Ever since the re-opening of the Port Harcourt Airport, it seems there is a deliberate effort to stifle the operations of the Imo Airport, Owerri. It seems the boom enjoyed by the Imo Airport following the closure of the Port Harcourt Airport is soon to be turned into a bust because Nigeria is yet to come to terms with the need to approach issues of development with an objective mindset. If the Sam Mbakwe airport were to die today, it is not because it is unviable, as many yodeled before it became a stop-gap airport for the closed Port Harcourt Airport. If it is allowed to go extinct, it is not because it has low passenger patronage, as was the story before the airport was shown to be quite capable of greater duties. Compared with other airports in Nigeria that are being patronized by these airlines, Imo Airport is miles ahead both in present facility rating and passenger traffic. But its problems flow from the determination that no such project, with so much passion for Ndigbo will be allowed to succeed. This is why many passengers that patronize the route are today stranded because airlines that were operating the route have boycotted the route, not because Port Harcourt Airport cannot exist side-by-side with the Owerri Airport but because there is a deliberate boycott of the airport, which had obtained a wide passenger base because regular and predictable flights operate there.
In December, as people, especially Igbo, were trooping home for Christmas, the local wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos was almost thrown into a fiasco following the cancellation of some flights and diversion of others from the Owerri Airport, which was the destination of most of the travelers. Sure, the Port Harcourt Airport was just re-opened but the airline operators obviously did not know that most travelers during that period were bound for Owerri and not necessarily Port Harcourt so they never knew when they incurred the wrath of the distraught passengers who never understood the reasons behind such change of direction. As so many Igbo trooped back after the festive period, the same hitches were experienced when the distraught passengers battled the non-availability of flights as most of the airlines diverted their regular flights to Port Harcourt. Even then, the flights became very irregular and unpredictable and where they obtain, passengers were ferried to Port Harcourt, most times, to fill empty planes before take off when most airports that do not have the present passenger traffic as Owerri enjoy direct flights to Lagos and Abuja.
To understand the orchestrated plight of the Imo Airport, we need to trace the history of the airport. We also need to know why the federal government has grown trenchantly lethargic in complimenting the commendable efforts of Imo State government and Imo people to equip and standardize the airport and enhance its viability. We need to understand why the development of the airport after it was opened, has been left in the hands of the Imo State government while the federal government through the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria collect revenues from the airport especially at the period of boom the airport enjoyed during the closure of the Port Harcourt Airport.
Sam Mbakwe Airport remains perhaps the most apt demonstration of the people’s effort to fend for themselves in the face of the determination of the inchoate Nigerian federation to attend to the needs of the Igbo in obvious deference to the entrenched position that still rule many Nigerians that the Igbo must be starved of essential projects that would drive their growth. Today, that airport remains the biggest case point in self-help projects in Nigeria and stands as a poignant reminder of the capability of Igbo to provide for themselves essential services in the face of neglect. When it was conceived during the reign of Sam Mbakwe, it was meant to fill a yearning gap occasioned by the flawed implementation of the Directive Principles of State Policy by successive regimes, especially since after the civil war. The idea of the airport stems from the same Ibu Anyi Ndanda philosophy employed by Zik to entrench and deepen education in the South East when the realization that the South East was badly trailing the South West in education and that something needed be done to redress this imbalance. The philosophy was funded and oiled by the people’s communal spirit and was so successful in its earlier stages that, by independence in 1960, the South East had overtaken the South West in education and is today home to a repertoire of educated and well-honed pool of human resources. The same philosophy accounts for why Ndigbo are left to finance community projects and such other essential amenities other people benefit from governments.
When the idea of the Imo Airport was conceived, the federal government was siting airports in all nooks and crannies of the country and most of these projects were unviable either because of their proximity to the more viable and busier airports or the dearth of passengers among people who enjoy more sedentary lives than the Igbo. Before the people took up the challenge, they had shouted themselves hoarse demanding for such from the federal government. When it started, every indigene of Imo State was taxed to ensure that it surely a project where every Imo man is a stakeholder. People responded with boundless enthusiasm and through hard work and the attendant strictures, the Imo Airport were finally commissioned. But that did not translate to the immediate flowering of the airport as it was boycotted by the existing airlines on quite sentimental reasons. Some dismissed the airport as unviable yet it was much more equipped than most of the federal government built airports in several parts of Nigeria.
