One of the most commonly seen descriptions of Nigeria is ‘a country with very poor or almost inexistent infrastructure’. These words are neither an exaggeration nor a fallacy. We are in a country with poor public infrastructure: power, transport, water, housing, etc. It is one of the biggest limitations to private enterprise in this country, where an entrepreneur has to come up with his own solutions to challenges that should have been taken care of by the government. Hence, it is expected that Nigerians applaud every effort by governments at improving our weak infrastructures.
However, I have been unable to rejoice at recent announcements by a few state governments that they were embarking on building airports. While the Bauchi State Government has already commenced building an international airport, the Nassarawa State Government wants to build 2 airports and the Taraba State Government one airport and 2 airstrips. Ordinarily, this should be commendable as it seems to fill an infrastructure gap. On the contrary, I see this as a serious misplacement of priorities.
Airports are more than a place where planes just take off and land; they are also a business venture. This is because airports cost money to maintain: from navigational systems to guide the planes in to staff salaries and the maintenance of the physical infrastructure itself. That said, the more traffic an airport has, the more profitable it is. In Nigeria, not every airport enjoys sufficient enough traffic to enable it pay its bills and have some left over. As a matter of fact, of the 22 operational airports in Nigeria, only Lagos and Abuja airports are profitable. I do not see the planned airports changing the status quo as none of these locations would be able to attract enough traffic to turn these airports into profitable ventures.
Maybe what these governments do not know is that Nigeria has a small size of air travellers, estimated at just about 8.4%, and the passengers mostly travel the Lagos-Abuja route [download statistics here]. In many of the states with airports, only a very small segment of the population, mostly top government officials and politicians, are able to afford airfares. It is even more curious that in some of these states, building road networks to open up rural areas is abandoned for building airports. It then begins to resemble the 99% sacrificing for the pleasure of the 1% of the population.
The reasons oft-given for these senseless projects is either that it is needed to bring in international investors and tourists, or to make it easy to transport intending pilgrims to and from the holy lands. Both of these reasons do not hold water for me. I hold the opinion that merely building an airport in your state would not immediately make investors gravitate to your state in order to take advantage of the economic opportunities there. I can even boldly say that this is one of the least things on an investor’s mind when coming to invest. Issues such as the ease of doing business, power, corruption, security, taxation, etc. are of far more importance than whether or not there is an airport in the state.
I also do not think it makes economic sense to build airports that will be used actively only over a one-month period, and then it goes back to inactivity for the remaining 11 months, as pilgrimages last only for a little more than a month.
The money used to build these proposed new airports could be saved as they are located not too far from already existing and under-utilized airports. Bauchi is within an hour and half radius of Jos and Gombe, both of whom have airports operating well under capacity; Nassarawa can very much make use of the Abuja and Jos airports, while the Yola airport can also serve Taraba State as it is 2 hours away on a bad road from the capital, Jalingo. Situating airports too close to each other also pose safety implications to air travel, as an expert explains in this interview. That said, it would only make more sense for these governments to use the resources they plan to use for building the airports for other ventures that will be of more benefit to the state and its people.
The sensible thing expected of these governments would be to plough this money into their states by exploring ways to boost their economies through developing their competitive advantages. Every project by a government should be one that will benefit the majority of the citizenry, not just a select few. There are many sectors of the economies in these states in which projects could be done which will bring more economic growth to the state and the people than building airports, especially in the areas of agriculture and small-business growth.
It seems that the governors and the governments they run are more obsessed with executing grand physical projects they can append their name to as the initiators rather than coming up with economic programmes for the entirety of the state.
The right approach to building airports is to first of all grow and strengthen the economic base of the state, so that when the time comes for an airport to be built, there is enough economic activity to generate traffic that will sustain the airport and even bring in profits.
Until this happens, new airports remain white elephant projects.