By Isaac Markson
On May 7, 2008, a year after assumption of former governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State, the former Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Chairman, Chief Vincent Ogbulafor, laid the foundation stone of the Asaba International Airport.
One of the very key promises the former governor made was that the airport project would not be abandoned and that Okpanam, where it was sited, along with other neighboring communities, would not regret giving their land for this project. Also promising to build a world class facility, Uduaghan also said that Deltans would never have to go to neighbouring states to travel to other parts of the country and beyond.
The construction of Asaba International Airport project was approved at an executive council meeting of the state cabinet on the February 12, 2008, at the cost of N6.4 billion. The cost was reviewed up to N21.2 billion in 2014.
The contract was awarded to an indigenous contractor, U.L.O. Consultants Ltd. ULO consultants Ltd, owned by Late Ogbueshi Uche Luke Okpuno, an Asaba indigene, who was regarded in several quarters as a key business player in James Ibori and Uduaghan administration. Uduaghan served as secretary to the state government under Ibori and succeeded Ibori to be governor.
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 Ngozi Okonji Iwela, and others, 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 where Asaba people would regret giving their arable land. The airport is located in Asaba because of the strategic position of Asaba itself. Asaba is the quickest link to the East. The Asaba would be an aero-hub if successive administrations stay focused with the standard airport would become when functional.”
However, years after, Uduaghan’s plan and the hopes of host communities of Asaba Airport of attracting economic benefits and development to the area have been dashed, following the poor state of the facility, with wild bushes taking over the airport; the buildings, carrier vans, parking lot provides conducive atmosphere for open defecation for passers-by, while gully erosion also ravages parts of the complex each time it rains.
Residents of Okpanam and Ibusa communities in Oshimili South Local Government Area, are already counting their losses due to the perennial flooding that render them homeless each time it rains.
Joseph Akwuanu, married with three kids and resident in Airport View Estate, opposite the Asaba International Airport and other residents, are on the verge of being sacked from their homes due to the persistent flooding in the area. The 47-year-old taxi driver said life has become unbearable for his family and other residents of the estate, as their houses are always flooded whenever it rains.
How Asaba Airport was downgraded
The Asaba airport became operational in 2014 until it was downgraded in 2015 by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) over the failure by Delta State Government to put in place safety and security measures and the poor state of facilities, a development that would make it impossible for big aircraft to land, Assistant Director, Press & Public Affairs, Ministry of Aviation, James Odaudu, said in May, 2015. He stressed that the airport was allowed to only accommodate the operation of Dash 8-Q 400 aircraft or its equivalent until all the safety issues were addressed.
Amid cries that the contractor did a shoddy job, Governor Okowa embarked on the facility upgrade, including the construction of a new runway, instrument landing system and field lighting to have the airport return to 24-hour operations in 2019.
While the upgrade was in progress, the governor started scouting for private investors to take over the facility and transform it into a regional hub. Weeks later, the governor said that the state settled for a consortium of concessionaire operators/investors “with the technical and financial capabilities to redevelop, finance, design, operate, maintain and manage the Asaba International Airport for the benefit of Deltans”.
This announcement heralded a new twist in fate for the project. Halcrow Infrastructure Nigeria Limited was appointed as the transaction adviser for the concession. Bids for the concession of the Asaba International Airport were opened in May 2019 with two consortia – First Investment Development Company Menzies consortium (preferred bidder) and AI-MS Aviation Infrastructure consortium (reserved bidder) as favourites.
The two groups, were led by Adanwimo Ezeife and Onome Onokpasa respectively and both commended the transparency of the bidding process addingthat they look forward to the announcement of the results of the technical evaluation.
Not long after, the Governor Okowa-led administration settled for a master concessionaire and sub-concessionaire model for the Asaba Airport.
