INTERVIEW: Nigeria I’ll harness aviation potentials with national carrier-Aviation Minister

In what served as an appraisal of his scorecard in the last eight years, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika speaks with facts about infrastructure development, his ambitious aviation roadmap, tussles that have trailed the establishment of a national carrier at the recently held national aviation stakeholders’ forum in Abuja. WOLE SHADARE was in attendance as he listens to his presentation and response to answers asked him on the state of the aviation industry.

Not a few believe that this administration has done well in aviation while others believe that more still needs to be done. How well have you done for aviation in the last eight years or four years as substantive Minister of Aviation?

Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika

The various agencies will give their scorecards but let me say this. Some of the things you are seeing did not just happen. There happened deliberately because we are conscious of leaving a big legacy behind. Please, permit me to say, one or two things just before you ask more questions. Some of the things that are happening in Nigerian aviation didn’t just happen. When I went to Abuja and I saw the runway with potholes that can swallow this podium and I closed it immediately; there was no plan or budget, nothing in place. I approached President Muhammadu Buhari on the need to quickly solve that problem because of the danger of leaving and waiting for an accident to happen. He directed that funds be provided. The National Assembly was involved and within a few weeks, we had a new runway in Abuja.  So also was the case in Enugu and many more, Today we’ve closed the 18 Right runway of the Lagos airport which operated day operations to fix the airfield lighting that was lacking for more than 17 years. When we were closing it, some of the airlines protested, that we can’t close. But it’s closed and it’s finished. During the Abuja airport closure, we appeared in the National Assembly, between the joint sittings with the two houses and the committees, and I spoke in three days for 17 hours and I spoke on why we shut down Abuja and provide a new runaway.  There is no law in Nigeria that would bar the government from developmental projects, so we went ahead and do it. But we thought perhaps the people needed an explanation. Nigerian society of engineers and other experts from all over the place came to the Senate and said what we want to do was impossible. They passed a verdict that we would fail and that we can’t achieve it. They said we were aloof to safety items, but we stood our ground and we gave them time and we delivered within budget and time, However, within those six weeks a lot had happened which could not only be in my memory but one which I will share with you sometime. We were given six weeks, with a countdown clock ticking, at the airport and at the desk of the managing director of Julius Berger, and on my own desk in the ministry, it was everywhere, and we even had hand-held countdown clocks to ensure it was only six weeks. The first time the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) World Aviation Forum was held outside the headquarters in Montreal was here in Abuja in this hotel, Transcorp Hilton tagged, “Financing government infrastructure”. We also had about 150 countries in Nigeria. I cannot remember any ministry, agency, or government that has attracted 150 countries and very many of them were at the ministerial status. It’s kudos to Nigeria it was a success.

Nigeria’s Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika

The Murtala International Airport terminal is giving a lot of Nigerians and people who travel through the terminal great concern regarding passengers’ comfort and efficiency of that terminal. Are you worried about that?

The Lagos international airport was built around 1978 and commissioned in 1979. It was built for 200,000 passengers per annum. And today even with COVID-19, Lagos is doing eight million passengers per annum. I don’t know how many of the intended number will make eight million, that’s forty times the planned capacity. Imagine you go to get a bedroom with a toilet and suites, only yourself, but forty years later they ask forty of you to stay in that same room with one toilet. That is the situation. Aviation is competing against healthcare, water supply, agriculture, education, and mass transportation on road; those are the needs of our people there has not been much money for aviation no matter how important it is in the eyes of the government. That is a fact. Another fact is that the only way we can do it is by giving some of the airports out to the private sector, they run it and then we take it back after a certain period. The richest country on earth today is Qatar and they developed its airport in my assessment and opinion, it is the best airport in the world today. It is better in China and others I have seen. With all their monies, they concession their airports now though they are a very rich country, even the United States does it.

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That brings me to another question. Is that the reason we are concessioning some of the aerodromes?

