Security breaches at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos are really not new. But with insiders beginning to threaten its safety and security, and daylight robbery now a new normal on the restricted airside, stakeholders have called for the overhauling of the security architecture at the airport.
Two incidences stuck out like sore thumbs at the airport in the last couple of days — a fracas between men of the Nigerian Customs Service (NSC) and security operatives of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), and then, a bizarre burglary incident inside Arik Air Boeing 737 aircraft.
The two, though not directly connected, underscore the security threats facing the flagship aerodrome and challenges of putting up an effective resistance.
Apparently worried by the parallel pattern of things at the popular gateway, aviation stakeholders regretted attendant exposure to international embarrassment, especially in a year the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) would be auditing Nigeria’s safety records and standards.
But to urgently turn the corner, they have called for a complete overhaul of security architecture, with special attention paid to capacity development of personnel, better working relationship among the agencies, deployment of technology and consistent application of rules and procedure as laid down in ICAO Annex 17 that is focused on aviation security.
When Lagos Airport opened in 1979, it was to cater for an average of 200,000 passenger traffic a year. Without commensurate development in infrastructure over the years, Lagos Airport today accounts for 60 per cent of 12 million annual passenger traffic in Nigeria. It also generates at least 50 per cent of aviation revenue nationwide.
Indeed, the facility that has three terminals (international, domestic and cargo) has grown from one cargo operation a week to 30 daily, while eight international flights have bolstered to 272 aircraft movements per day. Before the pandemic disruption, 32 international airlines flew into the busiest airport in Nigeria.
Besides the slow pace of development within, the landmass is also getting choked by loose urban development in communities that surround the facility. Several residential apartments in Akowonjo, Ajao Estate, Ejigbo, Cement/Ile Zik, Mafoluku, Oshodi and Shasha have consistently closed-in on the aerodrome for years.
Today, competing with the airport for space are houses built on land erstwhile belonging to the airport. Some are already in close proximity to the runway, while a number are leaning on the demarcating perimeter fence – a security no-no in international standards and recommended practices.
The ICAO protocol that sets the minimum standard for civil aviation in all United Nations’ member States specified in documents 8973 that private and public structures, including roads, should have a space of at least six metres from the airport perimeter fences.
Similarly, ICAO 184.108.40.206 provides that “whenever possible, the ground on both sides of a perimeter fence should be cleared to establish an exclusion zone. A distance of about three metres from the fence is recommended that would remove cover for any intruder and should be kept clear of obstructions such as lamp posts, signposts, equipment, vehicles and trees that may assist intruders to climb the fence.”
Investigations have shown that Lagos Airport has defiled all of these guidelines and the consequences are already beginning to manifest.
Recently, suspected thieves broke into an Arik Air aircraft that was idle at the domestic wing of the airport and ripped it of valuable gadgets. The break-in, according to findings, has left the Boeing 737 aircraft grounded without its Flight Management Computer (FMC) and other accessories.
The Guardian learnt that the aircraft, with registration number EI-ULN, was raided between 11:00pm on Wednesday night when the airplane was packed, and 7:00 am on Thursday, January 20, 2022, when the break-in was first noticed. The Flight Management Computer (FMC) with other avionics was missing. The jet, leased from Enzis Airlines, had arrived into Murtala Muhammed International Airport from Port Harcourt late on Wednesday afternoon.
The FMC is a fundamental component of a modern airliner’s gadgets. It is a specialised computer system that automates a wide variety of in-flight tasks, reducing the workload on the flight crew to the point that modern civilian aircraft no longer carry flight engineers or navigators. A primary function is in-flight management of the flight plan.
A source confirmed that, “there is a door underneath the aircraft where they opened and got access to remove the flight management computer. It is impossible for a novice to have successfully removed the flight management computer – that thing was stolen by an expert.”
An official of Arik suspected in-house sabotage and connivance to underscore ‘insider threat’. The official explained that the equipment that was stolen is small, “but it cost a lot of money. To repair it costs about $15,000 and a brand new one costs about $300,000 as of 2021. Every item in an airplane has serial numbers and can be tracked anywhere in the world. So, I don’t know how the thief intends selling it unless the person has a vendor. That is why we believe it is internal sabotage.”
Coinciding with last week’s theft was a row between FAAN and Customs over another security breach at the airport. The airport authority had accused the Customs Area Comptroller of forcefully gaining access into the restricted security area of the airport. The incident happened later on the same day the flight management computer was stolen.
Spokesperson of FAAN, Henrietta Yakubu, noted that while the AVSEC officers on day duty at Gate 3 of the International Airport were profiling a NAHCO vehicle that wanted to access the Security Restricted Area (SRA) via Gate 3, “the Customs Area Comptroller for Hajj and Cargo Terminal suddenly emerged and pulled off behind the NAHCO vehicle that was being attended to.
“A Customs officer on the Area Comptroller’s entourage later shoved aside the AVSEC Officer at the gate, forcefully took over the gate and opened the gate for the Comptroller and his escorts to forcefully access the Security Restricted Area via the gate. While accessing the gate, the armed escorts to the Comptroller threatened to beat up the AVSEC officers at the gate if they dare resist their assault and breach of security.”
Yakubu noted that the “blatant abuse of the privilege of bearing firearms by the NCS” has become a recurrent threat to the safety and security of our FAAN staff and their operations.
Indeed, the Lagos airport has been a security suspect lately. The Guardian earlier reported the vandalisation of vehicles at the fee-for-service Seymour Aviation Multi-level Car Park at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Motorists and travellers alike complained about forced entries into parked cars, removal of car accessories and personal effects, coupled with harassment of facility users.
