From a distance, it must be hard to feel excitement at the news gripping the Asaba airport project particularly the controversy of the alleged cost to clear what critics described as “ant hills” around the area for the facility to achieve a four-kilometer stretch runway required for landing of bigger aircrafts. Frankly, such controversy should really matter to anyone with an interest in the fate of this ambitious project and this is why all responsible deltans should actually be concerned.
However, the problem is that most of the figures bandied with the fierce criticisms though made to look, at the surface, so much for high principle and genuine concern for accountability and transparency in use of public funds, looked more like it was just about power and partisan/sectional politics. This is where the real problem lies because in Delta as a state, the line between genuine concern for the interest of the people of the state and political mischief and ethnic sentiments is so thin that they have literally come to mean the same thing in our context.
Delta state governor obviously wriggling like a lugworm on a hook as the press and opposition politicians raged at the idea of paying such huge amount to clear mere “ant hills,” came out with its own story:
“We wanted to build an airport with a runway length of about four kilometers , unfortunately, there is no terrain in Asaba area that could give us such stretch of land , the topography here in Asaba is mainly either hills, or low lands , rivers with adjoining valleys. With all the directions and technical survey that was done, for the airport, we got where we are now which gives us two terrain, the hill on one side and the river on the other side.
“We have to make do with what is available with serious heavy engineering work. There is also a bridge on the runway course, we dealt with that, we had a runway which could take smaller planes, convinced that it was good enough, but we are looking at expanding it longer so we could take bigger cargo plane.
“In the face of that, we are not the regulatory body, NCAA came and said before approval could be given, the state has to demolish the hills and needed to sand fill the other extreme which is the river side, to move the runway, that involves lowering the hills and sand filling the other end to attain a level line for the runway, that we have started doing.”
It’s important we get the story straight. Available information has it that it was on May 7, 2008 that the Delta State Government took the bold step to build an airport of international standard at the state capital with the ground breaking ceremony performed by the then PDP National Chairman, Chief Vincent Ogbulafor.
The Asaba Airport project was initially conceived with the aim of providing a safe, fast and reliable means of transportation network linking Asaba, the capital of Delta State to other centres of political and economic activities within and outside the country.
For now, only small aircraft, mainly Hawker Siddley (HS) 125, Bombardier jets, Embear aircraft CRJ 900 and Beech craft 1900 D, operate into the airport. As the airport stands today, there is zero cargo activity because bigger aircrafts cannot land there. This is a major minus to one of the major aims of the airport which is to handle cargo landing services for businesses in Delta and Anambra and other neighbouring states.
The expansion of the runway which necessitated the leveling of the hills and sand-filling of adjourning valleys was a prerequisite set by the regulatory agency, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), for its approval for bigger aircraft operations.
Anybody that knows the topography of the Delta state capital knows fully- well that there was nowhere a four kilometer of land can be achieved without meeting an obstacle in the form of hill, valley or stream.
Doubtless, moving the airport to a more level ground, wherever that may be, after spending over N13 billion on the present site sounds more like a devil’s alternative to the option of putting up with the leveling of the hilly segments of the expanded runway. And this was what critics of the project deliberately ignored in their attacks.
In all the attacks and criticisms, nobody has said we can do the quantum of job entailed in the runway expansion for less. This would have been the crux of the attack on the “ant hills” leveling project. At least this shows that there were some levels of frugality in the award of the contract(s).
Above all, the Governor Uduaghan had openly said “splitting the ongoing work to demolish the hills and level the valleys is at no additional cost to the total project sum as it was conceptualized from the beginning.” So what is all the fuss about if not politics rather than concern for frugality in use of public funds?
Curiously, the contract for the leveling of the hilly part of the extended runway was awarded since last year and did not just crop up necessarily for the purpose of the recently concluded South-South Summit hosted in the state. So tying the runway contract to President Jonathan’s visit to Asaba for the South-South Summit was not only a political mischief but a deliberate smear not only against the Delta state governor but the entire idea of citing the facility in Asaba in the first instance and this is the truth about the politics of the project.
This contract awarded to ULO Consultant in 2011 did not raise any eyebrow until the state government decided to engage two additional contractors (CCC and Levante) to expedite action on the project as the initial contractor was too slow and suspiciously incapable of doing the volume of job required within the scheduled timeframe for the project. How come there were no public outcries until the contract was split into three? This is another food-for-thought!
Is it not surprising that a contract awarded in 2011 and which work commenced since then could become a campaign issue in April/ May 2012 because Jonathan was supposed to visit Asaba through the airport? All these while, those against the cost of the runway expansion kept quite waiting for a good opportunity to strike. So how can they convince anybody that the attacks were done in good faith to ensure transparency and frugality in government and governance?
Though no single critic did openly say citing the airport in Asaba was a wrong decision by the Uduaghan-led government, it was obvious that most of the criticisms derived from the location of the airport which could have been elsewhere in the south or central districts rather than Asaba or anywhere near Asaba. This is the truth and we should simply face it!
It is disheartening that rather than see the airport project as an infrastructure that could accelerate the development of the state, especially with the state’s quest to diversify its economy from oil revenue, critics and political mischief- makers opted to tear it apart through misinformation and even ethnic and sectional campaigns.
Since we cannot go back from where we are on the project, the wise thing to do is to wait until the government tells us it has finished and if there are still questions on the expenses, let those who are shouting now then ask or even invite the anti-graft agency- the EFCC to investigate the entire financing of the project. This should be the line of thinking of every concerned deltan if they are genuinely patriotic. Ishiegwalinuooo!
(Ifeanyi can be reached on: 234-08033043009)