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Save Enugu Airport

Published by The Nation on Tue, 21 May 2019


The threat by the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, to downgrade the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, has led to a frenzied demolition of structures around the runway to the airport. Sirika warned that the cluster of houses at a market and an abattoir close to the runway posed danger to aircraft which need the expanded runway to land. He also noted that the activities in the two places attract birds, and that could lead to a bird strike, which is detrimental to aircraft engines.After a state executive council meeting, Enugu State government swiftly directed the local council authority to immediately close the market and the abattoir even as efforts will be made to relocate them. While I sympathize with those who will be dislocated from the area, it is important that necessary measures be taken to ensure that instead of downgrading the status of the airport, the remaining facilities needed to ensure full operation of international flights from the airport be put in place.Sirikas concerns for safety are genuine, as aircraft safety is of utmost importance in aviation industry. The immediate response of the state government is also commendable considering the significance of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport to the southeast zone. As the only international gateway to the southeast and parts of north-central, its continuous operation must be guarded jealously. If not for the duplicitous politics of our beleaguered federation, the Akanu Ibiam International Airport would be one of the busiest in the country and a top earner for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria.Thankfully, instead of playing politics with the threat of closure by blaming the APC-led federal government, the Enugu State PDP-led government took immediate steps to address the complaints. Going forward, more collaboration is needed to finish the international wing of the airport, and rehabilitate the runway. Considering the crisis experienced in inter-state road travel, worsened by roaming armed bandits and kidnappers on the highways, every reasonable effort should be made to save international travellers the agony of going to Lagos or Abuja or Port Harcourt to catch their flights.The security challenges faced by our country gets graver by the day, and the aviation sector should not add further stress to the national security apparatchik, by adding international travellers going or returning to Enugu from Lagos or Abuja or Port Harcourt to their worries. If the Enugu airport is downgraded, the pressure on the facilities in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt will further heighten, and those cities are having more than their fair share of over crowdedness. The Port Harcourt International Airport in the south-south zone is no less stressful to access, with the Enugu-Port Harcourt road in very deplorable condition.Travelling out of the zone to catch an international flight in other zones, is also a disincentive to economic activities, as hotels, local transporters and other service providers will be affected. For those travelling or coming into the zone, landing elsewhere and taking a connecting flight or entering the fearful road is an extra expense that can be avoided. Also the hotel bills and delayed arrivals and departures are all avoidable stress for citizens and visitors. The airport authority knows there are already more than enough stress inducers to go round.Indeed, this column has always advocated for sustainable regional economic activities as the lack of it heightens the very deplorable security challenges facing our dear country. Many of the idle youths in the state and even across the zone would be gainfully employed with an increase in economic activities at the Enugu airport. Honourable Minister Sirika must bear this in mind and should therefore take necessary measures to ensure the airport remains open and even enhanced for the use of more international flights.If he wants to be fair to all parts of the country, he must advise the federal government on measures needed to bring the airport at par with other regional hubs. The upgrade of Akanu Ibiam International Airport to international status was late in coming, and it will be a monumental disaster to contemplate a downgrade, when Nigerians are expecting a further upgrade to open the airport to more international flights. Currently only Ethiopian Airlines is approved to operate international flight from the airport, and that is not a fair deal.The south-east is a traders den, and to deny the region international gateways is unfair. The PDP government at the centre gave the Akanu Ibiam International Airport half-heartedly, so, I strongly urge the APC-led federal government to give it with their whole-heart, by finishing the international wing and opening it to more flights. With flights into the airport far-between, substantial upgrade of the runway can be achieved with minimal disruption of flight schedules, both local and international.Also important, is that mutually agreed measures to keep the airport running will starve the cries of marginalisation, which separatist groups feed on. The government of Enugu State which is averse to such distractions has that as one more reason to collaborate with the federal government to keep the airport optimally functional. Indeed, if it can muster the resources, it should support the airports authority to turn the bend to make the airport a truly regional hub. After all, states build federal infrastructure and seek refunds later.On a mutually agreed procedure, the state government can join resources with the federal authority to fund some of the immediate needs of the international airport. Of course, this is not a call for the federal government to abandon their responsibility to the people of the region, but rather a call for collaboration to sustain a much needed infrastructure in the region. After all, it is the people of the region and particularly of Enugu State who re-elected Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi that will benefit more than other Nigerians.As I was putting this piece to bed, the newswire reported that the incoming Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, has promised to end the intractable Apapa-Oshodi expressway gridlock, within 60 days of assuming the reins of power. To do that, he will assume the responsibility of the federal authorities to solve a nightmare for the people that elected him into power. If he succeeds, his government would instantly become a toast of the people of the state.While Enugu State is not as rich as Lagos State, and may not have the financial muscle to do much, it must do what it can to save the Enugu Airport from the threatened downgrade. Of note, it has taken the first step, by demolishing the houses complained of by the federal minister. Governor Ugwuanyi should follow up by sending his officials to the airports authority to agree on further steps to avoid a downgrade. The watchword should be inter-agency collaboration.
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