On 11th April 2017 Anambra State Governor, Willie Obiano, launched the Umueri Cargo Airport project, saying the development, costing more than USD 2 billion, would be an ‘Airport City’, a new airport with two runways, aviation fuel and aircraft maintenance facilities, airport hotel, business park and international convention centre .
The project, also referred to as Anambra Airport City, soon attracted criticism. In June 2017 former Minister of Aviation, Chief Osita Chidoka said the cost of - expected to be financed by a Chinese firm, Sinoking Enterprises Investment, Orient Petroleum (based in Anambra State) and the Anambra State government – was too high, four-time higher in comparison to larger airport projects that had cost USD500 million. Chidoka raised concerns over debts to China asking: “Anambra government alone invited Chinese to build airport for $2.2 billion. How much will it be paying at that amount?” He said there was no traffic study or passenger data for the proposed airport and questioned plans for aviation fuel facilities as there was no jet fuel refining capacity in the vicinity.
On 22nd June 2017 it was reported that the community of Umueri, a town north of the site, had asked the state government to pay full compensation and fulfil other conditions before discussing further land acquisition for the Airport City. During a visit by members of the Anambra State Land Acquisition Committee the traditional community ruler of Umueri, His Royal Majesty Igwe Ben Emeka Iluone, Okebo II expressed gratitude to the State Governor for choosing Umueri to site the project but was concerned that the three-part compensation plan had only partially been executed. He urged the committee to prevail on the surveyor, who had been furnished with banking details, to urgently complete transactions to make payments to Umueri landowners. He said that as soon as the government completed the compensation plan the Umueri community would be willing to discuss the new proposal of further land acquisition for the Airport City. He also appealed for the community to be involved in negotiations with neighbouring communities so that traditional boundaries could be respected. A legal practitioner, Sam Umeadi, urged the State Government to produce a map of the land allocated to the airport project by Umueri, saying demarcation of the land so far acquired, on the ground and on paper, should be undertaken and vetted by the Umueri people. Chair of the committee, former Health Minister Dr. Tim Menakaya, assured the community that the government was willing to pay adequate compensation for the land but pointed out that adjoining communities like Nteje and Nsugbe would also have to part with some land for necessary expansion of the project site. He said the airport city, with all the attributes of a city would transform Umueri, hence the need to take more land for the project .
Two years later, in April 2019, the land allocated for the airport had been cleared, but not much work had been done on the site. It was becoming overgrown by bushes and herders grazed cattle there. A farmer working on the project site said “We have not seen anything. Since 2017, the place has been like this, so some of us who do not have land outside this one, always come to farm on it, pending when work will start”.
Another farmer, from Umueri, said: “Our hopes were raised with this project, and we hoped that our children can get jobs here, and the project would help develop our land, so that even if I decide to sell my land, the price will be good enough for me to take care of my family’s need, but now that airport is not coming, maybe they should have let us have our land. This large expanse of land you see here is not a small thing, to be left to waste for this number of years.”
An access road to the site had been eroded by persistent rainfall and was now only passable on foot. A youth affairs representative of the All Progressives Congress (APC) said the airport project was politically motivated, intending to attract votes in an upcoming election, also alleging that Sinoking Enterprises was a fake company that had long ceased to exist .
Doubts over ‘elusive’ airport project
In March 2020 the Anambra State Elders Council issued a communiqué expressing satisfaction with Anambra Cargo Airport with regard to the pace of the work, internationally reputable contractors, construction delivery within a 15 month deadline, business prospects of the project and completion without a loan. Igbo Renaissance Council issued a statement in response explaining its disagreement with all these claims:
The pace of work was ‘abysmally slow’, the only sign of activity being billboards and clearance of a large expanse of land, making the completion deadline of October 2021 unfeasible;
The government of Anambra state has ‘not been very open’ about issues relating to the contractor, Elite International Investments, and contractual agreements relating to the airport project;
The project was supposed to create 1,200 direct jobs and 3,600 indirect jobs but the employment of local people that was promised had not materialized. Instead people had been thrown out of jobs on land that would have been cultivated but was ‘taken for the elusive airport project’;
Local residents’ whose homes were razed for the project, which they hoped would bring a ‘thriving economic burst’ and job opportunities have been left ‘dejected and depressed with no sign of hope on the horizon’;
Statements that the airport would be completed without a loan were thrown into doubt when Anambra State Government allocated USD16.5 million for the Airport City (Aerotropolis). The project delivery method for the airport had supposedly been awarded on a Build, Operate, Manage & Transfer (BOMT) agreement and the contractor failed to complete the project by the original deadline of April 2020.
Igbo Renaissance Council requested that Anambra Elders Council convene a stakeholders’ forum to ascertain the status of the airport project, stating their determination ‘to ensure that our commonwealth is not frittered away through seemingly, white elephant projects’ .
On 24th July 2020 people of Umuopo, Umuinu and Enuagu kindreds in Umueri called upon the state government to restrict itself to the 729,606 hectares of land it had donated for the cargo airport project. They alleged that some government agents responsible for executing the project had gone beyond the boundary of land donated by the government, to serve their personal gain. A statement endorsed by the Chairmen of the three communities begged Governor Willie Obiano to call the government agents to order. They said: “The people of Enuagu, Umuopu and Unuinu, the major donors, have been thrown into pains and agony because the government agents, saddled with the responsibility of executing the project, have connived among themselves to dispossess us of our remaining portions of land as they have gone far outside the number of hectares agreed upon.” Chairmen and secretaries of Enuagu, Umuopu and Unuinu, who were the original owners of the land, said they were experiencing an orchestrated plan by some government officials to swindle them of their heritage in the name of the airport project and some of them had begun selling plots of land for estate development.
