Dreams From Wale Babalakin

imageDr. Wale Babalakin and Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka

Eight years after, a foremost public-private partnership project in infrastructure development in Nigeria, MMA 2, built by Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited, a company owned by Nigerian business mogul, Wale Babalakin continues to endure. Solomon Elusoji writes

In 2015, it may come as a surprise to see Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL) still doing what it was doing in 2007 – bringing innovation to the aviation industry against all odds.
Eight years ago, BASL blazed the trail in the successful execution of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project in Nigeria. The firm privately funded and completed the redevelopment of the domestic terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) arrangement, seven years after it was gutted by a midnight fire on May 10, 2000.

The terminal had been built in the pre-independence era, and before the construction of the International terminal, to cater for both international and regional flights.

On Thursday, May 7, BASL scored another first in the upgrade of the airport facilities with the launch of the common user passenger processing system (CUPPS), automatic e-gates, full baggage reconciliation system, and other technology innovations now at the MMA2.

MMA2 is the only airport terminal in Nigeria to have solely installed the latest version of this computer system that enables passengers and terminal users to experience a fast, secure, and customer-friendly way to board a flight.

The latest innovations are, no doubt, eloquent testimonies to the brilliance and resilience of its proprietor, Dr. Wale Babalakin, who recently survived two major assaults on his person and his business empire as the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) attempted to take over the assets of his companies, including the MMA2, shortly after he was discharged of an alleged N4.7billion money laundering case that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) filed against him.

Only a man with a fanatical commitment to national development could brave such a storm and, almost immediately, embark on massive projects that would make life better for the people.
What with the feat achieved by his foundation two months earlier in Zaria, where Babalakin had taken top-class ophthalmologists to restore the sights of over 10, 000 visually impaired persons free of charge; his commitments in the education sector, where he successfully revolutionized the roles of Pro-Chancellors in the university system by his exceptional contributions to development of the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID), where he served as the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council for four years without collecting any allowance; the sponsorship of 47 students in schools abroad and over 200 students in various Nigerian universities; the 80-bed hostel at the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN) in honour of his father, Justice B. O. Babalakin, a retired Supreme Court judge, and the 500-capacity auditorium he built at the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic in Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital, in the memory of his mother.

Associates have described Babalakin as one positive thinker who could see the invisible, feel the intangible and achieve the impossible. And he is always pushing the limits.

While speaking at the inauguration of the CUPPS and other facilities, Babalakin told the audience what MMA2 represents: “It is simple: Considerable cerebral input into very modest resources. And I make bold to say today that if you combine an intellectual leadership in governance with the phenomenal private sector, you will grow the infrastructure of this country beyond the imagination of the people.

“My belief is that money should follow strategy. Strategy should not follow money. It is not the best. MMA2 symbolizes how money has followed strategy and not the other way,” he said.
MMA2’s story is all about courage and dogged determination. And whoever watches Mel Gibson’s 1995 epic historical medieval war drama film, ‘Braveheart’, may find similarities in William Wallace’s ways and how Babalakin has been confronting challenges with admirable courage.

“Today, stakeholders are telling a great story in the aviation industry because there is someone such as Babalakin, who is always pushing the limits,” said Rasaq Kareem, an engineer who attended the CUPPS inauguration.

Babalakin’s accomplishments are vivid illustrations of the old fashioned saying: ‘Faint heart never won fair lady’.

The journey to realising MMA2 as an ultra-modern airport facility was not without its challenges, which was primarily in the area of financing, given the fact that BOT financing for such a huge project with a long term repayment plan is unpopular in Nigeria.

Despite the initial difficulty in raising the required finance, Bi-Courtney remained undeterred. The company proceeded with the project and interestingly expanded its scope to build a Terminal that eventually exceeded the expectations of the Federal Government.

At the time the company concluded the development of MMA2, it sourced the professional advice of Knight Frank and Rutley, the leading property partners. The company valued the terminal, as at then, at over N30 billion.

The project was funded from two sources: Equity of the owners/proprietor and the loans from the banks. The loan was syndicated from six banks to the tune of over N20 billion.
The terminal eventually commenced operations on May 7, 2007.

