Ahead of the planned closure of Nnamdi Azikiwe airport, Abuja, for repair works by the federal government, the people of the South-east are worried by the neglect of the virtually collapsed Itobe-Ajaokuta-Ofunene road in Kogi State, which is the only route from the zone to Abuja. Christopher Isiguzo, in Enugu, writes
If everything goes according to plan, the federal government will on March 8, less than a month from now, shut down the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja for six weeks. The closure is to enable the government build a second runway and carry out renovations. During the period, flights will be diverted to Kaduna airport and passengers will be required to travel by rail or road to Abuja. The reason is that the runway in Abuja is almost collapsing. The life span of a runway is 20 years and this particular runway in Abuja has been there for 34 years.
Even before the federal government shuts down the all-important airport, close political observers are already raising issues which in their views ought to be addressed by the government in order to reduce the possible adverse effects of the closure on commuters and motorists. Abuja airport is the second busiest airport in the country after Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, in view of the influx of people to the federal capital territory. Most government officials, especially at the federal level, from the three arms of government, engage in their activities at the nation’s capital.
The anxiety over the proposed closure of the Abuja airport is understandable. This is more so when the alternative means of transportation in the country are hardly efficient. The rate of rail movement is still very small, while many of the roads are in a poor state.
Though, many individuals and groups have opposed the complete closure of the airport in view if its implications on the national economy, the government has insisted on the closure.
Chairman, Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff, Senator Hope Uzodinma, has expressed concern about the decision of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria to close the airport. According to him, the closure of the only airport in the Federal Capital Territory would cause untold hardship to international and local travellers, and also dent the image of the country.
Uzodinma said, “A complete shutdown of the airport will impact negatively on international trade and related activities with multiplier effect that can exact further pressure on an already recessed economy.
“Plans to divert Abuja bound flights to Kaduna will throw up logistics and security challenges, including endangering lives and property of travellers. All options have not been exhausted to avoid the shutdown of the only airport in our national capital for six weeks. This is including the option of a technical package to allow skeletal air operations at the airport while most repair work is executed at night.”
Deputy Senate Leader Bala N’Allah also said it was ridiculous that a capital city would be shut down because of renovation. He believed the shutdown would embarrass Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, and urged the government to think outside the box and reconstruct the runway in phases.
“If the news goes across the globe that the largest city is being shut down, it will create negative economic, political and social impact,” N’Allah stated.
Airlines operating in the country have equally stated that there is no need to close the Abuja airport to conduct repairs on its runway. Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria, Nogie Meggison, said though his members would support any decision taken by the federal government to improve the state of airports in the country, the complete closure of the airport was unnecessary.
But beyond the opposition from the Abuja axis, road users from the South-east states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi and Enugu as well as those from Benue, Kogi and some parts of Kwara have also raised objections to the government’s plan to close the Abuja airport. They say measures should be put in place to ameliorate the hardship the closure would cause road users before the implementation of the plan.
Some of them who spoke with THISDAY said the federal government was making all necessary efforts to improve security on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, which is expected to be busy within the period of the closure, while nothing was done to take care of the interest of South-east bound travellers from Abuja. Apart from security, the Abuja-Kaduna highway is also receiving major attention to ensure that travellers do not encounter any hitches.
While the Abuja-Kaduna axis is receiving a lot of attention, the other equally important road, which the huge number of commuters from the South-east largely use, the Otukpa-Ayimgba-Itobe-Ajaokuta-Ofunene-Lokoja road, is completely abandoned.
National coordinator of South East Democratic Coalition, Dr Maduka Okebanama, called on the federal government to quickly repair the road from the eastern axis to Abuja in order to cushion the effect of the Abuja airport closure since most of the travellers from the area would depend on the road.
“You are not going to expect our people, who ordinarily should spend about four or five hours from Enugu to Abuja, to now fly to Kaduna and still spend about two hours coming back to Abuja. That’s terribly out of order,” Okebanama said.
