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Abuja Journal: Airport Will Temporarily Shut, Disrupting a Nigerian Lifeline

After mounting complaints about the poor state of the runway from airlines, and with safety consultants fearing impending disaster, government officials finally acceded to fixing its many cracks and holes — repairs that are 15 years overdue.

Officials decided the damage was so bad that it couldn’t be fixed piecemeal and required a total shutdown of operations. They have said repairs should take no more than six weeks, but skeptical passengers accustomed to unfulfilled government promises worry that work could drag on for months.

I passed through the low-slung airport a few times recently. Construction equipment was already in place. Passengers balled up at the entrance were in typically testy moods. I was fleeced by a man claiming he would handle my ticket purchase on Air Peace, a domestic carrier, only to realize too late that he was merely a go-between with big shoulders who could muscle his way to the front of the line.

The government’s Plan B for the airport isn’t soothing concerns. Planes are to be rerouted to a tiny airport in Kaduna, where on a typical day only a handful of flights go in and out. A new terminal being built in Kaduna to handle the influx was still under construction.

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Passengers at the airport in February. Abuja, the Nigerian capital, relies on the airport’s 80 daily flights, which will be suspended for an estimated six weeks. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Passengers will be ferried free of charge by bus on a roughly three-hour trip to Abuja along a road famous for kidnappings and banditry in a region where nomadic herdsmen and farmers engage in frequent deadly clashes. Officers from the air force, road safety corps and the secret police will be posted along the road linking the two cities, and officials have assured the public that everyone will be safe.

While the shutdown will cause hassles for travelers, it will upend the financially fragile lives of workers in an economic ecosystem that thrives both inside and on the fringes of the terminals.

Food service providers, security services and others say they may not be able to pay workers.

“Kaduna is not that big. Not all of our staff can go there,” said Aliyu Oladimeji, a manager whose baggage-handling company still hadn’t decided how it would sort out employee salaries during the shutdown. “There’s nothing we can do. We just have to bear it.”

Sandra William runs a restaurant selling dishes like rice, vegetable stews and semo, a doughy wheat-based ball used for dipping in her stews, to travelers in the arrivals hall. She is worried the six weeks of nonoperation won’t be deducted from the annual rent she pays for her stall.

“For me, safety is first,” she said. “But it’s still going to affect me. If we don’t sell, I can’t pay my rent.”

The closing of the airport couldn’t come at a worse time for Nigeria. Still reeling from low oil prices, a currency crisis, and expensive wars against militants blowing up its pipelines in the south and Boko Haram rampaging in the north, the country’s economy has sunk into recession.

To add to the anxiety, President Muhammadu Buhari left the country for medical treatment in January and has yet to return.

Many people fear that shutting the airport in the capital is going to further isolate the nation from help that it badly needs to pull out of its economic mess.

Aid groups that in recent months have ramped up logistically challenging operations in the nation’s northeast, which has suffered pockets of famine, are trying to rearrange humanitarian flights that normally leave from Abuja.

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Repairs to the runway have been deferred for 15 years, raising safety concerns. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

“Everybody is worried in Nigeria,” said Emmanuel Onyekwena, the chief executive of Tolmann Allied, who uses the Abuja airport at least once every two weeks to travel for his company, which supports the nation’s oil and gas industry. “The seat of power is here. The people who make decisions are here.”

The Abuja airport opened in 1982, and it hasn’t had a thorough resurfacing since then, said Henrietta Yakubu, acting general manager of the corporate affairs for the Department for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria. Temporary patches put on the runway every few weeks by maintenance crews are no longer working, Ms. Yakubu said.

“Proper maintenance should have been done, but it wasn’t done,” she said.

Some international airlines have decided to reject the government’s plan to fly to Kaduna and instead are rerouting flights to Lagos until the Abuja airport is operational. Domestic travelers accustomed to hopping a 70-minute flight from Lagos to Abjua face a nearly 11-hour drive that can be much longer with traffic.

In past months, fliers of Nigerian skies already had been experiencing big problems. The country has had a shortage of dollars, and airline fuel, imported using foreign exchange, has at times been difficult to secure. Flights have been canceled — prompting full-fledged brawls at airline counters, documented on social media.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Jesse Shedrack, one of the 850 taxi drivers who ferry passengers into town, was waiting under a canopy by the airport terminal with other drivers, all of whom were outraged that their work would be cut off.

“It’s a federal capital,” he said. “You close the airport for six weeks, it’s unheard-of.”

Mr. Shedrack and other drivers said they couldn’t relocate to Kaduna because they would come into conflict with an association of drivers who work there. “If we go there, there will be a riot,” he said.

The closing will also upend the lives of children who sell bags of six or seven peanuts in the shell, of men who push luggage carts for a fee, of people who hawk manila folders stuffed with a type of spicy beef jerky, of money changers and phone credit sellers — all of whom rely on travelers to manage their precarious financial situations.

Abdul Ganiyu sells tiny luggage padlocks for the equivalent of about $ 1 in the airport parking lot. He has grown accustomed to earning between $ 12 and $ 24 a day, enough to feed his wife and two children. He doesn’t know what he’ll do for income when the airport closes and is praying repairs stay on schedule.

“I’m just hoping God opens a way for us,” he said.

Source: NYT > World

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