Hope Arises for Anambra Cargo Airport

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David-Chyddy Eleke who has followed the Anambra Cargo Airport Project from inception, in this investigative report, writes that though the state might soon join the league of states with airport, it didn’t come without hassles

Hopefully, in April 2021, Anambra Airport will commence operations. Anambra Indigenes from everywhere, who seek to come home will simply dash into the nearest airport, catch a flight and touchdown in Anambra and land at the Umueri International Cargo Airport.

Most importantly, businessmen and women in the state and beyond can leave for China, Thailand, Bangkok and other parts of the world to do businesses, from their own backyard, straight to the world. This is if the promise of the state Governor, Chief Willie Obiano that the airport would be commissioned in April 2021 can be relied on. The project once it comes alive would be four years after it was flagged off in April 2017.

The Proposal

On April 11, 2017, Anambra State Governor, Chief Willie Obiano made history with the story of a planned Airport City Project in Umueri, Anambra East Local Government Area. Governor Obiano during the flag off boasted that the project was far beyond just an airport.

He announced that the project was an aerodrome (an airport city), which would beyond seeing to the touching down of flights from all over Nigeria and beyond, would also provide services like maintenance of airplanes; which is a rare service, while the deep oil reserve in Aguleri Otu community, where Orient Petroleum Company is domiciled, would offer services like refueling of aircrafts. The project he said would cost $2.2billion, and would be solely financed by a Chinese company, Sinoking Enterprises, at no cost to Anambra Government.

He said, “Three years into my first term in office, I stand before you today to answer the call of history. In Christian numerology, the number three is the number of perfect manifestation. So, three years into my administration, the Lord God Almighty has given us a new Vision and a new Song! Umu nnem, our elders say that na Ugo gbuzuo, ochakee! Anambra State has finally hit the bend in the river and our famous can-do spirit has now taken over!

“What we are flagging off today is an Airport City Project with a model that will accommodate an airport with two runways, an aviation fuel dump, an airport hotel, an industrial business park, an international convention centre as well as a facility for aircraft maintenance. The Umueri Airport City Project is conceived to join some of the most advanced airports in the world with a capacity to land any of the most sophisticated vessels known to man today.

“It sits on 1,500 hectares of land with enough elbowroom for expansion from Ivite Umueri to neighbouring communities such as Nando, Umunya, Otuocha, Aguleri, Nteje, Nsugbe and beyond. The project is estimated to cost over 2billion US Dollars. It is a partnership between the Government of Anambra State, Orient Petroleum Resources Limited and Elite International Investments Limited (Sinoking Enterprises Limited).

“Under the contractual agreement, Elite International Investments Limited will provide all the funds needed for the project under the Build-Operate-Manage-and-Transfer arrangement. However under the same SPV arrangement, the Anambra Airport City Infrastructure Limited has allocated 75 per cent equity stake to Elite International Investments Limited, 20 per cent to Orient Petroleum Resources Limited and five per cent to the Government of Anambra State. The host communities are entitled to three per cent of the profit from this project in perpetuity as a part of the standard corporate social responsibility. Indeed, the economic benefits of the Umueri Airport City Project are enormous.”

That is not all that Obiano proposed to Anambra people. He also said that it is expected that the project would generate 1,200 direct jobs and 3,600 indirect jobs, and expressed confidence that Anambra indigenes would grab 70 per cent of these jobs in continuation of his efforts to create wealth and prosperity for the people. The governor said the project would also provide an opportunity for training and skills transfer to the people of the state.

He added that, “I have no doubts whatsoever that this project will have a tremendous impact on the ease of doing business in Anambra State as it opens a direct access by air to our vast markets. In particular, I hope that on completion, the Umueri Airport City Project will wipe out the difficulties our businessmen and women often encounter in exporting and importing goods and services and help in improving the entire supply chain. Ladies and gentlemen, with this project and our subsequent plan for a light rail project, Anambra State will eventually assume its rightful place as a major commercial and industrial hub in the West African sub-region”.

