The Minister of State Aviation, Hardi Sirika, recently ruffled feathers with the threat to downgrade the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, over safety issues. The state government has gone ahead to take some urgent steps, which the minister acknowledged. But stakeholders in the East are angry. Kenneth Ofoma reports from Enugu
The announcement by the Federal Government through the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, recently that it planned to downgrade the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu or shut it down for runway rehabilitation, has not gone down well with the people. It has set off chain reactions and hullabaloo within and outside the country especially from people of South East geopolitical zone of the country.
In Enugu, the state government has been jarred into action, while a lot of dust has been raised by groups and individuals over the announcement.
Sirika, who issued the threat at the 2019 Stakeholders’ Forum, in Lagos, said the decision was taken to enable the Federal Government to work on the airport runway to avoid any major incident.
He said, “We may downgrade Enugu Airport in terms of its status as an international airport. The runway is terrible. I have been there three times, seen the governor of the state and told them what to do but nothing has happened. There is a market and an abattoir at the side of the runway and these attract birds. Of recent, Air Peace suffered a bird strike and this affected the airline. Thank God, there was no major incident.
“At the end of the runway, you have the government establishing a free trade zone at the centre. Enugu is to the East what Kaduna is to the North. When the government wanted to expand the runway to 60 metres long and 71 metres wide, there were few houses there and we were promised that they would be demolished and the owners compensated, so we can have the improvement but now, they have built more houses. Enugu would have to be closed down; that is the honest truth.”
The Minister stressed that with the above reasons and more, the Federal Government would have no choice than to downgrade the Airport for not meeting required safety standards for international operations.
By this development, Ethiopia Airlines will stop operations to the airport. The minister said that the infrastructure at the airport did not meet given safety standards, from the dilapidated runway to absence of approach light and lack of enough water for fire cover. Sirika also pointed out that there were things the Governor of the state was expected to do so that the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) would provide critical infrastructure like the approach light which would enable flights to land in the night.
According to the minister, the governor has agreed to clear buildings at the flight path, relocate the market at Emene for broader approach, remove the masts that obstruct flight path and also allow FAAN to have access to the Ekulu River to use pipes to bring water to the airport.
It would be recalled that for more than four years now, flights cannot operate at night because the airport does not have approach light, which ought to be installed at the two ends of the runway. Sirika lamented lack of adequate water supply at the airport which means that it may not service large body aircraft because it does not have adequate fire cover, as certain volumes of water are needed for the fire hydrants in case of emergency.
It would also be recalled that the Governor of the State, Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, during the courtesy visit by the Minister last year, had assured the minister that urgent action would be taken. Meanwhile, following the safety concerns raised by Sirika and the FAAN last Friday, the Enugu State Government issued a press statement the same day, detailing steps it had taken to address all the issues raised. The statement read: “The Enugu State Executive Council has approved the immediate closure of Orie Emene Market (abattoir inclusive) to forestall tragic air accident at the Airport. Accordingly, the Chairman of Enugu East Local Government Area has been directed to effect the immediate closure of the market.
“Council also ordered immediate removal of all illegal structures encroaching on the land of the Airport. The State Executive Council had on 12th October, 2018 approved funds for relocation of the State Broadcast Mast on the approach of the Run Way to Okpatu Hill (Ugwu Rerenkwu) in Udi Local Government Area but the implementation of this project has been hampered by the disruptive activities of some youths in the community. Enugu State Government hereby directs immediate cessation of all hostilities against the project as any further interference will attract the full wrath of the law given that government has paid all the necessary compensation.
“The traditional rulers of Okpatu Communities and town union leadership are hereby called upon to ensure full compliance with the above directives.”
The state government did not end with issuing of statement. It followed it with action the next day (last Saturday) as the State Ministry of Capital Territory Development rolled in the bulldozer and started demolition of Orie Emene market and the abattoir. The demolition has also come with a lot of hues and cries from traders and shop owners whose goods and property were destroyed as they cried wolf. Traders admitted the state government gave them notice long ago but there was no alternative provided, and that government ought to have given them at least 24 hours final notice, so that they could evacuate their goods before the demolition. Meanwhile, the threat by the Aviation minister to shut down or downgrade the airport has set off a firestorm of controversy across the country.
