Our Airport is Newer and Bigger Than Yours Though a White Elephant

Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika

With Chido Nwakanma

The Akanu Ibiam Airport in Enugu was in the news again this week for the wrong reasons. Indications are that the 30 August 2020 date scheduled for its reopening may not materialise given the situation on the ground. It got worse Wednesday 12 August 2020 as Citizen John Emejulu, an architect and developer, vandalised the fence of the airport to establish his claim to part of the land forcefully.

One error soon built on the first. Aviation Minister Hadi Sarika visited the site of the destruction of 2kms of fencing and declared a fatwa on Emejulu. He stated: “This will certainly be the end of this kind of recklessness. We will not forgive him. The Chief of Staff will direct all that is involved in this kind of arrangement, the Inspector-General of Police and the Director-General of the DSS (Department of State Services) to do the needful and bring him to book.

“I am incredibly sad. It is very wrong, and we must seize the opportunity and deal with him summarily to serve as a deterrent to others. We are not in the Banana Republic. We are in a federal republic governed by laws. Certainly, this is not acceptable, and we are capable of rising in defence of national assets.”

The Enugu State Government then turned it into a farce on Friday morning. Officials of the ENSG descended on and destroyed the home of Mr Emejulu with all his properties in it. It reminded of the destruction of Odin in Bayelsa State by soldiers that then-President Olusegun Obasanjo sent to avenge the killing of two soldiers.

Emejulu acted with impunity even as he had a court judgement in his favour. He did not seek peaceful means of getting value for the judgement. But what about the state government? Should petulance and vindictiveness be part of state policy and reaction to the misdeed of a citizen?
Minister Sirika is optimistic that the Federal Government and its contractors will finish the repair works and redevelopment of the Enugu Airport. It will be a surprise most pleasing to citizens who use the airport. Significantly, it will be a political positive for the PMB administration as the matter of the redevelopment of the Akanu Ibiam Airport has assumed an intense political dimension. It has taken one year to fix the Akanu Ibiam airport. Groups in the South East compare the development with similar airport closures at Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport Abuja and the Kaduna Airport, and they feel short-changed. Both Abuja and Kaduna Airports took shorter duration to fix. The fifth international gateway in Nigeria should reopen in September, so the businesses and citizens can recoup their losses.
Airports are topical in the states of the South East. Three states have embarked on airport projects with varying degrees of project implementation. These are Abia, Anambra and Ebonyi. The governors of the states speak with confidence about the desirability even imperative of the airports.

The project execution model for the Abia State airport is a hermaphrodite otherwise clothed in the garb of a Public-Private Partnership. Government has forcefully acquired lands in Ngwaland and Ikwuano and Olokoro, Umuahia. Governor Theodore Orji commenced the project. Current governor Okezie Ikpeazu swears by the project and has appointed an Abia Airport Project Team with Chief Philip Orjiako as chairman. In March 2020, Ikpeazu said he looked towards breaking grounds in April so he could realise the project before his administration expires.
Orji, his predecessor, made similar audio proclamations before he left. Okezie is a governor that has failed to complete a simple flyover in Aba over four years or to cleanse the rot in the state’s most central city waxing on the more elaborate and expensive project of building an airport.

Project execution is the robust suite of Ebonyi State governor Engineer David Umahi. He has demonstrated competence in delivering infrastructure in the state, some needful and others futuristic, such as the International Market in Abakaliki that is mostly empty.
Abakiliki is 75km from Enugu, just a drive of an hour and twenty minutes. It is a whistle-stop from the Akanu Ibiam Airport. Enugu Airport is one of the under-utilised airports run by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria. Ego more than economic viability must be the principal driver of the construction of this airport.

Governor Willie Obiano is similarly committed to the building of an airport in Anambra State. Or so he has claimed for three years since he unveiled the project in April 2017. Like Abia, construction of the Umueri International Cargo Airport is under a PPP arrangement. Anambra Airport City Infrastructures Limited oversees the project and has allocated 75 per cent equity to Elite International Investments, 20 per cent to Orient Petroleum Resources Limited and five per cent to Anambra State Government. The initial claim was that Chinese firm Sinoking International would build the airport at no cost to the state government. It was audio.
Anambra budgeted N6b for the airport in 2020 while work commenced in late 2019. Note that Asaba Airport is 31.7km from the proposed Umueri Airport while Owerri is 92km away and Enugu is 103km away by road.

Records of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) shows that most airports in Nigeria are loss-makers. The People’s Airport in Owerri is one of the loss-makers. Built on a strong wave of populism and anger at marginalisation, the zeal of the people has not manifested in patronage at the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport. It generated a revenue of N1.25b over the three-years 2017-2019 but spent N2.50b., losing N1.42b. Margaret Ekpo International Airport Calabar incurred a deficit of N1.94b.
Akanu Ibiam Airport consistently ranks fifth in the country in passenger traffic. It stood at 342 000 in 2018. It is grossly underutilised as is the one at Owerri.

Are these airports necessary or justified? The South East does not need more airports. Not at least for another ten years until there is an increase in traffic and better use of the two airports in the region. Passenger traffic is a function of the level of economic activities. Here is an area that the records show attracts the least FDI because of the failings of government now expending resources wrongly.

There are competing priorities. They include the absence of world-class facilities for healthcare, education, and even potable water in the cities of the South East. There is no pipe-borne water in Enugu or Onitsha, for instance. As the world races steadily online, one would expect a programme to ensure that the states of the South East embrace digital in all its ramifications including equipping the youths of the region, making schools digital compliant and running governments on a digital platform.

White elephant refers “to an extravagant, impractical gift” that becomes a burden. The phrase is said to come from the historical practice of the King of Siam (now Thailand) giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him so that the animals’ upkeep costs might ruin them,” the dictionary says.
The South East does not need the white elephant of airport projects. The governors should find other signature projects for their egos.