By Chris Aligbe
In 1989, I came in close contact with the Enugu Airport when I joined Nigeria Airways as Head of Corporate Information.
I had time to study traffic and throughput at various airports with a focus on growth trajectory. For many years, the AkanuIbiam
International Airport oscillated between 4th and 6th in passenger throughput, at some period went down to 7th.
As Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, situated at a suburb called Emene, is being re-opened after extensive upgrade of the runway and airside, it will be quite timely to pensively reflect on what promises to be one of the outstanding landmarks of the Buhari administration in the South East zone.
However, before this, I want to commend the Governor of Enugu State, His Excellency, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, whose commitment to the Airport project is a sterling example to all political leaders, not just in the South East, but in Nigeria at large, of how to serve the interest of their people.
Ugwuanyi with his body and soul, selflessly took possession of the project as if it were a personal one. He has been outstanding.
Next to him is Hon. Nnoli Nnaji, the current Chairman of the House Committee on Aviation.
The Akpugo-born Pharmacist turned Lawmaker, has been outstanding in his interventions towards the realisation of the Enugu Airport project. Senator HadiSirika, the Aviation Minister could not hide his admiration of the efforts and support of the duo as he openly applauded them.
It is sad that one Enugu landowner thought, in all his senses, that the best thing to do was to destroy the cast wall for the perimeter fencing of the airport which is a conditionality for NCAA’s approval for operation into the airport.
Nothing can be closer to insanity. And it is perplexing that the Nigeria Police, the statutory law enforcement agency of the Federal Government deployed as many as forty officers to offer the landowner a protective cover to enable him destroy the property of their employer. Indeed, the “gods must be crazy”.
As the joy of the re-opening of the AkanuIbiam International Airport eclipses the setback of the “Enugu landowner insanity”, it is necessary to pause and take a peep into the annals of the history of Enugu Airport.
Between 1999 and 2007, most Nigerian airports and Aviation infrastructure; from Terminals to Runways, from Airspace Management facilities to manpower and airlines, all had taken a steep downward slide. Like other subsectors, the airport subsector suffered more devastating fate. Virtually, all airports deteriorated in every material particular.
Port Harcourt was shut down for deteriorated runway and by 2010 was rated the worst International airport in the world. Between 2000 and 2011, most operational airports had been abandoned, as it were, or left without attention. Kano and Enugu were left to rot while Abuja runway became a death trap, waiting for an accident to happen.
When Port Harcourt was shut down and Owerri became the closest destination for South East passengers, no attempt was made to improve its capacity.
Enugu airport was a functional airport that could relieve Owerri as well as provide an opening for international cargo and passenger operations, even if limitedly, to cater for South East passengers and great many who engage in international trade.
This was the motivation of two Directors of FAAN from the South East. Engr. Obi Anadu (Engineering) and John Ezenwankwo (Airport Operations) when they approached the then Director-General of NCAA, Dr Segun Demuren to allow international operations into Enugu Airport.
Dr.Demuren, in his non-political and pragmatic high professional standing, found the proposal excellent but told Anadu and Ezenwankwo that the final approval rested on the Minister, then Prof. Borishade.
So, the two went to see the Minister. Prof. Borishade was reported to have promptly turned it down as he told them that it had been decided that no international flights shall be operated from the South East.
Undaunted, when Borishade was replaced by Fani Kayode as Minister, Anadu and Ezenwankwo took their proposal to him and he re-affirmed Borishade’s position.
Next was Omotoba who replaced Felix Hyatt as Aviation Minister. Omotoba had conceived airport concessioning programme and in his choice, he preferred Calabar Airport to Enugu airport.
This was at a time when Enugu was number 3 behind Lagos and Abuja airports, accounting for 19.5% of the total passenger traffic as against Calabar with 3.8% traffic.
Also, Calabar airport had started declining with the exit of Governor Donald Duke, who was trying to create a synergy between tourism (Obudu and TINAPA) and aviation, an effort that collapsed after he left in 2007.
In addition to this, the Calabar airport runway is impaired by the fact that there is no land to extend the short runway for aircraft larger than B737.
