·       Says directive fraught with economic landmines, health hazards, undue risk.

The National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) has expressed reservations on the recent directive by the Minister of Aviation to federal aviation agencies located in Lagos to relocate to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

In a letter addressed to the Aviation Minister, sighted by National Record, NUATE said it received with apprehension the news of the directive to all federal agencies in the aviation sector to complete the relocation of their headquarters to Abuja within 45 from the date of the minister’s order against the backdrop of, among other considerations, the prevailing health challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and the huge economic implications that the relocation portends for the federal government.

The letter signed by Comrade Ocheme Aba, NUATE’s General Secretary, stated that “complying with this directive is fraught with economic landmines, health hazards and undue risk.”

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The Minister’s directive

Sirika

Hadi Sirika, the Minister of Aviation, in a letter dated 4th May, 2020, signed on his behalf by the Director, Human Resource Management, Alhaji Muhammad Shehu, had stated that the relocation of the corporate headquarters of all federal aviation agencies from Lagos to Abuja has become imperative because of the need to reduce the cost of governance especially as a result of the current global economic challenges.

In the letter entitled: “Relocation of Aviation Agencies to Abuja,” Shehu stated: “I am directed to remind you of a Presidential directive issued in 2012 requesting all the agencies under the Ministry of Aviation to relocate their corporate headquarters to the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) for efficient and effective coordination and enhanced service delivery and note that eight (8) years after the directive, the agencies are yet to comply.”

“Accordingly, considering the current situation and the economic impact worldwide as well as the need to reduce the cost of governance and manage scarce resources in a sustainable way, it has become imperative and further to the Honourable Minister’s directive (copy attached) to request that you facilitate and complete the relocation of your corporate headquarters within the next forty-five (45) days in line with this earlier directive.”

NUATE gives reasons for opposing the relocation

Comrade Aba

According to Comrade Aba, NUATE believes that in view of the prevailing circumstances, the ministry should take a more cautious and pragmatic approach to the exercise.

While acknowledging that the decision and directive to relocate the headquarters of all federal agencies to Abuja goes back to 2012, Comrade Aba, however, argued that there are profound reasons why the directive has not been carried out till date.

He said: “It was because the cost implication was determined and found exceedingly prohibitive. And there was no source of revenue that could accommodate such unforeseen expenditure. As such the issue died a natural death. As far as we can see, nothing has changed for the better. If anything, the cost implication is bound to have worsened significantly.

“As far as we know, none of the agencies have a relocation component in the 2020 approved budget. It would be impossible to contemplate such huge expenditure as extra budgetary spending, not to mention the impracticality of raising such funds in the current clime of over 90% loss of revenue due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

“In most of the agencies in question, many staff are presently being owed transfer allowances for upward of 12 months. It is difficult to understand how an agency that has been unable to pay transfer allowances for a few staff can afford to relocate its whole headquarters comprising several offices and personnel without extra budgetary support.”

According to the union, the coronavirus pandemic is an important factor which makes the relocation at this time extremely inauspicious an exercise. “It is apparent that this period of the Covid-19 pandemic is simply unsuitable to engage in mass movement of people as this relocation exercise portends. One would not expect the Federal Government to contravene its own laws and guidelines regarding unnecessary movement of people, especially across states. Not to talk of the subsisting closure of airports,” NUATE pointed out, while also drawing the minister’s attention to some of the key reasons for putting off the relocation exercise in the past.

Important among the reasons behind President Obasanjo’s suspension of the relocation exercise, Comrade Aba said, was the consideration that doing so would severely disrupt the operations of the aviation agencies and their primary constituents.

“It was because the cost implication was determined and found exceedingly prohibitive. And there was no source of revenue that could accommodate such unforeseen expenditure. As such the issue died a natural death. As far as we can see, nothing has changed for the better. If anything, the cost implication is bound to have worsened significantly. As far as we know, none of the agencies have a relocation component in the 2020 approved budget. It would be impossible to contemplate such huge expenditure as extra budgetary spending, not to mention the impracticality of raising such funds in the current clime of over 90% loss of revenue due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. In most of the agencies in question, many staff are presently being owed transfer allowances for upward of 12 months. It is difficult to understand how an agency that has been unable to pay transfer allowances for a few staff can afford to relocate its whole headquarters comprising several offices and personnel without extra budgetary support.”

“It is necessary to draw the Honourable Minister’s attention to various extenuative events in the past relevant to the relocation order. Important among them is the exemption granted the maritime and aviation agencies from the relocation order by the Obasanjo regime. This was to prevent the severe dislocation of the connection between the agencies and their primary constituents that were, and still are, congregated around their operational bases in Lagos.

“This is the story behind the Ship House in Abuja which was built by the NPA as its corporate headquarters but was released to the Nigeria military after the Obasanjo government decided to allow the NPA remain headquartered in Lagos.

“We are confident that if the huge financial implications to airlines and other end users of the services of these agencies who are established in Lagos are factored into the relocation order, then the cost would become too humongous to contemplate,” the General Secretary reflected.

He further argued that though the union understands the need to reduce the cost of governance through the exercise, which if successfully done, would cut down costs relative to the frequent trips by heads of the relevant aviation agencies to meetings with the minister; such unnecessary costs can be avoided by utilising the technology of virtual meetings which have become the norm due to Covid-19.

“We truly understand the intention of government to reduce the cost of governance through this exercise. The chunk of this reduction is to be realized from the savings from the Heads of agencies’ frequent trips to Abuja to answer the calls of the Honourable Minister of Aviation. He said: The chunk of this reduction is to be realized from the savings from the Heads of agencies’ frequent trips to Abuja to answer the calls of the Honourable Minister of Aviation.

“But, most believe, ourselves included, that these frequent calls are really unnecessary and actually amount to undue distraction and interference from the Ministry.

“Besides, as COVID-19 has taught us, virtual meeting has become the order of the day. This can be a veritable resort by the Ministry to save the severe headache orchestrated by the present disconcerting relocation order to the agencies.

“We find ourselves in this awkward position of ventilating our opinion in this manner because the Ministry ignored the need to engage with labour in the course of processing this decision. This is evidence of absence of good faith.

“Knowing the trade union tenet of collective bargaining and the impact this relocation would create on employees should have advised for proper engagement of the unions. We think that it would have served a useful cause to secure the buy-in of the workers through their representative Unions to guarantee full co-operation. Unfortunately, this did not happen,” Comrade Aba contested while admonishing the leadership of the ministry to shelve the relocation in the overall interest of not only the workers but even more so of the concerned agencies.

The letter, which was copied the Chairmen of both Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Aviation, was also copied the heads of the various agencies affected by the directive. They include Managing Director/CEO, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), The Managing Director/CEO, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Director General/CEO, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), and the Commissioner/CEO, Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB).

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