By Ifeanyi Afuba
It would be an understatement to say that Ndi Anambra welcomed the flag – off of construction at the state’s cargo airport site at Umueri on April 11, 2017 by the state Governor, Willie Obiano. In this commemorative season of the suffering, death and resurrection of the eternal hero, that would compare with saying that the Jews did not treat Jesus nicely. The take – off of the Anambra airport project generated excitement across the state – and for good reasons. The airport venture is a storyline with a special place in the people’s heart.
Before we come to the economics of an airport, there is an intervention of historical and group consciousness. For the Igbo of successive modern generations, the value of an airport as a link with the outside world cannot be over – emphasised. For it was in this same geographical space of the present Anambra State that the civil war era Uli airport and Uga airstrip existed. In the face of the blockade mounted by the federal government against the state of Biafra, the two facilities built and maintained by local expertise provided the access for relief supplies and other emergency needs. Operated under cover of darkness at night, the services rendered by the airstrips bear testimony to the expressive spirit of a people faced with existential threat.
With the formal cessation of conflict in 1970, it was only a matter of time before the rhythms of civilisation asserted once more in the environment. Brushing aside the 20 pounds flat reintegration capital into the national economy and the consequent inability to benefit from the indigenization decree, the people of the former eastern region moved to take their destiny in their own hands. With a combination of sense of self – preservation, drive, and seemingly boundless energy, they gave vent to their wealth creation instincts.
This generation succeeded in breaking into the waters of Nigerian trade and commerce; indeed maintaining a strong presence which has endured to this day. Entrepreneurship in other sectors of the economy has seen mixed results. It was the south – east’s remarkable impact in importation and distributive trade that logically gave rise to the quest for more airports in the region.
The demands were for an airport each in the Onitsha and Owerri areas, roughly representing the zone’s broad political and business centres at the time. With Aba’s commercial profile promising economic viability, agitation for the Imo airport began soon after its creation in 1976, climaxing during the second republic when the State Governor, Sam Mbakwe, found a site for the project. Shortly after, the December 31, 1983 coup came, taking the Mbakwe administration out of office and out of the airport construction. Two decades later and many regimes after, the Owerri airport became reality through the dedication of the people to the cause; through freewill donations, levies and other sacrifices.
It was in fitting acknowledgement of the unity of purpose that transformed the dream to fruition that the facility was initially named Igwebuike airport. Translated, igwebuike reads the strength of numbers; of solidarity. In a misplaced zeal to honour, the project was later named after Sam Mbakwe, unnecessarily and unfairly degrading the collective history behind its execution.
The case for Onitsha airport assumed impetus on the heels of the elusive Onitsha seaport pledged by the Shehu Shagari government. A pathway opened when the responsive Samson Omerua led military administration approved the airport project and subsequently chose the now abandoned Onitsha – Oba site. An airport project fund was launched under the auspices of the old Anambra state government from which proceeds the site was cleared preparatory to construction work.
However, paucity of funds and regime change proved drawbacks to the venture. Uncertainty pervaded the subject through the span of three regimes until the emergence of another airforce Governor, Group Captain Rufai Garba in 1996, who elected to ditch the project. Garba’s take on the issue is interesting and worth reflecting on. Anambra Times, a publication of Governor Willie Obiano’s media office in the August/September 2016 edition quoted the former military administrator: ‘On the airport thing, I looked at it and said why should I build an airport when it will take me 45 minutes to get to Enugu and equally take me 45 minutes to get to Oba from Awka?
It would take the founding of the Orient Petroleum concept by the fourth republic Governor, Chinwoke Mbadinuju, sometime in 2001 for resuscitation of the airport venture – in a modified format. The Mbadinuju administration has the credit of initiating the framework for a private – sector, oil refining venture in the state. The vision of an airport was then introduced by the Orient Petroleum team in pursuit of the larger goals of oil and gas undertaking. With the petroleum plant naturally sited close to the source of raw materials, the location of the airport inevitably changed to the area of refining operation.
The next stage of the airport journey represents the input by the Peter Obi administration. The regime constituted an airport committee which secured the land at the present site in Umueri. Compensation was paid to the land owners after which the resource was duly transferred to Orient Petroleum Plc. The administration went a step further to design a single lane access road to the site.
Willie Obiano enters the court, upping the ante. As he is wont to, Obiano’s involvement with the airport has resulted in value addition both in terms of scope and standard of the complex. Single lane access road is giving way to a double carriageway. The plan of a cargo airport at Umueri is retained but what was set in motion on Tuesday, April 11, 2017 was not just the construction of an airport but an airport city! The $2 bn mega project features two runways; aviation fuel dump; international hotel; industrial/business park; modern convention centre; maintenance hangar among other facilities.
What stands out in the Obiano airport city is the provision for a fuel dump to service the West Africa aviation hub. The congruence between petroleum refining and aircraft fuel refilling on one hand and Onitsha’s commercial status and cargo air service on the other can only be described as a masterstroke. The package is an eloquent statement on the vision and commitment of the Obiano administration.
Embarking on a project of such Olympian scale in this time of biting economic recession seems like a fairytale.
But Governor Obiano has used the combination of his reputation as an investment banker and the sunray brand Anambra State has become in his hands to translate this aspiration to reality. Consequently, Anambra State will not spend a kobo from its treasury on this mega complex. The entire operation will be funded by Sinoking Enterprises Limited, China in an arrangement in which Orient Resources Limited has 20% equity stake; Anambra State Government 5%; and the host communities 3%. And when we factor in the projected 5000 direct and indirect jobs to be generated from the investment, the airport venture easily becomes one of the best stories to come from Anambra State since creation in 1991.