For a government that thrives in propaganda, it is just as well that the operatives of the Muhammadu Buhari administration did not understand the significance of what happened on Tuesday at the Abuja International Airport. If they did, they would have moved beyond just regaling us with their cemetery tales.
Ordinarily, the rehabilitation of an airport runway should be no big deal. However, given the circumstances surrounding this particular project, the Buhari administration has not only recorded a major landmark, it has also shown that if our public officials apply themselves, we can easily overcome most of our challenges as a nation. By proving many naysayers wrong and in the process, solving a national problem that has lingered for several years, the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, has also distinguished himself.
Against the background that Abuja usually hosts important events and meetings, the idea of closing the airport for six weeks made little sense when Sirika first anounced the decision. From British Airways to Lufthansa to Air France to Egypt Air to Kenya Airways as well as other stakeholders who generate sustaining income from Abuja airport, the option to operate from Kaduna airport was rejected outright. Only Ethiopian Airlines took the gamble and it must have reaped bountifully from the Kaduna adventure.
Even for those who were ready to give the Federal Government the benefit of doubts when the decision was first announced, there were so many questions begging for answers. Did they take into account the security implications of such an action at a period when kidnapping has become a national malaise? What if there was a need for an emergency health evacuation by air from Abuja? What of the sheer logistics of ferrying thousands of passengers to and from Kaduna on a treacherous road filled with pot holes? What about the economic loss of such a closure to the aviation, car hire and other businesses? What about the political implications of practically shutting out our federal capital from the rest of the world?
While nobody could offer practical explanations for some of these concerns, I came to my own conclusion on 30th January after driving to and from Kaduna to interview Governor Nasir el-Rufai for my book. On that day, I spent almost four hours on the road and that was just about four weeks to the closure of the Abuja airport. I didn’t imagine any miracle to change the state of that death trap of a road within weeks among other considerations so I narrated my experience to colleagues at the THISDAY editorial Board where we took a position that the whole idea of closing Abuja airport made no sense. And we made our position clear as did other media houses.
For sure, we took into account the fact that the old runway was built in 1981 with a lifespan of 20 years, which it had already exceeded by 15 years. We also noted the fact that in 2013, a Saudi Arabian cargo aircraft was damaged when it taxied though a section of the runway which necessitated a 24 hour closure of the airport with all the implications for other intending passengers and operators. That Emirates Airways decided to stop flying into Abuja airport was also because of the damaged runway.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, we were almost certain that closing the Abuja airport would create a chaotic situation that would be impossible to manage. We also did not believe that the six-week promise to complete the rehabilitation work would be kept. Knowing how things work in our country, many Nigerians believed that we would be lucky if the runway was completed within six months. For that reason, we suggested a gradual rehabilitation process that would not necessitate closing the airport but could take a very long time to complete as had been tried in the past and in other climes.
However, Sirika had a different idea and he stood his ground in the face of strong opposition from several quarters. He said those flying into and out of Abuja would be ferried to and from Kaduna airport by bus. He promised that the road would be fixed and that there would be adequate security. At a point, he also added some drama that if the airport was not ready by due date, he would resign his appointment. At the end, Sirika delivered on all his promises. The Abuja-Kaduna road was fixed, there was security presence everywhere (I travelled three times from Kaduna airport in the course of the six weeks) and 24 hours before the 19th April deadline, the Abuja airport was reopened for business.
The real point here is not about a runway but rather about how a government should respond to critical challenges. What Sirika has done was to apply common sense in dealing with a problem and that is far more productive than all the Jonathan-is-to-blame propaganda that has become the default mode of this administration.
First, Sirika identified the problem but he was not going to stop there as he also came up with possible solutions. He chose a more durable one that even he knew was contentious. But he was determined to push it through apparently because a lot of planning must have gone into his decision which accounted for his certainty that within six weeks a new runway would be delivered to Abuja airport. Fortunately, even nature was kind to Sirika as there was no rain in Abuja throughout the period the work was in progress but then, as football commentators would say, you make your own luck.