They said: “By extending their hand into other portions of our land, what does the government expect us to survive with as we are just farmers? We have written, we have cried, we have pleaded and we have engaged in all forms of diplomacy to demand that the government restricts itself to the agreed portion of land, all to no avail.
But we refuse to be labeled internally displaced persons simply because we donated our land for the economic development of our nation. We, therefore, demand that Governor Willie Obiano should call his people to order. Our investigation revealed that apart from the aforesaid, some unscrupulous and greedy individuals from Aguleri across Omambala River have the agenda to grab the extra hundreds of hectares of our land and later share it among themselves. In fact, they are annexing our land using the instrumentality of the government.”
In response, the Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr. C. Don Adinuba, said the land acquired for the airport was properly gazetted and the government had not gone beyond the area donated for the project .
Land seizure in Nteje
On 27th July it was reported that residents of Nteje, one of five communities to the south of the airport site, in the Oyi Local Government Area, were suffering from violence meted out by youths who had seized communal land. About two weeks previously a band of youths had ‘unleashed mayhem on the community, sacking villagers from their homes’. The youths said to be sponsored by rich individuals, ‘beat up persons opposed to their indiscriminate sale of the communal land, burning down their homes and injuring many others’. Members of the previously peaceful community said the crisis had ‘brought hunger and famine as they no longer have land for farming’ and ‘they dared no go to their farms anymore for fear of being maimed, while the women among them were raped’.
A source in the community said that communities in the area had been in a protracted land crisis since the announcement of the Anambra Cargo Airport Project: “The price of land has increased in all the communities around the airport project, and since that 2017, we have had a problem. We are a co-host of the airport project and its ancillary services like camps, the dual carriageway, and others. Since the last two years, owing to the appreciation in the cost of properties around the airport project that massive land grabbing in Ifite Nteje by some youths suspected to be sponsored by powerful individuals from the community has intensified, often degenerating into bloodletting.
“We are appealing to the state governor to come to our aid and help us to overcome this violence that has taken over our land because we cannot continue to live in fear of hoodlums who have taken up arms against the community.”
A widow, Janet Okonkwo said: “Because of them, we no longer have land to farm on. I am a farmer and I have to cater to my children, so I joined other women to go to Aguleri, where we hire a plot of land for N5,000 just to farm and feed our families. This is very bad. Our once peaceful community has now been taken over by violence, and anyone who dares to speak is attacked. We want the government to come to our aid.”
Anambra State Government established a panel of inquiry to examine the trouble and punish those responsible. Former President General (PG) of the community Chief David Enuah thanked Governor Obiano for setting up the panel, saying its report would ‘go a long way in unraveling individuals behind the brigandage that reigns in the community’.
In September 2020 it was reported that the crises between the two neighbouring communities over the 729.606 hectares of land acquired for the Cargo Airport continued, with heightened tension among youths that required urgent intervention from government and other stakeholders. Members of the Umueri community alleged that a portion of their land had been encroached upon by the State Government for the airport, and all their efforts to stop the encroachment had been rebuffed. The State Commissioner for Works maintained there was no encroachment on Umueri land and that the government was making use of the original map. A statement from the Umuopo, Umuinu and Enuagu kindreds described the government’s position as untrue and alleged that the government was deliberately making them refugees on their land, by taking away all their lands after having taken the portions agreed upon for the airport project. The statement also claimed: “It is also on record that up till date, there is no Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between our community and the government for such a huge project.”
Farm owners claim their land is beyond the airport boundary
On 14th October 2020 farmland owners and agro-investors near the Anambra Airport site said the state government was trespassing on their property to secure land for the project. A correspondent for The News Chronicle reported that on the morning of this day bulldozers had been stationed at farms located at Ngene Igbokwe stream to demolish farmlands and privately owned agro-investments. Some youths of the Umueri community dispersed the bulldozers.
Ikenna Offor, owner of Offor Farms, a piggery in the affected area, said the stream demarcates the airport boundary and that he had begun the farm in 2015, before the airport project was conceived. He was worried that the government might demolish farm owners' property without giving them notice. He said: “I believe that as a government, you don’t just wake up one day and start constructing things. If facilities such as our farms are going to be affected, the owners of the farms should be informed but as at this moment, we have not been notified officially that our project will be affected. And I wonder, which type of government does that. If we are serious about using the Agricultural sector to address the numerous socio-economic challenges of this country, then this is the kind of situation the government should wade in and redirect whatever they are building even if the land is within the airport area. But the farm is not even in the airport land! When you look at the project I established there, it is a project of vision and government instead of supporting the project, wants to demolish it. That is totally unacceptable.”
Offor appealed for a prompt intervention by the state government and a halt to further trespassing on the property. Three farm workers, Emmanuel Ede, Sarah Akputa and Anthonia Nnabuisi, appealed to the government not to put them out of a job by demolishing the farms. State Commissioner of Works, Marcel Ifejiofor, said they were using an acquisition map given to them by the Ministry of Lands and that acquisition of the land was done years before the farms were established. He stated that the bulldozers arriving on the morning of 14th October had been situated on part of the airport land.
19th October 2020 people of Ifite community protested against alleged
encroachment on their land, saying the Anambra State government had encroached beyond
the portion of land allocated for the airport. They lit a bonfire and blocked
the road to the airport site holding up placards. Some of the placards read:
“We can’t be refugees and IDPs in our own land, Obiano leave our land for us”;
“We’re farmers why collect our land to build housing estate”; “Anambra State
government go to the portion of land given for the airport.” The protestors
described the government’s action as a deliberate attempt to impoverish the
people, who were predominantly farmers. Chairman of Ifite Umueri Community,
Chief Uchenna Ndumuanya, claimed that they had given the government 729.60
hectares for the airport project, but it had taken over 1,901 hectares.