When Governor Peter Obi revisited the issue of the long abandoned Anambra Airport Project, hopes were high that succour had come at last. Many years later, the project is yet to take off. It has been nothing but politics, controversies, abandonment of sites, and relocation of sites.
By Chuks OLUIGBO and Odinaka ANUDU
Anambra is one of the five states that make up the present-day South-Eastern Nigeria. It is home to the commercial cities of Onitsha and Nnewi. Onitsha harbours the famous Onitsha Main Market, the largest market in West Africa, while Nnewi plays host to the Nnewi Motorcycle Spare Parts Market, easily the largest motorcycle spare parts market in Nigeria. Nnewi is also called the Japan (or Taiwan) of Africa.
The idea of siting an airport in the vicinity of Onitsha was first conceived in the late 1970s, shortly after the creation of Anambra State. Anambra then comprised the present-day Anambra, Enugu, and parts of Ebonyi State. The airport as conceived at that time was to be a cargo airport that would mainly serve the transportation and commercial interests of Onitsha and Nnewi.
The idea was popularly welcomed not only by Anambra people but also by the entire people of the South-East for the promises it held and the quantum development it was expected to bring to the area. Feasibility studies were quickly undertaken and the suburban town of Oba in Idemili South Local Government Area of the state was chosen for the project. Thenceforth, the project became known as Oba Airport. Work began in earnest at the Oba site with initial clearing and grading. The extent of work done was such that on two of his visits to Anambra State, the late Pope John Paul II landed at the Oba Airport site.
Unfortunately, over thirty years after the idea was conceived, Anambra people are still waiting in vain for the actualization of the airport project. Part of the reason for this was that shortly after the initial clearing and grading, the project lost its momentum and was abruptly abandoned. The government of the day claimed that work had to be suspended because of paucity of funds. Successive governments did virtually nothing about the project. At a point, rumours made the rounds that transporters in Nnewi and Onitsha, especially ‘luxury bus’ owners, were strongly opposed to the idea of locating an airport in their vicinity because of the apparent fear that the realisation of such a project would affect their land transport business negatively. They envisaged, it was claimed, that many travellers would prefer to catch a flight from Oba to Lagos, Abuja or Kano rather than go through the excruciating pains of travelling many hours on the dilapidated Nigerian roads. In order to see that their fear is mitigated, the rumours said, these ‘luxury bus’ owners bribed successive governments so as to stall the airport project.
Whether these rumours were true or false, we cannot authoritatively say. But for whatever reason, the airport project remained in limbo until April 2007 when Andy Uba, former special assistant on domestic affairs to General Obasanjo, became governor of Anambra State and again revamped the hope for the state’s airport. He subsequently used every opportunity that presented itself to announce to Anambrarians that he would soon mobilize all necessary resources to complete the project. At a point, it was even claimed that he had re-awarded the contract and that some heavy construction machinery were already heading towards Oba for groundbreaking.
Many in the state dismissed Uba’s promises as mere political sloganeering and empty propaganda, arguing that he was merely using the airport project to play on the sentiments of the citizens of Anambra in an attempt to make them accept him as their governor, considering the way he came to power. But before Uba would have the chance to prove whether he meant business or not, he was kicked out of the Anambra Government House by the nation’s Supreme Court, and Mr Peter Obi, the present governor of the state, was sworn in.
On coming to power, Mr Obi, who had said on many occasions that an airport would form part of the proposed mega city being planned by his administration around the Omambala area of the state where there is enough land for development, revisited the Oba Airport project with renewed vigour which raised the hopes of Anambra people. But again, his approach to the issue has further exacerbated the frustrations, controversies, intrigues and politicking that have already trailed the project.
A Harvest Of Controversies
The first and mother of all controversies came when Mr Obi announced that he had carried out an environmental impact assessment of the project at the Oba site, and that the EIA proved that the Oba site was unsuitable for the project. As a result of this new discovery, he said, the Oba site was going to be abandoned, and Umuleri, a place said to have endless amount of land, was to be the new site for the project. Umuleri, also known as Umueri, is a town in Anambra East Local Government Area of the state. It is located within the Anambra Valley and bordered by Anambra River (Omabala River) and Anam in the north, Nteje in the south, Aguleri and Nando in the east, and Nsugbe in the west.