A Reporter’s Visit to Site

The project as announced by the governor in April 2017 has a completion deadline of 36 months, this means that the project was expected to be ready by April 2020. 24 months after the flagging off of the project (that is 12 months to completion), this reporter decided to take a trip to the airport project. The journey to Umueri, the proposed site of the Anambra Airport City Project which was made on April 3, 2019 was a smooth one for this reporter who drove from Awka through the Enugu-Onitsha expressway to Awkuzu Junction before veering right to drive through Nteje community in Oyi Local Government Area to Umueri in Anambra East Local Government Area where the project is located. The sign board which announced the arrival at the project site also seemed to announce the end of a smooth ride, as the road into the project site was bumpy, dusty and over-grown by grass; an obvious sign that nothing was happening on the site.

During the visit, THISDAY found that not much had been done on the site. Besides the initial clearing of the 1,500 hectares of land during the flag off, the site remained the same, and overgrown by bushes, just as herdsmen also found it a fertile place for their herds to graze. Also, a big portion of the land had been dealt a serious blow by erosion, just as access road into the project from Nteje – Umueri road was almost being cut off by a gully, which developed as a result of rainfall.

The access road into the project from Nsugbe flank, where the project spanned is not different as attempt by this reporter to drive through the road, into the project proved difficult. Though the road was initially wide and pliable, as one drove in, the road became narrower, and later turned into a foot part that could only be accessed on foot. For a project that was supposed to be ready by April 2020, THISDAY saw no equipment on site, or any sign of work having been achieved. A farmer who was seen working on a portion of land in the project site said, “We have not seen anything. Since 2017, the place has been like this, so some of us who do not have land outside this one, always come to farm on it, pending when work will start.”

White Elephant?

The flag off of the airport project in April 2017 was just seven months to the Anambra governorship election which was to hold in November 2017. Obiano was to seek reelection into the governorship seat then, so as to complete his constitutionally allowed two term of eight years. For a year of politicking, it was expected that Obiano would receive jabs for the project, especially as Anambra people were already falling in love with him for such lofty vision.

Then candidate of the United Progressives Party (UPP) for the election, Mr Osita Chidoka who was an aviation minister and considered to have a good knowledge of aviation system dismissed the project as a white elephant one. Chidoka speaking with journalists said the $2.2 billion cost of the project was unrealistically too high. He said, “I totally disagree with the airport proposal. Anambra does not need an airport for $2.2 billion when the federal government used $500 million to build four terminals.

“How can the federal government borrow $400 million from the Chinese and put its own $100 million to build four terminals with repayment of $12.5 million every quarter and Anambra government alone invited Chinese to build airport project for $2.2 billion. How much will it be paying at that amount? How much did Lagos International Airport cost us? What we will do is to build a small airport and grow it organically. Airport is a runway, not terminal building or cargo shed,” he said.

“The basic infrastructure we have to put in place is the runway and landing gear. I will ask the private sector to come and build cargo sections and when I finish, I will ensure that the airport grows naturally at no cost to the state administration. The whole passenger flow in Nigeria’s airport is between five and six million passengers annually. What will be the share of Anambra from that traffic?

“Heathrow Airport grew from terminal one to terminal two and now terminal five. There is no traffic study for the proposed (Anambra) airport; no passengers data too. They said it will be a cargo airport and fuel dump. Where is the fuel and refining capacity for Jet A1 here? Let us come down from this high horse. There is no five-star hotel in the whole of South East zone because the economy has not supported it. Why telling us then that you want to build a five-star hotel in Umueri Airport?” Chidoka questioned.

The opposition All Progressives Congress(APC) speaking through the then coordinator of youth affairs, Arinze Igboeli described the project as a political one meant to attract votes in the then election. Igboeli described the Chinese company handling the project; Sinoking Enterprises Investment Ltd as a fake company that ceased to exist many years back. He insisted that the airport city project was a fluke. Despite the strong opposition then, Obiano however won his reelection.

