Thursday, 09 November 2023 04:49

15 useless airports and Nigeria’s concrete democracy - Abimbola Adelakun

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The news report that about 15 airports that gulped no less than N301bn altogether failed to meet an annual threshold of passenger traffic exemplifies Nigeria’s white elephant peculiarity that I call “concrete democracy.” It is a phenomenon where the supposed dividends of democracy are expressed through concrete infrastructure or facility divorced from perceptible ideological agenda or end goals but still exists—justifiably by its initiators, designers, and contractors—solely for its mere tangibility.

In Nigeria, concrete democracy manifests in the building of bridges, flyovers, foot bridges, airports, highways, stadia, public buildings, universities, public transport systems, all of which are of minimal productive value. While conspicuous (and even) imposing, such projects are unsustainable and should never have materialised. The major reason they exist is because they are made of literal concrete and their sturdy physicality gives the impression that democracy is paying off well in those material tokens.

Since 1999, some 15 airports built by state governments of Ogun, Bayelsa, Osun, Delta, Ebonyi, Akwa Ibom, Ekiti, Anambra, Abia, Yobe, Nasarawa, Kebbi, Edo, Gombe, and Jigawa have (expectedly) been underperforming. Despite the fancy tag of “cargo” or “international” added to their monikers to give them some functional weight, these facilities do not attract much traffic to justify the expense of building them. According to Director-General of the National Civil Aviation Authority, Musa Nuhu, these state airports put a massive burden on the agency that has to manage them with federal resources. Some are patronised only by executives who travel once or twice a week. He said, “An airport that needs N300m a month (to maintain) and they have just 1,000 passengers a month, there is no magic that can make them sustainable, and FAAN doesn’t have the money.”

In a country that produces virtually nothing and a huge chunk of our economy—including our leisure activities—is sustained by importation, it surprises no serious thinking person that these facilities barely function. How many of these states that built the airport generate enough revenue to even pay salaries? How many of the airport builders have demonstrated any sustained initiative to create means of income generation outside the oil revenue they go cap in hand to beg for every month in the Federal Capital Territory? If not for docile legislators who rubber-stamp every frivolity, such projects would never have happened.

Aside from Lagos (which generates 60 per cent of FAAN’s revenue), Abuja, and maybe Port Harcourt, most airports in Nigeria do not see as much traffic as even a small town in well-developed economies. That is because airports are about mobility within a productive economy where people and goods must be able to move so as to beat the logistics of space and time. In Nigeria where the major subsisting industry is politics, it is unsurprising that most of these useless airports only come into use when a self-important politician needs to travel. Even in the airports with supposedly high traffic, the number of flight delays routinely experienced is either proof that we just do not have as much traffic to fill up air slots, or we are a badly disorganised society, or both are true.

So, why do public officials spend so much money on these useless projects? Well, there are at least three reasons. One is that the concreteness of those facilities has a colossal spectacular value which, in Nigeria, translates to cumulative propaganda points. Our people do not have the patience for a democracy of ideas, ideology, concepts, and long-term planning. You lose an average Nigerian voter the moment you start with intangibles like human capital development. You must give them something to feel and touch like bridges, railways, and physical facilities. It is this obsession with the tangible that makes our society start new universities frequently without an attendant plan to produce enriching knowledge.

Not only must you produce something concrete, but you must also spend a humongous sum of money to inaugurate such a project to burnish the impression of faux progress. On inauguration day, you must invite dozens of traditional rulers (especially those with gaudy ornamentation who will lug their staff of office around to give a patina of seriousness to an otherwise mundane occasion), Christian and Muslim leaders (who will sanctify the vacuity), a bunch of uncritical scribblers who call themselves journalists, and these days, social influencers too. Your aides must tag you with puerile labels like “Working Willie,” “Performing Governor,” “Mr Project,” and other silliness your vanity can accommodate.

It is the allure of concreteness that made some Nigerians convince themselves that the person who “built” a megacity that still lacks basic amenities can also build the whole of Nigeria if voted as president. Unfortunately, what we call “city” in the part of the world that truly has them did not begin with the shiny skyscrapers. Unlike Nigeria, societies with actual cities first got the basics of human development right.

Another reason concrete democracy trumps meaningful initiatives is that the budgeting and contracting processes of these ostentatious projects make it far easier for public officials to syphon money. It is easier to convince legislators to let you budget $500m for an airport than to initiate a 25-year educational development programme that will develop generations.

One could rightly argue that if the point is merely about the grandiosity of the projects, why not at least invest in proper grand projects that function? How about schools with well-equipped laboratories and libraries, motorable roads, energy and water resources, public facilities, functional hospitals/community health centres, urban development, etc.? Why would any reasonable person build an airport that they know right from the outset will be underutilised? Why do it despite seeing the fate of existing ones?

And that brings me to a third reason: some of these projects were primarily designed to serve public officials’ interests. The only reason governors of the states that produce nothing or contribute little into the national wallet would build an airport is because the governor thought it would ease his movement from his state capital to the FCT where he spends a huge part of his time lobbying and toadying before idle minds like himself.

Concrete projects like that are thus mainly self-directed. They are for public officials who want to legitimately use public resources to build projects that will service them and theirs. That is why those projects are most unusable to the poverty-stricken people in their states. How many people in the whole of the 15 states that built these airports earn enough salaries to even buy a plane ticket? Yet, their governor built it. Why? Well, because he does not expect his constituents to ever use it. In fact, he would prefer them not to use the airport, so it remains exclusive to him and those for whom he built it. Such a project being unconnected to any larger economic plan regularly lies dormant until the day Oga lands in his private jet and takes off again. That is the whole point: using public resources for private ends.

All over Nigeria, projects like those 15 airports consume money without returns. Some would have at least found some use if they were maintained but the point of their existence was never about sustainability; they were merely a pipeline for drawing money and covering up the ideological emptiness of the project executors.

It will take a long time for Nigerians to reorient themselves to look beyond a democracy that delivers concretely and begin to demand meaning. Until that day comes, states should not be allowed to run individual agenda that does not fit into a larger national scheme of action. Unless they convincingly demonstrate the viability of those projects, they should not be approved. Such projects are a waste of scarce resources and those who executed them knew that much.



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