In December, Arik Air filed an occurrence report with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) on attempted robbery of its taxing aircraft by unknown men that encroached the runway at the Lagos Airport.
According to reports, runway robbers attempting to open the cargo compartment of its taxing Boeing 737-800 was the second of such foiled attempts recorded by the local airline in two weeks. On December 16, it was the case of a careless auto-technician test-running a faulty car on the Runway 18L and heading for a collision with an oncoming Max Air jet!
FAAN, which manages all government-owned airports nationwide, has its dedicated security personnel that are known as Aviation Security (AVSEC). For security services across the aerodrome, the buck stops on AVSEC’s table.
But the enemy that is the most difficult to fight is the insider. Globally, insider threat is one area in which security practitioners seem to lack imagination on how to checkmate. The United States’ Transportation Security Administration (TSA) described insider threat as “one or more individuals with access to insider knowledge that allows them to exploit the vulnerabilities of the nation’s transportation systems with the intent to cause harm.” And when added to that of intruders, FAAN AVSEC certainly has its hands full.
Union leader and former Secretary-General of National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Olayinka Abioye, said FAAN and its “very intelligent aviation security personnel” have what it takes to make a success of their undertakings.
He, however, observed that the trouble was too much politicking that has divided ranks and undue interference that has beclouded the administrative machinery of its operators, and “unless the security architecture is reviewed and properly rejigged, Nigeria will be in serious trouble.”
Abioye doubted the capacity of AVSEC to measure up to modern security standards, citing misplaced priority in its design.
“It’s been long since I heard FAAN send any of her AVSEC personnel overseas for training or retraining to enhance their professionalism. The last we heard was a plan to arm them with guns. How do you arm a hungry, untrained and uncultured man and you expect professionalism from him?
“The next was procurement of sniffer dogs. How do you provide sniffer dogs whose cost of maintenance is more than the overhead costs of the entire AVSEC team? Who will be handling these dogs? I am told their new homes are being built, but we wait to see how successful this venture will be.
“We need well-trained, well cultured aviation security personnel under a professional aviation security expert, not a retired soldier who might have lost touch with modern warfare and security management. I understand that there is severe manpower shortage in AVSEC yet there were some recruits, who didn’t even fit the bill of being members of this elite club. I will urge FAAN to sit with relevant security experts to redesign a new functional and modern aviation security with a view to meeting new security challenges and bringing some sanity back into the system,” he said.
At the foundation of the insecurity, Abioye reckoned, was “too much corruption” that has enveloped the system so much that the majority of staffers were more preoccupied with selfish gains.”
He added: “You will recall that some years back, a Close Circuit Television (CCTV) system was installed around and across many areas of the airport. I recalled challenging the then Police big gun, late Bishi, who boasted that they could see everything on the CCTV, which was a big lie. I do not think that system was allowed to work more than the period of its launch.
“However, there are some within the Terminal building that are still serviceable but ask me, who is in charge of this system? Maybe a contractor! We need to find out, since it was with the system that the underwear bomber was known.
“I must also stress that the way and manner we engage and disengage staff in our airlines, aviation and allied companies needs a review. These fellows were insiders, who knew almost everything about our airports and suddenly, they lost their jobs but found their way back. What do you expect? In the middle of the night, you will notice assorted people, males/females trekking into the MMIA unchallenged, even with the presence of the men of the Nigeria Police, whose own mission is different.”
Former Commandant of the Lagos Airport in the ‘90s, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said there were more to potential security threats and breaches around the airport that were begging for urgent attention.
Ojikutu, who is an aviation security consultant, said there were houses behind the airport perimeter fences that exceeded the standard tolerance security limits to the fences.
“Some of these houses are either using the fences as part of their building or as fences too for their houses. That is why incursion into the airport and taxiing aircraft are rampant.
“There is need for FAAN security to conduct random checks on all those carrying On Duty Card (ODC) within the airport security controlled areas to fish out unauthorised persons, especially those that have been out of the services of their employers but are still carrying the ID cards and the airports ODC,” Ojikutu said.
Ojikutu reckoned that the theft of spares on Arik Aircraft was not new, also noting that that it was “an insider job that should be known to the airline or to other airlines that are operating the same aircraft in their fleet.”
“In the early 90s, it was very common and known as the cannibalisation of one aircraft for another. In any case, before anyone begins to castigate FAAN, has the airline any programme in place or how has it been enforcing the programme when its aircraft are not in operation and parked?
“FAAN like any other operator has a security programme in defence layers for all the airport’s operations. This is one of the reasons I recently suggested that the NCAA should designate operational bases for the domestic airlines instead of having them all concentrated and parked in MMA,” Ojikutu added.
Assistant Secretary of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), a think-tank group of local aviation, Olumide Ohunayo, said the unsavoury stories were embarrassing for the country, especially the aviation sector.
Ohunayo, however, said the disappointment should quicken a push back to reorganise the security committee and deepen security on the airside especially. He reemphasised the need for proper coordination and communication among the security agencies within the airport corridor.
“Personally, I support the proposed bill to have a harmonised body to control aviation security like the TSA in the United States. A uniform security apparatus will reinforce what FAAN AVSEC is doing at the airport. Again, we need to improve on technology, by providing more CCTV cameras in all strategic places in the airport.
“We also need to have the data of everyone working in the airport and they must all come into the facility using their assigned cards (ODC). Those cards should be automated to make their data available at every point in time,” he said.(The Guardian)