Shortly after THISDAY visited the site and published that no work was on site in April 2019, opposition political parties in the state tackled the Obiano administration, over the failed promise of an airport. The criticisms generated by the project may have given Obiano cause for concern. While making a budget estimate for the Anambra State House of Assembly for 2020, Obiano included a whooping sum of N6billion for the airport project. For a project that was initially said to be solely funded by the Chinese Company, Sinoking Limited, it was curious why Anambra was budgeting money for the project. THISDAY during a press conference asked the Anambra State works commissioner, Mr Marcel Ejiofor why Anambra was budgeting money for the airport.

He said, “The governor is a man of his words, and since he had already promised the people an airport, he did not want to go back on his words, so, he budgeted N6billion for the project in the 2020 budget. There is a foreign partner, and there are sorting out their funding, as we wait for them, the government will be doing something, and when they eventually come, they will balance us our money. That airport is real. We have done the expression of interest, and it is now in the tending service and before Christmas (2019), the contractors will mobilise to site. What we are doing is not just an airport but international cargo airport because our people are predominantly business people and there was a feasibility study before that license was approved.”

As Anambra people waited for the reimbursement of the spent N6billion by the Chinese company, again, for 2021 fiscal year, in a budget estimate to the Anambra State house of Assembly, Obiano again budgeted N5.8billion for the completion of the airport project.

Investigation however showed that the Chinese company was an inexistent company that long stopped operations. A mail sent to the company by this reporter on the state of the contract regarding the Anambra Airport was not responded to. A visit to the company’s website also showed that it was last updated in 2015, while no mention of any tripartite agreement with the government of any state in Nigeria was stated on the site.

A senior government official who spoke to THISDAY in 2019 on condition of anonymity said, “Truth is that, those people almost duped the governor. We are unaware what their interest was because they did not take any money from the state government, except of course if they planned to use the airport project to amass land in Anambra State for themselves. You remember some people were already accusing the governor of using the project to take Umueri land.”

Close Shave with Death on a Second Visit

In June 2020, this reporter gathered that work was in full force at the proposed airport project site, just as it was gathered that Obiano was getting set to deliver the best airport in Nigeria to Anambra people, and decided to pay a second visit to the project site, but the visit turned out a close shave with death.

Some youths had barricaded the road into the main project site, denying this reporter entry. From where the reporter stood, heavy equipments could be seen from afar working on the project. The youths insisted they had the instruction of the state Commissioner for Works, Mr Marcel Ejiofor not to allow anyone in.

When called for permission to move into the site, Mr Ejiofor who told this reporter he was at the site already became panicky. “How did you get in here?” he queried. Though he affirmed that he was at the site, he advised this reporter and his colleagues to quickly leave the site to avoid harm. He requested to see the journalists in his office to field questions instead (and not at the project site).

When it became obvious that Ejiofor could not be convinced to let the journalists in, the option was to leave. It was while the journalists were driving out of the site leisurely that they suddenly became aware that a Mack truck was racing behind them. The journalists immediately veered off into the bush, just as the truck sped by, missing the car driven by the journalists by whiskers.

Not done, the truck stopped in front, made a u-turn and headed towards the journalists again, causing them (journalists) to alight from their vehicle in readiness to flee. When Ejiofor was later met in his office the next day, he told the journalists they were lucky to return alive. He said, “I don’t know what you want to be told about the project. Go and quote me, just say work has not started. I am not ready to talk further on the project. So, you can say that I said ‘no comment’. If you have other things to know about the state of roads in Anambra, I will be ready to speak to you, but I am not willing to talk about the airport.”

