Thoughts on Obiano’s Airport

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EDIFYING ELUCIDATIONS BY OKEY IKECHUKWU

It was an absolute surprise, especially coming immediately after a social media report that it had all been cancelled as a non-viable venture. The timeframe between commencement and completion of the airport project made it to even sound and look like fiction. Yet it was no fiction. If the very exacting aviation sector was not involved, many would have easily concluded that some “mago-mago” was involved. Like the oil sector, especially off-shore services, the aviation sector has no room for tomfoolery.

The risks attendant on any minor error are legion; and sometimes unimaginably disastrous. With that, it is safe to conclude that the Anambra State Government met all the conditions, which are always strictly guided by international best practices, for it to be allowed to land even a house fly on the new five kilometre plus tarmac. As reported, three planes landed on the scheduled day, without any issues. Two of the planes were heavy duty carriers. The third aircraft was a private jet. So, let us admit that the governor and the state government must be commended for this remarkable achievement. It is now time for the real work, behind the scenes, that will make the difference in how this airport is seen and rated in the near and distant future.

As an aside, let us note that the idea of an airport in Anambra is not new. It was one of Andy Ubah’s much-vaunted aspirational projects as governor. But it was still-born under his “tenure” as governor, which did not last more than thirty minutes. Years before his misadventure in Awka, he brought a case against the then Governor Peter Obi to the Abuja-based Anambra State Public Officers (and Elders) Forum (ASPOF), of which I was then Secretary General. The venue, or court, where the matter(s) was (were) tabled for adjudication was the residence of ASPOF Chairman, Chief S. N. Okeke; who was also then the Chairman of the Police Service Commission (PSN). Andy, who came along with his brother, Senator Ugochukwu, made an elaborate case about his repeated failed attempts to work with Governor Obi in order to contribute his quota to the development of Anambra State.

One of his submissions on that day was about how much effort he had put into the idea of an airport in the state. Ubah spoke as probably no one had ever seen him speak before. In fact, until that day, I did not know he could actually speak non-stop for more than one minute. The passion and pain in his voice were there for all to see. But then, Obi also had his side of the story. Stalemate! It was an ill-fated reconciliation meeting. The problem was not just the two parties concerned, but the fact that the Ubahs already had the problem of trust in Anambra State and even among those who were desirous of ensuring peace and cessation of hostilities. But back to Anambra Airport.

The major news item for me in Obiano’s remarkable feat here is not just that we are talking about a cargo and passenger airport. It is also not the fact that the enterprising South-east traders and business community, as well as their partners from within and outside the country, will now be saved the trouble of convoluted journeys and processes in the course of doing their businesses. Yes, goods will arrive faster. Yes, the goods will also be in much better condition than one would find them after the repeated handling in Lagos, Cotonou and other points of entry; before they are further worsted by days or weeks of arduous road journey. There is also the fat that the loss of income to businessmen and women due to the merciless extortion on all Nigerian roads by sundry government agencies, as the goods are being conveyed to the South-east from all over the country, will be minimised. The real news is that the airport portends an expansion of the limited economic liberation of sorts for the Eastern Flank of the nation’s commercial divide. It is also a major step towards prolonging the life of the Lagos-Benin Expressway, in particular. That stretch of road has been the unfortunate victim of axle load abuse. It is simply overwhelmed by traffic, suffocated by an insufferable number of checkpoints and hamstrung by the bloody-mindedness of everything and everyone on the route – all the way from Lagos to the bridgehead at Asaba, Delta State.

As for those who have argued that such an airport is not necessary, given the proximity of the Asaba, Enugu and Owerri Airports, one only needs to point out the following: (1) The Asaba, Airport is not known to be a cargo airport, and its space configuration says so; (2) The volume of business available in the South-east can sustain even an additional cargo and passenger airport; as the region has the capacity to gobble up everything the airports can throw at it; and much more; (3) The Anambra Airport is within two to three hours of most major markets and state capitals in the Eastern States and the South South; (4) Anyone who takes inventory of the final destination of most goods and passengers travelling into and out of the country will be shocked at the indicators; (5) You may fly from Abuja to Asaba in less than forty minutes and then spend between four and seven hours to cover the short distance from the airport to Awka, if the Onitsha traffic catches up with you; and, finally, (6) The positive multiplier effects, in terms of development of the Anambra hinterland, the hospitality and tourism industries, job creation and much more are also issues to consider. The only note of warning here is for the state government to pay particular attention to security and the logistics of passenger and goods management. These must be gotten right from the start, if things are not to go burst. The other thing to consider is that this airport may make up for the misfortune called the Onitsha River Port.

