It is easy to wonder why the entire people of the South East of Nigeria had been rolling out the red rug and jubilating over a matter that is as commonplace as an airline, flying in and out of an airport that is situated in their zone. Why should the fact that the Ethiopian Airlines operation of a normal commercial flight out of Enugu last Saturday, August 24, 2013, which should have been a routine event attract this level of interest that it has generated?
It is only those who are ignorant of the symbols and substances of Nigeria’s political history that would reason in this ‘straight-forward’ manner and pose these obvious ‘naive’ questions.
Most Nigerians might not be aware that the last international flight that operated out of the South East of Nigeria happened in the second week of January 1970. It was a plane that took the Biafran leader, Ojukwu, and his close associates to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, signalling the collapse of Biafra, which had run from May 30, 1967, during which thousands of international flights had operated in the enclave. Since that flight, the subsequent leaders of Nigeria – military and civilian – were said to have vowed that nothing ever again would happen in the erstwhile South East zone that could open the enclave to the outside world.
Nor would anything be established in that zone that could make its people to ever again have the temerity or capacity to ‘adventure’ into seeking a nation of their own. Hence, the total and systematic denial of the South East of the infrastructure, strategic industries (like power stations), leeway (like airports and seaports) during these years has been a systematically laid down state policy, while each of the administrations had continued to lie through their teeth to the contrary. It is in that way that the former Biafrans should understand the serial lies about the Second Niger Bridge and the denial of the other such strategic infrastructure.
Such hardcore Igbophobic leaders like Olusegun Obasanjo hardly had any pretence about how faithfully he executed such doctrine that had been agreed-upon. He naturally made no bones about being the man to whom the Biafra’s second in command, General Philip Effiong, handed over the instrument of Biafran surrender. Not only did Obasanjo routinely remind Ndigbo that they did not deserve to demand any rights or amenities from a fatherland, “to which they had brought war”, he also never hesitated to taunt them dangerously whenever he felt like it. Not many adult Igbo people would forget that Obasanjo officiated at a fake foundation laying ceremony of the Second Niger Bridge in 2007, when he indeed knew that there was no such thing in the offing – as there was neither a design nor an estimate for the bogus contract. It gave him the kicks to preside over such a hoax at the expense of the people “who almost killed him at Owerri sector in 1968.”
From what I have heard, there has been a plan on the books that the current South East, that is the area that was called the East Central State after the war, should be kept in political and development doldrums till well after 50 years. Unfortunately, the people who laid down those rules did not reckon with the dynamic nature of the Nigerian situation nor with the fact that Nigeria would ever have such leaders, who would go to school and, therefore, become better conversant with the ways of the society and history. Things started to look up for the South with the coming to power of Nigeria’s first university graduate president, the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who made up his mind to open the South East to the world, knowing that Nigeria as a nation would become the better for it.
Before I proceed, it would be necessary to place two issues in perspective. In 1982, the Shehu Shagari Second Republic administration started building a river-port at Onitsha but did not have the time to complete it or to dredge the lower Niger before General Muhamadu Buhari overthrew him. Dusting up the anti-Biafran doctrine, the subsequent leaders decided to leave the Onitsha port in the condition that Shagari had left it until the coming of President Yar’Adua and his deputy, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. It was that administration that jump-started the development of the inland waterways with the dredging of the Niger and re-award of the contract to refurbish and complete the Onitsha river port, complete with the installation of state-of-the art cargo handling and storage facilities.
The next issue was that when oil was discovered at the Aguleri basin in Anambra State, the IBB regime vowed that it would not be exploited and placed it under the dubiously-described ‘strategic reserve’ whereby Anambra was not rewarded as an oil producing or bearing state while not allowing them exploit the oil. It was all a part of the punishment for Ndigbo ‘for bringing a war to their fatherland’ in Obasanjo’s words in Owerri, the capital of the newly created Imo State, 1976. Again, it took President Jonathan to lift the dubious lid on the exploration of Aguleri oil as against it being previously locked in under the ‘strategic reserve’ clause. About a year ago, he personally went to Aguleri to commission the official exploitation of the Anambra oil by Orient Petroleum, put together by indomitable and unstoppable Igbo citizens. It was significant that he also commissioned the Onitsha River port on that same day – two projects he had given a lease of life.
It had also expressly been decided that the international flight that took Ojukwu out of Biafra from Uli Airport in January 1970 would be the last ‘international flight’ that would operate out of the South East. Again President Yar’Adua started with the reversal of that policy by awarding a contract for the Enugu airport’s facilities to be expanded, its runway extended to take big body aircraft, a logical prelude to being transformed into an international status. The reconstruction started as Yar’Adua ailed, giving the opportunity for mischievous quarters to want to throw spanners in the works.
