DELTA: The Story of An Airport

A history of sorts was made on Thursday March 24, and Friday March 25, 2011, when the long awaited and much maligned Asaba International Airport embraced the landing of the first aircrafts on its airstrip. This first flight which can be described as a test run took off in Abuja at about 1:15pm and landed at the airport at about 2pm, on March 24th. The craft, a 48-sitter commercial aircraft owned by Overland Airlines flew over the adjoining towns to create awareness on the epoch making event.

The pilot Gilbert Sampa said the flight was an interesting one and that he was happy to be part of the history making flight. He described the airport as one which has international standards and even made favorable comparisons with the international airport in Bangok, Thailand, adding that said he flew with lot of experience because it was his first time in the area. The second aircraft, a Six seater, France Air passenger Lear Jet, D/CPDR, landed at the Asaba International Airport on Friday, March 25, 2011 from Abuja at about 9am. The pilot, Frenchman, Ekstrand Rolf said it took him 25 minutes to fly from Abuja to Asaba. The passenger plane, was said to have carried the Nigerian hip hop star, Wande Coal, who entertained the impressive crowd which had gathered to witnessed the event. The plane eventually took off at exactly 10:00 am.

Originally, the first flight at the airport had been scheduled for November 16, 2010. However several logistics,  technical and administrative problems arose which delayed the landing of the first aircraft until Thursday, March 24, 2011 when the Overland Airways, ATR42 (5N-BND), said to have been chartered by the Delta State Government landed at Asaba Airport at about 1.15pm on Thursday, March 24, 2011 even when the airport terminal building is still incomplete and may take some time before commercial operations can commence fully.

With this dramatic and obviously unexpected event, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan may have succeded in proving some of his critics wrong and ultimately secured a major propaganda point in his political ambition to return to Government House on a second term bid, as the first flight touched down in the much hyped and discussed, Asaba International Airport, which is interestingly still under-going construction. Dr Uduaghan apparently elated by the success of the first flight mocked “doubting Thomases” to come and see the actuality on ground and said he was happy to see his dream transform into reality.

His words “I am so happy with this achievement. My dream has come true and all those who criticized the project will now shut up their mouth”. Dr Uduaghan further said that the construction of an airport takes up to seven years and expressed happiness that within a period of three years an aircraft was able to land at the airport, adding that the airport will bring economic boom along with what he called “enormous multiplier effect” He then commended the people of the airport communities of Asaba, Ibusa, Okpanam and Ogwashi-uku for their contributions and prayers even as he said that the credit of the airport should be shared by all.

However, it is absolutely imperative to place the matter of this Asaba International Airport in its proper perspective, from the onset of the project to date, for us to fully understand the import of what happened on the 24th and 25th of March, 2011, with the landing of the first flights on the airstrip of the airport.

Brief History:

It is generally believed that it was the administration of Chief James Onanefe Ibori , from 1999-2007, that first muted the idea of building a standard category C Airport, capable of handling big planes like Boeing 737 and Cargo aircrafts in Asaba, the Delta state Capital, with the stated objectives of enhancing air travels revolving around the state, generating more revenue to boost the financial base of the State at completion and creating a modern, convenient and attractive transportation option and landmark for both the national and international community.

The perculiar ethno/political arguments and considerations which attend such huge infrastructural initiatives in Delta state may have contributed greatly towards the failure of the Ibori administration to embark on the project and the onus was then placed on Dr. Emmanuel Ewata Uduaghan, who was the annointed successor of Chief Ibori, to use the Airport project as one of the cardinal promises to the people of Delta North and a key component of his well quoted Three- point Agenda of Peace and Security, Human Capital Development and Infrastructural Development, to secure the landslide votes of his election victory which he got from the Anioma axis.

Exactly one year after Governor Uduaghan’s election victory, precisely on May 7, 2008, the foundation stone of the airport was laid by the former Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Chairman, Chief Vincent Ogbulafor and one of the very key promises which the Governor made on that day was to assure Deltans that the airport project will not be abandoned, despite competing needs for scarce state resources. He also added that the waste of man hours in travelling to neighbouring states by people living in Asaba was unacceptable and would be addressed once the airport was completed.

