SouthEast is not new to complaints. Anybody who has followed events in the zone closely since the end of the civil war will readily affirm that allegation of marginalisation by successive administrations of the country holds sway among its people. Although time has proven that the allegations are not imaginary but real, what has continued to agitate the minds, however, is when this negative toga could be removed from the zone.
Last Monday, governors, and leaders of the zone were at it again when they met at the Government House, Enugu. The meeting, which held behind closed doors for over four hours, was attended by Governors Dave Umahi (Ebonyi), Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Enugu), Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia) and Deputy Governor, Nkem Okeke of Anambra State.
Others included president general, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo; former Enugu State governor, Jim Nwobodo, National Assembly caucus from the zone represented by their leader, Sen Enyinnaya Abaribe, religious leaders and traditional rulers among others.
When they rose, Umahi, who is chairman, Southeast Governors’ Forum had told reporters: “We have resolved that we are going to see the president about the welfare of the southeast. That is what we resolved. When we come back, we will give you the content of our meeting with Mr President.”
Although he refused to disclose in details what Ndigbo wanted to discuss with the president and probably why the issue of “welfare” of the zone has become so worrisome that it should be resurrected at this time, however, those who are familiar with the terrain in Igboland would readily agree that it was same old story – infrastructure abandonment.
It was not the first time Igbos were raising concerns about their welfare. In fact, it was not also the first attempt at bringing President Muhammadu Buhari up to speed with happenings in the zone.
During the first term of the administration in 2015, governors of the zone had led other Igbo leaders to congratulate President Buhari over his electoral victory and used the opportunity to present the various needs of the zone to him.
Part of their demand, which had continued to reverberate is the parlous state of Enugu-Onitsha road; the Enugu-Port Harcourt road; the Onitsha-Owerri road; the moribund industries in the Southeast; the completion of Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu; the 2nd Niger Bridge and the Onitsha dry port project. They had insisted that developments had eluded the zone resulting in a plethora of agitations from its youths who could not find paid employment after graduation.
Although the president had given assurances that he would look into some of the demands within available resources, nothing tangible had happened since then; in fact, some policies and decisions taken by the administration have worsened the situation of the zone with its economy almost at a standstill.
A source stated that the president’s appointments further compounded things for the zone. He stated that apart from the absence of Southeast in the security architecture of the country, several other key areas have been denied the zone or skewed against it.
The source referred to the multi-million naira rail track rehabilitation project, the gas line power projects, continuous dereliction of federal roads and other intervention projects which the administration initiated in various parts of the country did not put the southeast zone into consideration.
Former Secretary-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Dr. Joe Nworgu had summarised the hapless development when he said that the president’s negative perception against Ndigbo was not amenable.
Nworgu had, in an interview with The Guardian, where he lamented the deplorable state of Ndigbo called on the people of the zone not to expect anything from the Buhari administration, stressing that he was speaking from precedence.
“When he was the chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), go and check the record and see the number of contracts he awarded and executed in the Southeast and the number of contracts he awarded and executed in his own zone. He showed so much bias against the region.
“In 1983, when the Military struck and he took over the reins of power from the civilian administration of Shehu Shagari, he placed Shagari, who was the head of government with constitutional power under house arrest in his house and remanded Alex Ekwueme, who was the Vice President without constitutional powers in prison. So, I don’t expect anything to change for Ndigbo because he does not think that we are part of the country. He still believes that we are a conquered people who should be relegated to the background,” Nworgu had said.
It was revealed that Monday’s emergency meeting of the leaders at Government House, Enugu was called following developments considered dangerous over the closure of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu, the only federal presence in the zone still operational.
The airport, which was closed to traffic on August 24 to pave way for the repair and expansion of its runway, has remained without activity as there was neither contract nor any contractor insight to begin the rehabilitation plan.
The propaganda that preceded the shut down had all kinds of obstructions blamed on the government of Enugu State, especially with an abattoir and radio mast that were said to have created safety concerns which government was allegedly not willing to relocate.
Minister of Aviation, Hadi Siriki, who had in an earlier meeting with leaders of the zone given an assurance that the airport would be reopened before December for use by Christmas holidaymakers, suddenly announced last week that there were no funds to prosecute the rehabilitation works.
