By John Shiaondo, Makurdi
Benue Cargo Airport: Benefits and Demerits
Cargo airport in any place in the world is con2sidered a laudable venture any government can embark on to boost its economy and open opportunities to the outside world. Most importantly, it is a legacy or signature project that would stand the test of economic times when it is finally made to reach an international standard. For Benue state that is popularly referred to as the “Food Basket of the Nation” to consider construction of a cargo airport in Daudu Guma Local Government area of the state is not by sheer coincidence as it has been considered apt by many people, particularly supporters of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, government.
The flag off of the construction of a Cargo Airport, last October by Governor Samuel Ortom, following a memorandum of understanding MoU, earlier entered into between the State government and a private investor, Cargopolis Development Consortium Ltd, for the establishment of the cargo airport, at the cost of over N38 billion was received with jubilation by the people of the State.
It was also expected that when completed the project will put the state on international map in the area of agriculture, tourism, among others.
But while the project, which is believed will earn a political point for the governor and the ruling APC in Benue has been celebrated, it is also greeted with criticisms from some of the people of the state, including politicians. The critics refer to the project as a white elephant , which should not be the priority of a government in dire need of provision of basic needs of its people like water, health, education, roads, etc.
Efforts by Governor Samuel Ortom, at explaining the benefits of the Cargo Airport to the state, in order to gain acceptance from members of the public has done little to mollify criticisms that have trailed the project, which is a joint venture between the state government and Cargopolis Development Consortium Ltd of China.
While the political-class, particularly the opposition questions the importance of the project, considering the present economic situation and other competing needs of the state, others in their opinion, feel it may just be another white elephant project.
Many people criticise the project citing lack of funds which has resulted to accumulation of several months of unpaid salary to workers, and high debt profile from contractors and other sources that are currently hanging on the neck of the state government.
Some of the critics argue that no investor would want to” ‘waste” such huge amount of money on that kind of project in the state saying a relatively poor state like Benue cannot sustain a cargo airport of that magnitude.
Others, in their view, regard the project as a ‘white elephant venture ‘ which the current administration wants to use as a conduit pipe to siphon the state resources.
Former PDP State Publicity Secretary, Hon. Godwin Ayihe in a phone interview with DAILY ASSET said, he sees the cargo airport project “simply as propaganda tool to score a cheap political point by the governor Ortom’s administration.”
According to him, “As far as I am concerned there is no cargo airport. The project is just a propaganda tool the Ortom administration want to use to score a cheap political point.
“Cargo airport is not priority of the state, there are other better issues I think government should face, even if the cargo airport is coming for free.
“Benue State University has spent two months on strike, salaries are not paid to workers, farmers cannot access farm implements because they are expensive.
“Moreover, where are the goods or farm produce the cargo planes will be lifting? I think these are the things he should consider. Nothing is happening at the proposed site of the cargo airport, he should think of better ways to deceive Benue people,” he said.
Alhaji Abubakar Tsav, an ardent critic of Ortom, a Commissioner at the Public Complaints Commission and former Commissioner of Police Lagos State, who was the first to criticise the project, described it as senseless and economically unviable.
Tsav said to him, the project was as a conduit to embezzle Benue people’s money.
He argued that the cargo airport project was a deliberate attempt to take over the NYSC farmland where maize is cultivated in large quantity annually by the National Youth Corps members.
Tsav said what Benue requires at the moment are more good roads to enable farmers convey their farm produce to the various markets and fertilizer to apply in their farms, adding “we do not even have farm crops to export.”
He said; “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.”
In fact some people believed to be supporters of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, PDP, had made caricature of the project by posting on social media a picture they posted at a site with the cargo airport claiming they were buying ticket to travel with their goods abroad.
But Benue state Governor Samuel Ortom, at several occasions described those criticising the project as mischief makers saying they were ignorant of the immense benefits it will bring to the state.
He had at different events said when completed; the project would add immense value to the economy of the state as it would open new frontiers of trade, particularly exportation for the people of Benue and neighbouring states.
The governor also noted at many fora, that since agriculture is the mainstay of the state’s economy, the airport would create a window for exportation of agro produce from the state so as to give value to farmers and generate more revenue for the state and the nation.
According to the governor, “The sitting of the airport in Duadu community of Benue quite strategic and the expectation is that farmers from other neighboring states will also have access to the international market through the state, thus making it a hub for agro exports.
“Apart from conveying goods and passengers from Benue to other places, the cargo airport will generate employment, open other opportunities, industrialise the area as well as attract an energy plant to power the locality.”
On criticisms meted against the project Ortom dismissed as ignorance and mischief those who do not want to see anything good in his administration.
Explaining in an interview with newsmen recently at his hometown Gbajimba, Governor Ortom said that Cargopolis Development Consortium (CDC), a new player in the construction industry, had already provided N5.7 billion equity contribution on behalf of the state and was now waiting for the Chinese EXIM Bank to make its 85 percent contribution noting that the state government will not spend a single kobo on the project.
He said the money would also be used for other infrastructural projects in the state.
“Those expressing reservations are doing so out of ignorance or mischief. It is a straight forward matter.