This is because for the people of South East geopolitical region, which is land and sea locked, the airport remains the only window to the world. It took years of struggle and cries of marginalization before Enugu airport was made international.
In early days, the colonialists had established three aerodromes in Enugu, Calabar and Port Harcourt for easy movement of their administrators. Thus, the Enugu airport started as a colonial aerodrome before it was commissioned a full blown airport on October 22, 1976 by the late Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. By stroke of fate, it was his younger brother, late former President Umar Yar’Adua that designated Enugu Airport as an International Airport and named it after former Governor of old Easter Region, Dr. Akanu Ibiam.
Yar’Adua also commenced the process of facility upgrade at the airport before he died. And his deputy who succeeded him as president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, continued with the process and awarded the contract for international terminal and runway. The upgrade and extension of its runway were part of Federal Government’s airport rehabilitation programme designed to improve the state of infrastructure in the nation’s 21 airports.
The Akanu Ibiam airport project is being executed in two phases; the first phase being the extension of the runway length from 2,400 metres to 3,000 metres and the width from 45 metres to 60 to enable large aircraft such as Boeing 747 use it.
The first phase was what former President Jonathan commissioned in December 2010 while the second phase which is ongoing involves the construction of a new apron and taxiway and the upgrade of the Airfield Lighting System to Category 11. Work on that project has slowed down considerably, perhaps because he did not return to office in 2015.
Thus, being the only international airport in the entire South East zone, any pronouncement pertaining to the airport was bound to generate emotive feelings and even rake up cries of marginalization by the Igbo in general. Little wonder that reactions to the Minister of State for Aviation’s threat to shut the airport threw up heavy dust in the air with the usual primordial sentiments.
For instance, pan Igbo sociocultural organization, Ohanaeze warned the Federal Government not to carry out the threat of shutting down or downgrading the airport. The National Deputy Publicity Secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Mazi Chuks Ibegbo, who spoke to New Telegraph on the matter said: “Enugu airport must on no account be downgraded. Eastern governors must do the needful so that the Federal Government will not have excuse.”
A commentator who didn’t want to be mentioned went comical and stated as follows: “There’s no doubt that the downgrading of the airport must have been ‘hungrying’ them for a long time. Is there a more ‘downgradeful’ action than the exorbitant rate being charged travellers using the Enugu airport? That disparity in fare is clear downgrading policy. Whose duty is it to expand the runway? Is it the town unions in the South East? As for the market and mast, the ENSG has indicated interest in responding to their demands. So, let the downgrading wash clear from their minds.”
Another commentator who simply wished to be identified ad Chinedu said: “Shutting down the airport to fix the problems is one thing. Saying it would be degraded is another thing. There’s nothing that constitutes danger there that cannot be removed. Sirika talked about masts, free trade zone and market. These things can be relocated to other places.”
Another public affairs commentator, Mr. Edmond Uche, has this to say: “If there are security and safety issues at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, would the right thing not be to address them? Why would Sirika be talking about downgrading it?
“Downgrading well intentioned? He never talked about fixing the runway. All the issues he raised are not exclusive to Enugu airport. There are masts around Lagos airport. Go and check and birds all over. Has it been closed? That Minister, if you have had the opportunity of getting close to him, is so arrogant and would stop at nothing to withdraw the international status of the airport.
“He talked about the FTZ at the end of the Runway. Let him tell the world where Nahco FTZ in Lagos is located. ‘They’ are not comfortable with the international status of Akanu Ibiam Airport. The conspiracy is from the Southwest too. The Enugu airport is adversely affecting the number of people using the MMA to travel abroad. All these forces fought Adaeze Oduah (Former Minister of Aviation) when she was planning to give Enugu airport the international status. The same forces that forestalled the building of Oba International Cargo Airport (near Onitsha, Anambra State) approved since 1961. It was fought up till the 90s and the asphalting of its runway stopped on the eve of its commencement. Southeast ronu! Minister of State, Aviation insults Ndigbo.”
A former Secretary to Abia State Government and veteran Journalist also reacted to the development.
