Members of the Asaba traditional council inspecting facilities at the Asaba International Airport...recently

In this report, Omon-Julius Onabu evaluates the significance of the recent visit of members of the Asaba traditional council to the airport in the Delta State capital

By the beginning of the year (2018) air traffic was expected to reach about 3.91 billion passengers at the growth rate of 5.4 per cent, going by Air Transport Association projections. The economic benefits of improved access to air travel facilities are numerous and compelling. Several measures have been employed by governments and airline owners to address certain issues and challenges in the aviation sector especially against the backdrop of the economically stimulating benefits of air travel. Standing out in bold relief is insufficiency of aviation facilities, particularly standard airports to cope with the steadily growing number of passengers and even the volume of cargo.

Nigeria, despite its huge population and a rapidly expanding economy, in terms of size and sophistication levels, has only 30 airports; and, though five of these are so labeled, only four currently function as international airports. Thus, the real need to address aviation cum air travel deficit in the country obviously justifies the establishment of the Asaba International Airport by the Delta State Government. In other words, the building of an airport in Asaba, the state capital, is definitely not a white elephant. It is clearly a well-conceived response in the light of the implications of the projection of huge passenger growth, which makes expansion in both international and regional or local airport hubs inevitable.

However, the airport in the last few years has been immersed in controversy stemming from the downgrading of the airport about seven years after construction work on the facility commenced. On April 27, 2015 the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) slammed its big hammer on the fledging Asaba facility. Citing an undulating runway, a meddlesome range of surrounding hills, poor lighting of the runways and taxiways, lack of perimeter fencing and inadequate number of well-trained airport personnel as major grounds, the NCAA formally downgraded Asaba International Airport. At the time, the Emmanuel Uduaghan administration was only one month shy of its exit.

Nonetheless, acknowledging the importance of the project to the development agenda of his administration, and indeed future generations of Delta State, the state governor, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, wasted no time in mobilising resources towards a speedy upgrade of the airport. Following due legislature approval, a N5.01 billion loan facility was soon ready, and the upgrade commenced in earnest. Two other companies were engaged by the government to undertake certain aspects of the project, which had an indigenous construction firm, ULO Consultants, as the main contractor. However, one thing led to another and the contractor could not deliver the completed project in three to four months as stipulated on paper. Incidentally, the story was unchanged after even at least three completion deadline rescheduling. It became crystal clear that something had to give.

The Asagba-in-council visits the airport

It was hardly surprising, therefore, when the management and workers of the Asaba Airport had the rare experience of playing host to a high-powered delegation of traditional chiefs from the royal palace of the Asagba of Asaba, HRM (Prof.) Chike Edozien, the traditional ruler of Asaba Kingdom, jolted by the situation. But for the fact that his royal majesty was then away on medical vacation to the United States of America, and as well the absence of the Iyase, the traditional prime minister and renowned technocrat, Chief Patrick Onyeobi, the entire council was practically on ground at the airport with all its awe-inspiring splendour.

The mission of the noblemen – arrayed as they were in immaculate robes made from intricately woven Akw’ocha famed Anioma (Delta North) cloth – was simple: To see firsthand the ongoing upgrading work in the light of the cacophony of claims and counter-claims concerning the termination of the contract with ULO and engagement of another indigenous firm, Setraco. The Asaba monarch is anxious about the fate of the project and decided to ascertain the veracity of the streams of controversies about the scope of the work already done or being done. As the spokesman of the regal delegation told newsmen, who had laid siege at the place on learning of the visit, the rumour mill has been active with varied and baffling tales about why the completion of the prestigious facility has been sign-posted by claims and counter-claims of contract breaches.

Inspection and royal interrogation

Special Project Director for the airport project, Austin Ayemidejor, the permanent secretary, Ministry of Works, Fred Edafiogor and Jihad Yaghi, who is the Area Manager of Setraco construction firm handling the project, conducted the royal team through the 3.4 kilometres runway where the undulating portions were being peeled off and reinforced with thicker layers of stones and asphalt. Their efforts were supplemented by the state Commissioner for Works, James Auguoye and his Information counterpart, Patrick Ukah.

The delegation of the Asagba-in-Council, which is an equivalent of the State Executive Council, also inspected the expanded drainage system designed to properly channel all water and flood from the runways and taxiways and other parts of the airport. The visitors were, moreover, conducted round other functional facilities at the airport, including the Fire Service Station, the Flight Watchtower, VIP Lounge and Luggage Hall, with dual carriage elevators as well as Terminal Building.

Perhaps, the most significant aspect of the royal march through the airport was the question-and-answer session that rounded off the tour. Notwithstanding the fact that the chiefs took every opportunity to ask questions or seek clarifications on the remoulding work at every point, they generally exhibited professional adroitness with their probing questions on the concept, design, construction and sustainable functionality of the various features comprising the Asaba   International Airport. For instance, they took pains to interrogate the team of guides from the relevant ministries and construction firm on strength or capacities of the 3.4km by 60m (width) ‘Class IV Runaway’ with a 45m middle section and the improved taxiways. They sought explanation about plans to evacuate all water to be drained into the extended 20-metre culvert, which opens into a natural valley on the west end of the airport and which route is expected to be dredged in future. They asked apparently informed questions about the category of contemporary fire-fighting machines and general functionality of the fire service station, in terms of number and sophistication of fire fighting vehicles and emergency response capacity.

