Barring unforeseen circumstances and going by the latest Federal Government timeline, the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, will reopen again on Friday, August 29, for flight operations.
Last year, some pilots operating flights to the Akanu Ibiam Airport had called the attention of concerned authorities to the dilapidated state of the runway, which they described as a deathtrap. The pilots’ fears were also corroborated by the alarm raised by the South-East Governors Forum (SEGF) over the bad condition of facilities at the airport, declaring it unsafe.
Following the alarm raised, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, announced the closure of the airport on August 24, last year, promising that it would be reopened for local and international flights before the 2019 Christmas, after the upgrade, but sadly since then, there have been no end to the reopening dates.
At the time of the closure, Sirika had listed major safety concerns at the airport to include: bad runway length that is not ideal for international operations, state radio broadcasting mast on landing approach to the runway, location of EFTZ at the end of the runway, and threats of bird strikes from an abattoir at a nearby market.
With the Federal Government approving the sum of N10 billion for the rehabilitation of the airport, the Chairman of Enpower FZC, Mr. Emeka Ene, disclosed that they had engaged the Enugu State government to address all the concerns raised by the minister.
Ene said that safety and quality audits conducted on the facility by the Federal Government regulators recognised the importance of aviation safety and international compliance to proximity of the Free trade zone.
“As a result of this engagement, the Free zone provided for all relevant specifications of Aerodrome Approach distances, setbacks, RESA, height restrictions in compliance with NCAA and ICAO Annex 14 international aviation regulations. Although the Enugu Airport is not a Category 2 airport, Enpower FTZ provided for setback and Aircraft inner approach distances in compliance with a more advanced Category 2 airport,” he explained.
And the governor of Enugu State, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, who the upgrade of the airport to international standard is dear to his heart, moved swiftly to address the issues raised by the minister as he ordered the removal of the Enugu State Broadcasting Service (ESBS) transmission mast and closed the abattoir identified as an obstacle.
Similarly, the Akanu Ibiam Airport situation was of great concern to the Southeast that the governors of the region in September 2019 called on the Federal Government to also include the expansion of the tarmac of the airport in the planned rehabilitation work.
The governors understand too well the enormous impact of an upgraded airport in terms of business growth, employment generation and capacity building bearing in mind that Southeasterners are great entrepreneurs who travel to all corners of the world in search of goods they bring back to meet the needs of the nation’s teeming population.
Chairman of the South East Governors’ Forum, Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State, who briefed President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, when the governors of the region visited him, said that the call for the upgrade had become imperative in order to accommodate bigger aircraft at the airport.
Before the 2019 Christmas, Sirika apologised that the reconstruction work was affected by the release of funds, reassuring that nothing would hinder the conclusion of work and reopening of the airport before Easter 2020.
However, in March 2020, Sirika again told Nigerians that the Easter date for the completion of the renovation was unrealistic because of the advent of Coronavirus pandemic.
He had stated that 90 per cent completion of work had been achieved, stressing that six or seven days of work was needed for the runway to be completed, adding that the construction company handling the repair works abandoned work due to the virus after materials and funding had been provided, thus forcing the Federal Government to suspend its reopening.
Sunday Sun findings revealed that work, however, resumed on May 21 at the airport, as workers of the PW Construction Company were sighted laying the Fiberglass and Binder Course on the regulated asphalt runway.
There were assurances that the airport would be reopened “soon” but going by the way it was dragging the entire exercise became fraught with uncertainty.
First, it was the Chairman, South East Governors Airport Refurbishment and Palliative Works Committee, Engr. Chris Okoye, who in his report, confirmed that the runway would be completed by the end of June this year.
He stated that two concrete turning pads at runway 08 and 26 and the asphaltic regulatory treatment between the two runways had reached 100 per cent completion.
The report also indicated that the erection of the final asphaltic wearing course would follow thereafter, while the airfield light contractor was expected to “resume work about mid-June, and should complete its work between three and four weeks after completion of the runway,” but his June timeline was not feasible.
Also, House Committee Chairman on Aviation, Nnoli Nnaji, said that the project could be completed in July (last month) based on what was on the ground, stressing that, “everybody is hoping for a reopening date of the airport because the airport will come out stronger.” Again June was not realistic.
Project Manager, Mahbub Khan, in June also gave between four and eight weeks for completion of work at the airport. He disclosed that 70 per cent completion has been done, but that the rains and COVID-19 pandemic affected their speed.
Expectedly, the continued delay in the re-opening of the airport left room for suspicion as most Easterners cautioned against abandoning the project like other Federal Government projects in the region.