This led to the emergence of First Investment Development Company Menzies consortium as the major shareholder and others as technical partners. They include Air Peace Airline as the anchor airline and in charge of maintenance, repair, and operations, and Multi-Freight Cargo and Logistics for cargo handling. Others include Arbico Construction Company for the development of a business park, hotel and convention centre; Rainoil Limited and Cybernetics Limited for tank farm development and supply of aviation fuel; and Quorum Aviation Limited for the management of private jet and helicopter terminals.
Subsequently, the Asaba Airport Company was floated by the private investors (concessionaires) on October 12, 2020 for the sole purpose of managing the airport, findings showed.
However, effort to reach the concessionaire, Asaba Airport Company was abortive as the company has no functional website, neither phone contact to reach them, as a visit to registered address of the company, 55, Bishop Oluwole Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria showed no sign post neither operation of such company at the above address.
A Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the state government and the concessionaires and among supposedly investment friendly terms is the guarantee by the state government that no competing private or public airport, greenfield developments or expansions would be allowed in Delta North Senatorial District of the state (where Asaba Airport is situated) during the initial 30 years concession period.
Poor State of facilities at the Asaba Airport
A copy of the MOU seen by this reporter states that the concessionaire shall undertake the development of mandatory capital projects in the airport within three years from the effective date of the transaction. The mandatory capital projects referred to in the MOU include airport/terminal facility, cargo facility, maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) facility, tank farm facility, industrial park and office facility, and hotel and conference facility.
The MOU also places the responsibility of managing and maintaining the airport on the concessionaire at its own cost and risk.
“The Concessionaire shall be responsible for the management, operation and maintenance of the airport, keeping it in good operating repair and condition throughout the concession period at its own cost and risk, and in accordance with prudent industry practice and the provisions of the Agreement,” a section of the MOU reads.
Despite these provisions, the state of facilities at the Asaba International Airport is quite appalling. The airport, which still operates commercial flights, had been over taken by overgrown weeds when a visit was paid to the facility by this reporter. Buildings, carrier vans, and parking lots in the airport provide an enabling atmosphere for open defecation by passers-by. The parking lot is also not spared as it is infested with mosquitos and also ravaged by gully erosion.
Other details of the agreement are as follows:
“Naming of the Airport: The name of the Airport shall remain Asaba International Airport. However, the Concessionaire, upon discussion with the State, can include tagline to the existing Airport name for the purpose of branding
“Competing Airport: There shall not be any publicly or privately-owned new airport, whether greenfield developments or expansions in Delta North Senatorial District of Delta State, during the concession period.
“Employment of Deltans: The Concessionaire shall at all times be under an obligation to maintain an employment ratio of twenty percent (20%) of its staff for the operation of the Airport comprising indigenes of Delta State.
“Mandatory Capital Projects; The Concessionaire shall undertake the development of Mandatory Capital Projects, and they shall be completed within a period of three (3) years from the effective date of the transaction.
“The Mandatory Capital Projects include Airport/Terminal Facility, Cargo Facility, Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MRO) Facility, Tank Farm Facility, Industrial Park and Office Facility, and Hotel and Conference Facility.
“Concessionaire Obligation: The Concessionaire shall be responsible for the management, operation and maintenance of the airport, keeping it in good operating repair and condition throughout the concession period at its own cost and risk, and in accordance with Prudent Industry Practice and the provisions of the Agreement.
“Exemption of Payment of Tax: The Concessionaire shall be exempted from the payment of some specific taxes to the State for a period of five (5) years, to enable it concentrate on the development of the mandatory capital projects as listed above;
“Rights of Inspection of the Airport Facilities: The State and its representatives, with a written notice to the Concessionaire, no less than seven (7) days prior to visit, can undertake the inspection of the airport facilities to ascertain compliance with the terms of agreement.
“Project Delivery Oversight Committee (PDOC): A Project Delivery Oversight Committee comprising representatives of the State and the Concessionaire shall be constituted to ensure the implementation of the terms of the agreement.
“Terms of the Concession: The assets and all infrastructure constructed by the Concessionaire, together with all related investments in, and upgrades to the assets, shall be handed back to the State at the end of the concession period.”
