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Voters, candidates stranded as airlines cancel flights

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• NAMA denies flight disruption during polls materials distribution
• Economy lost $5 billion to elections postponment, say experts

Many voters and candidates alike in the eastern and northern parts of the country were yesterday stranded as airlines cancelled flights over poor visibility occasioned by an intensive harmattan haze.The passengers who wanted to return to Lagos and Abuja after the postponement of the presidential election did not find the joy of air travel yesterday as multiple flights to Asaba, Benin, Uyo, Enugu, Calabar, among others, were cancelled .

The Guardian learnt that a lot of the stranded air passengers resorted to travel by road after hours of waiting at the airports. Air Peace, for instance, cancelled eight flights into Asaba and Benin airports. The Spokesperson of the airlines, Chris Iwarah, said the harmattan haze was intense with attendant poor visibility for aircraft operations. He explained that instead of visibility range of at least 5000ft to touchdown, Benin had 2000 and Asaba 1000, “which is very far from what we need to operate.”

Besides, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) yesterday denied that flight activities were disrupted at some airports prior to Saturday which affected the distribution of election materials across some states. The agency said contrary to claims in some quarters, it never witnessed the disruption of flight, shut the airspace or planned to restrict air movement before, during and after the scheduled presidential and National Assembly elections.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in the wake of the postponement of the February 16 elections, made claims on logistics and poor distribution of election materials. It alleged that bad weather at some airports prevented airplanes that were conveying election materials from making safe landing, hence, some had to divert to alternative aerodromes. But the General Manager, Public Affairs Department of NAMA, Khalid Emele, said there were no disruptions in the provision of air traffic services on Thursday and Friday when the distributions of polls materials were claimed to have been made.

Emele added that the agency, in line with the directive of the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, “had earlier ensured a 24-hour operation at all Nigerian airports on Friday 15th February 2019 to facilitate the transportation of INEC materials nationwide.”Emele said, quite unlike roads and land borders that are often closed on election days, air movement and airlines services would continue uninterrupted for all agencies and passengers that require the services.

Meanwhile, as the outrage at the postponement of the presidential and National Assembly elections continues, experts claim that the country has lost about $5 billion in terms of financial transactions and wastages. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) had stated that the postponement of the election by the INEC had cost the nation not less than $1.2 billion due to the disruption of activities across the states.

Traders at the adjudged largest market for information and communications technology (ICT) accessories and wares – the Computer Village, Ikeja, Lagos, said the sudden postponement of the elections wiped off 10,500 daily business deals.Still, SB Morgen (SBM), said that apart from the enormous negative effects of the action on the electoral umpire and political parties, the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) lost about N531 million.

In a conservative model analysis, SBM said the postponement of elections a few hours to the commencement of voting left stakeholders in the lurch, as all had committed financial resources to playing their roles as political parties, voters, electoral observers and the media.The company noted that INEC, which had committed resources to the elections, would further fund the withdrawal of sensitive materials already distributed and redistribute them this week when the elections would hold.

Using the publicly available data to paint a picture of what was lost in terms of funds as well as the opportunity cost forgone for the postponement, SBM reiterated that besides the electoral umpire, political parties and the nation’s GDP were hit. “There are 119,974 polling units across 8,809 wards in 774 local government areas. For political parties contesting, polling agents must be mobilised.“We estimated the number of polling agents per state, taking into cognisance political parties active in each state, and making an allowance for a few fringe parties fielding agents in some polling units, with total costs to polling agents to political parties at N42.7 billion.

“For example, cost of agents to man polling units for House of Representatives election amounted to N7.98 billion; the Senate, N6.18 billion; presidential, N3.6 billion; ward polling agents, N19.29 billion; and local government agents, N5.65 billion, totaling N42.7billion,” an SMB report stated. The document also showed that INEC lost estimated N6.23 billion spent on the conduct of the postponed elections and what it will spend to manage the fallouts of the postponement.SBM noted that Nigeria’s GDP was $420 billion as at the end of 2018 and estimated the lost GDP from the various economic sectors, based on the National Bureau of Statistics data, at $531 million.

An Abuja-based fiscal governance campaigner, Eze Onyekpere, identified four levels of costs and losses associated with the development, saying the public treasury became the first victim with budgeted funds that had been used by the electoral umpire, but which had been wasted.Corroborating the SBM, Onyekpere said the GDP also lost hundreds of billions of naira in productivity to the political intrigues, together with individuals who had spent money to travel and would either spend another money to travel again or be disenfranchised.

“Our image in the international community and how the markets will react to the charade this week, as well as the apathy that has been generated, which will lead to lesser number of voters this week, are losses that will be hard to repair,” he said.

The Director-General of LCCI, Muda Yusuf, in an interview with The Guardian lamented that nearly all activities were disrupted as a result of the postponement, adding that a slowdown should be expected in the days ahead till the elections are conducted. Yusuf specifically cited SMEs’ activities, the airports and seaports, which were shut down, preventing many people who ought to move from one location to another from doing so. He noted that the impact of the loss would be felt across the sectors of the economy, especially for activities scheduled for February 23, the new date of the elections.

