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Faith Nyasuguta 

Last Thursday, Dauda Lawal, the governor of Zamfara, one of Nigeria’s poorest states, marked the commencement of an international airport in the state capital, Gusau. “The economic benefits and multiplier effects are quite enormous,” Lawal stated. “The airport will significantly impact the ease of doing business and social interactions here.”

Barely a month earlier, Alex Otti, the governor of Abia state in the southeast, thanked federal officials for approving an airstrip project and expressed his intent to lobby for a full airport upgrade. “A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step,” Otti remarked.

Airports have been proliferating across Nigeria, with little concern for the environmental impact of increased air travel. The country already has 33 airports, mostly owned by federal or state governments, along with 13 airstrips, four military airfields, and 128 helipad sites

Despite the surge in construction, air travel decreased last year to 15.89 million journeys, down from 16.17 million in 2022. Passenger traffic is heavily concentrated, with just three airports accounting for 92% of all passenger journeys in 2022, according to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority.

Ebonyi International Airport /Voice of Nigeria/

For some, the airport-building spree seems driven more by political prestige than economic necessity. “Politicians have shifted focus from roads and railways, which are harder to maintain, to shiny airports,” said Feyi Fawehinmi, an author and political commentator. “Airports allow politicians to claim they’ve connected their state to the rest of the country and the world.”

In some cases, new airports struggle with maintenance. Last year, Ebonyi state inaugurated an airport costing 36 billion naira (£19 million). Months later, an additional 13.7 billion naira was spent on runway repairs. By May, the federal government decided to take over the facility, stating, “We have FEC [the Nigerian cabinet] approval; we just need to refund the Ebonyi state government.”

Nigeria’s aviation minister, Festus Keyamo, defended the projects as “social amenities for the people.” He emphasized the importance of evenly distributed infrastructure in a geopolitically sensitive and ethnically diverse country. “Airports in Nigeria are not just for commercial viability; they serve beyond the pleasure of those who can afford to fly,” Keyamo argued.

Experts agree that numerous airports could eventually benefit Africa’s most populous country, despite the sometimes-questionable motivations behind their construction. “Heathrow used to be a village until the airport came,” noted Samuel Akinyele Caulcrick, former rector of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology. “Politicians have their reasons, but we should be asking why we’re not using them to their full potential since airports drive development.”

Cost remains a significant barrier. Fares have doubled over the past three years in a country where more than half the population lives on less than £1 a day. Multiple government taxes and high service charges exacerbate the issue. In 2023, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) highlighted that the $100-a-passenger service charge at Lagos and Abuja airports was the world’s highest. “How can you have such high taxes and expect to be profitable?” questioned Kamil Al-Awadhi, IATA’s vice-president for Africa and the Middle East.

To reduce the number of underused “ghost” airports, industry experts suggest expanding freight transportation by air. Caulcrick proposed flying raw and processed goods to Lagos port for export instead of trucking them.

Toni Ukachukwu, head of the Lagos-based consultancy Aviators Africa and host of the ASAP podcast on industry sustainability, argued for diversifying aviation services. “In South Africa and Kenya, you have three, four, and five-seater airplanes for scenic, agricultural, and game reserve flights. We don’t have that in Nigeria,” he said.


Ukachukwu recommended looking at successful domestic models like Ibom Air, the state-owned but professionally managed carrier of oil-rich Akwa Ibom state, known for its punctuality. “For five years, they have steadily grown. This is a model Nigerian operators need to emulate,” he said.


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Faith Nyasuguta

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