Much Ado about Bayelsa Airport


Stanley Nkwazema

In the next few days, the year 2019 will be over and the year 2020 will begin, in what has always been a common phenomenon in human and projects calendar. But it is obvious that the Bayelsa State airport, which the state has struggled and spent so much to build will not be put to use.

The idea of an airport in Bayelsa was not originally conceived by Governor Henry Seriake Dickson, the man who has been at the helms in the state for close to eight years and will finally bow out on February 14, 2020 when he completes his two terms in office.

The move to build an airport in the Niger Delta state was initiated by former Governor Timpre Sylva who is now the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources. The Man from Nembe, then dragged the late President Umaru Yar’Adua to a swampy site where the foundation stone of the airport was laid. The place was to be named after the late President and there were several promises which remained promises till he passed on. The mantle of leadership fell on President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

That idea and project died a natural death when it became obvious that due diligence was not carried out. The state government sunk several billions of naira into the foundation laying ceremony and it was obvious that the firms that were mobilised to site for the project were not qualified. They deployed aged equipment to site; the earth moving machines were simply not okay for the project. Sand was simply being dumped from several areas to the first project site and observers watched with dismay as nothing came out of that beautiful idea. It became obvious that those who were asked to do the job did not know what to do in the first place.

President Yar’Adua passed on and the Bayelsa airport also died. But then funds sunk in could not be recovered. The contractors vanished, and the rag-tag equipment deployed in the area also disappeared from site. There was no sign of activity, and the natural habitat of the Delta region came back to life in the area and the project became a pipe dream. There was no proper account of the funds spent. The present government could not state how much was spent and nobody dared to mention it, apparently because it was a PDP government replacing another, after Dickson was sworn in.

With the East West road, failing in hundreds of portions, not motorable to Warri or to Osubi airstrip and to Port Harcourt which boasts of an international airport, and less than an hour away from Yenagoa, the state capital, the outgoing government of Henry Dickson dusted the books for the airport. He was quickly advised against continuing the project in that area if Bayelsa still required an airport.
Interestingly, another site was suggested. Consultants brought in to finetune and come up with better ways of doing an airport easily dismissed the old site but came up with the idea of an entirely different area. It involved displacing Ammasoma, the village of late former Governor of the state, Diepreye Alamieseigha – Ikolo, Igbedi, Ikibiri and Sabagreia. Grudgingly, the traditional rulers and leaders of the area agreed to the state government’s demand for land.

This project has been bogged by controversy since inception and for several years Dickson, not ready to be overwhelmed, and with a strong conviction, stuck to his guns that an airport in Bayelsa would be better to boost activities in the state and ease movement to and from the state rather than go through the difficult and time consuming route to either Omagwa in Rivers or Sam Mbakwe airport in Owerri, another distance, if the roads are good, – close to two hours from the Bayelsa state capital.

To Dickson, the airport could be used by the several oil companies which dot the area, who transport their equipment from Port Harcourt and sometimes Lagos to their drilling and construction sites at a heavy cost. He also thought of the idea that traders from the South East particularly Onitsha Anambra state and Aba in Abia could make good use of the place since it was discovered that if a road is linked to Onitsha from the airport, it will indeed take less that 45 minutes to reach the commercial city.

Not deterred, each month after receiving the states allocation from the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC), the government sets aside funds for the job. And with the very difficult terrain of construction in the Niger Delta, contractors including Dantata and Sawoe that handled the construction of Uyo airport in Akwa Ibom state and Westminster Dredging International were mobilized and deployed to the new site. And for close to 18 months, the dredging company cleared and pumped sand over an area more than 5 kilometers to get the place ready while other companies moved to site.

The companies went about the business as funds trickled but the state wanted it ready as quickly as the companies could get the approval of the federal authorities to sign off the Bayelsa airport for commercial and non-commercial flights. In February, working in conjunction with the NCAA, FAAN and NAMA, the state signed an agreement with Air Peace for scheduled flights into the place.

The inaugural flight came into Bayelsa airport amid celebrations as Air Peace and another private aircraft touched down at the 3.5 kilometers runaway to signal the readiness of the airport to commence activities.