On Tuesday, November 3, 2009, the then Anambra State Commissioner for Information and Culture, Majah Umeh, told journalists in Awka that the Federal Ministry of Aviation had approved the establishment of the airport at Ifite Umuleri, around the operational area of Orient Petroleum Resources Plc, whose operational site, according to Hon. Chief Henry Mgbakogu Jideani, a leader in Ifite-Umuleri and former DG/CEO of Lands and Survey, Anambra State, “was properly, pertinently and relevantly acquired by the Anambra State government during Governor Chris Ngige’s tenure in 2004”.
Justifying the abandonment of the Oba site and the relocation of the project to Umuleri, the then chairman of the 15-man Anambra Airport project committee set up by Mr Peter Obi in June 2008, Engr Ignatius Ewuzie, said at a press briefing that Oba is inadequate for the airport site for reasons of limited land for expansion, erosion menace and PHCN high-tension cable near the Oba site.
According to Engr Ewuzie, the committee looked at Oba, Igbariam and Umuleri sites and knocked off the first two sites as it considered Umuleri the most suitable area which has possibilities for expansion and not prone to erosion. He also claimed that the committee’s decision to site the airport at Umuleri was purely technical and devoid of politics, adding that the committee needed a site that would provide about 5.64 km in length by 3 km wide on a tableland, and that the committee was proposing two parallel runways, cargo building and other ancillary facilities needed in an airport of international standard.
On 30 November, 2009, The Nation, in a news report titled “Controversy rages over N20bn cargo airport in Anambra”, stated thus: “The proposed N20 billion Cargo Airport by Anambra State government, being sited at Umuleri in Anambra East Local Government, is no longer a reality because of the controversy that trailed it.” This report followed the controversial dissolution of the Engr. Ewuzie-led 15-man airport committee. Others in the committee included the Secretary to the State Government, Paul Odenigbo, four commissioners, among others. Some members of the committee, it was said, were accused of using the committee to pursue selfish interest, while some had already given up on the project as a failed one even before the dissolution.
The committee after its inauguration had promised that the clearing of the site would take place by the end of 2008 and it would provide a runway by December 2009. None of these was ever realised. But before the committee was dissolved, it was rumoured that the site had been moved to Nteje in Oyi Local Government Area in place of Umuleri for political reasons.
The Nation report further said that Orient Petroleum Resources Plc asked the government to hands off the project for it to take it up and that some communities around Umuleri, who were not comfortable with the idea of development coming to the war-ravaged community, worked against the establishment of the project there. It was also reported that Bank PHB, Oceanic Bank, Intercontinental Bank, BGL Limited, and Fidelity Bank had bidden for the project before Orient Petroleum entered.
The news of the abandonment of the Oba Airport site did not go down well with the people of Oba, and indeed the entire people of Idemili and Nnewi, who felt that the governor deliberately used the E.I.A. report to deny them a privilege that was long granted to them. Vowing to resist the relocation of the project, the people wondered why the government would abandon a site where a significant infrastructure had been completed. They attributed the move to vendetta politics, saying that Governor Obi simply wanted to punish Oba and Nnewi because he was not getting along well with Dame Virgy Etiaba, his Deputy then, who hails from Nnewi.
Analysts seem to reason along the same line with Oba and Nnewi people. According to them, the government has not told the people the true reasons for moving the site away from Oba. For one, if the E.I.A. report actually exists, then it would be making nonsense of the administration that sited the project there. Does it then mean that feasibility studies were not done on the Oba site before government started investing huge sums into the project? The said high tension cables, were they installed before or after the site was chosen for an airport? Whatever the answer, can’t high tension cables be relocated? If massive buildings are pulled down and whole towns re-settled in order that development projects could go on, why can’t PHCN cables be relocated? The erosion menace, if it really exists, was it there when the Oba site was chosen? Was it not the abandonment of the site over the years that paved way for erosion to wreak havoc? And why will a government that says it is willing to build an airport abandon an already developed site because of erosion instead of looking for means of solving the erosion problem? The foregoing questions, or answers to them, analysts say, reveal that there are other reasons beyond the ones given by the Obi government for abandoning Oba.