They probed about the categories of aircraft that would ultimately come into Asaba when the upgrade was completed and the structure of the expected additional cargo handling wing as well as the possibility of building modern hangars in the airport. They asked questions on the perimeter fencing and wading off any form of encroachment by trespassers and land speculators, while electing to directly step in where youths are reported to be fomenting trouble around the airport or any government project site.

Moreover, the Asagba-in Council made suggestions on further lowering of the surrounding hills to acceptable levels just as it recommended the modification of the watchtower with an additional storey, from the three-storey structure that was put up by ULO Consultants for enhanced aircraft actual flight management beside the traditional Control tower.

The state government officials were optimistic that the NCAA “restriction order will be lifted by the time the (upgrade) work is done” so that Boeing 737 capacity aircraft could land and takeoff from Asaba International Airport. The two denser layers of tarmac (40mm and 90mm), ranging between 99mm-200mm reinforcement is expected to correct the lack of “slope constancy” or undulation on which the ULO earlier remedial work was faulted, the technicians and managers explained. Only Lagos and Abuja international airports can accommodate the largest aircraft (Boeing 747) that fly into Nigeria today.

Stamp of commendation

Speaking at the end of the inspection visit, the leader of the royal delegation and renowned engineer, Obi Godfrey Konwea, told newsmen that “His Majesty, the Asagba who is currently on medical vacation in the USA, asked us to inspect the airport. We have seen the massive work going on, we are happy with what we have seen. This is wonderful! We are hungry to start using the airport.”

While thanking Okowa for the impressive airport project, he stated that Governor Okowa has justified the financial receipts since the inception of his administration even though the funds were relatively less than what his predecessors received within the same period. Nevertheless, asked whether they would sanction the contractor, who is also an illustrious son of Asaba Kingdom, if he was found to have underperformed on the upgrading of the airport, the royal chiefs said that they would intervene appropriately to ensure that the matter did not generate unnecessary bad blood. While noting that the Asagba-in-Council was yet to receive any information of failure or a formal complaint, they stressed that Obi Edozien desired peace and real development in the state rather than embark on witch-hunting anybody.

Okowa on original contract termination

Earlier, while fielding questions from newsmen at the Government House Asaba, Okowa explained how he had to put aside personal friendship with the chief executive officer of the contracting firm to ensure that the completion of the upgrading project was no longer a subject of conjecture. He disclosed that the contractor was literally nudged into throwing in the towel. Although, the ULO Consultants reportedly gave several reasons why the company had to hands off the project, Okowa told journalists that the state government actually prompted the contractor’s action by giving the company a ‘Yellow Card’ in October 2017 when it became increasingly clear they would not deliver the project.

The governor did not mince words: “I don’t care if I step on any toes. Unfortunately, his work remained very slow despite the pressure we put on him, and having paid fully the 50 per cent mobilisation agreed with the previous administration.”

On why the government decided to so pressure ULO, which undertook the actual construction of the airport and was initially awarded the contract for the Asaba Airport upgrade involving six aspects, the governor said: “Funding was not the issue; and, I regularly went to the airport simply to ensure that the project was delivered in good time and for us to have about the best airport in the country. But the pace of work remained very slow in spite of the pressure we put on the contractor to complete the project according to schedule.”

It is noteworthy that the views of the governor and those of the company’s chief executive, Chief Uche Okpuno, on the importance of safety and security aspects of the airport were harmonious and in tandem with the specifications of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. “Getting it right is very important,” Okowa had noted during one of his visits to the facility in January, 2017.  “Airport is not about the structure but about the runway; and, we believe that when completed, the airport will be among the best in the country based on standard. It is not about the speed but getting it right, because if you get the slope or gradient right in the first segment, you will get it right in the second and third segments.”

Similarly, Okpuno noted that “a solid runaway and not the beautiful buildings” was what makes a good, functional airport. He had at that time (January, 2017) assured the governor that work to re-jig the first segment (900 metres) of the runway would be completed within two weeks. He revealed also then that civil work on the Instrument Landing System (ILS) had been completed while installation was ongoing. The equipment would greatly improve safety of the airport as it will reduce visibility problem to the barest minimum and allow aircraft to land and take off even in foggy weather,” he said.

At the beginning of this piece, the social and economic benefits of an airport within a locality were highlighted. Indeed, a functional airport is a virtual tonic as it stimulates the local economy with ripple effect. It is, therefore, noteworthy that the barrage of questions from the Asaba chiefs included what plans the state government has to improve the network of roads in and around Asaba in anticipation of the increased volume of social economic activities, including commerce and tourism, which the facility is bound to boost in future.

In response, the Information Commissioner, Ukah, assured the delegation that the Okowa administration was passionate about infrastructure development, particularly roads, drainage systems and general urban renewal in the state capital and other major centres across the state. It is in this context that the chiefs’ submission about their impression of the Asaba airport upgrading vis-à-vis the performance of the Okowa administration should be appreciated. The Asagba-in-Council said, “That Asaba people are peaceful and patience does not mean that we are weak. We have witnessed three democratically elected governors in our state (since 2019), this administration has not received half of the money others received but he (Okowa) has done very well. From what we have seen, we the entire Asaba people and those residing in Asaba are grateful to Governor Okowa; we ask him to prepare for, possibly, a third term in office.”