The Ebonyi State government has begun clearing the site for its proposed international airport. Expectedly, the move has been drawing reactions from the public, for and against it.
For those against the project, the argument is that the state cannot afford the financial resources to build a state-of-the-art international airport as promised by the governor, Engr. David Umahi. Even so, they contend that an airport is not a priority for the state for now. They would rather have uninterrupted electricity, running water and rapid inustrialisation in their young state. Again, other states in the region have always struggled to deliver on similar promises, they add.
Those who like the idea, however, insist that the Ebonyi story has changed dramatically, perhaps forever, with the fast-paced infrastructural development it has been witnessing since Umahi became governor in 2015. They believe that for Ebonyi to really take its place as a major economic and tourist destination, the state cannot do without a standard airport.
In his response, Umahi has maintained that Ebonyi State is on the irreversible fast track to socio-economic advancement, and building the airport is not just a fait accompli but also one of the many pillars that the new Ebonyi would be sitting on by the time he leaves office in 2023.
Indeed, as the site was being cleared for the airport, the same was being done for a college of medicine, a teaching hospital and an Olympic-size stadium in different parts of the state. And he pledged that all these projects and others yet to come would be “world class.”
The case for and against the proposed Ebonyi International Airport, for sure, has some merits. Ebonyi remains one of the least recipients from the federation account. Its internally generated revenue is also among the lowest in the country. So, finding money for capital-intensive projects like an airport is always going to be a challenge. And for all its newfound status as perhaps “the fastest-developing state in the country,” Ebonyi is yet to address the energy challenges that continue to cripple every aspect of daily life in Nigeria. Most of its projects are running on power generators, which is quite expensive.
Yet, the Umahi administration has been making a name for itself by racking up impressive developmental projects that continue to confound even his harshest critics. In spite of the state’s lean resources, he has been able to find the money to execute his capital projects. This he does through a disciplined fiscal approach, which combines the cutting of waste, reducing corruption and using direct labour in place of expensive, big contractors. His admirers, as a result, now like to call him the “wonder-working governor,” among other pet names.
In only four years, Umahi has surpassed the achievements of all past administrators of the state since it was created in 1996. He became governor in 2015 and met Ebonyi in a complete state of decay and a people extremely low in self-esteem. Ebonyi was ridiculed as the dust of the nation, as all the roads in the state would testify. In those days, Ebonyi people were not always proud to identify with a state known for its muddy roads, rusty roofs and undeniable evidence of poverty.
But Ebonyi is now known to have the best road network in the South East, if not the country. Its major towns have streetlights with little or no security concerns in a country that, though not at war, is fighting a vicious battle on all fronts. The state now ranks among the top producers of rice, yam and other agricultural products. It has abundant mineral resources, which include salt, lead, zinc and limeston, among others. The state government has either empowered thousands of its citizens with grants costing billions of naira or assisted them with loans that are helping to kick-start small-scale enterprises.
Many other projects like the three cement industries, the Abakaliki international market, a Dubai-inspired mall, three industrial clusters, integrated water projects, etc, are at various stages of completion. And the administration continues to assure the people that it would not abandon any of these ongoing projects. So, why not an international airport?
For one, the South East region of Nigeria needs a world-class airport. It does not have one. A region made up of five states and an estimated population of over 30 million sophisticated, educated and travelling public deserves something better than the national embarrassment called Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu. With its roof blown away by violent storms, absent night lights, flooding issues and a tarmac in disrepair, any wonder that it is only one airline, Ethiopian, that is running international operations there? Conspiracy theorists have had cause to believe that the Federal Government of Nigeria has no plans to finish the airport upgrade, which started in 2010. Indeed, the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, to the shock of many, announced plans last month that it intended to either shut down the airport or degrade it to local status. That move raised the argument that the civil war may have ended in 1970 but Nigeria is still at war with the Igbo. It also sparked angry calls for the five Igbo governors to build an alternative airport in the area. That was a call that the Ebonyi State government has decided to answer.
When completed, the Ebonyi International Airport would provide a fitting alternative to air travellers in the South East, comprising Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Anambra and Abia. Umahi has promised that it might not be the biggest airport in Nigeria but “it will be the most functional.” This is instructive. The country is littered with empty buildings called airports. As experts would confirm, there is no airport in Nigeria that is performing at full capacity. So, the Ebonyi airport would mean that the people would no longer have to suffer the multiple dangers of long distance, lost time, bad roads, crime and the high cost of flying through Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt to major world destinations. It would not serve only Ebonyi people but would be open to all citizens of the world.
• Onuoha is a journalist and public analyst who lives in Dallas TX, USA ([email protected])