“The cargo airport is purely a private initiative by a consortium, Benue state government is not going to pay N1. How can I go to construct an airport when I can’t pay salaries as at when due? There is no need for that. But it is going to be a hub for the entire West Africa, lifts cargo especially agricultural produce to other parts of the world,” he said.
He explained that the consortium has arranged a funding of the project noting because the state is expected to provide the enabling environment and land, CDC have also offered the state government 15 per cent equity.
“But the 15 per cent equity contribution has been arranged by this same consortium, government is not paying N1. “The payment will only come when the project is completed and out of our diligence, we will pay back within a secured period. “And the concessional agreement is for 25 years and then we shall renegotiate.
“So to those who are expressing reservations saying we are spending money, the question is where is the money to spend? And so we are very committed to the project, we are providing the enablement, the community where this airport is to be sited have accepted the request and are over excited.
He said the N38 billion earmarked for project will not just be for cargo airport, but will also be used to provide a chain of projects that would really promote the economy of the state.
“Of course there is going to be industries that would be processing our primary products whether finished or semi finished products as the case may be,” Ortom said.
But while government and the contractors on their part express optimism of the possibility of construction work to begin fully on the cargo airport which is scheduled to be completed by 2019, there is alleged resistance from members of the community where the project is to be sited, who insist that full compensation be paid before the constructors will step their foot on their land.
DAILY ASSET reliable gathered that some stakeholders in the area had gone home to enlighten members of the Daudu Community on the need to ensure that compensation is fully settled on any piece of land government want to take for the construction of the airport before they will allow anybody step foot on their land.
It was even alleged by some members of the community that the sitting of the cargo airport in the area was simply an arrangement by the Benue state government to collect land from the poor people for a top government official who is interested in the land for construction of his personal company.
A member of the community who simply identified himself as Emmanuel said, “government cannot just come here and take our land without settling us.
“What has government done for us, we have lived in misery, over the years without any good drinking water, without any good health facility. Constructing a cargo airport in our community is not a bad thing if it is genuine, but we cannot say the intention behind this very project is pure.”
“We are suspecting that someone is working behind the scene, using the cargo airport as reason to acquire land from us and use for his personal purpose,” he said.
A community leader from Daudu and PDP chieftain, who does want his name in print, described the project as a fake.
“Have you seen any work going on at the site of the project, since after the Flagg off ceremony? Nothing is happening there. They say they will complete the cargo airport by 2019, but I don’t see them doing that even in the next six years.
“I even hear that there are issues the contractors are having among themselves. The land the airport is to be sited on has not been even surveyed and members of the community are also planning a showdown if anybody dares step on their land.
“When we speak, they say we are aggrieved people we are opposition, but I don’t see anything good happening in the APC government,” he said.
But in a chat with newsmen, at programme held by Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment recently in Makurdi, team leader of Cargopolis Development Consortium Mr Robert Oriya said work has already started at the cargo airport noting that the consortium, has already collected a certificate of occupancy on part of the land which they intend to use for power generation and warehouses.
He noted that the actual land where the cargo airport is to be sited was yet to be surveyed and they were waiting for government to complete work on the land before they will move in to begin construction.
“There are so many stories concerning the project, but when we conceived the idea, there were competitions from other states to lobby for the airport to be sited in their localities but considering my position in the project, I chose Benue, so people of the state should be rather appreciative than criticizing the government.
“Many people are saying the project is not going to work, and some are of the opinion that we cannot put such huge amount of money in the project, but they don’t know that we are serious.
“This project is part of the cargo airport that was started at the Nigeria Air force base, and that is what many people don’t know.
“Many people don’t know that the equipment we intend to use for construction of the cargo airport at Daudu are already on ground and it is just left for us to move them from where they are to the new project site.
“The centrality of the airport here is, quite strategic. The expectation is that farmers from other neighboring states will also have access to the international market through the state, making it a hub for agro exports.
“There are many other benefits that are going to come with construction of the cargo airport, so it is not a small project it will generate huge revenue for the state and the community will be greatly transformed.
Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Cargopolis Development Consortium (CDC), Dr Daniel Tarka, who also reacted to some issues raised when a team from Federal Ministry of Transportation visited the state to carry out an in-depth data analysis of the land proposed for the Benue State Cargo Airport project said that the proposed Benue Cargo airport was on course and would be completed as scheduled 2019.
Tarka disclosed that it would cost the consortium £100 million or N38 billion to complete the Airport in Benue ranging from the arrangement to compensate the communities for the land and the building of the structures, stating that they would fund the project wholly without the state government contributing anything.
According to him, the consortium has directed that data of economic trees and other things that need to be compensated should be taken for adequate consideration.
“The land allocated for the construction of the airport was 5000 hectares and we are hoping that the project would be completed in 2019 and according to specification. With us [consortium] having 85 per cent, while the state government 15 per cent equity’.
Tarka explained that as a Consortium, CDC has viable partners such as Sinohydro Engineering Company reputed to be the largest hydropower company with a 50 per cent stake of global hydropower market, as well as China Railway, No. 3 Engineering Group (CR3) and JDZ Nigeria Limited with world-class construction pedigree.
Despite the varying viewpoints about the projects, what is certain is that by 2019, the Cargo Airport is going to surely serve as major yardstick to measure the performance of the Ortom’s administration.