Sunday, 27 November 2016

Benue’s N38b cargo airport: An economic need or political want? By Wole Oyebade

The Benue State government has described the controversial new cargo airport as an essential need to boost local agribusiness and generate revenue for the State.

Experts in the know have, however, called for caution amidst growing criticisms that have trailed the groundbreaking ceremony. WOLE OYEBADE reports.

Benue State government recently flagged off the construction of a cargo airport at Dauda in Guma Local Government Area of the state. The “landmark” occasion was celebrated by the state governor, Samuel Ortom, to suggest its political importance.

Ortom’s efforts at explaining the rationale for the airport and get public buy-in did little to placate criticisms that have trailed the mega-project, co-funded by the state government and the concession company.

While the political-class questioned the importance of the project, given current far-reaching needs of the state, opinions are rife among aviators that the project may just be another white elephant project, if the business plan is not well thought-out.

It would be recalled that Ortom had said that the project would provide a platform for quick evacuation of farm produce from the state to markets abroad. The project is expected to cost N38b; out of which the state pays a counterpart fund of about five billion naira in the Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) agreement, lasting 25 years from the day of completion.

Indeed, it would be beneficial to rural farmers, boost agricultural activities and cut post harvest losses in the middle-belt agriculturist state; rich in potatoes, cassava, soya bean, guinea corn, flax, yams, sesame, rice, and grand nuts.

On the long run, the government 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.

According to Ortom, “This project (cargo airport), when completed, will serve as a direct connection to the world’s economic powers and provide opportunity for the international community to have direct and easy access to our local produce.

“We are partnering Cargopolis Development Consortium (CDC) to build this airport because the Nigerian Air Force have refused to share their Makurdi terminal with us for the construction of a cargo wing.”

There is a political dimension to it too. “The flagging off of this project has put shame on the faces of the opposition elements in the state, who have chosen to see nothing good in the APC-led administration in the state.”

Coordinator of Cargo Polis Development Company (CDC), Daniel Tarka, said the consortium would invest about N38b into the project, representing 85 per cent of the total project cost, while the Benue government would invest N5.6b, representing 15 per cent.

The project, which had three-year completion period, would include an aviation school fully equipped to train aeronautical engineers and pilots. Within the 25 years of its operations, the company would pay back all loans it incurred and recoup its investments.

Tarka had also explained that all over the world, airports had become instruments of driving the economy, adding that over 40 per cent of economic transactions were done by air. The airport, when completed, will evacuate more than 500,000 tonnes of commodities daily to overseas markets.

What the governor and coordinator of Cargo Polis did not mention is that the new airport will be sited in Ortom’s home local government area, out of the 23 the State has.

Benue indigene and former Commissioner of Police in Lagos State, Abubakar Tsav, was among the first to fault the project, describing it as economically senseless and a fraud.

Tsav queried: “Has Ortom no economic advisers and are they advising him at all? Nasarawa State, our neighbour, has an Airport. Can’t we use that for now if we have any crops for export?

“Our roads in Benue State are not motorable. In some areas there are even no roads. What farmers require now are fertilizer and good roads to convey their farm crops to the cities. We do not even have farm crops to export. The Benue State Airport Project is a big fraud.”

Severe as the criticism sounds, it seems to have some justifications. Cargo-dedicated aerodromes around the world are quite expensive venture and not fashionable, when compared to airports built for general purpose. What is common is having at least a terminal dedicated to cargo services in an airport.

In Nigeria, there are at least 13 designated cargo terminals, out of which one (in Markurdi) is already in Benue and three others around it – Calabar, Owerri and Uyo.

If Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport in Imo State is far, Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu has a closer proximity to Benue. More so, the Enugu airport in August recorded a feat in air cargo services with the Ethiopian Airlines launching a daily cargo operations at the aerodrome.

Experts in the aviation sector have, however, said there may be nothing wrong with building a cargo airport where the need abounds for import and exports. For the sake of clarity, cargo is as important as passengers for the survival of air travel business and in some cases, freight services tend to yield more revenue for the operators.

Chairman Governing Council of Nigeria Aviation Safety Initiative (NASI), Capt. Dung Rwang Pam, told The Guardian that the choice of concession for the project was apparently smart on the side of the government, but caution must be exercised to ensure that the state gets full benefit of the project.

Pam noted that building an airport doesn’t come cheap, particularly given the terrain in Benue that would require more resources to put up a good runway.

“Let us hope that the benefit to the state, in terms of revenue that will come in, because of the access of marketing whatever farm produces that they will like to sell. If the benefit accrue to the state will be more than the investment, then it is a welcome development.”

He, however, said that the government must not be unaware that runway of a Cargo Airport is one of the most expensive part of an aerodrome, especially when built in an area where the terrain is not really rocky and solid.

“You’d need a lot filling to be able to create a surface that will be able to take cargo aircraft like the large ones of the B747, A380 and A340; those types of aircraft that are extremely heavy in the excess of 360tonnes landing on such a runway.

“It is expensive to build a runway and 25 years is a long time. Very few runway surfaces last more than 15 years without requiring to be resurfaced. It has to be considered if that will happen within the tenure and who will be responsible for it,” he said.

Benue State is apparently not alone in the rush to build an airport. Ekiti, Osun, Zamfara, Nasarawa, Ogun, Anambra, Abia, Bayelsa States are equally desperate in a venture that is already becoming a headache to the government agencies that have the statutory duty to provide specialised manpower to keep the facilities running.

For instance, the few air traffic controllers that abound in the country are already over stretched by the proliferation of airports, most of which are currently unviable due to very low traffic recorded.
National Airtraffic Communicators Association of Nigeria (NACAN) said they are only 97 trained and licensed personnel nationwide, servicing the 24 functional airports.

Director of Administration at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Dr. Saleh Ibrahim, explained that states keep on building aerodromes that demand that controllers must be assigned to the place whenever there is a flight, adding that most times, only one flight operates to the area every day.

According to him, the proliferation may be unnecessary, considering, for instance, that Ogun State is less than 80 kilometers to Lagos, which is the hub of aviation in Nigeria; Anambra is less than 100 kilometers to Enugu Airport, which is the hub of aviation in the South East; Ekiti and Osun are very close to Akure Airport, which is rarely serviced by air. Nassarawa is very close to Abuja and less than 70 kilometers to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and the proposed Abia Airport, which is less than 60 kilometers to the Owerri Airport.

A prominent freight-forwarder in Benue, who would not want his name in print, said farmers would rather prefer the state government assist them in meeting the standards required overseas before building an airport.

He said that it was regrettable that out of hundreds of farmers in Benue alone, none of them has international certification to be able to export overseas.
According to him, “You need to know the demands of the buying countries and at what standards and rate are those things going to be exported to them. Presently now, a lot of people wanted to export in the East and Middle Belt but they are not informed about the demands overseas. They don’t know and that is why most of their goods that managed to leave the shore ended up unacceptable. The farmers are losing money trying to export.

“Yes, they are all doing very well for local consumption, but till date, a lot of people cannot export in commercial quantity unless probably they have to smuggle through other means. So, if you are producing beyond local consumption and want to concentrate on export, you need to have the requirements and standard for that venture, otherwise you are producing for waste,” he said.

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