<< By Chris Agabi >>
In this interview with aviation correspondents, Chief Dr. Samuel Ortom, Supervising Aviation Minister speaks about sustainability in the aviation sector, attracting investments, his vision for the industry and other issues. Excerpts:
Since 12th of February, 2014, you’ve held sway as the supervising minister of aviation, how has the experience been considering the crisis that rocked the industry before you came in?
Mine is to hold the ministry and ensure that everything is working perfectly until a substantive minister is appointed. That much I’m doing and the experience has been fine though challenging. The aviation ministry is critical to our national progress thus it must be handled with great care. My brief is to see to the progress of the aviation sector as a supervising minister so there wouldn’t be a lull. That much I’m doing. So far, so good. The US Federal Aviation Authority just audited our aviation industry as a critical process for us to maintain our Category One status. That process went on smoothly in spite of the fact that we don’t have a substantive minister and we are hopeful we will retain our Category One status as we met majority of the critical areas assessed.
Are you saying there is no lull in the industry following the exit of Princess Stella Oduah considering that you are a supervisory minister?
Being a supervisory minister doesn’t make me less effective. I have the mandate of the President to ensure that the ministry works and that is what I’m doing. I have already started by continuing the implementation of the aviation road map because it is part of the transformation agenda of Mr. President and it has been approved by the federal executive council (FEC), which I’m a part of. The aviation road map as you are aware, is a comprehensive blue print on how to transform the Nigerian aviation industry into a modern, viable, profitable and sustainable one. The roadmap gave birth to the upgrade of all 22 federal airports, building of five brand new modern international terminals to be located in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu. Work on the terminals have started and would be completed by 2015. The roadmap also defined the future of perishable cargo terminal in Nigeria. Already 16 of those terminals are under construction and most of them, if not all should be commissioned by 2015. The roadmap also talked about the concept of aerotropolis – a concept that would turn airports in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt into business hubs offering world class services in travel/tourism, entertainment, commerce/industry and lots more. Recall our aviation industry was in total neglect for over three decades. Most of the infrastructure were dilapidated and the quality of services were just as poor. Safety standards were a source of worry. Even the standard of training at the aviation college had reduced remarkably. But when President Goodluck Jonathan came, he made the aviation industry a critical component in his transformation programme. He had to do that because a nation with a poor transport sector, especially the aviation industry can’t really progress; the nation can’t also optimize its full potentials. This thought process gave birth to the approval by the president of massive upgrade of infrastructure in the aviation sector. It also gave impetus to the upgrade of service delivery by government agencies in the aviation sector comparable to other parts of the world and most importantly, the raising of safety standards in the industry. Safety is critical because as the pilots would say, there is no parking space in the air. So one safety snag can cause unimaginable consequences thus, we take safety critical in the sector. Safety is critical to me and I will never compromise on it. We are also committed to growing the sector to a profitable one. Recently, the GDP was rebased and Nigeria’s economy is now worth $510 billion, the largest in Africa and 26th globally. Good news but how much did aviation contribute to that figure, about N200 billion annually but the industry can contribute over N500 billion to the GDP annually if developed further. This is our target in 2015 perhaps by 2020, the aviation sector should be contributing N1 trillion annually to the nation’s economy annually and support well over 500,000 direct and indirect jobs. The future indeed for the industry is bright, I can tell.
Talking about the rebased GPD and the aviation industry, what does it hold in stock for us?
The rebased GDP is positive for Nigeria. But like the coordinating minister of the economy Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, has explained, the rebased GDP doesn’t mean we don’t have economic challenges that must be addressed and should be addressed. The new GDP only gives us a better picture of the size of our economy and how the various components are contributing to the growth trajectory. This is significant because it would allow the various components of the economy to compete in terms of value addition. For instance, the aviation sector can better appreciate its value and retool its economic offering for better profitability. Yes, we have challenges as a nation but let’s celebrate our little successes wherever they occur. Also, with the rebased GDP, Nigeria can market itself better. For instance, if I’m selling the aviation sector to local and international investors, I can convincingly explain how their investments can be profitable because the Nigerian economy is on the growth trajectory. There is just no way other sectors of the economy would grow in isolation of the aviation sector. It’s just not possible. People must travel to transact certain businesses as not all deals can be fixed via emails or telephones. You must also travel for tourism and other social engagements. Thus, with more economic prosperity, it goes without saying that the aviation sector would boom as well. I also make bold to say that as more foreign investors are attracted to Nigeria because of the new size of the economy, some would invest in aviation. In fact, we are already positioning to benefit from these investors hence the infrastructure upgrade at the airports and other infrastructure that we are building across the country.
