By NBF News

An Opinion piece with the above caption authored by the very respected economic commentator, editor and Columnist with with a national newspaper (not The Sun) was published on the back page of the paper's edition of Monday, October 31, 2011. The commentary was supposed to pass for a battle-cry of a dissillusioned stakeholder in not only the aviation sector but also in the Nigerian project on what she percieves to be the actions and policy initiatives of the present Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah, to 'reverse' the perceived gains recorded in the industry in the past few years.

If for nothing else, the title suggests this much but nothing can be farther from the truth. We are daily witnesses to the deluge of outrage that has attended the dilapidation and decrepit condition of our airports, long before the present minister assumed office. What this implies is that the sector was never in forward motion in the first place, making talk of it suddenly being put in 'reverse gear' quite comical and contradictory.

We do not need to take you through the long road of the rot in the sector, this is common knowledge; especially to all those who must pass through what could hardly pass for airports!

What was not moving forward, to use that over-flogged Nigerian cliche, can certainly not be said to be put in reverse gear. At best, what the present aviation minister inherited on assumption of office was a stagnant, stagnated and comatose sector. This explains why she was horrified by the level of decay, dilapidation and neglect the sector had been left to suffer over the years when she went on facility tour of infrastructure across the nation's airports last July.

If so much was done in the industry before last July when the present administation in the sector came on board as we are now being goaded to believe, the present outrage against the rot could certainly not have been as deafening as we are hearing today. The writer admits that for decades, there has been no forward movement in the sector in spite of huge investment by goverment. She cannot, therefore, turn around in another breath to say there is deliberate effort at reversal. Hear her : 'The international airport in Lagos remains a scandal and an embarrassment to the nation. This airport has been in a permanent state of disrepair for a decade…'.

The process of putting the sector in forward motion, in the real sense of the phrase is the very actions and policy inititiatives for which the current minister is presently being vilified. But she remains undaunted.

Let us, even for the sake of argument assume that the concession agreement that gave birth to the MM2 was a faint sign that the sector was already in forward motion. Now, all the hullabaloo about the alleged moves to put the sector in 'Reverse Gear', to tell ourselves the truth, are with regard to the MM2 concession. To be sure, no agreement, no matter how finely crafted, is cast in stone, this is obviously without prejudice to the strong reservations the Minister has to most of the clauses in that agreement.

When Princess Oduah assumed office and was confronted with innumerable concession and lease agreements in the sector, what she did, as any discerning public office holder would do, was to institute an in-house panel to review the agreements. Because of her sense of decency and respect for contractual terms, she did not rush to cancel the said agreements outrightly. The process of review, unfortunately, is being understood in the negative sense. It should not necessarily be so. A review is a retrospective look at what transpired in the past with a view to seeing how best the public interest, as in this particular instance, was protected in that transaction. Now, who is afraid of a review? Except we want to be sold to the warped received wisdom that a contract once signed is sacrosanct. And come to think of it, the said concession agreement has been observed largely in the breach by the concessionaire.

The writer erroneously asserted that of all the problems confronting the sector, it is the issue of concessions that seem to be occupying the mind of the minister. This is obviously not true. To the contrary, rehabilitation of facilities and infrastructure in the sector that would deliver world class services, safety and customer comfort are the major concerns of the minister. That is why a lot of effort has been put in giving about 11 airports a huge face-lift through the Airport Remodelling Projects 2011. As you read this, work in this regard has commenced in some of the airports slated for the first phase of this programme. Of course, the review of concession agreements Ijeoma is alluding to is not an end in itself. It is part of the effort to deliver these expectations that the minister wants to be certain that public interest may not have been disproportionately sacrificed and compromised in the said transactions.

On the question of using public funds, rather than private sector investment to rehabilitate infrastructure in the sector, the Minister has been vehement that government does not have all the funds for such a crucial and huge exercise. But the remodelling projects can certainly not wait for conclusion of PPP agreements because of the urgency attached to giving the airports immediate face-lift. In the long run, PPPs will be the major plank on which the repositioning of the sector will be anchored.

A massive drive to attract private sector investment into the industry is currently underway, but crucially; the Minister does not share the view that public interest has to be blatantly and unduly undermined and sacrificed for the sake of consummating PPPs. To hold this position cannot in any way be misconstrued to mean sending wrong signals to the international commununity regarding our alleged inability to remain faithful to contractual terms. In fact, to the minister, any PPP arrangement that does not protect the public interest is not worth the trouble.

With specific reference to Bi-Courtney, MM2 Concession, Tariffs and charges, etc, which are the major legs on which this spurious argument of apparently discouraging private sector investment in the industry are standing, we are constrained to say very little as most of the issues in dispute are currently in a court of law. Suffice to state that as is conventional all over the world, it is incumbent on parties to an agreement to ensure that they are guided by the terms of the agreements by which they have agreed to be bound.

A party is not expected to act unilaterally or to interprete clauses to suit its own purposes. The much-talked about reversal of the N3000 Passenger Service Charge by the minister, for instance resulted from one party to the agreement acting unilaterally. The terms, conditions, processes and procedures on which tarrifs and charges can be raised are contained in the agreement and they state clearly that such action has to be carried out in consultation with the Guarantor!

There was a point made by the writer with regard to an alleged roadmap which the present minister has purportedly jettisoned. There shouldnt really be any quarrel here. According to the writer, that roadmap was essentially to be implemented through private sector funds. This is not entirely correct. To be sure, this is the same roadmap that many journalists have ascribed the N90 Billion to. Now, that roadmap contains both public and private sector funding components. This is also true of Princess Oduah's present roadmap, so there isnt actually a u-turn anywhere. Fundamentally, both roadmaps are intended to address the huge infrastructure deficit in the sector through PPPs. But the strategies for implementating the roadmap may be different and there is nowhere it is said that an alleged roadmap that hardly saw the light of day cannot be reviewed or re-drawn in the face of emerging realities and circumstances.

The Nigerian Aviation industry has suffered abject neglect in the past. Granted, many dispensations have come and gone with unfulfilled promises and Nigerians are entitled to be aggrieved and suspicious of government actions and declarations. Yet, we must neither be bugged down by the failures of the past nor be denied the benefit of the doubt.

The present Minister, with her private sector background has a mission to accomplish in the sector. Bi-Courtney Concession is only but one infinitesimal fragment of the challenges facing the sector and the impression must not be created that the revival of the sector is dependent on only one company. For too long since assumption of office, the Minister has been consistently assailed for the simple fact that she dared to take a peep into the Bi-Courtney concession agreement. It is high time we began to look beyond one industry stakeholder and concentrate on the big picture which is the resuscitation of the comatose aviation sector.

We however make haste to add that the present Minister has nothing against the private sector. In fact, all her plans are anchored on the participation of the private sector for the revival of the sector. The point must however be made that in the drive and determination to engage the private sector, the public interest will remain paramount and will never be unduly sacrificed no matter the lure, pressure or level of intimidation.

• Obi is SA (Media) to Aviation Minister