Hans Werner, a captain of the Lufthansa airline, left the Koeln Airport, Bonn, West Germany, for Nigeria on August 2, 1986. The 10-page pre-flight information bulletin he got at the Koeln Airport sufficiently warned him of the situation at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, and the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano. The bulletin said several navigational, approach, and landing aids that would help Werner pilot his big bird safely in Nigeria were either unserviceable or unavailable. In Kano, the Distant Measuring Equipment, DME, the Non-Directional Beacon, NDB, the Instrument Landing System, ILS, and the runway lights, were all said to be unserviceable. Werner was even warned of the possibility of stray animals on the Kano apron. A similar situation is said to exist at the Lagos airport.
What all these meant for Werner was that he was to rely more on what, in aviation terms, is called Visual Flight Rules, VFR, which means using one’s naked eyes for a hi-tech job. An experienced pilot with tens of thousands of flying hours, Werner consoled himself and took off. But the German pilot was to have the fright of his life. As he was embarking on the final descent, just a few minutes before touching down at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, the lights at the airport went off, Werner found himself screaming, unconsciously. But he recollected himself just in time to get the aircraft up again on what is called a holding pattern, flying around the airport for about seven minutes before power was restored. He was lucky that he had enough fuel.
For many pilots in Nigeria, what happened to Werner is almost a daily experience. So many things are wrong with Nigeria’s airports all at the same time. On August 12, Nigeria Airways operated a flight with the Airbus A-310 flown by Captain Philip Machunga and co-pilot Johnson Omodiagbe. It was a frustrating experience for them. “Oh, it’s blind flying we are doing here,” Machunga said to Newswatch’s Anietie Usen, who was flying with official permission in the cockpit. The two young pilots had been calm all the way but they became frustrated at a point when their contact with Kano could not give them the accurate information they needed to land. “Most of the time, we are not friendly with these air traffic controllers. Most of them are not well trained. They keep feeding you with very inaccurate information,” Omodiagbe said as he shouted messages across to the air traffic controllers at Kano.
Machunga said the DME, the NDB, and most of the other navigational, approach, and landing aids are unserviceable. “That gives us extra work and it’s risky,” the pilot said. Whether in Kano, Lagos, Port Harcourt, or any other international airport in Nigeria, the problem of navigational aids is the same.
On land, the situation is equally frustrating. The Kano airport has virtually nothing apart from the immigration and customs checking counters. Communication equipment are dead. There are no conveyor-belt and high loaders to carry loads to and from aircraft. Said Richard Ebodaghe, Nigeria Airways’ acting district manager in Kano: “We virtually have to carry loads on our heads here.” What is worse, Kano airport is probably the dirtiest international airport in the world. The airport building constructed in the 1940s is a shadow of its former self. The paint has peeled off the cracking walls. Doors and windows are broken and without locks. The toilets are unkempt. Said Garba Ahmed, acting editor of Triumph, a Kano-based newspaper: “This so-called international airport in Kano is a disgrace to this country.”
Sokoto, Maiduguri, Ilorin, and Kaduna airports are tagged international airports because they serve as exit points for pilgrims. They lack navigational and ground facilities just like Kano. Similarly, the N4 million Calabar “international” airport which used to serve as a transit station for Nairobi, Yaounde, and Brazaville passengers, does not have something as basic as telephone facilities.
In 1985, the N250 million Murtala Muhammed International Airport was voted “the worst in Africa” in a survey conducted by a London-based international magazine. Hotels and Business Travels. Also, the International Aviation Transport Association, IATA, said three months ago that security measures in the foremost international airports, Lagos, Kano, and Port Harcourt were “very inadequate.” That earned Nigeria an instant rebuke by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, which a year earlier, had described Nigeria’s air space as a “red zone.”
The annoyance of IATA and ICAO may have stemmed from rampant raids on aircraft at the Lagos tarmac. Ethiopian, Ghanaian, and Spanish aircraft as well as a Nigeria Airways’ plane and two private aircraft had been raided and robbed by bandits at the airport.
At their inception, most of these airports, especially Lagos and Port Harcourt were in good shape. It did not take long before things started to fall out of joints. Abubakar Sule Natiti, the air commodore who is in charge of the aviation department said that the necessary aviation facilities at the airports were unserviceable because of lack of spare parts, but said that the government has approved N3.5 million for the purchase of navigational and landing aids. How soon the aviation aids will be put back in shape remains a matter of conjecture.