The Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is the busiest airport in West Africa yet underneath its lobbies lie some terrible secrets writes, OBODO EJIRO.
On the bright Sunday afternoon of 17, December 2017, a South African couple engaged in small talk as they awaited their Johannesburg bound flight at the departure lobby of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) in Lagos. They had just visited Nigerian televangelist, Prophet TB Joshua, they told me and they had “had a nice time.”
As for me, a two and half hour flight delay, had given me a rare opportunity to extensively tour MMIA. I spent the time exchanging pleasantries with passengers and workers at the airport as I awaited my Accra bound flight; ahead of a series of journalistic assignments in Ghana.
As I looked at the happy couple just before they left, I was sure that if they knew the details I had gathered about this famous airport, they would hope to leave it sooner, rather than later.
However, basking in the euphoria of being in the busiest of West Africa’s 33 international airports, the couple, like most of the 6.7 million travellers who used the airport in 2016, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), may never know the dark secrets that lie beneath the airport.
On the surface, MMIA, which was modelled after the Amsterdam Airport, Schiphol, may impress some travellers but the infrastructure and inner workings of the place show a picture of poor maintenance, decay and risk.
Inside the inner-recesses
“You haven’t seen anything yet, my brother,” a young man who is a casual worker with a canteen at the airport told me, when I asked about the broken ceilings and poorly mended floors. (This was at least an hour before I met the South Africa couple.)
If I take you to the section where we store our raw food and drinks you will see strange things, he said, an ominous smile appearing on his face.
So, off we went to the basement and lower sections of the airport and to my surprise, the first sight that greeted us was that of rats and cats cohabiting! I was told that even within the airport rats, cats and other rodents are running amok as the facility is fast becoming home to a multitude of such animals.
“I think the cats were introduced to chase away the rats but strangely, they have become friends,” the young man told me corroborating the evidence before my eyes.
“Since the cats have enough food to eat, why would they bother with chasing and killing rats for food,” he jokingly asked me without waiting for an answer. Indeed, the evidence shows that there is enough ruminants or rice, chicken, meat and other assorted types of food at the airport waste disposal sections to go round all the animals.
My guide further told me of a certain day when two cats that were fighting in the ceiling close to the canteen where he works fell to the ground. “You need to see how the Nigerians present took to their heels as if a ghost had suddenly appeared. Only the white people who are used to having cats around them had the courage to keep looking as the animals continued their battle.”
Deep dark dungeon
“This is a Nigerian airport, you cannot snap pictures freely in these parts,” my guide told me as we went deeper in the basement. (If they see you snapping pictures, you could be arrested he told me, even though I managed to snap a few.)
Here, uuncontrolled water, dripping from the air-conditioners on the two floors above, has actually created large pools of water which have in turn become a kind of river under the terminal building. I reasoned that this steady flow of water could actually weaken the foundation and cause serious damage in the future.
“When the vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbanjo was here in April, he was shielded from seeing this part of the airport,” my guide said. “They didn’t want cassala to burst,” he said in pidgin English.
In this section, there is no security or effective lightening, it is dark and moulds are growing everywhere. The stench of decomposing food and dead animals chocks the air. Also, the decay of a building that has not enjoyed the pampering of renovation in years is evident at every turn.
Back to the first and second floors, the scenario is much the same. It is not uncommon to see roughly done patches made with cement on the floors and walls which have either cracked or are on the verge of cracking.
The sections of the airport where most airlines have their offices presents a spectacle. Some of the walls are broken, the paint is rundown, and the airlines have to resort to self-help to bring their offices and surrounding areas some facelift.
Occasionally, ceilings fall off or dangle and the major elevator at the airport has become a frightening monument because of poor maintenance and age. Press a button in the elevator and it takes at least a minute and half before, there is a mechanical response.
The air conditioners at the departure section of the airport work and the place is rather well lit however, the arrival section presents a different picture. Most of the air conditioners in that section, which should ideally welcome tourists, investors and other visitors, have stopped working. A good number of the fluorescent light there are perpetually blinking or do not come on at all.
Under the burden of age, most of the previously neat white ceiling sheets presently show brown patches or a greyish colour typical of old things.
Get into the toilets and a strange sight greets you. There are no toiletries, so passengers resort to fetching water from taps to meets their hygiene needs. This process makes it inevitable for the toilet to be flooded with empty bottles.