MMA2 remains the first major BOT project of its magnitude in the area of infrastructure development in Nigeria that has been successfully completed by an indigenous company. It also boasts the first and largest Multi-storey Car Park (MSCP) in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic nerve centre and financial hub.

Despite several unanticipated challenges, occasioned by the continued refusal of the federal government to comply with major aspects of the concession agreement and the attendant loss of revenue, BASL management explained that it has remained committed to providing first-class service and maintaining the highest standard of professionalism through continuous investment in the terminal.

MMA2 was described as one of the two cleanest places in the entire Lagos metropolis by a top official of the Lagos State Government and former Commissioner for the Environment. It was also voted the number one Airport Terminal in the country in 2014, in an independent survey commissioned by the Ministry of Aviation.

Its pre-eminence in the nation’s aviation industry is hinged on its distinct features with unparalleled state of the art facilities including a cosy terminal building, the multi-storey car park, hotel, conference centre, and an apron.

The terminal boasts a fully-equipped clinic that caters to staff and the general public. It also organises facility visit for students of primary and secondary schools, who are taken on a guided tour of all the facilities at the airport, to encourage science education among children.
MMA2 currently handles over 50 flights a day throughout Nigeria.

Babalakin said: “It has been seven years of great difficulty, but we must commend the Minister of Aviation for his vision, for his steadfastness, and for his attitude to saying the truth… So, I continued to make the case that you should listen to him, to his analysis, to his depth of thought, his theory, which he captured with the acronym – MMI, which are Measurement, Monitoring and Improvement. This is a product of a very deep mind.

“It is my belief that there is nothing called local aviation. Aviation is international. There is nothing called Nigerian aviation. Any time you say Nigerian aviation or Nigerian tendencies, we diminish ourselves. We must seek to comply with international standards and if we wish to make a good impression, we must exceed those standards. The honourable minister has shown me here that if you appoint as Minister of Aviation somebody with international perspective, someone who is considerably knowledgeable, and who is upright in his ways, aviation will go very far.”

At the inauguration of CUPPS, the Minister of Aviation, Chief Osita Chidoka, said: “This technology is wholly welcome. The MMA2 is putting us into it and we want to believe that the improvement in passengers experience at MMA2, the continuous quest for improvement, the continuous quest for excellence, is sustained. This continuous improvement is something I would like other managers of airports in Nigeria to begin to mimic. If they cannot truly capture it, all they need to do is just ‘copy and paste’ since the template is already there.”

Citing some instances in the aviation industry, Chidoka lamented that service delivery failure “is still a major concern in the industry”.

He added: “Part of the challenge is what brought us here today. I asked the Chairman of Bi-Courtney how many passengers have passed through this terminal and he said it is roughly about 1.2million passengers every year. Now, the ministry of aviation does not know whether this is 100, 000 people travelling 10 times or 500,000 people travelling twice. But with what they have installed today – the passenger tracking system, at least, we will know in MMA2 the unique passengers, and how many times they travel in a year.

“Again, since I resumed office as the Minister of Aviation, there has been a controversy. FAAN says there are 10 million passengers going through Nigerian airports, the airlines say it is not true, that it can’t be correct. The question now is: Who carries the passengers? If MMA2 has 1.2 million passengers a year, which is where the bulk of local airlines operate from, minus Arik and Air Peace, I wonder where the other passengers went through. Something as simple as knowing the data of air passengers across the airports is shrouded in mystery.

“Technology is going to make it possible for us to be able to say things with more clarity. Therefore what we have seen today, with the launch of the CUPPS, is a step in the right direction; and that it is coming from the airport Nigerians have voted as the best in the country.

“So, it is my very good pleasure to congratulate the management of Bi-Courtney and MMA2, in that you have continued to be worthy partners in the aviation sector. What you have done today is a major boost in the nation’s aviation industry; it has once again promoted the concept which I have termed – World Aviation, which literally means whether you suffer any problem in any of the airports – Lagos Airport, Enugu Airport etc, it affects or impacts the whole aviation sector. Whether it is fuel scarcity or whatever, the impact is all over, it affects the passengers, the pilots, the airlines’ sales drop, and everyone gets affected.