With dates put forward for the formal commissioning of the airport and working the NCAA and other relevant aviation bodies, and with state’s off-season governorship elections set for November 16, the Governor Dickson led administration was woken to the ruse reality that the formal opening may not be for now, not even this year.

The Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole told the media after a visit of some Bayelsa state party chieftains, eagerly bent on taking over the state from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) announced the runway of the airport was flooded. The state government and the contractors, as well as the Federal Ministry of Aviation were shocked when Oshiomhole said the runway was flooded and could not handle any flight due to shoddy construction work. Dickson was rattled and not ready to be taken for a ride, in company with the media and members of his cabinet and party chieftains, rushed to the place as the rain battered the place.

The media toured the entire complex that is the Bayelsa airport. Under rain, they walked the length and breadth of the airport runaway, the tarmac, apron, the fire and sick bays, to see for themselves the flooding which turned out to be a political statement to discredit the PDP.

The Project Manager of Dantata and Sawoe Andrea Battiselli and the Managing Director of Bayelsa state Airport Captain Jari Williams were surprised at the news of flooding according to Oshiomhole. They expressed dismay on the statement propagated regarding the project approval for commercial operations.
The statement was worrisome though following the fact the construction and approval of an airport is a lengthy process, which is conducted by technical professionals and in line with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The NCAA had worked and still working closing with the state Government from the onset of the project and guided the state in the development and construction of the airport. Approval was sought for and granted for the site location, the construction details and design for the airport by the NCAA.

The last inspection was conducted on the 16th of October ,2019 by a 6- man team from NCAA who evaluated the operational readiness on aerodrome fire, aviation security, aero operations, air traffic control procedures, runway, apron pavement Safety areas, Metrological equipment, administration, medical and personnel. At the conclusion of two days rigorous inspection, the team led in traditional practice, debriefed the airport management and representatives of Bayelsa state Government of their findings which revealed that there was no significant safety concerns (SSC) regarding the project, and forwarding same on the grounds which the state government was looking forward for the operational approval.

According to Battiselli, the project manager of Dantata and Sawoe “My company is Dantata & Sawoe. I am the project manager. I’ve been here since 2018 to complete the airport. We are still working on the little things and It is almost complete. The Airport does not flood. The runway is up to standard and it is 3.5kilometres. We are going beyond the 3.5 kilometers and will do another Kilometer which will be sandfilled also.

To the managing Director, who has handled similar assignments in several airports in Akwa Ibom and Asaba, “Airports are built according to specifications. The airport runway is the standard runway of 3.5km. It is obviously built for the wide-body aircrafts. These are dependent on facility approval. We have a facility approval of category 6 which is normal for any new airport. We start small and then grow up.

“We have up -to-date navigational equipment on ground and we have the control tower. Everything is in accordance with the NCAA approval that we are looking for at the moment. From the onset of this airport, the NCAA has worked with the state government. It is impossible to start an airport without approval from the NCAA. They work hand in hand with us and Oct 15, 2019 they were here for their last inspection which was favourable as far as we are concerned. We had a positive inspection and we are expecting a positive approval for our commercial flights.”

Dickson is however worried about the politicisation of the airport. “For the past seven years, the airport has been under construction. We have been doing so painstakingly in spite of the recession, because it is important for us to have this first airport in the heartland of Ijaw nation. As you have heard from the contractor Dantata & Sawoe, is constructed and has been finished according to international standards.

“You have also heard from Capt. Williams, who is one of the most experienced pilots we have in this part of our country. He opened and managed the Uyo Airport which we have been told is not up to the standard of this airport before they started. Now you are here today on a facility tour. You have seen that our 3.5km runway is not flooded. I will like the entire state, the general public and the entire country and everyone else to know the height of propaganda that is been bandied around this wonderful project.

“You are all with me on the runway presently and this is the height of the rainy season. You can see with me the height of the dredging. This runway is almost as high as the trees on the other side. It took the government of this state over one year to do the sand filling and dredging. And it was done according to best international practices. You see this massive sand fill here is unlike several other airport projects in this country. I can understand and we can forgive those who do not understand the peculiar terrain of this state. It is on this difficult terrain that we have delivered on a project like this.”