The strategic challenges posed by the Abuja airport closure are however not exhausted by the prompt execution of the project or Sirika’s sense of commitment and responsibility. It has for instance thrown up two pertinent questions. If this were not a problem that affect members of the political and business elite (poor people don’t fly), would there be this kind of prompt response from the authorities? If the project was for a facility used by the ordinary people on the streets, would some fat cats not adopt a do-nothing approach while blaming the problem on the “fornication” that necessitated the wrath of God?
While we must commend Sirika for displaying leadership when it was most needed, it is nonetheless sad that the capital of a nation of our size does not have an alternative airport that can serve in moments of emergency and even when aircraft bound for the main airport are in distress. This is therefore an opportunity to devote attention to putting that right. Again, there were also obvious dividends to the Kaduna airport and other infrastructure that were upgraded and pressed into increased national service while the Abuja airport was closed. The government should consolidate these facilities for future use instead of allowing them to relapse to their original state.
But the enduring lesson is that in the Abuja airport runway story, Sirika was bold enough to identify a politically sensitive project that touches the elite and commit himself and his portfolio to a prompt delivery. This project, and the manner in which it was carried out, enhances the credibility of the Buhari administration in general while paying tribute to the capacity of our bureaucracy to facilitate the commitments of government especially on projects where the targets and goals are very clear.
At the end, the template provided by the manner the Abuja runway repairs was executed offers something of a model that can be replicated in other departments of national life where there are low hanging fruits of infrastructure rehabilitation and rescue. We hope that will ginger the Buhari administration to forget Jonathan and face the future. With the reopening of Abuja airport on Tuesday, Sirika has proved that a clear headed public official can identify and deliver a socially and economically desirable outcome on schedule.
Yemi Ogunbiyi @ 70
Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, if you ever encounter Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, you will leave with the impression that you have just met a friend. How he does it is really difficult to fathom so it must be a gift from God. That perhaps then explains why he looks so youthful that he would easily pass for a man of 50 rather than the 70 years now ascribed to him. And there can be no better tribute to him than the one paid yesterday in THISDAY by his friend and co-conspirator, Dr Chidi Amuta.
With a Yoruba father and an Igbo mother, Ogunbiyi was raised in the North which makes him unique within the context of our country’s tripodal politics. But it is also a testimony to Ogunbiyi’s brilliance that he can speak the three WAZOBIA languages (Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo) fluently. It is not everybody with his kind of experience and exposure who can do that with as much dexterity as he does.
That Ogunbiyi has had a distinguished professional career is not in doubt. From the academic world where he excelled as a teacher of literature and drama at Ife, Ogunbiyi moved to the media in Lagos where he would hit it big before going into private practice as a consultant. Yet, despite his accomplishments, Ogunbiyi has remained humble and is ever supportive of younger professionals. That is why he deserves all the accolades that have come his way in the past week.
Happy birthday to the great Balogun of Ipara Remo!
Against The Run of Play
…In David Mark’s view, the problem arose because the First Lady kept alleging that (Aminu) Tambuwal had presidential aspirations and for that reason, could not be relied upon to support her husband. The former Senate President shared his own insight on the First Lady’s suspicion: “I guess she had the same fear about me even when she never said it to my face. She once accosted Senator Joy Emordi to say, ‘Joy, I hear you are the manager of David Mark Presidential Campaign Organization’, which was a baseless accusation. I had to meet the President to clarify issues with him. So, I would say it was President Jonathan and his wife who radicalized Tambuwal and turned him into a political foe.”
My book, “Against The Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria” will be released next week Friday after a public presentation in Lagos. To chair the event is former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar while former Cross River State Governor, Mr Donald Duke will do the unveiling. I have in recent weeks been receiving so many questions about the book and they will all be answered next week. But I can assure that the book will be affordable and it will also be available on relevant platforms for interested readers all over the world.