We are on the verge of completing the concession of some of the airports under the concession programme. That is the best way to go. Don’t forget this government came in and I’ve said this before, they came in 2015 and the country went into recession, we had debts of over $480 million owed to foreign airlines. We came out of the recession but unfortunately, our leader was hospitalized within that period and even with that, we paid at that time in recession. The price of petroleum per barrel had dropped from 40 to 30 or 28%. The production from two million barrels per day dropped to 200,000 barrels per day. It was the only source of income for the government. We came out of that and ran for re-election in 2019. When we came back we entered another recession but yet we achieved things in the sector as you would see. The concession of the airport is the only way to go. We went to ICRC and they ran with it we came in but we knew we were going to do public-private partnerships. For transparency purposes, I single-handedly asked that the unions should join the project delivery team and those are the ones that will do all the nitty-gritty, the contracts, and everything. I allowed Labour to come in, not more than nine people, and put the Labour leaders in there. I see people talking about job loss in the position and I insisted that there will not be a single job loss. Why? It is because of the about 8,000 workers, how many are working in terminal buildings? Those working in terminal buildings are not more than 1600. It used to be 1117 but it moved up, that is in the terminal buildings. How many of those 1,500 are going to be in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, and Port Harcourt? Perhaps let’s give it 80 percent out of a thousand people. The concessionaires will discuss with the workers, those that he thinks that he likes; their jobs and will be given the option either to remain with them or go back to FAAN. So many airports are state-owned airports and are now taken over by the FAAN. We need men to man these new airports with these new responsibilities. We need more people rather than throw people out of work. We are committed and signed that there will not be one single loss. Anybody saying anything otherwise is only talking about mischief and ulterior motives to which he may hold his own opinions. The government of President Buhari and the succeeding government which is an APC government will continue with the philosophy of social democracy, people’s asset remains people’s assets.

How successful is the aviation roadmap for the sector? How best can we benchmark it?

Aviation Minister, Senator Hadi Sirika

We all know the importance of having a leasing company because the country risk in Nigeria, leasing equipment. It’s so impossible and pricey so we thought to establish our own here in Nigeria to have access to equipment including aircraft. We finished this and we hope to gain final approval next Wednesday we are good to go on this. This is a ticked item on the road map because some of the people I’ve seen on the media are saying that we have been talking about the road map and none has been ticked.

What percentage of the roadmap have you achieved so far?

You will see by the end of this presentation that we have achieved about 90 percent which I’m very proud of and I thank God that my team and the stakeholders’ support, and the MRO. In the whole continent of Africa, MRO is a small maintenance shed. The kind of MRO we aim to establish through the private sector is the one that has the capacity to take in all kinds of aircraft, multiple hauls, high-capacity airplanes, or the current generations and technologies. In the whole of Africa, we have one in Morocco which is serving its region. We have one in Egypt and they are on their way to making the 200 airplanes mark. The Ethiopian one is largely Ethiopian. You can hardly find a slot to take your engine in Africa. Your aircraft has to be on the ground where the engine is on the ground or your operations will suffer. It will suffer because you don’t have a slot. We are trying to build one here in Nigeria and I am happy to report that the full business case has been completed and the certificate of compliance issued by ICRC. It was approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) and we are commencing. This is another ticked item. Aerotropolis is ongoing. Selection of a preferred partner and commencement of acquisition is what we are going to do this quarter. Cargo agro-allied tarmac to be set up in many places. It is not random. I am very impressed with the governor of Plateau state. Once we presented this in 2016, he commissioned consultants on his own to see what he could do in the Jos airport. Remember we used to export flowers out of Jos and make a lot of money. Now that market is headed somewhere else in Kenya. They made a study and they approached us. We choose Jos as a location. The governor of Ekiti said if you give me this cargo I will build an airport, and he actually built the airport so we had no choice but to give it to him. Calabar from what I know because that is where I use to go and play after school, I stayed there and I have good friends, the governor was doing something modest development, especially agriculture; tomatoes and the rest of them, chickens. We knew that and we also put one there. Kebbi, Katsina, Yola. Yola used to produce pineapples and mangoes and fly them out of Nigeria and then we have them in Benin.

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One of the much-talked-about issues in Nigeria today is the national carrier. How feasible is this project that came with so much promise but faded away by the day? You are passionate about this project same and many Nigerians look up to the carrier as having the potential to help the country.

Nigeria’s Min. of Aviation, Hadi Sirika

We need a strong national carrier that will take advantage of our potential. The Single Africa Air Transport Market (SAATM) is an Africa Union agenda for 2063 with the integration of Africa, intra-commerce within Africa and cohesion and ease of doing business with Africa, and contribution to the economy of Africa itself. It was arising from the Yamoussoukro Declaration which Nigeria championed at the time. We had the advantage of having an airline that was very dominant in Nigerian Airways. We thought to open the skies in Africa and that has to be done. There is no going back because all countries have already signed the declaration and more than half of them have signed the solemn implementation which will begin soon. Nigeria had the advantage and promoted open African skies. It doesn’t make sense to fly to Paris and come back but when you want to go to Rwanda you have to go to Europe and come back. Perhaps we should fly over ourselves. The Ambassador of Nigeria to Uganda currently held a discussion with me and I told him, we would open up African airspace. In Europe, there used to $500 ticket from country to country sometimes $1000. I paid 1300 pounds which is just a small piece of land. The whole of Europe is very small but I paid 1300 pounds.  Because they opened up the skies, so, that is what we are trying to achieve here in Africa. I don’t think there is any fear. All we need to do as Nigerians is to develop our capacity to have that. Negotiation with the Ethiopian Airline Group with the Federal Government is ongoing. The next step is FEC approval and the operations will commence locally and internationally very soon. Before we leave this government 250 million Nigerians will have a well-structured airline that has the capacity to be able to deliver the required service that is needed within this continent. We can’t be at the center of Africa and continue to be where we are. All of the other airlines that we have in the country are encouraged to boost their capacity and operations because there is not any single airline today including those who don’t even have an aircraft whoever approached the Ministry of Aviation under President Buhari with a request and it was turned down, never. It is the first time. More than 50 percent of the AOCs’ I believe came under President Buhari. Most of them came under Buhari, a few came slightly before Buhari, Air Peace came in 2014. The number of airlines has doubled in our time, the number of airports has doubled, the number of passengers has tripled, and aviation has grown to become the fastest-growing sector of our economy. I think it is an achievement that we can say happened. Even during COVID-19, aviation in Nigeria became the fastest-growing sector. Post-COVID, Nigeria had the second-best recovery. We recovered two months earlier to 111 percent of pre-COVID numbers. The only country ahead of us was Colombia with 115 percent of the recovery. We recovered faster than America, Germany, and Britain because of the wisdom to put effort to create a recovery plan and implement it.