“This is, indeed, one more step in the aviation industry to make the airport customers-friendly. What MMA2 has done is to show that what passengers and other airport users see in Dubai, Paris, UK, US can eminently be replicated here in Nigeria.”

The CEO of BASL, Mr Christophe Penninck, said: “From the first idea of installing this system till today, it took the relentless efforts of our board, management team, various departments in BASL, the airlines, and ground handling companies, as well as the system providers, in the past 18 months to achieve what we are inaugurating today.

“Based on extensive research of what best system is available abroad, we selected RESA to be our system provider. The system we’re inaugurating today is the same as installed in major international airports like Charles De Gaulle, Bangkok International; the brand new airport terminal in Mauritius and over 200 airports worldwide.”

Penninck also told the audience how BASL had changed the check-in counters and scales, and increased the number from 31 to 45. The design and manufacturing was done by the same company providing Amsterdam Schiphol and various other major international airports. He said that they were chosen for their quality of workmanship and product.

According to him, the computers at the check-in desks were connected to brand new boarding pass printers and new baggage tag printers.

He said: “Each airline has a ticket barcode scanner to call up the ticket immediately and without any keyboard input to accelerate the check-in process. For passengers travelling without bags, we have purchased and installed four self-check-in kiosks. As you have seen in the video, they are a huge success with already over 8500 passengers checked in since the start of the soft opening.

“We have increased the security features at MMA2 by installing e-gates before the security screening point. As explained, this makes it virtually impossible for an unauthorized person to enter the sterile boarding zone.

“Each gate is now equipped with a boarding pass scanner and a brand new manifest printers. And the installation of PAXTRACK makes it possible to restrict access to certain zone based on the boarding pass; analyse the peaks and makes it easier to plan resources; locate a passenger within the terminal and enable boarding agents to have a better on-time performance.

“The installing of a full BRS makes MMA2 the only terminal in Nigeria to offer an automated baggage reconciliation system as prescribed by ICAO.

“We’re the only airport terminal in Nigeria that is providing baggage tags and boarding passes and the equipment was installed by our team and the system is owned by the airport.”

By Nigerian standards, domestic airport terminals have either airlines and ground handlers operate with manual boarding passes or expect the airlines to install their own equipment.
But BASL prides itself on constant power; serviceable escalators and lifts; latest check-in system, good choice of restaurants, shops and other services like banks, ATMs, pharmacies, and almost ready supermarket; automated and large multi-storey car park; clinic and ambulance into the bargain.

In addition to all these, BASL is also the only airport terminal with its own cargo shed.
Babalakin’s Midas touch has also impacted on projects outside the aviation industry.

During his tenure as Pro-Chancellor, over 50 major projects were inaugurated at UNIMAID.
His ingenuity provided electricity to UNIMAID and ensured an average of 20 hours supply daily without recourse to generator. UNIMAID is the first university in the country to enjoy this. And to his credit, the university’s library was upgraded. He provided counterpart funding for the project and contributed to the development of the university’s College of Medicine.

Other projects actualised during his tenure included the building of new faculties of Pharmacy, Clinical Sciences, Fine Arts, and Dentistry; two 500-seater auditoriums, 1,000-capacity auditorium, the development of an e-library, a new campus radio station, the dualisation of the university’s entry gate and the provision of solar-powered street lights.

To boost UNIMAID’s IGR, a 53-bed hotel was built in Abuja on land that was allocated to the university in 1978.

He built more structures in the university during his tenure than was achieved since the establishment of the institution without collecting the allowances due to him. For him, Nigerians need to make sacrifices to reposition the education sector.

It is worthy of note that during his four-year tenure as the Chairman of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors and that of the Implementation Monitoring Committee (IMC) of the 2009 Agreement between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), ASUU never went on strike. That was the first time in the history of the Nigerian education system that the universities were free of strike. Babalakin maintained an open communications channel and put his negotiating skills to good use.

His love for expanding the country’s knowledge base can be better understood if juxtaposed with his personal story: At 26, Babalakin already had a doctorate degree in law from the University of Cambridge. For his sacrifices, the university community and the citizens of Borno State hold him in high esteem.

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