He said: “I don’t have problem with the observation (by Aviation Minister) but I find the solution condescending and particularly insulting to the Igbo nation. It further ridicules the country and the black man in world affairs. I begin from the first. It has become like a policy that when any major development project is to be undertaken in East Central States, the Federal Government would make it look like a patronage rather than a national necessity. Check power supply; see the big issue being made of a new bridge across River Niger.
“Various central governments have so made an issue out of this project aided by ‘In House’ Igbo that everyone now thinks 2nd Niger Bridge is Igbo Project. Is it true? Would it be right to say only Igbo would use the bridge or that it is most strategic to Igbo nation? Of course, this is not true. “Now the aviation people have identified faults, which are within their job description. What I expected them to do next was to confront the challenges head on. Vote more funds and where it requires interface with either Enugu government or entire East Central States governments; they take the initiative and set the ball rolling. But going public and threatening a downgrade, first amounts to leaving substance to chase shadow. It is a clear case of abandoning core responsibility.” “Thirdly it reveals existence of obnoxious motive. See this, the airport is not safe for international flights but internal runs can continue. So locals can die and their planes destroyed.
“It is no secret that there is this unwritten state policy to squeeze Ndigbo and emasculate their territory. It began with the loss of civil war and has lasted over 40years. If we mean well for this country, it should not be allowed to continue. It is possible the aviation people may have experienced some frustrations. Yet, that can’t explain away this act of recklessness which their position clearly amounts to.”
Similarly another angry commentator, Mazi Hilary Okonkwo said: “In a civilized clime, the minister should have resigned for wasting the resources of Nigeria on the aborted Air Nigeria project. And now he is up against the most vibrant ethnic group by threatening to downgrade their only international airport. He should not have made this statement as a minister in charge of aviation in Nigeria because it is not a solution to the problem on ground. He should have proffered a solution rather than threat to downgrade the already internationalized airport”.
Another commentator, Obunneme Ifeanyi yet said: “I have been asking the Federal Government to hasten up with Onitsha inland Port and Second Niger bridge, two projects that are key to the economic survival of the zone, and the minister had the temerity to threaten to downgrade the only federal presence in the whole of the South East. Let him dare the zone if he can! I wish him well.”
However it appears there are some observers even from South East who saw what the minister saw and are in total agreement with him. One of such persons is former Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka. Chidoka stated that the possible closure of the Airport and subsequent demolition of Emene market in Enugu were steps in the right direction towards tackling the recurrent safety and security challenges rocking the airport.
Reacting in a series of tweets last Sunday, Chidoka said the Enugu Airport needs urgent holistic attention to improve its safety and commercial viability, suggesting concession of the airport to private operators through the state government.
He wrote, “I was on board the @flyairpeace that suffered the bird strike and had to make an emergency landing last Monday. “The pilots were professional and they told me that was the 3rd bird strike suffered by the Airline at Enugu. I called Minister @hadisirika unsuccessfully to discuss. “Safety is an important issue and should be handled professionally. The Minister’s statement and the response of Enugu State government are in the right direction. “Enugu Airport needs urgent holistic attention to improve safety and commercial viability.”
Meanwhile less than 48 hours after he issued the shutdown and downgrade threat, the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Sirika, last Saturday, expressed satisfaction with steps taken by the Enugu State government in a bid to improve safety at the Airport.
Addressing aviation correspondents in Lagos, Sirika said that he was excited to see that the Enugu State Government had seen reason with the aviation ministry to address safety concerns at the airport promptly. He said: “We are happy to see that the Enugu State government has seen reason with the Ministry to address safety concerns raised.
“We are appreciative that in the name of safety, Enugu State Executive Council approved the immediate closure of Orie Emene Market (abattoir inclusive) to forestall any tragedy at the Airport.
“We are also happy that the Council also ordered immediate removal of all illegal structures encroaching on the land of the Airport, mast of the state broadcasting service, and Free Trade Zone.
“We, however, would be extremely comfortable if compliance with the above directives from the state government are carried out as soon as possible to give us necessary allowance to carry out repairs as well as expansion and extension of the Runway. All these will better the lot of the Enugu Airport and improve safety a hundred fold.”
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