Relentless, Ezenwankwo carried his agitation to Senator Ike Ekweremadu, then the Deputy Senate President. Ezenwankwo having been retired by Omotoba, flew to Enugu to meet Ekweremadu to complain about the unwritten relegatory policy on Enugu airport.
Having taken a brief from Ezenwankwo, Ekweremadu, on return to Abuja, put a team together and approached the then President, Dr Umaru Yar’dua.
Yar’dua approved Enugu and Maiduguri as International Airports; thus, ensuring an International Airport in each of the six geo-political zones. Unfortunately, this status was not gazetted.
During Vision 2020 deliberations, at the Transportation Working Group which I was a member of, having been called up after two meetings by the then Secretary of the National Planning Commission, Prof. Sylvester Monye (presently the SSA to Delta State Governor on Asaba Airport) to join the Group to fill the gap on aviation which he observed the international status for Enugu Airport was canvassed.
In the first two meetings I attended, I took up the issue of Enugu Airport’s International status along with the National Carrier question.
In the two meetings that followed, minutes excluded my intervention on Enugu Airport. I was shocked at this development and the Chairman, Engr. Sani Baba asked me to put up a position paper on Enugu Airport which I did, having co-operated with IkechiUko, the Abia State-born Tourism activist, who was heading the Tourism Group of the Vision, to ramp up and reinforce the arguments.
I had great trust in Sani Baba but to ensure no last-minute mischief by unkown hand after he must have passed the
Recommendations, I intimated a South-East Director in the Commission, Mr UchennaOffia from Umulumgbe, Enugu-West Senatorial District, represented by Ekweremadu to watch out.
Fortunately, Sani Baba kept his word. Enugu Airport submission was part of the Working Group Recommendations and the highlight of the argument is encapsulated in four power points on Chapter 5 page 1 of the Explanatory Notes.
As we commission the AkanuIbiam International Airport (AIIA) for re-opening, we can beat our chest that the airport is one of the few projects realised under Yar’dua’s Vision 2020.
It is true that since this current Republic, from 1999 to date, the South East has had more than a fair share of political offices in Aviation: These include the two most influential Ministers in two decades, Dr.Kema Chikwe and Stella Adaeze Oduah. Others are Fidelia Njezeand OsitaChidoka.
At the National Assembly, you have His Excellency, Senator Hope Uzodima, then Hon. KGB Oguakwa, Hon. NkiruOnyejeocha, all rank Legislators.
Apart from Oduah who has to her credit the Terminal upgrade, I don’t have my hands on what others did.
But today, we must along with Sirika applaud Gov. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Hon. Nnoli Nnaji, House Aviation Committee Chairman and all present Governors of South-East and the President of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief John Nwodo for their unity of purpose in securing from President Buhari, the N10billion for the repair of the AkanuIbiam International Airport, Enugu.
It is an evidence of what burying personal hatchet for common interest can achieve. It should serve as a prolegomenon for future common interest political action.
Also, Ekweremadu, John Ezenwankwo and Obi Anadu must have a place in history.
Finally, commendation must go to the KATSINA TRIO: Presidents Umaru Yar’dua of blessed memory who approved international status for Enugu Airport, Muhammad Buhari who provided the N10billion for the Runway reconstruction and the Aviation Minister, Senator HadiSirika for ensuring the best runway in the country for the airport.
This commissioning may not have been possible without them. A fitting memorial for the Trio and others who worked on this project would be most appropriate.
The future; the only future of the airport is in Concessioning. The AkanuIbiam International Airport is not part of the four International Airports under Concession.
The South-East must immediately engage the Minister for a programme to concession the Airport as the government is not likely to expend any more money on it.
In doing this, South-East must ensure a transparent and global standard Concessioning that will deliver an airport of 10-15million passenger capacity at the end of the Concession.
They must recuse themselves and avoid the “ana enweobodoenwe” syndrome. Let it be done in the interest of the South-East not of individuals.
Not in my interest, after all, I am not from Igbo but an Aniomaindigene from Delta State. Ndi Igbo shine your eyes and remember, “Echi di ime, unu amaro ifeechigaamu” (tomorrow is pregnant and you know not what it will birth).