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The curious case of the Enugu airport

As you have probably heard, Beijing now has the world’s largest airport terminal, the Daxing International Airport (PKX), just an hour from the Beijing Capital International Airport.

It is an ambitious project; if you considered its annexes and runways, it spans an amazing 18 square miles.  It aims to be the busiest airport on earth, with an astounding 72 million passengers projected to pass through in 2025, and 100 million by 2040.

The project is technology-driven, opening with futuristic smart security equipment, including biometric scanners.  Some 400 self-service kiosks will handle 80 percent of all check-ins, shortening queues and enhancing security, as well as making movement around the airport quick and easy.

It is like Singapore’s acclaimed Changi Airport, about which Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi raved two years ago.  “I went to the new airport in Singapore and I didn’t find one person…” he said of its new terminal.  “As you walk in, technology takes over.”

Even before Changi’s new terminal was built, the airport had been winning annual awards as the world’s best.  Like PKX, they went further, with an eye on competition and the future, to develop a bigger and better terminal distinguished by size, complexity and technology.

But surprise: the Changi terminal which blew Amaechi’s mind was built in only three years.

Similarly, the construction of PKX began just over four years ago.

On the contrary, the construction of the new terminal of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International in Abuja which President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned a couple of months ago, began in 2012, six years ago.  It was supposed to have taken two years.

And that construction was supposed to have been part of a five-airport package, the others to be located in Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu, along with six other airports for perishable cargoes, to be built in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Kano and Asaba.

Making the announcement in September 2012, Ms. Stella Oduah, the then Minister of Aviation said the new plan would bring the number of airports to 11.  It was all part of President Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda and an overhaul of the aviation sector, for which the government approved N106 billion.

Ms. Oduah spoke glowingly of plans to develop a new Aerotropolis— airport cities that would spurn clusters of businesses such as hotels, manufacturing, and Information and Communication Technology, capable of generating about N100 billion annually for Nigeria.  Staff of her Ministry had been to several developed nations to market the opportunities ahead in the sector in Nigeria, she said.  And oh, in the first two years alone, the Aerotropolis would yield at least 10 million jobs for Nigerians.

Keep in mind: that was in 2012.  In the two years that followed, Ms. Oduah presided over Aviation like Queen Amina.  She often spoke of the terrible state in which she had met the Ministry, leading to the development of the new aviation road map within the Transformation Agenda.

The aim, she said, was to be “the best aviation industry in Africa and one of the best in the world…focused on making Nigeria a hub that meets International Standards and Best Practices for the African continent.”

Of the Enugu Airport, she challenged the people of the South East to make it one of the top three airports in West Africa.

That should not have been very difficult.  In 2008, when the Umaru Yar’Adua government declared its intention to make it an international airport, it was already the fourth busiest in the country.

In December 2009, it was closed for “rehabilitation and upgrade,” the first phase of which began early in 2010.  The airport was re-opened in mid-December 2010, with that first phase—the construction of an entirely new runway—barely completed, and the other two phases said to be ongoing.

President Jonathan formally declared it open as an international airport in December 2011.  The one-year “upgrade” had taken two years!

Still, it turned out that the airport continued to be unsafe, and that the “new” runway was no better than the previous.  The airport also lacked modern Instrument Landing Systems, had leaking roofs and was often flooded.

By the time these were becoming apparent, Ms. Oduah had been kicked out of office as minister for abuse of office.

But she didn’t go home and hide.  She re-emerged as a Senator of the Federal Republic, representing the Anambra North Senatorial District. However, while her political and business fortunes appeared to flourish, the international airport she championed among her own people sank into danger and embarrassment.  By 2017, Nigerians were begging for the airport to be shut down.

It is of great interest, but perhaps no surprise, that just two weeks ago, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission told a court in Abuja that while she was a minister, Ms. Oduah diverted billions of Naira meant for airport security equipment into her own pockets.

According to the agency, the then minister used the funds to buy broadcast equipment for various private businesses, including Crystal Television Ltd. Alleging that she also bought a newspaper printing press, six dredgers and a quarry, the EFCC obtained an interim forfeiture order of every piece of equipment.

Meanwhile, although the fortunes of the Enugu Airport continued to dwindle alongside mounting complaints, the federal government did not respond to it in any of the budgets in 2017-19, despite the provision of N31 billion in 2017 for “construction and repair of airports.”

Last May, the government announced that the airport would again be closed for runway reconstruction, an action it took in August.  Two weeks ago, President Buhari,bemoaning “lack of judicious use of available resources in the past” even as he prepared to spend the very same resources on himself in London for two weeks, approved N10billion for “immediate repairs and upgrade” of the airport.

The decision followed a high-stakes courtesy visit on him by a delegation of governors and leaders of the Southeast.

Will an airport befitting Akanu Ibiam finally arise in Enugu?

Hopefully so.  But all we are about is now hope and prayer.  There is no commitment or organization.  We write budget statements without a budget, give important projects to party operatives with the understanding that they know what to do—wink-wink—and five or six years later, erupt in false outrage about why we have nothing, and why nothing works.

The Chinese did not give PKX to quacks, nor did the Singaporeans use Changi to pay political debts.  In addition to the capacity to dream big dreams, those monuments—like others around the world—were completed to high-quality specifications and on time because there was neither alternative nor compromise.  Nobody built in excuses, delays or endless explanations.

The saddest part is that the Enugu Airport is symbolic of Nigeria today in every respect.  If you know of a project—or thought, or idea—at the national or state level in the past 20 years that was completed on schedule, on budget and remained in excellent quality five years later, please let me know.

  • sonala.olumhense@gmail.com
  • @SonalaOlumhense

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