Economic Viability Of Oba Airport
As already stated, when the idea of the airport was conceived, Oba was chosen because of its strategic location as a mid-point between Onitsha and Nnewi and the quantum development the project would bring to Anambra State and the entire South-East. Many analysts who have written on the issue amply captured some of these benefits.
One analyst, Acho Orabuchi, in an article titled “Cargo Airport in Anambra: An Economic Panacea”, opined that “An efficient Oba-Onitsha Cargo Airport venture would spur massive economic activities such as the concentration of forwarders, air cargo carriers, truckers, including the support and ancillary services that would in turn have huge multiplier effects. Oba-Onitsha Cargo Airport would attract the location and expansion of shippers, distribution channels, manufacturing and suppliers in and around the airport to take advantage of multi-modal services accruing as result of the airport. The manufacturers and distributors would salivate to locate around the airport because of the ease to transport high-value goods.”
He further stated that airports and related airport activities generate significant employment and income for the cities around the airports. The rise in employment and income of the region would in turn spark enormous economic growth and reduce poverty in the affected areas.
The Oba-Onitsha Cargo Airport, according to Orabuchi, would provide economic competitiveness through increased freight connectivity, efficiency, and easy access to various markets such as Onitsha, Nnewi, Enugu, Asaba, Benin, Orlu, Owerri, Umuahia Aba, Port Harcourt and other markets. The airport would have the potential to attract new businesses thereby providing economic competitive advantage to the State and the region.
Efficiently run Oba-Onitsha Cargo Airport, he further asserted, would not only provide access and facilitate commerce, but also it would generate employment and wealth with its direct, indirect and induced impacts lasting for decades. It would have wider catalytic benefits to the entire Southeast region because of its potential to serve numerous large markets. Also it has the budding to bring capital investment to the affected or surrounding areas as its share of international trade increases.
In his own view, another analyst, Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, stated thus: “Every time I drive past that airport site in Oba, I always imagined how much development the project would bring to the area. A landing strip for commercial cargo means that warehousing and real estate business would thrive in the area. More employment opportunities will also be created for our teeming young population."
These are just few examples. The pertinent question now is: will a cargo airport in Umuleri have the same economic viability as the Oba airport?
In Umuleri, the indigenes of the town seemed not know anything about the airport project, not to talk of knowing where it is to be sited. Those who claimed to know about it pointed in the wrong direction. It took us almost the whole day to locate the site, a mere empty stretch of land with nothing to show that the project is going on. Rev John Paul Mozie, Pastor of Christ the Saviour Church, Umuleri, who spoke with the present writers, explained that the lack of awareness could be attributed to the low level of education of many of the villagers. He also hinted that the project was being carried out by Anambra State government in collaboration with Orient Petroleum Resources Plc. Despite this explanation, the fear is that either the state government is short-changing the villagers or that few learned individuals in the host community are cashing in on the people’s ignorance to short-change them.
The same situation of non-awareness replicated itself in Igbariam, which was to host the airport after it was moved away from Oba. Most of the shop owners and motorcycle operators at Igbariam Junction said they only knew about the Oba Airport. If the airport had been moved away from Oba, or if at any point Igbariam had been considered to host the airport, they never heard. The few who said they knew something about it pointed at the Awkuzu-Igbariam border, while others mentioned Nteje.
In Oba, the original site of the airport, the indigenes were not eager to talk. All attempts to get their reactions to the abandonment of the Oba site and the relocation of the airport to Umuleri proved abortive. The only person who spoke to us was the traditional ruler of Oba, Igwe P. C. Ezenwa, Eze Okpoko I of Oba, who incidentally is the president-general of Oba town union. He was obviously disgusted with the governor’s action, and he did not hide his disgust.
Said Igwe Ezenwa, “The idea of the Oba Airport was mooted long ago. The site was commissioned in the late 1970s and work began at the site, but the work was abandoned in the guise that the government had no money. Then suddenly, Peter Obi said he was abandoning Oba because there was ecological problem, claiming that the money he would spend to remedy the erosion problem at Oba would be enough to build the airport. We have been watching since then. They moved to Igbariam where they encountered even a more serious problem. Even in Umuleri, we hear that the site they chose is water-logged. Nobody knows what is going on again. We are just watching the government.”