The contract for the construction of the Airport was awarded to U.L.O .Consultants Ltd, at an initial cost of N6.47 Billion. ULO consultants Ltd, is an indigenous firm owned by Ogbueshi Uche Luke Okpuno, an Asaba indigene and widely regarded in several quarters as a key business player in the Chief Ibori administration, now passed on to Governor Uduaghan for strategic reasons.

At an inspection tour of the Airport in September 2010, two years after the foundation laying ceremony and in the presence of former Finance Minister and currently the Managing Director of the World Bank, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, amongst others, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan was quoted as saying that: “Asaba has been suffering the problem of no airport for a very long time This will not be an abandoned project. Asaba is long overdue for an airport and we are determined to complete it no matter the cost…The airport is located in Asaba because of the strategic position of Asaba itself. Asaba is the quickest link to the East. The federal government has approved the license for this airport and with this we are going to accelerate work on it and complete it within a few months time. The airport will become functional soon.”

However, the contractor, Ogbueshi Uche Okpuno was reported to have reviewed the cost to an additional sum of N22 billion within this period, a sum which he said was needed to complete the Asaba International Airport project. Ogbueshi Okpuno had further expalined that the delay in completing the project was caused by a fundamental modification of the original design of the project which was at the insistence of the aviation regulatory bodies.

Butressing the point made by his boss further, on why the State did not anticipate the massive adjustments embarked upon midway into the project, the Airport Project Director, Mr. Austin Ayemidejor, himself a former Commissioner for Higher Education in the Chief Ibori administration, blamed it on the expansion of the initial design of the airport to accommodate much larger aircrafts.

According to him, “The contractor ULO consultants moved to site precisely in February 2008. I was given a target date of delivery of 24 months and that would have been February this year (2010), but because of the obvious expansion of the scope of work, we could not deliver on deadline. The reasons are not far fetched; the run-way was extended from 3 kilometres to 3.4 kilometres. We also have some additional work at the terminal building by introducing a concourse to receive the 3 passenger bridges. Initially we thought a 50 meters taxi-way will solve the problem of taxiing for aircrafts that are landing, but now we have over 1.5 kilometre taxi-way. There are 4 taxi-ways as against 1 taxiway initially anticipated.

We also have additional work of drains to de-flood the airport which was not anticipated. So all of this put together is making it difficult to meet the February 2010 deadline. Now, most importantly, we need to excavate about 1.2 kilometres of earthwork to create a buffer for the runway with a depth of about 9 metres”.

Continuing, Ayemidejor said that: “The airport was initially awarded at the cost of N6.4 billion but at that time the runway was 3 kilometres long and 45 meters width and we thought that if we were developing an airport of that magnitude to just take Boeing 737 why not expand it to take a 747 and even an Airbus 380? We felt that all we needed do is to bring in additional cost and it will be more beneficial to Deltans.”

Speaking further, Ayemidejor said that the work on the various units was progressing and these included the access way which is 100 per cent complete, while over, 80 per cent work has been done on the parking lot with a capacity to hold 1300 cars.

On the critical runway, the Project Director said: “we have achieved the zero point of the 3.4 kilometres, what we are doing now is the additional excavation work of 1.2kilometres to create the buffer as recommended by NCAA and the final laying of the asphalt is currently being done . With that complete, we would have been done with the runway. We have achieved 70 per cent work on the taxiway. The tarmac is ready for use”.

Aside from the physical construction work, Ayemidejor noted that the navigational aids which include the airfield lighting system were ready for installation, so also were the escalators, elevators and the baggage carrousel. Justifying the increase in contract cost, and the scope of work being done, he said the cost is moderate when compared to airport development globally. “You discover that this is prudent management of resources. Government is prudently applying resources in a manner that you have value for money”.

Another critical aspect of the airport project, according to Ayemidejor, which has been given priority, is the fire department, of which he confirmed that four fire tenders and two ambulances have been purchased to underscore the importance of safety in airport management. The Project Director admits that the regulatory agency had set stringent conditions which the State has promptly complied with. He then dispelled insinuations that standards will be compromised, pointing out that airport development is a global phenomenon that cannot be done domestically without the international regulatory agencies being interested.

His words, “Apart from the approval by Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) will also give endorsement and I can assure you that the few periods they have come for monitoring they have given us a pass mark and affirmed that what we are doing here is in consonance with what is expected to be done on any airport anywhere in the world”.