In one of the toilets, a huge fan has been deployed because the air conditioner there has parked up. The wind from the fan is the only way to push out the repugnant smell of human excrement mixed with heat.
Symbolism of modern airports
In most developed and developing countries, international airports have become a marketing tool. They are used to impress potential investors who are visiting those countries. In such places, the infrastructure within the airport is not just world class, but is maintained in such a way as to leave a positive image on memory on the minds of visitors.
This is what the governments of the countries in the Middle East and many parts of Africa are doing. Cases in point are the Etihad International Airport in Abu Dhabi and airports in South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya among others.
In these airports, lounges are well maintained, toilets are well kept and the environment is meant to be appealing. Of particular importance are air conditioning, electricity supply and free, unhindered internet access to all passengers. Most of these things are luxuries at MMIA.
Apart from infrastructure, it is not uncommon for immigration officers at MMIA to be seen begging both local and international travellers for money. However, it is not because the airport is not generating revenue that it is poorly maintained. My investigation actually revealed that the facility is a big business hub.
Wealth surrounded by a poor environment
More than fifty separate businesses operate within MMIA. Of this number, there are 34 shops or small businesses selling food, drinks, clothing or offering other services. Nine banks and four major international telecoms operators have offices in the facility; that is apart from the airlines and financial institutions that deal in foreign currency (bureau de change operators) within the airport.
One of the small shop operators who runs a canteen told me that she pay as much as N7million ($19,444) annually for space. There is a penalty for not paying rents on time. The banks, bureau de change operators and telecoms companies pay more in rent.
Apart from these incomes from rent, major banks have invested millions of dollars on sponsorships and advertisement at MMIA. Key among them are Zenith Bank and UBA. Other key advertisers are the telecoms companies, which also use the opportunity to sell their sim cards to Nigerians and foreigners who have just arrived from other countries.
The authorities rake in nothing less than N700million ($1.9million) from rent and these promotional activities annually, not to talk of taxes and levies which passengers pay for using the airport.
As expected, things at MMIA are extremely expensive. But some of the merchants say that they would have operated better businesses if the infrastructure were better around their shops. “If this section was more pleasant more passengers would have stayed back to eat and shop, but because of the poor state of things, they just rush to the section where they wait for their flights and off they go,” a trader told me. “But what can I do? I don’t have an option,” she said.
Black elephant projects
It is not that there has not been massive investment in MMIA. Successive administrations and governments have invested sizable funds in attempts at bringing the airport to speed. In 1999, there was a massive remodelling effort. In successive years, funds were committed to improving the airport.
However, in 2017, when the federal government allotted N31.1 billion ($863.8million) for construction and repairs of federal airports across the country, MMIA was left out because of its peculiarities.
Pools of water under the airport from leaking air conditioners above present a spectacle
Most of the effort at improving MMIA has not been revolutionary and a poor maintenance culture has always ensured that even after major overhauls, things soon return to the conditions they were before.
A travel website, The Guide to Sleeping in Airports, last year rated the Port Harcourt aerodrome as the “world’s worst airport”. Lagos and Abuja international airfields were also named among the 10 worst airports in Africa.
Standing in motion
MMIA remains Nigeria’s major international airport. It was initially built during World War II and is named after General Murtala Muhammed, the 4th military ruler of Nigeria. Thousands of passages from across Nigeria’s 36 states and the west African sub-region pass through the airport daily.
It is at the center of international travel in Nigeria. In 2016, 69.1% of international passengers coming into or going outside ofNigeria passed through it, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics. In the third quarter of 2016 alone, some 763,374 international passengers passed through the airport. The number of passengers who experience the airport keeps growing daily.
After the visit of the vice president in mid 2017, Federal Government through its agency, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), commenced renovation. But by the last week of 2017, not much progress had been achieved and a lot is still left to chance.
Perhaps, a very flexible concession that could leave the facility in the care of the private sector will make the airport more functional and viable. At present, there is little evidence that the Federal Government can effectively commit to the millions of dollars that are necessary to adequately invest in the upgrade of the airport terminal.
There was a concession which failed in the past. Policy makers need to study the short comings of that arrangement and work on its weaknesses in crafting a new concession. That way, all the anomalies at Murtala Muhammed International Airport can be sorted. All efforts to get the authorities at the airport to comment on my observations proved abortive.