These airports under construction, when will they be completed and commissioned?
We are hoping they would all be ready by 2015, all things being equal. Besides the five brand international terminals, just about 15, out of the 22 are still being done. In fact, out of these 15, five are almost ready for commissioning and the remaining 10 may be ready before December or thereabout. Work is in progress on the airports and the 16 cargo terminals. I have started inspecting the progress of work done and the facilities across the airports to ensure that the airports are delivered on time and to specification. So far, I have visited Enugu and Owerri. I also visited Kaduna and Abuja. I will also be visiting Lagos and some other states where we have projects on going in the coming weeks. We are not leaving anything to chance. The immediate past minister had said that there will be no abandoned project in aviation sector. I can also assure that there will be no abandoned project in the aviation industry. I’m not the type to abandon laudable projects of my predecessors because the projects are for the benefit of Nigerians and not for the individual minister. My children will benefit from the system tomorrow just like your children and every other Nigerian. We are building an enduring culture and a system that works irrespective of who is the minister. We must learn to build institutions, not individuals.
What about safety and security?
Like I said, security and safety of our airports are very important to us. In all the airports that are being done, safety is a critical component. You may not get to see the safety infrastructure but it’s there. I may not be obliged to telling you all of our safety and security procedure for security reasons, but I can assure you it is robust. However, you would agree that we’ve moved from a tradition of one full body scanner at our air ports to two scanners now in Lagos alone. In Murtala Muhammad Airport, Lagos we also have five screening machines that detect metals, explosives and other banned substances. We have several metal detectors in the other airports and other security infrastructure. Don’t forget, we are coming from decades of decayed and neglected industry, fixing it won’t be a tea party. It is a pain taking process and it will take time too. I think Nigerians should be a little patient with us. Yes, we may not have met all expectations, but we can only do better. Our target is to ensure international best practices.
Recently, the FG issued a white paper on the Steve Orasanye Committee which recommended that NiMET, NCAA and NAMA be merged into one. The FG approved the recommendation. Aviation stakeholders have condemned the approval arguing that it would be a bad precedent in the industry and Nigeria may risk sanctions from ICAO. Is government worried about these concerns?
The Steve Orasanye Committee, I believe, considered all options and consulted widely with the relevant stakeholders even in the aviation industry before making the recommendations. Government has also looked critically at the proposal and considered it in the interest of the sector to approve the proposal. The merger I believe will improve efficiency and reduce waste and overhead cost in the aviation sector. However, the President has set up an implementation committee to see to the merger process. I don’t believe the government would go all out to implement policies that would hurt the aviation industry. The government considers the aviation industry very critical to transforming the economy, thus it wouldn’t jeopardize that with aviation hurting polices. Let’s trust the government to do what is right. This government is a listening one, if at any point the government considers the merger detrimental, it wouldn’t hesitate to rescind its decision.
Any challenges so far sir?
You call them challenges; I call them opportunities to make a difference in the sector. In whatever I do, I thrive for excellence so I can leave a place better than I had met it. So, whatever it is that is lacking in terms of infrastructure is an opportunity, even for private investors to step in and fill the gap. This government welcomes private investors in the sector and we are ready to support them in whatever way possible.
But some critics say, this government isn’t investor friendly. How can you correct this impression?
That is farther from the truth. Recall in February, just before the immediate past minister left the cabinet she held a stakeholders and investors meeting at Orientel Hotel in Lagos. The engagement was heavy and it lasted for about a week. During the engagements, including the buy-in for staff of the aviation industry, the minister and all the heads of aviation agencies took time to explain the vision of the industry, the investments areas in the industry and the opportunities that lay ahead for staff and the private sector. Will a government which is anti investors do all those? No. During those intensive engagements, discussion lines on investments areas were opened and we are continuing engagements on that. I maintain, and you can take this to find out, we are investor friendly and no rational mind can discredit our sincerity of purpose. There are several investment areas that have been developed and are still being developed like airport facility management, duty free development, shopping malls at the terminals, restaurants, perishable cargo processing facilities at the perishable cargo terminals, new airlines etc. The opportunities for the private sector players are almost limitless. I will welcome all investors and so will Mr. President.