From Judex Okoro, Calabar
The old Ogoja province in Northern senatorial district of Cross River State is one of the remaining provinces in Southern Nigeria that is yet to be state. This zone consists of Ogoja, Yala, Bekwarra, Obudu and Obanliku with over 150 agrarian communities.
But one common characteristic is the poor infrastructural development, which has made the communities the underdeveloped and somewhat described as backward. Perhaps, it was against this background that Governor Ben Ayade decided to build an airport in Obudu, his home community, to bring development to the communities.
In a letter signed by Mr. Eric Akpo, former Special Adviser Technical to the governor, who also superintends over the project, and dated April 25, 2019, he said: “The proposed airport is conceived for common good just as it would impact positively on the socio-economic, tourism and agriculture sectors of the state and federal governments in relative terms.”
Akpo pointed out that the proposed project site is about nine square kilometres and located on the land belonging to Atiekpe, Ikwomikwu and Okambi communities, adding that due to its urgency and in line with Nigeria Land Use Act (2004) “acquisition and compensation processes would commence immediately while the site preparation works such as clearing and development of access road would be kick-started by the delivery team.”
However, war of attrition seems to be brewing between the benefiting communities- Okambi, Igwo, Atiekp and Ikwomikwo- over the proposed International Cargo airport. Ayade’s kinsmen and women have cried out loud against the project, describing it as “very unfriendly’ because their resources-forests, plantations and massive acres of land -their sources of livelihood- would have gone by the time it is completed.
The communities are also worried because government has neither provided an alternative nor paid compensation thereby creating a no-love-lost-relationship between the host communities and the government.
Speaking on behalf of the Solidarity Group comprising of Atiekpe, Ikwormikwu, Okambi and Igwo communities, Prof. David Ugbal, said they have been subjected to all sorts of ill-treatment because they dared to raise eye-brows against the project, which he claimed has no economic value for them.
Prof Ugbal Said: “The project is shrouded in secrecy and will not be beneficial to the people in any way. Besides, we don’t have that size of land to give out. The letter titled “The proposed Obudu International Passenger and Cargo Airport (OIA) to be sited in Atiekpe, Okambi, Ikwomikwu villages” was released a few weeks after we protested that there was no government imprint on the project and the letter was also signed by a special adviser at the time the governor had dissolved his executives.
“Since then, the four communities have been left in the dark with regard to what was going on. We were only told that N1.5 million was given as kolanut money just as some of our chiefs have been cajoled into secret meetings with promises of building houses for them and gift of luxury vehicles.
“Some of the chiefs, village and clan heads had series of closed door meeting with some government representatives and till today we don’t know the outcome. This has created factions in the villages, which is what initiators of the project want,” he said.
Also lamenting their plight since March 2019, the Okambi community in a letter addressed to the paramount ruler of Obudu and President, Obudu Traditional Rulers Council, Uti Joseph Agba, said they have gone through anguish, physical and mental torture in the hands of the team executing the project.
In the letter, dated June 17, 2019 and signed by ten persons including Fidelis Ushaka, Bonie Adie, Godwin Ishaka and Ignatius Atsua, the people complained bitterly about the whole processes of acquiring the land and no clear-cut resettlement compensation programme usually associated with execution of such big project.
The community, therefore, prayed for the “intervention of Obudu traditional rulers’ council, that work on the proposed airport be stopped and that joint committee should be set up to redress the grey areas.”
The widows from Okambi, Igwo, Atiekp and Ikwornrikwo communities have also cried out and kicked against the location of the project, which they said would cost them their means of livelihood.
Mrs Imelda Izama, who spoke on behalf of the affected widows, bemoaned their living condition and the untold hardship the proposed airport has brought on them.
Agness, a retired teacher from Okambi village, said they regret voting for Governor Ayade, who is their son.
“As we speak, bulldozers have brought down about three kilometres of palm tree plantations on Okambi land. Over 70 per cent of our land is already gone. Only about N3 million was paid to Okambi and Ikwonkwu communities as compensation. Our farms including palm estate has been destroyed. The palm estate was my pension and retirement plan and major source of income.
“It seems we have voted ourselves into hell fire with the kind of treatment we are now getting. I am over 60 years, I retired as a teacher and I have lost my husband. I have eight children; some are grown and married but the ones with me I have to train.
“All my hope was on the palm estate that has been destroyed. I have no other means to survive with my children; it’s my major source of income.
“The authorities should please take the Cargo Airport project to somewhere else because they have taken all our land and have no place to farm. I can’t start planting new ones. I feel pained in my soul,” she said.
Another widow, Mrs. Regina Ibiam, said her farm was not only destroyed but her house was attacked and vandalised it because she protested against the taking over of her farm and destruction of her crops.
She said: “I was sleeping that faithful night, about three weeks ago, when a group of armed youths entered into my compound and broke my windows and glasses while trying to gain access into my house. But my iron doors and window protectors could not allow them.
“They are using thugs and armed men to terrorize us because we said we don’t want airport. They have destroyed my farm ad crops, I mainly plant rice, and cocoa, groundnut and other things and I do this every year.
“Since I lost my husband I am like a father and mother at the same time. I now beg for food, even cassava because the ones in my farm have been destroyed because of airport,” she claimed.
Govt says communities not fair
But the Senior Special Assistance/Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Chirstain Ita, said the proposed Obudu Airport project would not have got the nod of the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) if due processes were not followed.
Ita said NIMET, in a letter dated May 14, 2019 and signed by its Director General and Chief Executive Officer, Prof. Sani Abubakar Mashi, had expressed its delight that the governor secured approval for the construction of the airport from the Ministry of Aviation, disclosing that it was part of the technical team that chose the location for the sitting of the airport.
According to him, NIMET said the approval for the construction of an international airport in one of the nation’s heart beat (Obudu) in line with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Act and compliance with ICAO standard and recommended practices in the establishment of an airport.
Explaining why another airport even as Bebi Airstrip is not functioning, he said accessing the Ranch from Calabar Airport is difficult considering the rocky terrain of the airstrip and sometimes tourists or visitors to the ranch fly through Enugu which takes another five hours.
Mr. Ita further said airport project in Obudu is expected to serve the purpose of conveying luxury tourist to the ranch and open up a farm produce export market in the cargo wing.
“Our yams, banana, vegetables will be exported to Europe and America. It will open a new business life for our people. Kenya earns so much from farm produce export. Anambra is gaining a lot from fresh vegetables export. We will also benefit from it. The governor plans to renovate the ranch as the airport gets close to commissioning. Investors planning to farm flowers for perfume production intend to take off land in the ranch and farm and also stay within the ranch.
The neighborhood will enjoy power supply and water, thousands of direct and indirect jobs will be created. The Land Acquisition is ongoing and all due process and Consultations ongoing and we hope to Enumerate, pay Compensation and move to site. I can assure Obanliku LGA that the Governor has good plans for them.