There are divergent views about the proposed airport project being embarked upon by Benue state government as DANIEL AGBO in this report captures all shades.
Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue state recently announced the decision of the state government to construct an airport at Dauda in Guma Local Government Area of the state.
The project, the governor said, would be an important component in the bid of his administration to facilitate growth and development at the grassroots and at macroeconomic levels.
But shortly after the governor made the pronouncement, the social media became awash with comments criticising the governor of staging what they described as another ‘white elephant’ project.
Many people argued that the project would not work considering that the state still owes several months of salary arrears to state and local government staff and is battling with few projects initiated by the same administration.
Most people also said it would have been better if the governor cleared the arrears and execute other more critical projects before embarking on such huge airport project.
It’s a wasteful venture – APC
The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) also following the event, issued a press statement questioning the importance of the project, given current far-reaching needs of the state.
The party also opined that the project may just be another white elephant project, if the plan is not well thought-out.
The party particularly in the press statement signed by the acting state publicity secretary James Ornguga, asked the governor to check his priority list and start thinking of realistic projects instead of continuously dwelling in the temple of self adulation.
The party also said the resurrection of interest in the airport project was only a confirmation of the speculations that the governor is venturing into personal flight services.
According to the party, it was astounded with the declaration by the governor, that he would convert the land meant for the cargo airport for another airport.
The party also said it doubted the genuineness of the current project considering that the total cost of the abandoned cargo airport, according to the governor’s chief press secretary, Terver Akase, was pegged at 37.898 billion naira with the state government providing 100 hectares of land in addition to 5.284 billion naira as equity contribution, representing 15% of the total cost of project.
“How possible is it for the same government to build another airport to completion for just 12 billion naira as announced by the governor?
“With the glaring deficit in the state civil service, it was better for the Ortom government to focus on service reforms and visible rural roads than embarking on what they described as another phantom airport project.”
Government justifies project
However, despite the criticism by the APC, the governor on the other hand foresees the springing up of industries, power plants, estates and tourism, given the splendor of the River Benue, among other economic activities in the area.
In the this respect, the governor while presenting the 2020 budget estimate had explained that the project would bring about economic expansion.
Ortom said unlike the cargo airport, the new project would be financed by the state government with the Internally Generated Revenue IGR and will cost only twelve billion Naira (N12 billion).
He further explained that the cargo airport project was an initiative of the private sector that has failed, adding that government did not contribute financially to the project.
He said the project is expected to be completed within a period of two years.
“I am sure I do not need to enumerate the benefits of such an airport for our economic expansion aspirations as it would open up our economy for investment and trade.
“Even the process of constructing the airport would be an economic boom for enterprises and entrepreneurs in the state.
“Let me also clarify that the cargo airport we attempted to build in the first tenure was purely a private sector initiative.
“Benue state government did not make imputs in terms of committing resources to that project.
“It was purely a private sector initiative which we welcomed; it became a failed project and the state government did not have any liability with that project whatsoever.
“Now we are talking about the Benue state government project because we have seen that it is very critical for a state that is the ‘Food Basket of the Nation’ with vast potentials in terms of taking on the entire agricultural value chain we believe that with the airport investors will come,” he noted.
But the question still on many people’s minds is how viable is the airport business to the people of the state and what would be the patronage considering that most states are struggling to get their own airport.
Many attempts by the successive governments to bring services of commercial airport in the state never yielded any reasonable results due to low patronage.
Some people argued that the high costs related to provision of airline services
had been what made it difficult for airlines to operate in Benue considering that majority of travellers in the state could not afford it.
Justin Hembaga a Makurdi- based business man said though as good as the airport project may look, it looks to him like a misplaced priority.
“An airport is good in state that have people with high earnings. Flight fares are usually very expensive and many people would not want to spend 10 to 15 thousand naira on one way journey to Abuja when they can spend only ₦2,500 for a four- hour journey. People also consider other variables like the means they will use when they alight at the airport. It makes the thing more expensive, so even those who can ordinarily afford the airfare would prefer using their private vehicles.
“It is my opinion that the state government should spend such money in building an electric power project that would boost industries in the state or rather should focus on roads, provision of farms implements for the farmers in order to increase their earnings.”
But Innocent Agada, in his view described the airport projects being embarked upon by the state as a wonderful one.
According to him, the new airport would open Benue to the outside world and develop the community where it is sited.
“The airport I believe would attract investment to the state and make easy transportation of humans and goods.
“Security wise, air transport is better because no armed robber would be there to attack passengers as is the case with road transport. It has many other benefits also,” he added.
Aside criticism the challenge which may also be before the state government on construction of the airport is the disposition of the host community.
The initial hiccup
Sometimes on July 25 2017, the then commissioner for works, transport and energy, Emmanuel Manger, was reported to have told journalists in his office that citizens of Guma LGA of the state vowed to release snakes to bite construction workers at the construction site which is the same place being earmarked for the current project.
Manger claimed that the development was what had halted the project at that time.
He said that the community was strongly opposed to the construction of the airport without compensation first paid to the land owners.
He further said that the community had attributed its opposition to the project to government’s failure to fully compensate their kinsmen after taking some of their land to establish the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi.
The commissioner noted that the face-off had since stalled the commencement of the project.
The challenge now is whether the state government would meet the compensation demand for land, which is now converted for the state government airport. Would the community again threaten to release snakes or rather consider the huge benefits the project would attract to the community and just surrender it?