Recall that, sometime around the middle of March 2017, the World Bank signed an agreement with Sokoto State government, to rebuild an old dam across the Niger. At about the same time, major stakeholders and the South-east business community were also calling for quick government action to make the Onitsha River Port operational. These stakeholders forgot to have a discussion about the most important ingredient for a river port, namely, water. Yes, water! Those who are looking forward to a vibrant port in Onitsha should therefore think of a “water plan”. The dams built across the rivers Niger and Benue, and their tributaries, over the years have reduced the overall water volume of the lower Niger by over 58 per cent. The federal government planned to build another 40 in 2017 alone, to boost dry season farming. The tiny islands, and unprecedented siltation, at the Onitsha end of the river were not there before. As for dredging, it will give you a bigger ditch and not necessarily more water. Besides, a bigger ditch will wipe out the means of livelihood of water dependent local economies. The confirmed practice in Norway, of “gating” and later discharging the water to secure enough depth is a good idea but to fill up the place and get enough draught for ship…? Barges, too, will have their own problems on that route.

All things considered, some of the ignored challenges facing the proposed Onitsha River Port, and which brighten the suspected prospects of the Anambra Airport, are: (1) The height and headroom of the new bridge being built across the Niger; (2) River dams along the Niger, Benue and their many tributaries; (3) Unrealistic projections about the prospects of the project; (4) The integrity of some of the existing Environmental Impact Assessment (AIE) reports; (5) politicisation of the economic value of a river port in Onitsha, as against Port Harcourt and Calabar; (6) the game plans of individuals who wish to upgrade their relevance by fighting to secure a vital “federal government project for Ndigbo”, knowing that it will either not work at all or that it will not bring the alleged benefits, and, finally; (7) insecurity along the inland waterways, because Niger Delta militants will confront water vessels making their way through the creeks. We all know that dams, from the experiences of the people of Zamfara and many other communities where dams have been built, that every dam inevitably alters the contiguous ecosystems, ruins food chains and sometimes obliterates local economies. Some Nigerian rivers are now fragments of their former selves. Others have dried up completely, as can be seen when you drive from Enugu, through Anyigba, to Abuja. Does anyone still take a ride on sections of the River Benue that were once used for water transportation? Who drank up the water and created empty water channels and dry rivers with massive bridges between Lokoja and Anyigba, and all over Nigeria? I am certainly not the one!

To return to the matter at hand, the challenges faced by the Onitsha River which seem to support the optimisms surrounding the Anambra Airport, all of which can be discussed on the platform of plain and verifiable science, stand out in bold relief. The potential gains of a well-managed Anambra Airport in the short, medium and long terms stand it in good stead for commendation at this time. It is now a finished project and a functioning asset. Thus, arguments about its desirability, its feasibility and its advisability have long lost the chance of getting a hearing. What is on the table at the moment, which should be the issue of genuine concern and efforts, is how to fortify, refine and sustain this bold step. The gain is not in the opening of the airport, but in the collateral gains that will invariably justify the resolve that saw the project through. Now is the state government to bridge all political divides and ensure that for Anambra people are brought together for a common goal. Let “Nke a bu nke anyi” resound in the state, without any political undertones.

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As for those who have argued that such an airport is not necessary, given the proximity of the Asaba, Enugu and Owerri Airports, one only needs to point out the following: (1) The Asaba, Airport is not known to be a cargo airport, and its space configuration says so; (2) The volume of business available in the South-east can sustain even an additional cargo and passenger airport; as the region has the capacity to gobble up everything the airports can throw at it; and much more