You seem to be at loggerheads with domestic airlines over the fear of Nigeria Air. How true is this? How much of assurances have you given them that Nigeria Air does not in any way threaten their operation?

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Someone said I talk badly about Nigerian Airlines, But I never did. I will be a bit in-modest here, I think we have given under Buhari the maximum support to airlines. Because ask all of them, who got AOC during our time, Value-Jet, Ibom Air, and Azman, and all of them, they’ve never been to my office. Ask those who got before them. how much they paid to get the AOC? In the government before the government of Buhari, How much they paid to import airplanes? How much they paid to get foreign exchange in Nigeria? How much they had paid before Buhari and how much they are paying now under Buhari, Nothing! The first time I saw the owner of ValueJet was when I was commissioning the airport in Ogun, and ran to me and said he was the owner of valueJet. He said on camera “Thank you, minister, I got AOC and I didn’t know you to get AOC. We are working on our talk and I will blame the stakeholders if you allow another minister that will come and require you to pay for things to get them done.  Nobody goes to my office to ask for anything. Maybe that is not for the press but certainly, we are walking our talk. We created the needed change, nobody anywhere, no operator of the airline, owner of the aircraft, contractor, consultant, middle man, even the Permanent Secretary can say they have given the Minister of Aviation a dime and he collects, and this is the Buhari in all of us. So why should we not have a strong national carrier? we would continue to support these airlines, to do their business and increase capacity and we are not going to hinder them if they want to interline or share, agree, partner, or chase shares of other international airlines, especially if they want to partner with other African airlines, and the fact maybe perhaps I will crave your indulgence to speak a minute when we were setting up the Nigerian Air limited, my guts feeling really honestly was to partner with airlines that I think would have value, Finance, experience, and high profile, such as either Emirates but they don’t do that, Qatar, Lufthansa and the rest of them, those who work closely with me know, that this is my focus, this is what I want to do, because I believe if we partner Lufthansa for example, automatically you have all the certifications you need and you just fly, every airline that asks, every local airline in Nigeria that asks to go to a certain location we have gone there, I am not talking badly of them. but how many are going there?  I went to many places and was forced. When we started the process for Nigeria Air, I invited them to please come. I reached out to all of them personally; some of them in their houses. I said please come and partner with the airline and create a strong airline to the size and the market of Nigeria’s 150 million people. At sea level for maximum aircraft performance, we would be in the centre of Africa, and nobody took the opportunity, but then fast forward we had a better plan, was I happy? Well, mixed feelings, I was very happy that we got that, it was not my choice, but I am happier now, knowing what I did for the following reasons. Ethiopian Airlines is not a pushover; they are a household name, and they are strong and reliable. They have been in business for 70 years unbroken. They kept going even during a civil war. They have over 200 aircraft and they posted profits during COVID-19 of $1 billion dollars. Apart from that, no other airline in the world posted such a massive profit during COVID.

Some of the operators have argued that Ethiopian Airlines would serve as a competitor to them and they are not comfortable with that. This seems to be one of their views about the partnership with Ethiopian Airlines. Don’t you think their views are valid?

They argued that we should rather partner with any other airline in the world asides from Ethiopian Airlines. In their own way, they think the Ethiopian is a competitor, and I honestly don’t understand.  In a world where everybody is coming together to build strong institutions and strong businesses and you say they are competitors and they will kill the airlines. All of those five airlines that went to court had the opportunity to partner with Ethiopian Airlines and leverage their network and ought to have done so. Except they want to be unfair to themselves and their business, it is an African airline, we would begin to benefit from the thinking of the founders of Africa.

Wole Shadare