However, it was not quite clear if the whole of the additional funds requested by the ULO contractor was actually provided because in October 2010, the Delta state Commissioner for Information, Oma Djebah, obviously piqued by the media reports that N40 billion has been expended on the construction of Asaba International Airport project, gathered newsmen together in his conference hall at the Ministry premises and stated categorically that only N17.5 billion has so far been approved for the completion of the project.

Djebah, who spoke to newsmen on the outcome of a State Executive Council meeting at that time, claimed that the Delta state government had at no time set aside N40 billion for the project, adding that with the current indices of other airports in Africa, Asaba International Airport remained the cheapest and one of the major airports in the continent, according to statistics sourced from Atlanta, Georgia. He attributed the delay in the completion of the airport to the wide scope of work to be done, stating that the magnitude of work so far undertaken was appropriate to the funds approved.

Djebah then expressed optimism that the airport would be completed and commissioned soon, assured the general public especially political opponents that government would not relent in its efforts at ensuring its completion, cautioned rumour mongers from peddling dangerous rumours that could heat up the polity and added that the airport project deserved commendation instead of criticism.

The Political Scenario

Not too long after this clarification by Oma Djebah, precisely on November 9, 2010, the Court of Appeal sitting in Benin city, Edo state, annulled the 2007 governorship election that brought Governor Uduaghan into office and ordered a re-run within 90 days.

In Uduaghan’s absence, Rt.Hon Sam Obi took over as acting governor and one of the major decisions of his two month old administration was to take a N20 billion loan from some financial houses, of which a large chunk was reportedly expended in paying certain contractors in the state including the ULO contractor handling the Asaba airport.

Dr. Uduaghan won the re-run election on January 6, 2011 and was sworn-in on January 10. 2011. He then instructed his legal team to approach the Federal High Court, Asaba, Delta state, on February 14, 2011, to seek clarification on the length of his mandate and ask the court to determine whether his tenure would terminate in 2015 by virtue of the fact that he took a new oath of office on January 10, 2011.

His case was further strengthened to include the prayer that he be granted tenure elongation following his victory in the January 6, 2011, re-run election, after five governors were granted tenure extentions by a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, as pronounced by Justice Adamu Bello, on February 23, 2010. In the application by his counsel Mr. Alex Izinyon (SAN), the governor had argued that the November 2010 judgment by the Benin appellate court nullified both his earlier victory and the May 29, 2007 oath of office.

But on March 15, 2011, the Federal High Court, Asaba, ruled that Governor Uduaghan was not eligible for tenure elongation because according to Justice Ibrahim Buba: “I hold that the plaintiff (Uduaghan) is not entitled to four years term having regards to the amendment of section 180(2A). In the final analysis, he is not entitled to the reliefs sought, and subsequently the declarative relief sought and the injunction sought cannot be granted, the case of the plaintiff (Uduaghan) fails and the case is hereby dismissed.”

Governor Uduaghan, who interestingly was campaigning in Obiaruku, for the April 2011 governorship election, on the same day of the ruling in Asaba, was then compelled to continue his campaign, as many had thought he was afraid to contest the election in April, 2011, an assumption which has been quickly debunked by one of his aides and Manager Communications, Mr. Paul Odili.

At the moment however, three years into the Asaba airport project, the general assumption on most of the streets of Asaba and the rest of Delta is that the cost of the project has moved from the initially projected N6.4billion to N12billion, later N22billion and now N40 billion. This upward review scenario was confirmed by an announcement in Asaba in late 2010, at a media parley by the authorities concerned, to inform the public of the first flight which had then been scheduled to land on November 16, 2010.

That initial first landing on the Asaba airport was however truncated by the Court of Appeal ruling in Benin on November 9, 2010, just one week to the scheduled landing, but two months into his renewed mandate , on March 24 and 25, 2011, the first flights have landed on the airstrip of  the Asaba airport, which in a way may have justified the earlier projections of the Uduaghan administration on the timing of the first landings at the airport.

The Implications of the Landings

It will be recalled that at the foundation laying ceremony of the Asaba International airport, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan had announced in the presence of Prince Vincent Ogbulafor, former National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), that the airport, which was initially estimated at N14 billion, a sum considered too high for the government would now cost N7 billion. The governor also assured the public that the project would be completed in 18 months, as the airport is a star project of his administration.

