States airports: The fair, bad and ugly

In Nigeria, every state also gets the Governor it deserves. Nigerian leaders are extremely fortunate. The people don’t write their own history; they read neither their own or foreign history; they are too happy to forgive and forget every atrocity committed by their leaders. 

That is why we are in our current predicament; and may never really develop. Perhaps in the future, better enlightened Nigerians will start to dig into our history in order to find out why even in 2021 Nigeria is still in the Dark Ages. We glorify ruiners as rulers and build monuments to honour those who led us astray.

 If you need an example of the ways in which corrupt, self-delusive and mis-guided Governors destroyed the present; and mortgaged the future of their states, then start with state-owned airports. Almost every single one of them is at best a monument to somebody’s delusion of grandeur; or, at worst, a deliberate fraud perpetrated on the people who have been paying and will continue to pay dearly for them. As usual, before going into the substance of this article, it is necessary to point out why most state-owned airports will never be profitable; will forever constitute a drain on the generated revenue of states.

Fallacy of composition

This is a very obscure Economic Principle which can be easily explained because we all observe its practical implications everyday of our lives. If a slight traffic hold up occurs on the right lanes of the Express Road, the first impatient driver to turn to the left lane, facing on-coming vehicles might save time by doing so. As more vehicles follow, the left lane also develops a hold-up. Suddenly everybody is at a stand still. That is the principle for you; and, it applies to the situation in which states find themselves with airports.

  The first state-owned airport in Nigeria was the Owerri airport in Imo State. It is not clear whether or not, the airport ever operated at a profit.

 That, in any case, need not delay us now. To the best of my knowledge, the second was the Victor Attah International Airport, Uyo – started by former Governor Attah during his first term, 1999-2003 – in office. The Uyo airport will be addressed later because of its unique features. Since then, more states have joined in the craze to establish airports. In fact, there is hardly any state now which does not have one; or is not contemplating having one.

The reader might then be asking: what is wrong with that? Is that not development? The short answers are: a lot is wrong with that. And wasteful investment, tainted with corruption, is not development. It is anti-development. Here are the reasons.

Only 3 airports in Nigeria are viable

“Six airports handled no passenger in 2020.” — Report, May 31, 2021.

“We’re planning four airports’ concession for 30 years.” —Report, June 3, 2021.

“Experts flay states for sinking billions into airport construction.” — Report June 6, 2021.

  Before going forward it is important to classify states’ airport projects into the three groups – fair, bad and ugly. I will address them in the reverse order – “ugly” airport projects will be analysed first.

The six airports which reportedly had no passengers in 2020 were: Enugu International Airport, Kaduna International Airport, Calabar International Airport, Ilorin International Airport, Minna International Airport and Katsina International Airport – two in the South and four in the North. Two very important points must be made about international airports. First they are constructed to meet the minimum global standards with lots of imported equipment installed and regularly maintained. Second, they never completely shut down. That means they must be operated 24/7 irrespective of whether they make money or not. Our “ugly” six airports made no single dollar last year. But, can there be an airport worse than six which failed to make a dime in 2020?

Osun  State Airport: From dream to nightmare

Yes, there is; it is an airport which had been under construction for eight years and yet may never be finished. Osun State’s M K O Abiola International Airport (only God knows how many scams    will be named after MK) was started early in the first term of former Governor Rauf Aregbesola with all the fanfare which APC governors can muster. 

It was supposed to have been completed by now. Loans, some in dollars, were taken to get it done. Aregbesola received commendations for this “progressive” initiative from columnists, including Professors, writing in their favourite national newspapers for almost seven years before the clapping stopped. By then, it was clear to all those duped by the governor’s promises that the airport would not be completed before Aregbesola left office. Now, it appears it might never be built. Meanwhile millions of dollars had gone down the drain.

 Now the governor wants to concession the scrap left behind. His chances are very slim for reasons too numerous to list now.

As usual a warning was sounded on this page – which was routinely ignored. For the folly of their former Governor, the people of Osun state are now feeling the lash. They are repaying loans without the benefit of airport.

  The sad experience of Osun people should have served as a lesson for all the states which followed. But, expecting Nigerian governors to be sensible and patriotic when the opportunity presents itself for self-enrichment in dollars is asking for too much. Five more state Governors have taken their states down the same familiar road leading to economic impoverishment of their people. They invest in airports which serve at most three per cent of the people. Everybody, especially the low income people, end up paying for it.

  Only two state-owned airports now have any chance of breaking even or make profit – Akwa Ibom and Imo. Their prospects are fair. Imo, because it had an early start and Akwa Ibom, when completed, because it is not just a commercial airport. But, the government better hurry up and finish it. Otherwise it will join the rest of the airports constituting drains on the financial resources of their states.

  My advice to any state which has no airport now is: forget it. It is capital-intensive and the returns on investment are almost always negative. There is another reason to ponder. The Age of Oil is over. Crude oil will never again sell for $120 per barrel. If airports failed to make money in 2013, they will certainly not make it in 2023 – with bankruptcy starring everybody in the face.

LAST LINE: I don’t expect Governors to listen to advice regarding airports. It is the easiest way to get free dollars at the expense of the people and be regarded as a hero for it. It is unlikely that wisdom will ever be popular. Not in Nigeria anyway.

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