On August 24, the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu will receive the first international flight to the Coal City. Ethiopian Airlines issued a statement late last month indicating its readiness to be the first international carrier to fly to the airport.
The euphoria which has greeted the announcement, especially among Ndigbo and the nation in general, is understandable. It underscores the strategic nature of the development to the nation’s and the South East’s economy. The Deputy President of the Senate, who is also the highest political office holder from the zone, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, in commending President Goodluck Jonathan over this, rightly described it as a “major milestone in the infrastructural renewal of the South East and a monumental boost for both trade and Direct Foreign Investment for the entire country”.
According to him, “For many decades, the people of the South East, the local and international business community have waited seemingly endlessly for the commencement of international flight operations at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, and the people of South East will remain ever grateful to President Jonathan for the breakthrough.”
What a new dawn. For decades, successive administrations had exploited the subject of international flight operations in the South East, to the extent of making it a recurrent object of political rhetoric. They promised more and delivered nothing. It was not because this is not most deserving and needful. Ndigbo are known as great business people. From Onitsha to Nnewi and Aba, the South East speaks of robust economic and technological prowess, but which great potentials are abandoned to rust in gross disuse.
Unfortunately, for ages, I dare say a combination of political irresponsibility, assorted parochial interests and considerations, promise and fail syndrome, and if you like, willful sabotage and conspiracy, had kept the operation of international flight in the South East far from reality. This had led quite many to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that there was an unwritten code to ensure that the enclave did not have direct contact with the outside world, even donkey years after the civil war.
Thus, if the people of the South East took the November 14, 2007 statement by the then Minister of Aviation, Diezani Allison-Madueke announcing President Yar’Adua’s approval of the upgrade of the Akanu Ibiam Airport to the status of international airport with a pinch of salt, they were not to blame. And when the former Minister of Aviation, Babatunde Omotoba was credited with a statement during the flag-off of rehabilitation work at the Akanu Ibiam Airport on November 30, 2009, to the effect that the Federal Government had not given international status to the Airport, the cloud of doubt and forlornness thickened.
However, all that has become mere part of the South East’s long walk to hosting an international aviation facility.
As Nigerians, especially the people of South East wait breathlessly for August 24, there are hallmarks in leadership by key players in pursuit of this breakthrough that need to be highlighted.
First, we must note that the more we have Presidents who see the whole country as their constituency through equitable development and opportunities, the less likely Nigerians are to clamour for Presidents of their own ethno-religious extraction. It must not be lost on us that the late President Yar’Adua who took the initial practical steps towards the realization of this dream was from Katsina State, while the incumbent President who has boosted and guided the initiative to fruition, though closer home, is from Bayelsa in the South South. Yar’Adua not only pronounced Enugu an international airport, but also awarded the first contract in the sum of about N4.1 billion towards the project. Who knows what contrary pieces of advice and even hushed protests both Presidents might have contended with? Much as leadership, especially in a pluralistic society like ours should go round to give each section a sense of belonging, it will always be more important to have a fatherly “Nigerian President”.
The second lesson is the sense of policy and project continuity shown by President Jonathan. Discontinuity syndrome is one of the major banes of development in Nigeria. And it is driven mainly by politics of ego, vendetta, and corruption. Laudable projects have been abandoned because incumbents were no longer on good terms with their predecessors or the projects were cited in “wrong places” or someone just wants to feather his/her nest. The Projects Assessment Committee set up by President Jonathan in 2010 to take census of all abandoned and ongoing Federal Government projects across the country identified a whooping 11,886 projects. The states do not fare better either. This is calamitous.
In contrast, the Federal Executive Council meeting presided over by President Jonathan on October 19, 2010 reaffirmed the upgrade of Enugu Airport to an international facility and awarded a reviewed contract of about N6.1billion to bring the total cost to about N10.03 billion. Under Jonathan, the Airport was finally gazetted as an international airport. The gazette was important to lay to rest the initial fears caused by Omotoba’s statement. Just last May, Mr. President commissioned the remodeled Enugu Airport and laid the foundation for a new international terminal.
As also rightly observed by Senator Ekweremadu, the project has gone on smoothly under the tenures of Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke who was Minister of Transport at the time discussion was opened with late President Yar’Adua on this project, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze who sustained the actual construction as Minister of Aviation, and the current Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah who has driven this vision with tremendous commitment, passion, and vigour to the point of reality today.
Importantly, the actualisation of the Enugu Airport dream is a testimony in leadership, synergy, and legislative masterstroke on the part of Senator Ekweremadu and the South East Caucus of the 6th National Assembly, NASS, which opened the request with a letter to President Yar’Adua signed by Senator Ekweremadu on behalf of the rest. Thus, the Caucus, with the Deputy President of Senate in the driver’s seat, began the legislative diplomatic rounds to the Villa to drive the dream.
The meetings were fruitful from the outset as President Yar’Adua was said to be seriously touched over the absence of an international airport in the South East that he, there and then, minuted approval on the letter of request. It was on the strength of this that Mrs. Allison-Madueke also issued a statement announcing the designation Akanu Ibiam an international airport. The release of Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, was discussed at the meeting. Yar’Adua honoured this request too.
Meanwhile, the commitment of the Chairman of the Committee on Aviation in the 6th Senate, Senator Anyim Udeh and his House of Representatives counterpart, Hon. Bethel Amadi as well as their successors, Senator Hope Uzodinma and Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha have helped to push the dream in no little measures. With the concerted lobby and efforts the South East Caucus in both the 6th and 7th National Assembly, it has never been difficult for their fellow federal lawmakers to see the economic reasons, the equity and justice in ensuring adequate budgetary provisions for the project from the days of late President Yar’Adua till date.
Worthy of special commendation are the uncommon wisdom, unity of purpose, and sense of sacrifice shown by the Enugu State Caucus in the 6th NASS. With eyes fixated on the bigger picture, the Caucus, at a point, channeled the entire funds for Constituency Projects that would have accrued to Enugu Federal Constituencies and Senatorial Districts in one fiscal year to the project. This, they told President Yar’Adua, was to shore up budgetary provisions for the upgrading project. Which President would not be moved by such show of commitment? The masterstroke worked like magic as the Federal Executive Council under President Yar’Adua subsequently broke the jinx by awarding a contract in the sum of N4.1 billion to upgrade the Akanu Ibiam Airport.
In all, the deftness displayed by the South East federal lawmakers led by Senator Ekweremadu, the great support shown by the South East Governors (especially Governor Peter Obi both in his official capacity as Chairman of the South-East Governors Forum and his personal capacity too), political stakeholders, and indeed numerous others towards the actualization of the vision shows how much a people can achieve if they work together in articulating and pursuing common, legitimate agenda. There is also a big lesson in smooth executive/legislature relations as well as intra-executive and intra-legislature synergy.
Indeed, it is an uncommon breath of fresh air as Enugu and the South East is opened up to the outside world. Peaceful repose Yar’Adua; long live Jonathan; well done Stella-Oduah et al; and kudos Ekweremadu (the silent achiever), and the entire South East compatriots in the 6th and 7th NASS.
Mr. Anichukwu is Special Adviser (Media) to Deputy President of the Senate