Unfortunately, there has been conflicting reasons for the endless reviews of the real cost of the airport from the principal actors. For instance, in a report by a very reputable national newspaper, in a September 2010 edition entitled: First flight to Asaba Airport on November 16, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan was quoted as saying that the airport would cost N40 billion while Chief Okpuno, the Chairman of firm handling the construction said, “The N12 billion was arrived at when the airport was envisaged and designed to be a domestic one.”

In another breath, “the Project Director, Austin Ayemidejor, had in August, 2010, said that the value of the airport had been raised to N12 billion from N6.4 billion and had given “midway expansions” of the airport as the reason for the upward review of the contract sum, adding that it was for the same reason that the completion date was shifted from February to December.

And just before the annulment of the April 2007 governorship election by a Benin Court of Appeal, the Delta state Information Commissioner, Oma Djebah had confirmed that the state government had budgeted only N17.6 billion for the airport.

The scenario that stares Deltans and Delta watchers in the face now is the fact that from 2008, when the contractor ULO, mobilized to site till date the sum of N17.6 billion which has so far been expended on the airport has just been to achieve the singular objective of having an aircraft land on the airport. In other words, the work done so far is N17.6 billion worth and from every available indication from the present state of things, the Asaba International airport is still very far from completion and full operations; or better still there is still about N23 billion worth of work to be done, thus bringing the total sum to the Uche Okpuno estimated N40 billion before the airport is finally completed and ready for commercial activities. If this is the case, then the cost of the airport is way too high.

The incessant reviews of the cost of the airport project and the conflicting completion date have put to question, the sincerity of both the contractor and the government and Deltans have continued to agitate over the huge and upward review of the cost of airport project to tune the tune of N40 billion as announced by Chief Uche Okpuno, the contractor handling the project.

It is regrettable to note that such an important project would be subjected to this kind of manipulation and one is therefore tempted to ask, like some concerned citizens have already done,  if this project actually passed through due process of any form. Is this N40 billion justifiable for an airport in Asaba, going by the non-marshy topography of the area? Or are there latest airport innovations outside the current norm that is being added? Was there no proper costing and project evaluation from the consultants before the commencement of the project? Why would such an important project be the subject of suspicious reviews thereby fuelling doubts on whether the project actually passed through due process? The answers to these disturbing questions have remained largely unsatisfactory for the simple reason that the airport is still a very long way from completion.

In fact an assessment of the things that allegedly still needs to be done at the airport indicate that even the anticipated N23 billion may still not be sufficient to complete the airport which will in turn attract another upward review in the next administration in the state.

A summary of some of those things, according to an inside source, include: the runway which is half ready, the tower, the tarmac, the fire service office, the airport’s communication equipment and navigational aids, the apron, the arrivals and departure halls, the baggage reclaim sections, business lounge, carousel, check-in counters and departure lounge, executive lounge and some other necessary fixtures of any standard airport, all of which are neither ready nor visible, not to talk of the employment of staff; a matter which generated a lot of controversy not too long ago as Deltans were made to purchase application forms for employment at the airport in what eventually turned out to be a huge scam over which such monies have still not been refunded to those who bought the forms by the airport authorities despite the instruction of Governor Uduaghan to that effect.

Indeed, the very space of the Asaba International airport is still one big construction site with work going on phlegmatically, a situation which some pundits have attributed to the fact that the funding demanded and required to drive the work at a much faster pace has not been provided by the state government, a situation which led to a recent destructive protest by some workers who complained that they had not been paid for several months, inspite of the huge amounts of money allegedly approprited and expended to the contractor for the airport construction.

In fact, the token construction activity witnessed at the site on March 24 and 25, 2011, was said to be as a result of the arranged landing, which took almost everyone by surprise. One of the staff handling the airport project was reportedly quoted as saying that everybody was surprised and shocked when they saw aircrafts landing on the runway of the airport that is not even near completion. This position was allegedly confirmed by a close aide to Governor Uduaghan who was said to have noted that: “as you can see the tower, tarmac, and fire service office are not ready. What we are doing is just to test-run the runway and in no distance time the airport shall be ready.”

Governor Uduaghan himself, while speaking on national television on the day of the landings, even tried to put a diplomatic face on the matter and also concurred with the general opinion that the Asaba International airport was far from ready. What he said however was that the landings was to confirm that the airstrip was ready and that the Delta state government was in some kind of arrangement with private airline operators in the country to encourage the landing of chartered flights in the interim, until the airport was fully completed and operational.