The monarch, who earlier said he was no longer interested in the matter, also said he had talked so much about it, written several letters, published many articles, and even embarrassed the government on the issue, all to no avail. His continued comment on it, he said, would make it appear as if he was after some personal interest.
When we visited Orient Petroleum Resources Plc office at Awka, a source there confirmed that the Anambra International Cargo Airport, as the project is now called, is indeed a joint venture project between Orient Petroleum Resources Plc and the Anambra State government. He, however, declined to comment further or give details of the agreement, saying that the state government was in a better position to give details.
Promising that the airport would take off in a short while, he said: “An airport is one of the easiest projects to carry out. Once you’ve done the runway, you can use anywhere within the airport as your control tower; what matters is the equipment you’ve put in place. So, we are on course.”
We also called on the state Commissioner for Works, Housing and Transport to make further inquiries. The commissioner, who spoke through his personal assistant, said he was not in a position to say anything about the project. “There is a committee in charge of the airport project, and I am not the chairman of that committee. The chairman is Barr Chima Nwafor, the state Commissioner for Commerce and Industry. He is the right person to talk to you,” he said.
We then proceeded to the office of the said Commissioner for Commerce and Industry but gathered that he travelled out of town.
Then Enter Asaba Airport
While successive governments in Anambra played politics with the Anambra airport project, the Delta State government took the lead and came up with the idea of an airport in the state. The proposed airport, a C-category, was to be located just off Asaba-Benin expressway, on a 5,000-hectare site, with a 3km runway and taxiway with provision for expansion and a modern-looking terminal building, a 10-storey control tower equipped to international standards and a construction duration of 24 months. The state governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, included the project in his 2008 budget. The N6.5 billion project was approved, and the ground breaking ceremony was performed in May 2008. By December of that year, the access road into the airport had already been constructed and the terminal building and runway already at a decent stage. At present, the airport is almost completed and is expected to be operational soon.
With an airport already sited in Asaba, barely one hour from the furthest parts of Anambra State, with an estimated distance of 12 km to Oba, 8 km to Ogbaru, and 18 km to Umuleri, analysts are asking what purpose another airport in Anambra State would serve. The geographical location of the Asaba airport implies that 80 percent of the passengers arriving there would be South-East bound. This means that an airport in Asaba would almost play the same transportation role for Anambra State citizens as the Oba airport would have played. With this development, Delta State is has obviously positioned itself to competently take the advantage of the commercial and industrial cities of Onitsha and Nnewi which Anambra had long neglected.
Meanwhile, traders at Onitsha and Nnewi have been reacting to the news of the relocation of the airport to Umuleri, which they said is too inside the hinterland and therefore largely inaccessible to them. Many of the traders who spoke to us said that the relocation of the airport would go down in history as the greatest blunder of the Obi administration, maintaining that the airport at Asaba would serve them far much better than an Anambra Airport in the heart of an evil forest.
“How will I leave Asaba and land in a remote hinterland like Umuleri, which is far removed from the express road, and then from there begin to wriggle my way to Onitsha? Except of course they are not building it for the people,” one respondent said.
Another respondent, Mr Chibuike Ogbuji, said, “If Obi insists on building the airport in Umuleri, then it will be clear to us that the airport is not meant for us. Unless he is building the airport for himself alone. Why did he abandon Oba in the first place?”
For some Anambrarians, however, the location does not make any difference, so long as the state has its own airport. “Our own is our own,” Chief Donatus Ifedi said. “We need our own airport in Anambra, no matter where it is located, so that we can be like others. They should stop playing dirty politics with an important project like an airport.”
On his part, Mr Tony Okoro, an Awka-based businessman, said that siting the airport in Umuleri is economically viable as it will bring development to Umuleri and other communities in Anambra East, which are easily the most backward and underdeveloped parts of Anambra State. He also pointed out that it was a great disservice that Anambra State, which has produced great figures in politics, business, ICT, literature, and other fields of endeavour, is yet to have an airport.
Whatever be the case, we are only worried that the Anambra Airport project has taken too long in materialising. How come an airport that was conceived over thirty years ago is yet to see the light of the day when planes are already taking off and landing on ones conceived just few years ago? If the Obi administration is sincere with the project, then it is not showing it. Moreover, the situation on ground seems to lend credence to the speculations of dirty politicking, given the controversies that have so far trailed the project, especially since the Obi administration.