By Ndubuisi Nwigwe
The long-awaited reopening of the Akanu Ibaim International Airport eventually happened on 30th August 2020 as rescheduled. It came as a relief to the South East region.
But surprisingly, this otherwise laudable development has been mired in the controversy or propaganda of purported “commissioning” of an uncompleted project.
Some have needlessly taken to both the social and conventional media to lambast the President Buhari administration for that and their political leaders for partaking of the event.
This has weighed me down, for I do know for sure that among my people keeping promise is a badge of honour and showing gratitude is not weakness.
Lest we forget, according to the statement by the General Manager (Corporate Affairs) of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu on 17th August 2019, the decision to shut down the airport effective 24th August 2019 was “for major repairs and works on the airfield” and to “resolve the existing safety and security concerns to flight operations”.
This decision was attacked and conspiracy theories were weaved around it, alleging a deliberate attempt to cripple Ndigbo economically and security-wise.
Thank God for the statement of a major player in the Nigerian aviation industry and Chairman/CEO of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, who commended the decision, saying: “For the avoidance of doubt, Air Peace is fully and totally in support of this decision. Though the decision will affect the traveling public and, of course, the airline, we place the safety of the flying public, our crew and equipment above any commercial benefits”.
It is recalled that Air Peace, which was about the only carrier still coming Enugu, had even given up on the airport, citing safety concerns. Also, it had to severally cancel flight operations from or to Enugu due to flooding of the runway and tarmac.
We can’t equally forget in a hurry all the pessimism spread in the media over the readiness of the FG to work on the airport. Many questioned the rational of closing the airport when the contract was not yet awarded.
However, President Buhari released the sum of N10 billion in October 2019 for the reconstruction to bring the airport to real international standards.
The Ministry assured the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation last January that fully loaded Boeing 747 (400 Series) would be able to conveniently land and take off from the runway on completion.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic with the attendant lockdowns and movement restrictions. The Easter target couldn’t be met.
ALSO READ: Enugu Airport: Triumph of good over evil
Some people still blasted the Federal Government (FG) as if anybody saw the pandemic coming. And when the government promised to reopen the airport on 30th August, the magnitude of propaganda in prose, pictures, and videos even a few days to the reopening gave the impression that the date was not feasible.
Thank God, the long wait eventually ended on the set date as severally reassured by Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika. Then the story was changed that to Buhari deceiving Ndigbo by commissioning an uncompleted project and Igbo leaders gathering to praise the FG and Buhari over an uncompleted airport.
They shared pictures of ongoing work at airport tollgate and the airport building, etc.
But beyond the propaganda, the question is: What was the raison d’être for closing the airport? Was it not for major repairs and works on the airfield/runway and to resolve the existing safety and security concerns to flight operations? By the way, the FAAN’s event programme titled the occasion as “Reopening of Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu State”. I didn’t see
“Commissioning” as bandied by some. The additional works they are circulating are in effect the fruits of lobbying by the same vilified Igbo leaders and the commitment of the Buhari administration to give the airport a truly international status.
Incidentally, the same people could have cried blue murder had the government announced the postponement of the reopening of the airport to, say March 2021, to ensure that the all the ongoing work was completed. But has the runway been reconstructed?
Have the safety concerns been addressed? The answers are in the affirmative.
Governor Ifeanyi Uguwanyi summarised the actions taken by the state government to address the safety concerns raised by FAAN.
They include the complete removal of all encroachment on the airport facility, relocation of an obstructive radio/TV mast and transmission station, demolition and relocation of the Orie Emene market, construction of a 1.3km asphalt road to the airport’s radio and navigation facility at Emene, and funding the upgrade and refurbishment of existing toilet facility in the terminal building. And what has Ugwuanyi got in appreciation by a section of our people? Bashing.
Meanwhile, at no time prior or during the event did the Minister of Aviation give the impression that the government was done with the airport.
Neither did the Igbo leaders fail to call on the FG to do well to complete ongoing works, including the new international terminal, and also give approval to major international carriers like Emirates, British Airways, Etihad Airlines, etc. to start flying the airport to boost the region’s and nation’s economy.
On his part, the Minister equally reassured of government’s commitment to completing other work at the airport, adding that he had released an additional N1 billion pursuant to ongoing new international terminal building. It is worth mentioning that this same Minister had virtually relocated to Enugu to see to it that the runway was not only completed on schedule, but that it was well done. The replaced runway was constructed without a drainage design.
I guess some people do not know that getting an international airport for the South East and giving the region a direct access to the world have been a long, and at a point, an elusive journey. I recommend that they read last Saturday Vanguard or Google up and read “Enugu Airport: the Story, the Future” by Chris Aligbe, an aviation consultant of repute as well as “Akanu Ibiam Int’l Airport:
The Realities, Politics, and New Hope” published by Sun Newspapers on 27th October 2019.
From the two accounts, how many times did successive civilian and military administrations promise us an international airport since the end of the civil war?
But it was Yar’Adua from Katsina State that eventually approved it when the South East members of the Senate tabled the request during a visit to him in 2007.
But despite Yar’Adua’s approval and the decision of the Enugu State Caucus of National Assembly to appropriate total sum of N2 billion that ought to have gone to development projects in their constituencies in the 2008 and 2009 budgets to the airport, how far did that project fly under former Minister of Aviation, Babatunde Omotoba?
The N2 billion they pooled in 2008 was eventually untilised and therefore returned to the federal treasury despite the issuance of a Due Process Certificate for the job.
According to Aligbe, Omotoba preferred Calabar airport with 3.8 per cent of Nigeria’s total passenger traffic at the time to Enugu airport that accounted for 19.5 per cent, raking third after Lagos and Abuja airports.
Under President Goodluck Jonathan, who took our quest for international access in the South East a notch higher, we celebrated the landing of Ethiopian Airline Boeing 737-800 at the Enugu airport, even though work was still not completed. Just like the 30th August 2020 event, the cream of Igbo political, traditional, and ecumenical leaderships were all present at that 24th August 2013 event to mark the landing of the first international commercial flight at the airport.
Ekweremadu; the then Governors Sullivan Chime, Peter Obi, Theodore Orji and Martin Elechi of Enugu, Anambra, Abia and Ebonyi respectively; the Minister of Aviation, Senator Stella Odua, Minister of Finance, Prof. Ngozi Okonjo Iwela; Minister of Power, Prof. Chinedu Nebo; Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, among others were all there.
So, why was it okay to be grateful and joyful then and sacrilegious to do the same today?
What exactly disqualifies President Buhari for appreciation for releasing N10 billion towards the project and disqualifies the Minister for commendation for strict supervision of the work?
All said, let us be strategic in our engagements with the government and party at the centre in order to realise our higher socio-economic and political goals.
A trend where all anyone needs to become an Igbo hero is to attack the President or APC or weave conspiracy theories is dangerous to our larger group interest and must be discouraged. Beside the Enugu Airport, the government has made visible efforts towards the realisation of the Second Niger Bridge.
The Eastern ports, which are very central to our businesses are being revived and operationalised for the first time in donkey years.
It is very okay to critise the APC, FG, and the President when they get it wrong. But we should be strategic enough to give them credit when it is due, irrespective of tribal, religious, and party affiliations.
The risk of not doing so is that we will reduce our struggle for the emancipation and development of our region to the proverb of a man crying in the rain. In such case, the world wouldn’t tell when you are genuinely wronged and weeping and when it is mere streams of rainwater running down your cheek.
Nwigwe writes from Abuja