In other words, the state Govt has not said that the airport was being commissioned. Rather, what it has implied is that it is undergoing test-running which is a process that every new airport goes through. The success of this test run therefore indicates that the airport is ready to enter its next phase of development. The message of course is very clear; a renewed mandate for a second term as governor will definitely ensure the completition of the arport.

The Reactions to the Landings

What, however has angered many Deltans is the timing of the first landings on the airport, especially against the backdrop of the huge sums of money allegedly expended and expected to be spent on the airport before completion. The second is the lavish commentaries, accolades and spins, especially by some of Governor Uduaghan’s cronies, which has accompanied the event.

On the question of timing, many Deltans are wondering why Governor Uduaghan decided to go ahead with the first landings on the Asaba airport, just a couple of weeks to the April general elections. The general feeling amongst a sizeable section of Deltans is that this is strictly a Political strategy and that the Airport is far from being ready for any serious commercial activity. What Governor Uduaghan has done, they reason, is just political gimmickry and the fact that he has contrived to package these landings is a sure sign of what they refer to as the desperation which has overtaken his political ambition to return as the governor of Delta State for a second term.

But what has probably angered many Deltans more and even cast Delta state in an uncivilized light is the glee with which a few people, especially in Uduaghan’s cabinet, have celebrated this so called achievement of the landing of an aircraft on an airstrip in this modern day and age when other states have started and completed airports with minimum publicity and fanfare while those in other climes are celebrating major breakthroughs in science and technology.

One viewer who was watching the event on national television was forced to retort sarcastically when he saw the dancing crowd and top government officials rejoicing and backslapping themselves at the airport: “Where are these people from? Were they brought from the village for this purpose? Even your Commissioners are clapping and rejoicing because a plane landed, just like we used to do when we were kids. I had thought that you Deltans were very intelligent and well travelled people. This is really laughable”.

Indeed this is the same sentiment that seemed to pervade the mindset of most Deltans surveyed for this report. The feeling was that the way and manner the landings have been celeberated has actually undermined the real importance of the event, which is to underscore the courage and political nerve of Governor Uduaghan to pull off such a high risk political caper at a sensitive period of elections like this.

One very unhappy Deltan was heard to have stated bitterly when he heard a government official praising the landings: “Do they think we are fools or illiterates? This just goes to show you what the Uduaghan administration thinks of us Deltans. Uduaghan and his cronies have taken us for a ride in the last four years with all their phoney programmes and this is just another example of that joke. After having spent so much money, this is the best they can come up with after three years and they are clapping and dancing and want us to clap and dance with them. What a pity”

Incidentally, those who know how the minds of politicians work will tell you that Governor Uduaghan will not be overtly worried by what some people may think because like the wily politicians that he is, he has supposedly achieved the purpose for which the landings on the 24 and 25 March were staged and has since moved on to explore other potential vista for maximum political propaganda and mileage as he firms up his campaign for an anticipated victory in the April 16, 2011 governorship election.

However, the fact which some Delta watchers are pointing to is that the Asaba International airport is still very far from completion and the real permutation is that with the way things have gone so far, it may very well gulp something in the region of N40 billion to complete and make it fully operational, if Governor Uduaghan returns for a second term.

The second scenario which may eventually play out is the fact that Deltans may not be as gullible and illiterate as many people in Governor Uduaghan’s government tend to assume and believe. This was the rude awakening which was witnessed during the January 6, 2011 re-run election in the state and chances are that with this latest show of what some analysts refer to as ‘political chicanery’ on the part of the Uduaghan administration, the April 2011 elections will certainly provide an ample opportunity for Deltans to express exactly what they feel about all that has happened in the state in the last four years.

2 thoughts on “DELTA: The Story of An Airport

  1. Its been a marvellous work of God for deltans to own an international airport. Atleast i am now proud to be a deltan, before now i have this dream of travelling abroad but then i sees it as a big task not until now that we own an international airport, meaning my dream will one day come true. I want to say thanks to GOD ALMIGHTY for making DR EMMANUEL UDUAGHAN dream of making us an international airport come true also thanks to DR EMMANUEL UDUAGHAN and CHIEF JAMES ONANIFE IBORI.


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