Bad roads, poor healthcare services, collapsing schools, inadequate housing and a lack of municipal services like waste collection or pipe-borne water have not deterred most Nigerian states from embarking on white elephant airport projects.
Apart from the 22 airports built by the Federal Government through the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), many state governments are building such facilities, usually as a status symbol.
At the last count, 13 states have spent or propose to spend a total of N251 billion on establishing largely non-viable airports.
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For instance, Bayelsa State spent N60 billion, Akwa Ibom (N20 billion), Delta and Jigawa (N17 billion each), and Bauchi and Kebbi spent N15 billion each on airport projects which stakeholders say have done little or nothing to improve their economies.
Also, Ogun, Ekiti, Abia, and Nasarawa States have proposed to spend N20 billion each in building and completing new international or cargo airports, while Osun has proposed N15.5 billion and Zamfara has proposed N12 billion for a similar project.
Anambra State in South Eastern Nigeria also plans a $2 billion (N720bn) cargo airport. However, the state government says a private company, Elite International Investments, will provide all funds under a build, operate, manage and transfer agreement.
Bayelsa State is the latest subnational entity to gleefully launch an airport.
Last week, Seriake Dickson, Bayelsa State governor, opened the Bayelsa International Airport, which he said gulped N60 billion.
Aviation analysts have said huge investments such as this are a misallocation of public resources and should have been invested in basic infrastructure such as roads, schools, housing and health care, amongst others.
Research checks show that up till now, the government of Bayelsa State has failed to provide basic housing and potable water for its communities, so residents rely on personal boreholes or water vendors.
An average borehole and tank stand, will cost between N200,000 and N250,000. Bayelsa State will require about 600 boreholes to cater for a good number of its citizens. Therefore, it will require between N120 million and N150 million to provide potable water for communities in Bayelsa.
If the N60 billion was channelled to housing, the government can provide a minimum of 12,000 low-cost housing units for the citizens of Bayelsa at the rate of N5 million per units. This, to a reasonable extent, will have taken care of housing challenges in the state.
“Potable water, health care and housing are the basic challenges in Bayelsa State. The people of Bayelsa are not pleased that the government can invest such huge sum to the construction of an airport, which is reserved for the few rich people in the state,” Essien Bassey, a resident in Bayelsa, told newsmen.
Experts argue that the viability of these multi-billion naira projects remains questionable, considering passenger and aircraft traffic originating and terminating from them.
John Ojikutu, aviation security consultant and secretary-general of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), said that the first thing to look at before constructing any airport is the passenger traffic around the airports that surround the prospective airport.
Ojikutu further explained that Osubi airstrip in Warri and Port Harcourt International Airport, which are around Bayelsa, do not generate as much traffic when compared to Lagos and Abuja airports.
“Bayelsa does not require an international airport because passenger traffic at Port Harcourt airport is not up to 1.5 million annually and that of Osubi is about 500. Passenger traffic between Rivers, Bayelsa and part of Delta annually is in the region of 2 million, so why waste resources that should have been channelled to providing health care and water, which are missing in Bayelsa?” Ojikutu said.
“Anambra State is also building an airport. Anambra is close to Asaba and Enugu, which both process less than 2 million passengers annually. These airports have no benefit rather than political ego. Total air traffic passengers across all airports in Nigeria are less than 16 million. Johannesburg airport alone manages 22 million passengers. Lagos alone barely takes 10 million passengers, followed by Abuja. Other airports are just complementary,” he argued.
The states, however, argue that the existence of such facilities in their domains would help to stimulate socio-economic activities. They believe airports would shore up business activities and attract investments, adding that the existence of airports will enhance the creation of hubs to facilitate export of agricultural produce from the hinterlands to urban centres.
But Tayo Ojuri, an aviation consultant and CEO, Aglow Aviation Support Services, said although Bayelsa has a lot of opportunities for tourism and oil and gas businesses to thrive, what matters is how the airport is put to use.
“After investing so much in the construction of an airport, it will be a shame not to put the facilities to use as a result of low passenger traffic in and out of the airport,” Ojuri said.
The Asaba airport, for instance, has not been put to optimal use. A few airlines, including Arik Air, Aero and Overland Airways, were flying into the airport before it was downgraded by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
The Akwa Ibom Airport in Uyo was completed a few years ago. The airport has relatively been unviable as only a few airlines, including Arik Air, and now Ibom Air, operate flights into it. The maintenance repair centre proposed for the Uyo airport has not been achieved.
In the Northwest, the Dutse airport in Jigawa, built by the administration of former Governor Sule Lamido for N15.5 billion, remains one of the nonviable terminals in the country. Its closeness to Yobe, Bauchi and Kano States has not attracted the envisaged patronage for the new airport which is only serviced by Overland Airways.
With skeletal flight services between Abuja and Dutse, the state capital, the dream of facilitating agro-allied exports from the airport remains largely a pipe one.