At the beginning of the year, precisely on Wednesday, January 23, 2013, Stella Oduah, minister of aviation, expressed government’s resolve to make airports in the country very secure and attractive to air travellers. The minister emphasised that security at the nation’s airports is a priority of her ministry in order to meet global aviation standards, especially now that Nigeria is aiming at becoming the commercial hub for aviation in Africa. She was emphatic that air passengers were the number one client of the aviation industry who must be safe, secure and comfortable, adding that what the government is doing is global and of international standard on safety.
Given the above position, it is therefore believed that government will not at any time take security issues at the national airports for granted in order not to jeopardise this national goal. However, one factor that will continue to undermine government resolve to make the airports safe is the activities of illegal Bureau De Change (BDC) operators. The activities of these illegal currency changers at the airports are not only a huge source of security breach at the airports, they also spotlight the country as a nation where touting in everything has become a norm.
The international airport is the first port of call for foreigners visiting the country, and it is most likely that such visitors will view Nigeria with the first-time impression gained at such entry point – including the activities of currency touts.
The recent armed robbery attack at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, which was targeted at illegal BDC operators, is not only a confirmation of their security threat to the airports, it also places a question mark on the ability of government and its agencies to deal with the menace decisively. It took the recent armed robbery attack on Wednesday, March 13, 2013 that led to the death of two policemen and one suspected armed robber at the international terminal of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, to call the airport authorities to their constitutional duty.
The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) is said to have ordered all such bureaux de change operators at both the domestic and international terminals of both Murtala Mohammed Airport and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, to vacate the airports. FAAN stated that the ban on illegal currency exchange at all airports was informed by security concerns that the armed robbery attack at the general car park of the Lagos International Airport generated recently.
FAAN is also reported to have beefed up security at the Lagos airport with a combination of the State Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and Aviation Security (AVSEC) to patrol all the areas of the Lagos airport premises to forestall future occurrences.
While this is a welcome development and healthy for the airport and travellers, it is hoped that it would not end up a temporary measure that would see the re-appearance of the illegal BDC operators in the nearest future, since their modus operandi will always be attractive to armed robbers. Feelers have it that already, the sacked illegal currency operators may have found their way back to the airports. This is very worrisome as it is barely four weeks since they were asked to vacate the airports.
Operational vicinity of these operators remain the car parks, airport streets and environs which are supposed to be beautified by relevant authorities to give the airports the desired aesthetics. Though FAAN says it has swung into action to prevent the re-entrance of the illegal BDC operators into the airports and has only given them some time to pick whatever they have left at their operational bases, only time will prove the seriousness of the authorities. Current checks at the Lagos airport indicate that though they are yet to display their wares conspicuously at the car park, they still hang around in large number soliciting for customers, who need to sell or buy foreign currencies.
This new antics is not particularly different from their former modus operandi, which involved milling around the car park, where all manner of social vices are committed, mostly under the cover of darkness.
This is just the fear, that, after all, the illegal BDC operators may have returned back to business at the airports just days after the robbery incident.
Okebugwu writes from Lagos
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