By Tina S. Mehnpaine
Hopes were alive when former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government embarked on the renovation of the Roberts International Airport, Liberia’s only international air travels means.
During the regime of Madam Sirleaf, Liberians were told that the government through partners used the sum of approximately 82.8 million United States dollars to end what was then considered as a shame to the nation’s airport.
Those monies were invested by partners of Liberia to include funding for the terminal, US$49.8 million concessional loan provided by China Export-Import (EXIM), the Saudi Fund for Development gave US$20 million for the runway refurbishment.
Ten million United States dollars came from the Arab Bank for Economic Development for Africa and the government of Liberia provided the sum of US$3 million as means of buttressing her partner’s efforts.
All these were geared towards providing a safe means of travel via that airport, but things have not gone as expected.
With all of the money spent by the previous administration and still there has not been improvement done has left many to question whether using another US$23 million by the current administration will put to an end the nightmare.
Liberian interviewed by the TSM including a Civil Society Advocate, Harold M. Aidoo has constant said the current problem at the airport is at the result of poor management, corruption, lack of accountability and transparency.
The situation at the airport according to those who have used that means of travelling have said it is becoming dangerous by the day to voyage because many safety measures are not in place hereby putting their lives at risk.
According to a reliable source, George M. Weah, President of Liberia and some cabinet members upon arrival from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) March 28, 2022, were greeted with darkness, conditions of such that could lead to plan crash if not handled well.
Power outage is not the only problem according to them, but runway and the way services are provided are poor and are not meeting the status of an international airport.
Sources have disclosed that sometimes ago, Royal Air Maroc was compelled to abort landing at the RIA due to the ‘dark runways’ a situation that was said to be a life threatening risky one.
“The flight attempted landing several times by using the navigation system, but was not successful so it was redirected to Sierra Leone,” the source said.
When the Stage Media (TSM) visited Royal Air Maroc’s and ORAGON Travel Service, and Tours office on 2nd Street, they refused to speak on the matter. An agent at Maroc told TSM that the airline including the manager was not available to speak.
The power outage situation has caused serious embarrassment to many people coming into or leaving Liberia via the airport because they have to arrive in the country either during the day or risk landing in nearby countries.
Former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during the funeral of Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, disclosed the seriousness of the situation adding, “Many people wanted to grace the occasion, but due to the darkness at the airport they have to stay.”
“I received many calls from people who wanted to attend the funeral of Dr. Sawyer, but I do not see them here. Maybe RIA was dark,” she said.
They did not come because they were careful for their lives.
This statement by former President Sirleaf pushed the government of Liberia to make some commitments as it relates to working on the airport facilities.
Nathaniel McGill, Liberia’s Minister of State for Presidential Affairs said the government has embarked on plans to address the airport electricity issues which will coast between US$20-23 million to fix all the problems.
Many have started raising concerns if the pronounced amount of 20-23 million could help resolve the longstanding problem since some US$ 82.8 million from partners and government has not ended the nightmare at RIA.
But according to McGill, the problem with the Robert International Airport is not just recurrent electricity, but also the airport apron [where aircrafts are parked, unloaded or loaded, refueled, boarded, or maintained] is in dire need of urgent repair.
“The problem at the airport is not just electricity but it’s holistic, including the apron which was never renovated during the over US$50 million RIA’s renovation project,” the Minister said.
“Information received says the new terminal and jet way cannot be used because where the planes park was never touched over the last 50 years” he added.
He went on saying, “As a government, we are looking at the entire airport and solving those problems and it will cost around US$20-23 million with the estimate done.”
The bad state of the airport’s condition was revealed by Martin Hayes, Managing Director of the Roberts International Airport (RIA).
Hayes said the country’s only airport survives on generators for visibility at the airport.
His statement raised huge debate among the public leaving many wondering on how revenues generated from the facility has been used by the government and also marking to think of the safety of those coming in and out country.
Responding to the post in an interview with Voice of Liberia, Hayes said that ‘about 800 gallons of diesel fuel are used per day to light up the airport and the amount of US$37,000 is used to purchase fuel to keep the area for four days.
“We depend on land and handling fees to address some of these challenges, but we have already outsourced the landing to some professional group of people,” he said.
One of such persons who has some concerns is Civil Society Advocate, Harold M. Aidoo, executive director of an integrity institution (Institute for Research and Democratic Development) who thinks that the facility is under attack as it relates to the lack of accountability and transparency.
For him, the airport which is the nation’s busiest and most important aviation facility currently hosting the country’s only scheduled commercial airline services, with direct connections to several major cities in West Africa as well as flights to Europe on Air France and Brussels Airlines should not be faced with electricity challenges over the past months which at times leave the airport in absolute blackout.
Recently, a social media post showed travelers using their phones torch lights to make their way to the plan because the entire airport was dark.
The social media post went viral leaving many citizens to described the incident as “shameful and unsafe.”
Not only the airport, but the issue of electricity has remained a major problem in this West African Nation, Liberia which has worsen late 2021.
The situation at the only airport has not gone unnoticed by ordinary citizens of Liberia.
They have expressed their views about how it is causing setbacks to the country’s intakes [revenue].
Aidoo said the situation at the airport only speaks to the lack of transparency and accountability.
“We believed that many countries around the world, the airports are one of the most effective ways where people generate revenue, if they are managed properly” he said.
“If they are managed in way that is transparent, accountable which in our case it has not, evidence being what is happening there at the moment, where we are not able to put lights for airplanes to land.”
He said, many of the revenue generating entities like the Port could even contribute more to the budget if there are sincere, accountable and transparent people.
Timothy Jackson, a resident of GSA road told TSM, “Our country is a victim of bad leadership.”
He said those in leadership of the country have only come to “Steal and enrich themselves.”
“Who would believe that at this time we will be using generators to run our airport” he asked a rhetorical question.
Jackson described the situation at the airport as disgraceful and only helps to drive away potential investors from coming into the country something he believes brings suffering to the ordinary people of Liberia.
He called on the Weah-led administration to quickly address the situation in order to save the country’s image.
Like Jackson, Teddy Allison is also blaming the situation on corruption and bad leadership.
Allison recommended privatization of the airport, adding, “Let them give the airport to private individuals to manage, that will help us. How can a country be as old as Liberia and still uses generators at the airport?’’
The airport, which is expected to see another ‘exorbitant fee for fixing’ underwent two major upgrades under contract and financing secured by the then Sirleaf administration.
A new passenger terminal was built for US$50 million, while the runway was refurbished at a cost of US$30 million.
The new terminal had been regarded as the first up to date modern terminal ever at the RIA since the construction of that airport in the 1940s during the Second World War.
It features two jet bridges, two escalators, two elevators, ten check-in counters, eight duty free stores, a restaurant and two luggage carousels among several other features.
The terminal was built to process 350,000 to 500,000 passengers per annum, a projection that the airport official has said suits the future air traffic needs of the Roberts International Airport (RIA).
But it is unclear whether that projection has ever been met.
While the runway and airfield lighting systems have been upgraded and that the runway is expected to support heavy loads to improve air safety, the existing asphalt aprons of 57,000m² was expected to be 85,000m².
The upgrade and expansion were aimed at expanding the airport and addressing safety issues.
This story is done with funding from the Centre
for Journalism Innovation & Development [CJID] collaboration.