Other terms are; “Insurance Policy: The Concessionaire shall purchase and maintain in full force and effect any and all of the insurances required for the operation of the airport.
“Royalty Fee: The Concessionaire shall pay to the State a royalty fee of 2.5% of the annual Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization.
“Annual Fee: The Concessionaire shall pay to the State an annual fee of One hundred-million-naira (N100, 000,000.00) each year during the concession period, with 10% escalation every five (5) years of the concession period. (That is moratorium)
“Upfront Fee: The Concessionaire shall pay to the State an upfront fee of N1b only on or before close of business on the 15th day following the signing of this agreement.
It was however unclear if the concessionaire failure to pay the N1 billion naira up front payment could have been the rationale for the delay for official handover of the facility to the concessionaire as no official made comment on that as at the time of this investigation.
I know nothing about the concession process, I only represented the governor – former SSG:
When this reporter contacted Mr. Festus Ovie Agas, former Secretary to Delta State government and now Chief of Staff to the Governor, he said he is unaware of the project details. As the then Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Agas represented Governor Okowa at the opening ceremony of the bids in 2019.
“I feel bad that I have no answers to give to you about the concession of Asaba airport, I only represented the governor then, now that you called, I will call for the documents relating to the concession to have knowledge of the process”.
“You can reach out to Prof. Sylvester Monye, he is the focal person of that project, and he is like an encyclopedia of the project”.
Concession agreement still one of the best decisions of Okowa’s administration – Aide
Responding to questions from journalists at his Okpanam office, Professor Monye said that Asaba airport concession was one the best decisions of Okowa-led administration.
He noted that the airport was no longer under the management of Delta State government and has been handed over to the new management since February when the MOU came into effect. However, this has been found to be misleading as the state government is said to be planning to officially handover the facility to the concessionaire on August 23, 2021. Even as he refused to provide answers whether the concessionaire has fulfilled their obligation of the first one billion naira upfront payment as stipulated in a section of the MOU.
This reporter also make frantic effort to reach the immediate past secretary to the state government, Bar. Chiedu Ebie who signed the MOU on behalf of the state government to ascertain if the said one billion naira upfront payment was paid as at the time of MOU signing, he responded that this reporter should contact the relevant parties’ i.e, Prof. Sylvester Monye, head of the concessionaire company or the transaction advisers to get the details.
“Mr. Reporter I suggest you do a thorough homework by interviewing the relevant parties’ i.e, Prof. Monye, the head of the concessionaire company and, if possible, the transaction advisers so you can seized of all facts,” said Ebie.
Amid investigation, Government, Airport Management clears airport bushy environment:
After our reporter started his investigation and tried to speak to several officials on the airport’s state, Delta State Government embarked upon the clearing the bushes; even after concession MOU has been signed in February, 22nd, 2021.
Acknowledging the poor state of facilities at the airport, the Delta State Commissioner for Environment, Chris Onogba, warned that the filthy state of the airport portends great danger to the state if not addressed.
While on a tour of the facility on August 5, 2021, he gave the airport management an ultimatum to clear off the weeds that had taken over the facility. His visit, coincided with the day our reporter also visited. Onogba also said that the airport would be fumigated to get rid of rodents and reptiles currently ravaging the facility.
The Airport Manager, Mr. Echo Peter, who conducted the commissioner and his entourage round the facility, decried lack of manpower and adequate equipment to keep the facility clean. He appealed to the commissioner for assistance with equipment to clear the weeds and bushes around the airport.
Several attempts to speak with the chairman of Asaba Airport Company, Mr Adebisi Adebutu, proved abortive. Phone calls placed to the known phone number of Mr. Adebutu on August 24th, 25th, 30th, 2021, respectively, yielded no result, as it was said to be switched off and not reachable when this reporter contacted him.
