over 23 airports across the country, but state governments continue to invest heavily in new airport projects, driven by the desire to connect their cities and towns to the national air link. However, investigations reveal that at least 15 states have spent a staggering N301 billion on airports that have failed to meet their yearly passenger traffic projections. These underutilized airports, scattered across the country, often record few or no daily flights, with some only receiving occasional chartered flights. Experts argue that a single kilometer of airport runway can connect a community to the global network, making it a more efficient investment than thousands of kilometers of roads. However, the focus on building new airports has raised concerns about the economic viability of these projects.

Nigeria has 31 airports, with 23 managed by FAAN. Since 1999, 15 airports have been built by state governments. , including Asaba, Muhammadu Buhari, and Akwa Ibom airports. According to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), 15 airports have been built by state governments since 1999. These include Asaba Airport, Muhammadu Buhari Airport (Ebonyi), Akwa Ibom Airport (Uyo), Bayelsa International Airport, Ogun Cargo Airport, MKO Abiola International Airport, Osun (uncompleted), Ekiti Cargo Airport, Anambra Cargo Airport (Umuleri), Abia Airport, Wachakal Airport (Damaturu), Dutse International Airport, Lafia Airport (uncompleted), Kebbi Airport, Auchi Airport (Edo State) (uncompleted), Zamfara Airport, Nasarawa Airport, and Gombe Airport. Additionally, many first-generation airports built by the Federal Government during the military era are struggling to become profitable. These include Makurdi Airport, Port Harcourt Airport, Enugu Airport, Kano Airport, Kaduna Airport, Benin Airport, Owerri Airport, Jos Airport, Sokoto Airport, Maiduguri Airport, Yola Airport, Bauchi Airport, Akure Airport, Ibadan Airport, Ilorin Airport, Calabar Airport, Minna Airport and Katsina Airport.

The airports built by state governments have been handed over to FAAN for management, but they are considered unsustainable by aviation experts and add a financial burden to the agency. However, many of these airports are underutilized and unviable, with some having only one or two flights a week. Former NCAA Director-General Captain Musa Nuhu and FAAN Managing Director Captain Rabiu Yadudu have expressed concerns about the financial burden of managing these airports, which are not commercially viable. Despite opposition, state governments have continued to build airports, with over N301 billion spent on unproductive airports in 16 years. The Ebonyi Airport, built at a cost of N36 billion, was commissioned in 2019, with the NCAA describing it as the best in Nigeria. Aviation experts argue that the proliferation of state airports has placed a huge burden on FAAN and the NCAA and that a more sustainable approach is needed.

Several state governments in Nigeria have invested in building airports, despite criticisms and concerns about their viability. Some of these projects include: Anambra Airport: Completed in 2021 at a cost of N6 billion, solely funded by the state government; Ekiti Cargo Airport, completed in 2023 at a cost of N16.6 billion, despite initial criticisms; Bayelsa International Airport, built by former Governor Seriake Dickson and completed in 2019; MKO Abiola International Airport (Osun), construction began in 2012, with a revised cost of N11 billion; Ogun State Gateway Agro-Cargo International Airport, construction commenced in 2021, with a projected cost of N40 billion; Victor Attah International Airport (Akwa Ibom), completed in 2006 at a cost of N25 billion, with an additional $100 million spent on an MRO facility; Abia Airport, conceived by Senator Theodore Orji’s administration, despite the proximity of Sam Mbakwe Airport; Dutse International Airport, built by former Governor Sule Lamido at a cost of N4 billion, despite being located near Aminu Kano International Airport; Ahmadu Bello Airport (Bauchi), constructed at a cost of N14 billion, aimed at attracting investors and generating revenue; and Nasarawa Airport, conceived by former Governor Umaru Tanko Al-Makura at an estimated cost of N10 billion, to ease cargo traffic at Abuja’s airport. These projects have raised concerns about their economic viability and the potential for wasteful spending.

Speaking in an interview, the President of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Nigeria, Dr. Alex Nwuba, said Nigeria needs more airports, but they are all being built at an unsustainable scale. Nwuba said, “Airports are necessary to access a city or state and maintain its competitiveness. You can draw a straight line of correlation between cities that have airports and development against their peers. No one wants to go to his neighbour for export nor do they want to travel miles in a medical emergency. Yes, airports are long-term development assets. Nigeria needs more airports. The problem is they are all being built at an unsustainable scale.”

Also, the Chairman of Concerned Aviation Group, Mr. Barnabas Ezenwanne, said governors must be stopped from further building new airports. He said the Federal Government should be blamed for granting licenses to operate to governors, who, he said, construct airports for personal reasons. “Some airports constructed by state governors are dormant. It is even better to place a ban on the building of new airports. Now that we are talking about a paucity of funds, some of these airports should even be converted into something else. Governors are constructing airports indiscriminately because the central government allows them. Only the Federal Government can stop further construction of airports in Nigeria,” he added.

Founder of Aviation Summit, Capt Dele Osanipin, said FAAN should stop funding dormant airports, saying doing so makes no economic sense. Osanipin said: “I am not blind to the fact that accessing certain places by road comes with a lot of challenges, especially given the insecurity in the land. That said, state governors cannot continue with the culture of waste. We have been calling on relevant aviation authorities to stop granting licenses to them. Apart from draining their state’s resources, the airports overwhelm the financial capacity of FAAN.”

On his part, a former rector, of Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, NCAT, Zaria, Captain Samuel Caulcrick, said instead of agonising over the number of airports, they should be seen as catalysts for development. He said: “Airports are development’s catalysts as settlements spring up around airports with attendant economic activities. Given that perspective, the planner ought to focus on the catalytic aspect of building an airport to reap the economic gains. We should instead take advantage of the number of airports by rearranging development and pivoting on the available airports. One reason is the lack of good road infrastructure to move local produce from the states to other areas or the outside world – air transport would bridge that shortfall.”

Also speaking, Chairman of West Link Airlines, Capt. Ibrahim Mshelia said the number of airports should be higher than what it is. He explained: “Airports are vital for national development. Nigeria currently should have at least 700 airstrips and approximately 50 airports. Airports are a necessity; not a luxury. For instance, if there is a need to rapidly deploy troops to places like Maiduguri for combat, using roads is not a practical option. Bandits can cause havoc before reaching the destination. Airports are essential to open up industrial and agricultural areas to import and export goods. The state of the road network in the country is often inadequate. Many states with thriving industries, like Imo, Rivers, and Abia, require airports for efficient transportation.

Source: The Nation Online

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