Obinna Odogwu, Abakaliki
On August 15, 2018, Ebonyi State Governor, Chief David Umahi, announced the plan by his administration to start an airport project in the state.
“We will start an airport project in Ebonyi early next year. The airport we will build may not be the biggest airport in the country but it will be the most beautiful. And there is nothing we say in this government that we cannot do,” the governor said.
Expectedly, the announcement generated mixed reactions all over the state. While some supporters of the governor, especially members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) applauded it as a laudable initiative, some members of the opposition parties dismissed it as a mere political statement.
It was gathered that the governor recently directed that necessary actions towards the commencement of the project should commence.
So far, a stretch of land at the boundary area between Ezza North and Ezza South Local Government Areas of the state; mainly in Oriuzor community of Ezza North, has been earmarked for the project.
But the site for the proposed airport has become subject of controversy. The landowners are not happy with the plan. They have roundly rejected the location of the airport on their land. They have insisted that the land is being used for farming from where they earn their livelihood and urged government to seek land elsewhere.
Not convinced that the government would listen to their gentle appeal, Oriuzor women recently trooped out en masse on a peaceful protest against the decision to use their farmland for the airport project.
The women, who carried placards with various inscriptions, besieged the Government House, Abakaliki. They asked the government to consider relocating the proposed airport project to Egundeze area of their community where no one lives.
They said that the current area chosen by the government, besides being their farmland, also covers their residential areas; and as such, might lead to a displacement of many residents of the five villages in the community.
They listed Nweze Ali, Nwiboke Umome, Uworu, and Uwaru as places where villagers would be displaced if the airport is sited on the land.
One of the protesters, Mrs Christina Ukegbu, said the people have been passing through untold hardship and have not been able to cultivate their food crops ever since the government made the plans known.
Ukegbu said: “They chased us from our farmlands and want to still chase us from our dwelling place. We are suffering. We are not doing anything now. Government should leave our villages alone.
“They should relocate to Egundeze where the land is empty and not inhabited. We love good things and we are not against the airport. But they should not chase us from where we leave,” she said.
Another aggrieved villager, Jacinta Ucha, said the land in question is their ancestral home and that each compound in the area has about 50 persons residing there.
“They said they want to construct airport in our place, but we said we don’t want it because we don’t have big landmass. It is our ancestral home left for us by our forefathers. If our children should grow up, they won’t have any land for themselves. So, if they chase us now, where do we go? We don’t have anywhere to go,” she said.
Traditional ruler of the community, Eze Gabriel Nwite Ngene, had, while addressing the people in his palace, advised them to be calm as the government meant well for them. He promised his aggrieved subjects that he would pass on their message to the government.
Pointing out that all land belongs to the government, Ngene told the protesters: “The Ebonyi State University in Abakaliki, it is the Izzi people that own the land. They were relocated peacefully. You know it didn’t just affect Oriuzor; it affected other communities.”
Also, some traditional rulers from the two local government areas, not long after the women’s protest, paid a solidarity visit to the governor at the Government House and assured him of their support on the project.
Led by Chairman of the Traditional Rulers’ Council in the state, Eze Charles Mkpuma from Ezza South; the monarchs said the protesters were not from the Ezza clan. They described the protesters as enemies of progress and vowed that they and their sponsors would be fished out and disciplined for daring the decision of the state government to site an airport on Ezza land.
“No reasonable person can object to development, no matter what. It is foolishness to do such,” Mkpuma said.
As the controversy rages, the state government has stepped forward with some explanations on why it chose the place for the proposed project.
Special Assistant to the Governor on Media/Project Documentation, Mr Francis Nwaze, explained that the boundary area between Ezza North and Ezza South was chosen because it was considered accessible and more strategically located.
Nwaze said: “First, government considered accessibility. The idea is that immediately you land in Ebonyi, you should be able to connect all the local governments. So, it is looking at the central point and that’s why the boundary between Ezza South and Ezza North was chosen.”
Reacting to the development, the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state dismissed the airport project as simply a misplaced priority. The party said that several basic needs of the people that taxpayers’ money should be spent on had not been attended to.
Publicity Secretary of the party, Nwoba Chika Nwoba, observed: “There is no sensible Ebonyi man, party or no party, whether you are a member of the opposition party or not, that will support such project now. Ebonyi is a very young state that has needs that should be provided first.
“Yes, it is a good project, but we are not yet ripe for that now because we have our elementary needs that are not being tackled. I am not in support of it and the APC in Ebonyi State is not in support of it at all. The government should first tackle the needs of Ebonyi people. Going on to construct an airport now is just a decoy to siphon public funds. So, we are not in support of it.”
Nwoba listed unemployment, rural infrastructure, human capital development, especially scholarship, as key areas that needed attention.
“Going on to say that he, Governor Umahi, is about to construct an airport is just like calling everybody a fool in Ebonyi.
“Airports and stadiums are very gigantic projects. The two projects may not be followed up. They may, at the end, be left as abandoned projects. So, no reasonable person, apart from partisan interests, will ever support such project.
“Already, the people on whose land it is to be sited have rejected it. They even protested. That is to tell you that it has no economic relevance in Ebonyi for now. Maybe as we progress, infrastructure wise, we might need it.”
But Nwaze dismissed APC’s position. He insisted that the airport, upon completion, would open the state to the world.
“Well, in that very aspect, it is said that when someone is not informed, the person will be deformed. As we speak today, the international market is something that has to connect us internationally. The international market is not a local market and it is expected that we import and export. So, when you talk of importing and exporting, do we have to go to Enugu before we can journey outside the country? We should have that in Ebonyi State. We are talking of the different natural resources in Ebonyi State; we are talking of the cement industry.
“These are the things that should link us globally and not just within Nigeria. As far as that international market is concerned, we need an airport. Why don’t people say that Lagos does not need an airport? So, Lagos needs airport because they have international contacts and we are building this international contact.
“Before this airport will be completed, the international market and the shopping mall will be ready and before you know it, it will require that this airport will be linked to the international market so that people can import and export easily without challenges,” Nwaze stated.
Meanwhile, Umahi assured the monarchs that visited him that there would be no going back on the construction of the airport, insisting that he was determined to embark on the project.
He declared that work on the airport project would soon commence simultaneously with enumeration of properties and persons that might likely be displaced. The governor also assured them that he would pay adequate compensation to those who might be displaced. on the account of the airport.
“Very soon, work will commence on the project. While we will be clearing, enumeration would be going on to compile the list of those to be compensated. We will within the limit of our resources find a way to resettle them”, Umahi stated.
The governor had, during the media chat to mark this year’s Democracy Day, told his audience that the airport, upon completion, would add value to the state’s economy.
He said: “Olympic stadium is good, there is no need to overemphasise it. The airport is one of the most important programmes for this state. Yes, we have the Enugu airport but we are closer to Abia; quite a lot of us are closer to Abia State.
“This airport is not for prestige. It is for business. We believe that if we build the airport, we will have more customers than Enugu airport and this is very important.
“And the location of the airport is about 70 minutes from Enugu Airport. Moreover, we are building for tomorrow, what we are doing in Ebonyi. What I do consider is that there is need to prepare for tomorrow.
“A time will come where if you don’t build an airport now in Ebonyi State, you must build it tomorrow. I was in China and we saw a lot of high rise buildings and we asked, what are these for? They said it is for the next children that will be born in the next 30 years. I came back and said okay, I have to prepare for those who will be born at least in the next 10 years and this is why we are building the airport.”