Also, text messages sent to him by this reporter on August 24th, 25th and 28th,2021, respectively, were not responded to till date, even when the messages showed they were delivered.
A visit paid to 55, Bishop Oluwole Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, supposed registered address of Asaba Airport Company on August 23, 2021, revealed that the company is not situated there. However, a security man at the said address who refused to identify himself confirmed to this newspaper that there was no Asaba Airport Company at the said address. He also disclosed that it was a microfinance bank that was hitherto operating at the address which was recently acquired for hospital services. Findings revealed that Asaba Airport Company has no official website.
This reporter also visited the airport on August 27, 2021 with the view to obtain comments from the new owners, but an official who refused to identify himself told this reporter that the concessionaire was not ready to speak to the press at the moment, just as he said that they (concessionaire) just resumed and would address aviation reporters on their plans for the airport at a later date.
At the brief official handover ceremony held at the Presidential Lodge of the Airport, Adebutu, in his response after the official handover held on August 23, 2021, said that Deltans, host communities and, indeed, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa led administration would have no regret for the airport concession.
“Deltans would benefit, host communities would benefit, and Delta Government would benefit,” said Adebisi.
This reporter reliably gathered that members of the host communities of the airport are currently complaining about the recruitment of safety officers and firefighters going on, accusing the new owners of recruiting foreigners against the concession agreement of 30/70 per cent recruitment ratio (70% foreigners and 30% Deltans in every recruitment).
Investigations however revealed that chairman, Asaba Airport Company, Adebisi Adebutu is also a stakeholder in Biswal and Arbico (two separate companies).
Criticisms trail concession
Reacting to the Asaba Airport concession, the Delta State chapter of the All Progressive Congress, APC, has described the concession as a huge fraud and attempt to compensate some kinsmen of the governor with the state facility.
Publicity Secretary of the APC in Delta State, Mr. Sylvester Imonina, challenged the governor to make public all the concession transactions, adding that they were done in secrecy and forced on Deltans.
“I challenge Okowa to make available all relevant documents concerning the concession public for scrutiny.
“No same mind would open his eyes to concession a project that has gulped over N40 Billion for N28 Billion in the name of effective management,” he alleged.
In the same vein,activist and coordinator, Young Nigerians Rights, Comrade Victor Ojei, condemned the abuse of procurement processes in the course of the airport concession.
He expressed shocked that civil society groups as important stakeholder were not carried along throughout the concession process. He said his organisation is making efforts to seek redress on the secrecy behind the sale of the Airport in the court of law.
He also explained that while states like Anambra, Akwa-Ibom, among others were building and celebrating their state-owned airport, Delta is busy selling off its own.
He enumerated state facilities that has been sold to private investors under the guise of Public-Private Partnership by state government to include the Asaba Airport, Delta state Transport Service, popularly known as Delta Line, three newly approved Delta State University in Agbor, Denis Osadebe University, Asaba and the Delta State University of Science and Technology, Ozor, among others.
Residents of Okpanam who spoke with this newspaper also accused the state government of land grabbing for the Asaba Airport and also building on natural water channels. One of the aides of Governor Okowa, Mr. Tony Anuakwu, was alleged to have used the paraphernalia of office to secure the development of some houses on water channels near the airport, which is causing massive flooding in the area.
“If Okowa cannot save us, let him not inflict pains on us. All internal roads in Okpanam have been constructed apart from Airport View. What sin have we committed? The governor should stop his aide from using government backing to build on water channels and causing erosion in our area,” Akwuanu said.
Other residents interviewed by this newspaper lamented that they have lost huge expanses of land to the Asaba International Airport project and years after commissioning, its operations are not impressive, with no development in sight, despite the concession.
“Land that we could have used for farming and erect residential buildings amongst others was ceded to the airport because of the promise that it would bring about development into our area. But we are regretting that decision now because the Airport is currently lying waste,” said Mr. Obi Joe, another resident of the area.
This report was done with support from MacArthur and D. Catherine foundation and International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.