He stressed, “At the moment, the Otukpa-Ayimgba-Itobe-Ajaokuta-Ofunene-Lokoja road remains about the only road being used by travellers from Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi and Enugu states to Abuja. Also affected are travellers from Benue and Kogi states, as well as some parts of Kwara State. The implication of the present situation is that road users would continue to have terrible experience each time they travel to Abuja. Even lorry drivers that convey essential goods to the eastern part of the country from Kafuna and Abuja have continued to rain curses on government each time they go through the all-important road because of their near-death experiences.”
Okebanama urged the Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika, and the governor of Kogi State, Alhaji Yahya Bello, to close ranks and immediately look at the road with special emphasis on the three kilometres Itobe-Ajaokuta-Ofunene axis, near the Geregu Power Station in Ajaokuta.
He said, “Perhaps, the most important part of the road that requires urgent attention is the Itobe-Ajaokuta-Ofunene axis, about three kilometres, which has completely collapsed. The road in question is adjacent the Geregu Power Station, Ajaokuta. The road, which is supposed to be a dual carriage way, has not only been reduced to a one lane, but even the lane in use has also collapsed. Travelling through that portion of the road, which ordinarily should not take more than five minutes, now takes as much as one to two hours.
“I, therefore, wish to call on the Minister of Works, Housing and Power, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, Minister of State, Aviation, Hadi Sirika and the governor of Kogi state, Alhaji Yahya Bello, to immediately rise to the occasion and at least fix this three kilometres before the closure of the Abuja airport while further arrangements are made to repair the entire road.”
On his part, leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, Uchenna Madu, accused the federal government of further extending the marginalisation and neglect of the South-east by “totally ignoring calls for the repair or rehabilitation of the road leading from the eastern axis to Abuja before shutting down the Abuja airport.”
Madu explained, “As you can see, they are only interested in Abuja-Kaduna road. They are fixing the road day and night, they are putting security measures so as to take care of themselves. But as for our people down here, they can go to hell for all they care. This is what we’ve been talking about and we will not stop.”
In a similar vein, the president of the Enugu Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, Rev. Ugo Chime, asked the affected ministries to show concern for the plights of road users from the east by fixing the road from Otukpa to Lokoja to reduce the pressure the closure of the Abuja airport would bring on the road.
Chime said, “It is a shame that even at this time in our national life, we are still talking about roads. In Nigeria, we plan projects in silos, ministry of transportation does not liaise properly with ministry of works, ministry of works does not liaise properly with others, what you see as one problem is a general malaise, it is a problem of the country that requires proper planning to find a way out of the problem. The economy of Abuja within the period of the closure will be literally wiped away. Within that period, there is going to be a major problem as a result of the closure. They would have found a palliative measure across board, not just Kaduna-Abuja.”
Fashola had during his recent tour of South-east roads noted that virtually all the federal roads in the zone were undergoing rehabilitation. He, however, did not comment on the Enugu-Otukpa Ajaokuta-Lokoja road, the only road leading to Abuja from the area.
On states that have rehabilitated federal roads in their areas, the minister announced that the federal government would raise bonds to refund billions of naira owed them, noting that the federal government has carefully assessed the various claims by the concerned state governments and has concluded arrangements to refund the money through the said bonds.
The minister also shed light on the Enugu government’s intervention on federal roads. He told the state governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, “We have also been briefed about your intervention on certain roads that are our roads. Your Commissioner and I have discussed about the outstanding claim from the federal government, and my message from the federal government is that we have completed the assessment of all these claims and the total amounts owed the states far exceeds the total amounts as to the whole country.”
Considering Fashola’s apparent indifference to the eastward routes from Abuja before the closure of the Abuja airport, Okebanama appeals to the Kogi State governor to intervene to fix the Itobe-Ajaokuta-Ofunene road and seek refunds later. That is if the federal government fails to respond in time.