Real Deal

What is however certain about the state of the Anambra airport is that Governor Obiano plans to deliver a surprise package to Anambra people. It is also certain from the testimonies of those who have visited the site that the project would soon be delivered, and that it is a world class airport with many state of the art facilities. What is also certain is that the airport is no longer being built by any Chinese company at no cost to Anambra State government, rather, every penny needed for the project was being provided by Anambra government.

The state Commissioner for Works, Mr Marcel Ejiofor who spoke to journalists during a press conference at the government house affirmed that, “the airport is being financed 100 percent by Anambra State government.”

Though the project is packaged as a surprise to Anambra People (reason journalists were denied entry), a few people who have been granted access to the project have disclosed snippets of what should be expected when the project is ready. Mr Femi Fani-Kayode, a former aviation minister who was in the state in August 2020 told journalists that when completed, the airport would be first of its kind in Nigeria. He said, “What I have just seen is mind blowing. We just ran down the runway of the Anambra Airport, and what I have just seen shows that when completed it will be one of the best airport in the country.

“The runway is longer than the runway of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport and that of Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja, and longer than any other airport in Nigeria. It is silkier than any other and wider than any other runway of any airport in Nigeria. There is no federal government, not to talk of state government that has undertaken that kind of project before and you all know it. To me, it is amazing that such a project has remained and has been kept a secret. It would dwarf every other airport around, probably throughout the south. It is a good thing for the people of Anambra State and that is my view as a person who has knowledge of aviation industry.”

Another aviation industry expert and Owner of Peace Air, Allen Onyema who visited the project told journalists that, “Every infrastructure that will make an airport of international standard is there. They are doing everything; taking care of all those complains we used to have in Nigeria hitherto. There are plans to do runway lightings of the highest grade. There are plans to install the instrument landing system that will be top notch, so that pilots can come in and land blindly even at zero visibility. So, and these are what we are yearning for.

“That airport, to the best of my knowledge, and by God’s grace, if everything pulls through the way they are planning it and the way they are going, it might end up being the best airport in the entire African region; not just Nigeria, because what I saw; everything has been provided for. There are places for cargo. There are places for passengers; everything. And the spacing gives room for more development. And that is what you need in an airport. The runway is one of the longest in Africa; 3.7km. That is the runway that can land 777 (aircraft), Airbus380 and others,” he said.

A source close to the state government who claimed to have visited the project, while speaking to THISDAY on condition of anonymity said, “The truth is that what the governor is doing in that site will shock a lot of people. You know he is a man who has taste? He is sinking money into that project. There are three things that the governor is working on now, and he refers to them as legacy project. The airport, international conference centre and the Awka stadium. These are promises that he has made to the people and he does not want to go back on them. Those projects are costing him money, but he has no option than to do them.”

The source added that even though the project was conceived to be an aerodrome, the governor had to make some amendment when it became obvious that the Chinese company was no longer forthcoming. “What it means is that the aviation fuel dump and the aircraft maintenance section as the governor had earlier said may be absent for now. Maybe, the baton may be passed to the next governor of the state to take off from there,” he said.

Also, speaking to THISDAY, the Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr C. Don Adinuba told THISDAY that what was most heartwarming is that the governor is delivering the project without borrowing any money from anywhere. “That airport project has the longest runway in Nigeria, if not in Africa. Its runway is 3.7 kilometres long. Its control tower is 11-storey, the tallest in Nigeria.

“The airport is the most modern in Nigeria, designed to revolutionise commerce in Nigeria, particularly export and import business. Anambra people are easily the greatest importers in West Africa, and the people have 63 major markets, including the famous Onitsha Market, the biggest open market in West Africa. Modern and big as Anambra State International and Passenger Airport is, the state government is building it without a loan from any financial institution anywhere in the world.”

As Anambra begins preparation to open its airport for operations, what is the real deal is that after all the back and forth, Anambra would be joining the league of states with airports, but beyond that, it would be one with many state of the art infrastructure, and even if it fails to meet the bogus proposal made to Anambra people, there is room for the government after Obiano’s tenure to add up what is lacking.