Endless Promises Trail Completion Of Billion Naira Asaba Airport
By Austen Oyibode
LAGOS MARCH 6TH (URHOBOTODAY)-The foundation laying stone of the Asaba International Airport was laid by former chairman of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Vincent Ogbulafor on May 7, 2008. That was the beginning of the establishment of airport in Asaba the Delta state capital.
The contract was awarded to ULO Consultants, an indigenous firm owned by Uche Luke Okpuno, an indigene of Asaba. From 2008 to 2017 is a total of 10 years and the airport is still under construction with so much being budgeted for it annually.
But despite the billions, there is no visible sign of completion but rather promises of making it a great airport, greater than the existing ones in Nigerian megacities from the succeeding governments. Former Governor Uduaghan, who initiated the idea promised all he could but few weeks to him leaving office, the airport was downgraded by the federal ministry of aviation.
The amount budgeted for it is always in secrecy as the people of Delta do not know how much it has so far consumed since the construction began during the early years of former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s first term in Delta. Uduaghan came into office for his first term on May 29, 2007 and the foundation laying stone was laid on May 7, 2008, barely a year after becoming governor of one of the allegedly richest states in Nigeria.
The vision behind its establishment in 2007, as it were, was to create a passage for the eastern business moguls, a development which is said would create a multiplier effect for the state government and grow businesses in Asaba, the nearest city to Onitsha, the eastern center of commerce.
To the government of Delta state, rather than fly to Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt, the eastern business executives could fly from any part of the world to Asaba and from there, haul their goods to Onitsha, making it very convenient and easy for them. Although the idea from the foundation appears good, its realization has been a subject of dispute over the 10 years the airport has been under construction.
In September 2010, Uduaghan was quoted to have said: “Asaba has been suffering the problem of no airport for a very long time. This will not be an abandoned project. Asaba is long overdue for an airport and we are determined to complete it no matter the cost.” This was promise Uduaghan continuously gave before his government expired on May 29, 2015.
As the construction continued, the first flight landed. The flight owned by Overland Airways landed on March 24, 2011 and March 25, 2011. At the landing of the airport, Uduaghan said the construction of an airport takes up to seven years and expressed happiness that within a period of three years an aircraft was able to land at the airport, noting that the airport will bring economic boom along with what he described as “enormous multiplier effect.”
Besides the delay in the completion of the project, there was also confusion over the actual cost of the airport. At the commencement of the airport, it was said that the cost was N6.47billion. But as the contention over the cost continued, Uduaghan came up and confirmed that contrary to figures being paraded by mischief makers as he called them, the actual cost of the airport was N27.7billion.
The former governor was said to have made this disclosure while briefing journalists in Asaba on January 31, 2013. He equally added that the contract sum of N7billion for demolishing the hills at the airport site was part of the initial contract cost.
The announcement of N7billion to demolish hills irked many a Deltan who argued that it was outrageous to use a whooping N7billion to demolish hills that are obstructing the movement of flights at the airport.
The opposition to this development reverberated all over the state. Many went furious for a state government to use N7billion to demolish hills. It was alleged then that the demolition was to create opportunity for the aircraft airlifting former President Goodluck Jonathan to Asaba. But whether the hills were actually demolished or not remains a matter of conjecture.
But while Uduaghan continued foot-dragging the construction, on May 5, 2015, the airport was downgraded by the ministry of aviation. The downgrading was blamed on the failure of the state government to put in place safety measures as recommended by the aviation ministry.
The aviation ministry said with the downgrading, the airport would only be allowed to accommodate the operation of smaller aircrafts. The safety concerns, according to the statement from the ministry, signed by James Odaudu, public affairs director, were over undulations on the airport’s runway, the lack of the required strip, perimeter fencing, drainage, as well as lack of adequately trained technical personnel.
It was said that the federal government placed high premium on safety and security of aviation passengers and would never compromise set standards for whatever reason, with an assurance that as soon as the conditions were met, the airport would bounce back again.
The downgrading was a big blow to the Uduaghan’s government most especially when it was extremely close to the expiration of his administration. And so, Uduaghan dragged on until he left office on May 29, 2015 for his successor, Ifeanyi Okowa.
As soon as Governor Okowa came in, he promised continuing from where his predecessor stopped. One of the steps he took was concessioning the airport to contractors to speed up the process of meeting the desires of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). 14 firms were invited for bidding where Halcrow Infrastructure Consortium was finally selected for the business.
The bidding was carried out in the early weeks of January 2016 and in March 2016, Halcrow Consortium was selected to execute the project. But from March 2016 till March 2017, there is palpable silence over the development.
Besides the concessioning, Governor Okowa has visited the airport on several occasions, mostly unscheduled visits. In such several visits, he reassured the people of completing the project within the shortest time. He also said it would be upgraded to compete with bigger and standard airports in the country.
In one of his visits to the airport, Okowa said: “Getting it right is very important. Airport is not about the structure but about the runway; and, we believe that when completed, the airport will be among the best in the country based on standard.
“The contractors are moving at a good pace. It is not about the speed but getting it right, because if you get the slope or gradient right in the first segment, you will get it right in the second and third segments.”
According to Okowa: “Funding is not the issue at the moment and I will regularly come here to ensure that the project is delivered in good time and for us to have about the best airport in the country.”
Mr. Austin Ayemidejor, the airport director had insisted that the state government has taken concrete steps towards addressing the issues of perimeter fencing, runway undulations and training of technical personnel of the airport as raised by the federal ministry of aviation. He said work is growing fast at the airport, noting that in no distance time the airport would bounce back to full capacity and the people of Delta state will have value for their money.
However, while the waiting lasts, passenger traffic is reducing drastically. At times, the airport is dry as no passenger is seen in the premises, with no plane landing at times in a day or two. For now, the only aircraft operating the airport is Overland Airways. Arik air and Aero contractors have given way. These two airlines made name in the airport but they are no more in the system.
As it is now, it has been promises upon promises. The actualization of the promises is yet way off. Uduaghan made series of promises which he couldn’t fulfill and left behind for Governor Okowa and as soon as Okowa came in, the truckload of promises continued with no visible sign of development in place.
This is airport that was downgraded in 2015. By May 2017, the airport would have been in building for 10 years. The possibility of completing it within Okowa’s first tenure is not in sight as within the next few months, campaign and consultations for the 2019 general elections will commence and attention will be shifted to issues of politics. This is even as budgetary allocations is always made yearly for the airport building but with no actual date in sight for the completion.