While there was jubilation all over the zone that the Federal Government had awarded a N4.13 billion contract for the upgrading of facilities in the airport to an international status, a fact which the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, confirmed to news men in Enugu, a very sour and mischievous development cropped up. The Minister of Aviation, Mr. Babatunde Omotoba, while flagging-off the project at Enugu on the last day of December, 2009, denied that there was any plan to make Enugu an international airport. He claimed that the contract was primarily to rehabilitate and upgrade facilities at the airport to meet aviation safety standard as well as to make provision for heavier aircraft.
In his words: “I cannot confirm that Enugu airport has become an international airport for now. We have four international airports, Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt but we have other airports that have started showing signs of strong traffic.” Omotoba clearly lied because other smaller airports all over the country operated flights to and from Nigeria from abroad.
With the coming of President Jonathan at the demise of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, he dusted up the files and confirmed that the Akanu Ibiam Airport was indeed an international airport and readily put his money where his mouth was. During his political campaign for 2011 presidential election, he made firm promises on that airport and on the other infrastructural developments in the South East. As a major step towards that commitment, President Jonathan came to Enugu on May 18, this year, to commission the newly-remodeled Akanu Ibiam International Airport, during which he also laid the foundation stone of a brand-new international terminal.
The landing and take-off of the Ethiopian Airlines last Saturday, an event that marked the commencement of international commercial flight out of the zone became a logical denouement of the event of that day in May. He more than tripled the financial commitment of the Federal Government to the project.
The event of last Saturday was not just a psychological ego massage for the people of the South East. It was a very tangible event that would mark an upward trajectory in the socio-economic upliftment of the very commercially and business-minded people of the area, who have been sweating under the scourge of having had to embark on all their many foreign trips from airports that are far placed from them. Ethiopia Airlines, even though owned by the government of Ethiopia is a very sound business concern that can smell business from thousands of kilometres away. Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s most successful carrier and one of the members of the big league in the world.
The managerial acumen of those that run the airline is legendary to the extent that even when Ethiopia was run by a doctrinaire Marxist regime and as the country was wracked by drought and economic deprivation, thus keeping the nation in tenterhooks, Ethiopia Airlines had to relocate its headquarters to Nairobi, Kenya. It was there while its owner-state got its acts together. Today, the Addis Ababa Airport is a bustling hub of activities with the signs on the tails of the aircraft that litter its giant hangars indicating that it is the major centre of aircraft maintenance.
I have given this brief operational background of the Ethiopian national carrier to indicate that the fact that they agreed to operate out of Enugu shows that they have identified a very profitable and potentially busy route. They hope to operate daily soon, up from the four weekly operations for now. The airline’s foresight is justified because, hate them or love them, nobody can wish away the fact that business men and women from the South East remain the most consistent among their counterparts from the other parts of the country. In fact, the business people from the South East form the overwhelming majority of those that patronise the other entry points in the country. That is why the people from the zone have been insisting that steps be taken to facilitate operations at the Port Harcourt and Calabar seaports to enable them handle greater volumes of businesses and make things easier for business in the East. It is also for the same reason why the people are mounting pressures on the Jonathan administration to make the Onitsha port fully operational.
The epochal internalisation of the Enugu airport will make a greater impact with the speedy construction of the Second Niger Bridge which President Jonathan has pledged to complete during his tenure. There is an ample evidence already to prove that the president is intent on upturning the traditional and long-standing blockades which had been erected against the people and businesses of eastern region of Nigeria. It is no coincidence that the dismantling of these man-made obstacles was started by Nigerian leaders who had the benefit of university education. It is also remarkable that President Jonathan has continued to show that he is capable of delivering on promises that he had solemnly made to the different Nigerian people, especially to the South East.
The resumption of international operations at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport is being celebrated by our high and low people, as a solemn fulfillment of a presidential promise for which they give President Jonathan a pat on the back. However, in the realisation that there are many more people for whom the airport is not of direct benefit but who derive only a psychological satisfaction from it, a greater significant and more palpable act of promise fulfillment is being awaited with bated breath from the people. South Easterners and other Nigerians and their businesses will feel better fulfilled the day they can move across the Second Niger Bridge and save themselves the scourge and hassles that have been imposed on them through current over-used and over-stressed Niger Bridge between Asaba and Onitsha, built in 1965 to handle less than five percent of what it is currently burdened with.
Yet, for what has been done so far, they thank Mr. President for promises so-far fulfilled but definitely ask for more.