The Federal Government says it has budgeted the sum of N5.8bn for the repair of the runway at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi; and the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, appeared before the Senate on Thursday to give explanation on the planned closure of the Abuja airport and the diversion of flights to the Kaduna airport.
The Senate had on Tuesday kicked against the planned closure of the Abuja airport for the repairs, scheduled to last for six weeks.
The lawmakers had summoned Amaechi, Sirika, the Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Babatunde Fashola; the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Mohammed Bello; Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadiq Abubakar; and heads of aviation agencies.
Fashola and Bello were, however, absent at Thursday’s hearing.
Amaechi, when called upon to address the lawmakers, said Sirika was in a better position to speak on the developments in the aviation sector.
Sirika, who was grilled by the lawmakers for about three hours, was asked questions bearing on the cost of the runway repair, relocation of personnel and logistics to Kaduna, and security measures for travellers who would ply the Abuja-Kaduna Expressway, among others.
The Senate was also concerned about the extra-budgetary cost agencies such as the Nigeria Immigration Service, Nigeria Customs Service and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency would incur by moving to Kaduna.
The Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, asked the Aviation minister to tell the lawmakers why runways in other major airports in the country were not getting the same attention being given to the one in Abuja.
Ekweremadu, while wondering why an international airport would have a single runway, asked Sirika for the cost of ferrying passengers between the Abuja and Kaduna airports, while the closure of the NAIA would last.
Sirika said the total cost of rehabilitation of the runway was N5.8bn, and explained that the former President Goodluck Jonathan-led administration had budgeted N1.2bn for the same purpose, but the amount had to be increased due to the extent of damage to the runway.
The minister’s inability to provide a breakdown of the cost forced the Senate to suspend the hearing.
The President of the Senate, Senator Bukola Saraki, who presided over the session, asked Sirika to get the necessary documents and facts, and asked the minister to return to the Senate on Tuesday to enable the lawmakers to take a final position on the issue.
Saraki said he had been bombarded with calls from Nigerians and foreign countries’ envoys on the security implication of diverting local and international flights to Kaduna.
Sirika, however, said, “This work is not for six weeks but six months; but the closure is for six weeks. This is to enable us to work on the runway. We have got to a critical stage where we can’t work on the airport and allow planes to fly. We want to take advantage of the dry season to quickly work on it. If we do not take advantage of this, we will have to wait up until the next dry season.
“Nigeria has closed its runway before. The Port Harcourt airport runway was closed for over two years. That airport is not less important than the Abuja airport.
“We have been meeting with every stakeholder for at least two months. The Kaduna airport will be the alternative airport within this period. We had an incident on the runway of the Abuja airport. We have a huge responsibility to do what is good.”
He added, “The two options of working at night and opening the airport during the day will not work. The other reason is that we are constructing and not necessarily repairing. It is going to be a construction site. We will have equipment all over the airport and this is dangerous.
“There will be incidences that will cause accidents. If anything goes wrong, we will be held responsible. We just had seven incidents, which were attributed to windshield.”
Sirika also stated that the Federal Government would be fully responsible for the movement of passengers between the Abuja and Kaduna airports.
“We will have at every intersection traffic controllers. At every interval, we will have security agents, ambulances and other things in place. The Federal Ministry of Power Works and Housing has been mandated to work on the Abuja-Kaduna road. Within this period, we will provide free rail and bus services for passengers. We will provide helicopters for high net worth individuals,” he said.
A former Minister of Works, Senator Barnabas Gemade, noted that the Kaduna airport had not been designated as an international airport, while wondering why international flights would be diverted to the facility.
He advised the Federal Government to reduce the duration of the closure of Abuja airport to two weeks, if it must close the facility.
The immediate past Chairman, Senate Committee on Aviation, Senator Hope Uzodinma, urged Sirika to furnish the lawmakers with evidence of an integrity survey report, and asked the minister to respond to the Nigerian Society of Engineers, which faulted the planned closure.
Sirika, in his response, said most of the sections of the runway had become dilapidated, and noted that the failure of multiple portions of the runway was a sign that it had collapsed.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives on Thursday sought for more technical information on the planned closure of the Abuja airport.
It noted that such information would guide it in taking a formal stance on whether to support the closure or oppose it.
In a resolution passed following a motion moved by Olufunke Adedoyin, the House summoned Sirika and his technical team to “brief members and defend the plan to shut down the airport for six weeks.”