It is my most audacious project. That is how Governor Willie Obiano described Anambra International Passenger and Cargo Airport, the newest airport in Nigeria located at Umueri, Anambra East Local Government Area.
True. It is the most ambitious project ever executed by the government of Anambra State since it was created in 1991, and I dare say the old Anambra State created in 1976. And Governor Obiano has good reason to congratulate himself and his government for this rare feat.
And it is not because of the fact that it is the first time a state government is building an airport in Nigeria. Two of Anambra’s neighbours, Imo and Delta had long ago built and put to use their own airports; and a huge chunk of their passengers come from Anambra State. This airport was started and completed in record time, less than two years after construction started. The Imo airport took many years of community contributions and fundraisers to complete. Delta State with all the petrodollars took many more years to finish the airport at Asaba.
Since 1980, shortly after Jim Nwobodo became the first elected governor of the old Anambra State, the plan and aspiration to build an airport for Anambra State had been on the drawing board. A site was even acquired for it at Oba, a few kilometres east of Onitsha, the commercial hub of Anambra State.
I remember Chinwoke Mbadinuju, who was governor between 1999 and 2003 promising that before the end of his first tenure, which turned out to be his last, “something will land and take off at Oba.” That was wishful thinking. It never materialised until he left office. Rather, the airport site soon became the site of a proposed international market.
The idea of an airport was dusted up again in 2006 when Peter Obi became governor. It was he that changed the site from Oba in Idemili South Local Government Area to Umueri and proposed the name, cargo airport.
However as much as Obi was prepared to see to the realisation of the project, he was not ready to put a dime of Anambra money into it. As he preferred to do with most of the state government’s capital intensive projects, he wanted a build operate and transfer (BOT) arrangement for the airport.
After failed negotiations with financial institutions and infrastructure firms from Nigeria and outside Nigeria, the idea of the cargo airport faded out and did not even come up for mention in Peter Obi’s second term. He shifted attention to delivering roads to link the different communities in the state before leaving in 2014.
The airport was not even in the manifesto of Governor Obiano when he campaigned in 2013. He campaigned on a continuity agenda, that is to say he would complete projects left behind by Obi before drawing up his own programme of action.
It wasn’t long after taking office before he fell out with Mr. Obi. So he quickly drew up his own new plans, which incidentally focused on reviving the Otuocha axis of the state that became moribund after the internecine wars between Umuleri and Aguleri in the twilight of the 20th Century.
The airport project fell comfortably into this programme of action. After several years of doubt, indecision and false starts, the project gathered momentum in 2018 and to the surprise of even government supporters, the first commercial plane landed at Umueri a few days ago.
No matter what might still be needed to be put in place for the airport to fully take off, what has been achieved so far calls for celebration. At least, like Mbadinuju said, something has landed and taken off at an airport built by Anambra State Government.
The benefits of an international cargo airport to a state like Anambra have already been well listed but can never be overemphasized. Apart from the centrality of Onitsha in the commercial circles of Nigeria and international trade, Anambra people are major players in global business and having an airport at home is just natural.
Needless to say that most of the cargo and passengers that use airports in Asaba, Enugu and Owerri are Anambra-bound. This may mean that Umueri’s gain could turn out to be Asaba, Owerri and Enugu’s loss. So the airport at Umueri would not only reduce cost and time spent commuting to airports in neighbouring states but would also facilitate easy passage for young entrepreneurs to travel and process their merchandise.
Beyond the immediate functionality of the airport, the location of the airport at Umueri provides the necessary boost for the development of not only the business and municipal infrastructure of Otuocha zone but also the larger Anambra River Basin.
Already, oil has been discovered and is being exploited in commercial quantity in the upper fringes of Anambra River near Kogi and Enugu States. The anchorage of Anambra River between Umuoba-Anam, Aguleri and Umueze-Anam could be developed to handle lighter vessels and complement the river port at Onitsha. We also expect boat clubs to emerge around in the area.
Otuocha will open a new corridor of trade and diplomacy between the East and northern Nigeria, given its proximity to Kogi and Benue States as well as Abuja. Who knows? The airport may facilitate the completion of the Otuocha – Idah federal road, which runs through a rich agricultural belt. Needless to say that the airport would benefit people from the Ankpa, Idah, Dekina and even Ajaokuta catchment areas because it’s the nearest airport to all those vital industrial areas and populations. The same story applies to the university town of Nsukka, which is just a few tens of kilometres to the new airport, Ditto for the nearby state-owned Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam. This will draw attention to the Onitsha-Otuocha-Nsukka road, which has been neglected for a long time.
But the biggest beneficiaries of the airport will be the people living and doing business in Anambra State. The benefits here can never be exhausted. Umueri airport will reduce the time travellers spend trying to access the airports in Asaba, Enugu and Port Harcourt.
Being a cargo airport, it means traders in Onitsha would short-circuit the time and money they spend in clearing and transporting their imports from Lagos to Onitsha. This will also abridge shipping time. A new class of professionals in the airfreighting sector like lawyers, tax specialists, travels agents, car charter operators and allied professionals will emerge.
In terms of infrastructure, the entire Anambra East Local Government Area will be transformed with bigger and better roads, improved electricity, and controlled municipal development. The effect will also be felt in towns like Awkuzu, Nteje and Abagana, which will serve as stopover junction towns to Umueri. People ordinarily resident in Anambra would no longer travel overnight to lodge in airport towns in order to catch their flights. They would just wake up and drive through the traffic-free roads in the state to catch their flights.
While Governor Obiano deserves to beat his chest and celebrate this ‘audacious’ feat, the truth is that all the wine popping, dancing and kissing of the ground on the tarmac on the international airport at Umueri last week would be a vain ritual if there are still loose ends yet to be effectively fastened as a precondition for operating an airport. This has to be done if we do not intend to have the experience that Anambra has had with the Onitsha river port and its status as an oil producing State with the short lived oil drilling effort in the Anambra Basin.
There is no doubt that well utilised, the new airport at Umueri will transform Anambra to its rightful classification among Nigerian states – a Grade A state and make the state rank among global economies like Lagos, California, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Dubai.