The federal government was to later take over the airport but that was a cosmetic exercise that never translated to an improvement of the facilities of the airport. Flights were irregular and the airport was mainly patronized by the few airlines owned by easterners in apparent solidarity with the we-feeling of the Igbo people who sacrificed so much towards building the airport. The airport struggle with irregular and unpredictable flights, which kept its operations at a dismal level before the shutting down of the Port Harcourt airport. With the shut down, Owerri became the alternative route for Port Harcourt passengers. Even this never came easy as some airlines tried to divert their flights to Calabar, which was not, by any means, near Port Harcourt. Others went to Warri Airstrip while some converted the Nigeria Airforce Base in Port Harcourt to emergency airport. But many others re-routed their flights to Owerri, which remained the most viable alternative to the Port Harcourt airport. During this period, the airport raved to life and handled far more flights than any other airport apart from the Lagos and the Abuja airports. Never was one incident relating to dearth of infrastructures and the passenger profile of the airport greatly bolstered with travelers from Imo, Abia and Anambra States who hitherto preferred road travel because of the low patronage of Imo Airport before Port Harcourt Airport was shut down.
The present Imo State Government saw the boom experienced by the airport as reason to continue investing in the airport so as to ensure that when Port Harcourt Airport is eventually opened, the Imo Airport will continue to function and play tremendous role in the development of the South Eastern states. The Ohakim government started a program to upgrade the facilities of the airport. It began a well-received beautification of the airport through elaborate landscaping of the airport environment to make it aesthetically pleasing and align it with his laudable Clean and Green Initiative. It went further by starting the process of repairing and widening the access roads to the airport, increasing security presence in and around the airport and donated a generator to the airport to enhance power supply and has kick-started the installation of night landing facilities to make the airport viable at all times. Governor Ohakim also reached an agreement with the former Governor of Rivers State, Celestine Omehia, to construct a fifty-kilometer road to link the Imo and Port Harcourt Airports and open up so many communities in both states. The immediate past state government also built and handed over to FAAN the protocol lounge and the new airline offices. A visit to the airport would confirm this huge investment by the Imo State government when airport tolls are still exclusively collected by FAAN. These would have sparked unparallel interest from the federal government and aviation authorities, to ensure that such state-federal interface is encouraged and the best way to do this is not to supervise a boycott of the Imo Airport as is being done since the re-opening of the Port Harcourt Airport. We expected the aviation authorities to have even given encouragement and incentives to the state government as a way of encouraging similar partnerships in various sectors of our national life. But the fate of the Imo Airport presently serves as a disincentive to both responsive government actions and self-help efforts.
It is true that airline operation in Nigeria is a private enterprise but it is still operating under a regulatory body, which considers so many variables in allowing operations in the industry. It behoves the requisite organs to move in and save the Imo Airport from a conspiratorial death. It is this type of conspiracy against Ndigbo that fire and sustain the crusade of people like Ralph Uwazuruike and MASSOB and one believes that it is time the burgle is sounded on this needless exercise. This also serves as a wake-up call to governments and investors in the South East as to where they should focus because the importance of the Imo Airport far outweighs the petty conspiracies that is affecting its operations presently. It reaches at the souls of the people to ensure they fend and provide for themselves where they are neglected.
It is heartening that as I was about posting this article, Arik Airlines, an airline that curiously avoided the Owerri Airport when those who are now running away from the airport were struggling for space there, has started daily flights to and from Owerri Airport to Lagos and Abuja. This goes to prove that Owerri Airport is neither unviable nor unprofitable and while we thank Arik for this bold statement, we urge those that hastily packed their bags to come back to Owerri Airport because it is an idea whose time has really come.