In fact, the National President of the International Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights Initiative (ISFPAHRI), Osmond Ugwu, had cautioned against abandoning the project, saying that the delay was a pointer that the Federal Government cared less about its speedy completion. And his view was the position of many others in the region.
But as the airport project was getting ready to be delivered this month, a private estate developer, J.J Emejulu, appeared from the blues to throw a spanner in the works.
Emejulu had engaged the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) in a land contest that has festered since last year.
The dispute is based on series of court cases in which Emejulu is seeking to exercise ownership right over spaces of land in the vicinity of the airport.
As his kinsmen from the region were eagerly waiting for the reopening of the airport, Emejulu took laws into his hands as he went and demolished the perimeter fence of the airport. His action has attracted serious condemnation from the public, particularly the people of the Southeast region whose people majorly entrepreneurs rely on Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt airports to travel overseas for businesses.
For the people, they run high risks using the three airports outside Igbo land in transacting international business, saying that besides incurring higher freight charges, they are faced with other road hazards.
The people were more at pain as the Akanu Ibiam International Airport is about the third airport in the country to be fenced round.
They, therefore, roundly condemned the actions of Emejulu.
In response to inquiries on the encroachment, the Chairman of House Committee on Aviation, Nnolim Nnaji, said that nobody would stand in the way of reopening the airport as scheduled, warning those fighting for land to stop sabotaging the interest of the Southeast zone.
Also, the erstwhile President of Southeast and Southsouth Professionals, Mr Emeka Ugwuoju, advised all the parties in the land dispute to concede their personal stakes to public interest.
Ugwuoju said that the ongoing rehabilitation and upgrade of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport remain strategic to the economy of the region.
He said that all government institutions and facilities are built on land acquired from original owners in the public interest and wondered why the acquisition of lands for development of critical development, infrastructure would be a major issue in Enugu State.
Ugwuoju said that anybody taking actions that would affect the reopening of the Enugu airport is an instigated agent working against the people of the entire Southeast region.
He advised those whose land is affected by the development at the airport to approach the government for resolution of the issues in line with established provisions.
He also warned that sustained bickering over the land would derail the prevailing momentum for reopening of the airport.
Federal lawmaker representing the zone (Enugu East and Isi-Uzo) Federal Constituency at the National Assembly, Prince Cornelius Nnaji, also condemned the demolition of the perimeter fence of the airport by Emejulu.
Nnaji said that the act was tantamount to national sabotage, barbaric and anti-development.
“Nobody from my community is happy with what happened. Everybody here condemned the act,” Nnaji, who was former chairman of Enugu East, where the airporport is situated, noted in anger.
He said that Architect Emejulu, who demolitshed the perimeter fence, did not only destroy Federal Government property, but also damaged individuals’ structures too.
“We are not only talking about the perimeter fence of the airport, people’s buildings were demolished and this is not the first time he is demolishing people’s buildings,” Nnaji noted.
According to him, “the affected areas we are talking is airport road extension which I know the government duly took over for extension of Akanu Ibiam International Airport. By virtue of the Land Act, government owns every land’’.
He noted that the land in question does not belong to an individual that can warrant anybody going there to destroy government property.
Nnaji is not alone in this thinking as some building experts told Sunday Sun that an individual cannot have right against the government over any land hosting a critical national aviation facility.
The Aviation Minister said that the Federal Government will prosecute the man that brought down the perimeter fence of the airport.
As the people of the region await the Federal Government to carry out the sanctions, they are hopeful that the airport will be reopened as scheduled.
They are equally grateful to Governor Ugwuanyi for making efforts to ensure the rehabilitation work is carried out to a logical conclusion.
They also joined the governor to plead to the Federal Government to use this opportunity of the upgrade of the airport to ensure that the cargo section mooted about three years ago is concluded.
Right from the beginning of his administration, Ugwuanyi had made it clear that his leadership was one determined to provide the critical development enablers that will catalyze the economy of the state in a manner that will uplift and upscale the living standards of the people.
Unarguably, he knows that a world-class international airport is critical to achieving some of these goals and as such he is up in arms with any effort to thwart the project, the reason he also rose to condemn the action of the man that demolished the airport fence.
Sunday Sun gathered that his government ensured it provided more support and motivation to the Federal Ministry of Aviation towards ensuring that the airport receives such a makeover that will ensure it becomes capable of attracting enough patronage to make it a major hub for passenger and cargo traffic for the Southeast as well as some South-south and North-central states.