Controversy: Insight into the making of N120Bn Bayelsa International Airport


Since the Bayelsa State International Cargo Airport project commenced, it has generated a lot of controversy between some stakeholders like the Bayelsa State Chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC) on one side and the administration of Governor Henry Seriake Dickson.

After several failed promises to invite President Muhammadu Buhari to commission the project, some skeptics were silenced by the arrival of the governor on the inaugural flight which landed at the airport on February 14, 2019 from Lagos.

Somehow, there was renewed optimism over the commissioning of the largest single project ever embarked upon by the Restoration Government, albeit, it was short lived due to several developments that were not envisaged.

The project had been a running issue between the Minister of State for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Heineken Lokpobiri and Governor Dickson after the former accused the latter of wasting N120Bn of the state resources on the project.

Dickson, through his Special Adviser on Media, Fidelis Soriwei, said his administration spent N60 billion and even then, the amount was N20 billion higher than the initial projected cost of N40 billion.

As the battle raged on, the government did not at any time offer the people any explanations on why the cost of the project rose by 50 percent and the project remained an issue due to the hype it generated as a result of activities of government information managers and the peoples quest for more information on the actual state of the project.

There is no doubt that Governor Dickson had the best of intentions in embarking on and continuing with the gigantic project even after the Federal Government reneged on its initial understanding to build the control tower and terminal buildings.

Findings revealed that to build an airport and get it completed for commissioning and use was not child’s play as much of the job entailed getting several levels of approval from several regulatory agencies, and in this case, an approval from an international regulatory agency.

One of the simplest and easiest parts of the entire project is the location of the airport itself; after choosing a suitable location, the next stage involves a multiagency collaboration and consultation to ensure that every aspect of the project meets the laid down standards for such projects.

Recall that the present location was first chosen by late Diepreye Alamieyeseigha while he was governor; when former governor, Timipre Sylva came in, he relocated the airport to somewhere off the East-West Road so that it could serve both Imo and Delta states when completed.

Several billions of Naira were spent in site clearing, feasibilities and sand filling before Governor Dickson came in and took the project to the initial location off the Tombia-Amassoma Road earlier chosen by Alamieyeseigha.

The agencies include the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), Nigerian Airspace Management Authority (NAMA) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Without the approvals emanating from all the agencies named above, commissioning could not be done; and to get their approval meant that every single facility to be installed, activities to be carried out, size of the runway and detailed manpower needs must first be set out in a designed airport manual and implemented to the letter.

For the Bayelsa International Cargo Airport, such a manual was ostensibly not there due to lack of relevant competence, experience and expertise on the part of the consultant and government officials who were overseeing the job.

One serious issue was that other manuals are supposed to be contained in the designed airport manual including the control tower manual, fire bay manual and other operational manuals for every activity to be carried out in the airport.

Now, for an international cargo airport, there ought to be a manual for cargo handling and types of facilities on ground for cargo handling and cargo reception including warehouses to house wet cargo, dry cargo and equipment among other things based on the type of cargo the airport would handle.

The designed airport manual also contains the size of the apron, slope of the apron and direction of the slope of the apron with due regard and consideration to the position of the terminal building.

Aside the above, the airport manual also includes the runway lighting system and category of the runway lighting system and various instrument landing systems required in the runway and their categories.

The visibility monitoring and reporting system of the airport also forms an integral part of the airport manual as well as the exit points required for the operation of the runway, which connects the taxiway: the types and design of exit points are important considering the activities of the runway and weight of the aircraft.

Upon the development of the designed airport manual, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) was to duly approve it; this step is so important as obtaining this approval by and large is deemed to constitute completion of about 15 percent of the project.

Every contractor handling any aspect of the project was expected to carry out his work in line with the designed airport manual approved by NCAA, but in the case of the Bayelsa International Cargo Airport, that was not done thereby necessitating delay caused by alterations, upgrade and redesign, which are uncalled for.

We learnt that to get the airport project done based on the above timelines and cost schedule was extremely difficult, hence the ‘cargo’ was dropped from the name of the airport and it is now simply known as Bayelsa International Airport.

Even now, it is questionable to give the airport an ‘international’ status based on the height of the control tower at four storeys as against nine storeys and the size of the terminal building – whether both facilities are ‘temporary’ is immaterial.

The temporary control tower does not meet the international standard, that is the International Civil Aviation Organisation ( ICAO) approval, and so, no international flights can land on the airport until the regulatory agency gives its approval.

It is crucial due the casualties that are usually associated with air travel hence ICAO is serious in the scrutiny of the details and design of the control tower, the terminal building, relation of the apron to the terminal building and the runway lighting system as well taxiway lighting system.

Until these are in place, the airport could at best be used for daytime local flights as no reasonable airline would risk operating flights to and from the Bayelsa International Airport until every facility is in place to allay the fears of the airlines and travelers.

When the Federal Government reneged on its part of the project in constructing a building and erecting a control tower, the state government went ahead to build the temporary terminal building and erect the temporary control tower: this may sound good in the eyes of some, but by safety standards, the control tower is risky.

Governor Dickson took great risk in coming into the state in the inaugural flight and the sacking of the first consultant is strong proof, but all those associated with the shoddy work with has delayed the project at the expense of public monies ought to receive some reprimand to serve as deterrent to others.

From indications, it would be a serious race for the present administration to complete the project based on two important issues: one is the financial outlay, which is in the region of billions and the sheer size of work that must still be done to give the airport a truly international status.

There are also several lessons from the myriad of issues associated with the project that present administration and future ones should learn in order to ensure that projects are standardized and are constructed according to the required specifications and timelines.

This presupposes that responsibilities that are technical in nature and have to do with mega projects should not be given based on political patronage, but should reflect competence, experience and expertise for the sake of the future of the state.

It is clear that at the time the state government was courting President Buhari to commission the airport, the project was simply not ready for commissioning as those who were in charge were not knowledgable about the specific requirements of the project.