On Friday, May 17 this year, many Enugu bound international travellers in locations like Newark, Kuala Lumpur, London, Johannesburg and various other cities were left utterly flustered as they scrambled for information relating to the status of their flight to the Coal City due in a few days.
Although resident outside the country, they had nonetheless heard the statement by Nigeria’s former aviation minister, Senator Hadi Sirika, hinting at the possible downgrade of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu. Their questions, either to relatives or Ethiopian Airline’s customer care line, were along these anxious lines: “Has the airport been shut?” “Are we still flying directly to Enugu?” None could as yet offer a reassuringly categorical answer. But then the reply might have confirmed their worst fears in the weeks – or perhaps days ahead. That is barring the proactive actions taken by the Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, to stave off the possible downgrade of the airport from its international status.
The message in the former minister’s statement had been pretty stark and seemed quite uncompromising. “We have issues with the Enugu airport and we may downgrade Enugu airport in terms of international status and I have discussed it with the federal government. I’m afraid that Enugu airport might have to be closed down.” But barely 24 hours later, his initially hard stance had softened, thanks to Governor Ugwuanyi’s prompt response.
The state’s executive council, over which he presides, ordered the immediate closure of Orie Emene Market (including the abattoir said to be the primary source of birds that could potentially damage aircrafts’ engine) and the removal of all illegal structures encroaching on the airport’s land, both issues cited by the former minister as reasons for the threatened downgrade.
Those were in addition to the fact the council had earlier approved funds for the dismantling and relocation of the state’s broadcast mast on the airport’s approach field, another major safety issue. The directives were matched with equally swift action as demolition and relocation of the market began a day after, drawing compliments from Sirika.
Indeed, the anxiety wasn’t peculiar to air travellers. Virtually everyone in the South East region were just as concerned. As the capital of different historical epochs from the defunct Eastern Region to the old Anambra State, Enugu represents a very important symbolism for the Igbo far beyond its social and economic significance.
Even the former aviation minister had similarly alluded to this. “As you know, Enugu is the Kaduna of the east. A lot of passengers from the eastern part of the country travel through Enugu airport,” he said while speaking at the aviation stakeholders forum in Lagos where the threat to downgrade the facility was made.
These feelings were evident when Ethiopian Airline commenced regular scheduled flight out of the airport in August 2013 and also in 2016 when its cargo aircraft, a Boeing 757, was welcomed on its maiden flight to Enugu with a water cascade and dance troupe performances. The significance of direct international flight into and out of the Enugu airport was further highlighted by Ugwuanyi. “It will save costs, enhance convenience and safety in importation of goods; it will promote employment and help raise the international profile of this airport and, by extension, that of Enugu and the entire region,” he said at the occasion which drew many dignitaries.
So a downgrade of the airport’s status would have been a huge setback to the dream to make Enugu the South-East’s economic hub as the governor had envisioned, and his swift action was consistent with that goal. Indeed, if there was ever an image that helped reinforce Ugwuanyi’s determination to keep the Enugu airport open and safe as an international gateway, it would be one of him on a sweltering afternoon walking on the sidetracks of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport alongside officials of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria to ensure all safety concerns relating to encroachments were addressed.
He had to forgo a meeting of the National Economic Council in Abuja which President Muhammadu Buhari was inaugurating that day so he could give the matter the urgent attention it deserves, he explained during a brief meeting held at the terminal’s lounge before the inspection. The demolition and subsequent relocation of the abattoir – a major worry for FAAN given that it attracts birds that pose serious danger to aircraft engines – and the Orie Emene market offered a huge sense of reassurance. And so did the general manager of the state’s broadcast corporation’s explanation that the dismantling of the radio and television mast had commenced and will be rounded off in four weeks.
It was no surprise then that he got a huge commendation from the FAAN team, whose managing director, Captain Hamisu Rabiu Yadudu, expressed “profound appreciation and gratitude” to the Enugu State governor for sufficiently addressing all safety concerns raised by the agency. So the Akanu Ibiam International Airport for now remains what it had always been – a gateway to Nigeria’s South-East.
And the vision that it serves as a bolster for Enugu’s economy looks set to grow even bigger with the planned upgrade of the runway which may signal the commencement of additional international airlines as the runway could then accommodate bigger, long haul aircrafts.
Ani writes from Enugu