Others who spoke to The Guardian, described the decision as inhumane. Emeka Ejiogwu of Ejiogwu and Sons Limited said the action of the INEC showed that it was not bothered by the consequences.“I am still confused about the decision because I have not seen anywhere in the world that an election is scheduled to begin in a few hours and you went on air to suspend it. It can only happen in Nigeria. You can see the situation for yourself that the market is in a disarray, so much would have been lost by the end of today,” he said.

A dealer at the Computer Village, Lazarus Nnamdi, claimed that about 10,500 deals would have been lost, as between 10,000 and 10,500 deals are struck daily in the market. “I want to believe you know that this market adds N1.5 billion to the Nigerian economy daily from those deals. The news of the suspension coming very late has damaged so many things.”

Another trader, Gbenga Adekunle, said the market ‘‘will definitely experience lull because most of us never planned to come to the market today. Our plan was to visit our polling units, cast out votes, defend them and ensure they count, but the sudden suspension caught everybody unawares.”Efforts to speak with the President, Computer and Allied Product Dealers Association of Nigeria (CAPDAN), Ahmed Ojikutu failed as his phone was switched off.

In the aviation sector, the postponement was estimated to have cost airlines and agencies about N1.8 billion ($5 million).The loss was blamed on cancellation of local and international flights, and very low passenger turnout for airlines that turned up, due to earlier restriction of land movement.The ever-busy Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, was almost empty as very few passengers turned up for their flights, when The Guardian visited on Saturday.

Though airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Etihad and Emirates showed up on schedule, very few passengers travelled. It was learnt that most of the foreign carriers cancelled their flights for the day.Compared to the international wing, the outlook of business at the local wing of the Lagos airport was entirely different as all flights were grounded and all aviation-related service providers absent.

The President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), the downstream sector of the aviation industry, Bernard Bankole, said the loss for airlines, travel agencies and government agencies could not be less than $5 million. Bankole observed that no fewer than 10 foreign airlines were cancelled as at 3:00p.m., coupled with the entire shutdown of local operations due to the postponed elections.

“Now the elections will hold next week, what assurance is there that the exercise will hold? It is a dilemma, which is not good for business at all,” Bankole said.
The Communication Manager of Dana Air, Kingsley Ezenwa, confirmed that the airlines cancelled 10 local flights due to the earlier plan to have presidential elections on February 16. “It is quite disturbing because we have earlier had to persuade passengers to reschedule their flights from today. Now, the same elections had been shifted to next week, which had already been scheduled for flight services. But since it is a general problem, we have no choice than to put national interest first,” he said.

Aviation Security Consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said airlines would experience more decline in passenger traffic till mid-week, because the postponement would affect government activities and other businesses as a whole.For capital market experts, the postponement has injected uncertainty into the nation’s political process, and would definitely erode investors’ confidence in the market.

The Managing Director of Highcap Securities, Imafidon Adonri, said: “It is a very dangerous situation that would adversely affect the market. To put it side-by-side with the recent removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, it’s like actions in sequence.”Another stockbroker and Chief Executive Officer of Sofunix Investment and Communications, Sola Oni, said: “The sudden postponement a few hours to election period was a sad commentary. It has deepened Nigeria’s political risk with dire consequences on investment decisions.

“The shock caused by the announcement may jolt foreign portfolio investors, who have been apprehensive of the presidential election. It is not unlikely that trading on the stock may be moderated by this development, as it is capable of further eroding investors’ confidence in our market.”The President of Proactive Shareholders Association, Taiwo Oderinde, said the postponement of the election was evidence that sincerity of the present administration is in doubt.

“It will definitely affect the bullish run we have been enjoying in the market recently. It is a bad signal for our fragile market.” The Chief Research Officer of Investdata Consulting, Ambrose Omodion, said investors’ confidence and the recent rebound in the market had been thwarted, noting that the action would dampen the rekindling of interest of the investing public.

“Cautious trading would definitely resume in stock market. This is why investors would not trust the government and policymakers, because even when you think you have done everything to mitigate risk in Nigeria, you are still not on a safer side. The impact of this action will be felt in our sovereign risk rating, which will in turn impact the value of our currency and the cost of doing business.”A Professor of Capital Market and Head, Banking and Finance Department, Nasarawa State University Keffi, Uche Uwaleke, said the postponement had monumental adverse economic impact not only on the government but also on firms and individuals.

According to him, the cost is escalated by the fact that the announcement came on the very day the elections were to be held after a number of irreversible steps had been taken by various economic agents and actors. “The sensitive stock market will be at the receiving end as I expect a bearish trend in the days ahead, following this development. There is no doubt that this will have the effect of weakening investors’ sentiments and may even trigger further capital flight,” he said.

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