He had further said to the bewilderment of the zone that a princely N10 billion was required to effectively handle whatever challenges the airport was faced with, especially at its domestic wing.
Voices, concerns, and suspicions had begun to gather in the zone. A wave of tension was building up, especially against an allegation that there was an intended plot to perpetually keep the Southeast down and out of the scheme of things in the country and that the closure of the airport was the last straw.
Even in its derelict state, the airport became a beehive of activities and economic nerve centre of the Southeast providing accommodation for local and international flights with the Ethiopian Airline operating in it.
Even the reports that in order to keep to its promise to deliver the airport in record time, the Ministry of Aviation had moved to raise mobilisation funds for the contractor that handled the resurfacing work on the runway in 2010 could not provide succour. Of the N1 billion allegedly being demanded, the Ministry was said to have raised N300 million, which is paid to the company. The company was said to have decided to withdraw since the money demanded could not be raised and in the absence of an award letter from the Federal Government.
Sources close to the Enugu meeting explained that the growing unease led to exhaustively deliberations, where the options to approach the presidency on the development, was struck.
Sources, however, disclosed that the leaders had agreed to ask the presidency for “special funding for the airport since it was not in the budget or return home to look inwards for funds to undertake the project.”
This was said to have been based on rumours that there were no funds to prosecute the jobs as well as the plethora of awarded jobs in the zone that lie in abandonment due to paucity of funds.
Checks by The Guardian revealed that Opi-Ninth Mile-Udi-Anambra border road had been awarded, so are sections of Enugu-Port Harcourt, Enugu-Onitsha highways, Aba-Owerri and Aba-Port Harcourt roads among others in the zone, but while some are yet to take off, the ones that took off after their awards have been abandoned.
However, meeting with the President last Thursday ended with the announcement of the approval of the N10 billion intervention fund for the upgrade of the airport.
President Buhari, who said he had received the assurance of the Minister of Aviation that the rehabilitation work would be done speedily and to the highest standards, added, “even as we have many items competing for our limited resources, we will continue to prioritise infrastructure investments in every part of the country. It is our responsibility to ensure Nigeria’s infrastructure is fixed. We will keep doing this.”
News about the approval of funds for the airport had elicited some mixed reactions from some residents, the majority of whom believed that there was no justification to have allowed the facility to depreciate before an intervention.
Others queried the idea of subjecting leaders to begging before anything from the government could be done in their zone, stressing that, it was unfair that Igbos should be looked upon as “beggars to be considered for a development project.”
They insisted that it had always taken a visit to the president in Abuja for any “project to come under execution in the Southeast zone,” stressing, “so far, none of such projects had been completed.”
“We hope the approval is given executive backing to ensure that it does not end up like other past approvals whose jobs are still uncompleted in the zone. Let the president march his pronouncement with action and with this, we know that something has been done for the Southeast,” it was noted.
There were others who insisted that had such intervention been made in other sectors of the zone, it would have helped to uplift and boost its economic potentials, adding that, the president would have changed the negative perception about him with the realisation of the upgrade.
Emeritus President, Aka Ikenga, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, however, insisted that the approval was one among other long hurdles that needed to be achieved before the work was started and completed.
He said: “The Federal Government closed the airport without arrangements for its repairs. So, we acknowledge the first step, which is the approval of N10 billion. The next hurdles are there – budget, Bureau of Public procurement and contract award. Finally, the release of the contract sum will be the toughest stage. What these hurdles mean is that the residents of the affected areas have a long way to go before the airport is reopened. May I pose this question; where else in this country must the leaders go cap in hand before the government will perform its duty?”
But a Civil Rights Activist, Kennedy Enwerem told The Guardian, “I think the models that are following are not working. It is the private sector that should drive all these and I think they should sign the road/transport sector bill to encourage private sector participation in the maintenance and rehabilitation of infrastructure.
“Like the situation we have in the zone, the Federal Government should ask the Southeast governors to rebuild the roads in their domain and manage them for some time. I can assure you, we will find a private sector that will take over these roads and reconstruct them. The Federal Government does not have all the funds; it is bugged with so many challenges that require funding. The Ministry of Works under Fashola awarded several roads that have not taken off. They hold the Federal Executive Council meeting every week with awards here and there and end up executing none. That is the problem.”