White elephant scams

By Julius Ogar

Abia State, south-east Nigeria is one of 36 States in the federation and the fifth smallest in terms of landmass. But this presumed ‘grandeur’ that goes by the sobriquet: “God’s Own State” has been a victim of trampling political elephants.

They stroll through, gobble up all there is in the field, and leave the state ever worse than they met it. It’s been so for the last 24 years. Does it matter that the state-owned football Club, Enyimba International goes by the alias of ‘the Peoples’ Elephant’? It may be sheer coincidence. No disrespect to the ‘Peoples’ Elephant’, though!

The idiomatic expression of ‘a white elephant project’ alludes to humongous developments that neither serve a purpose, nor have any practical value. A white elephant project is a metaphor for uselessness, for wastage. Even as big-for-nothing, white elephant projects should in obeying the law of averages be a rarity. – Infrequent, unusual, few and far between – not occurring back-to-back as the face-to-face scams they turn out to be. This exceptionality has become common place and Abia State is a sample in the news.

Like the real elephant’s acclaimed memory, citizens of the State always remember that since 1999, Abia is among the States whose former Governors have retired with trailing cases of fraud. And except for Okezie Ikpeazu, the immediate past governor, they all wind up in the hallowed chambers of the senate as ‘distinguished’ personalities.

Recently, Aba, an industrial hub synonymous with business and enterprise – which is also the largest town in Abia State and one of the commercial hubs of the south-east region, has featured repeatedly in media mentions in relation to an airport for which a princely N10 billion was voted and disbursed.

The trouble, however, is that there’s no airport to be seen anywhere on its landscape.This is one of the reasons behind ongoing spat between the incumbent governor, Alex Otti, and his predecessor, Okezie Ikpeazu.

The predecessor and his explainers have offered that Otti is still hurting from previous electoral defeats to be asking about N10 billion which was approved for an airport but deployed to building roads.

Ikpeazu and his lieutenants seem to be saying askance, that roads-for-airport or vice-versa, it doesn’t matter, the money was approved to be spent and has been spent. Period! Unfortunately, this drama is a round robin game often choreographed on a national scale.

There is almost no exception in all the thirty plus six states, where incumbents are not pointing accusing fingers at predecessors and asking for what should be the real balance in the accounts.

The tragedy is when citizens get lost in the suspense and often do not know when plea bargains are entered with non-diligent prosecutors.

The alleged perpetrators of financial crimes and other acts of economic sabotage then live to fight another day, and many quite effortlessly migrate to the next happening turf – one of their favourites of which is the Senate of the Federal Republic.

Crime without punishment and the option of a plea bargain is the reason why white elephant projects are dotting the landscape, with elephantine financial valuation, but adding little or no value to the lives of citizens.

Economically for instance, what are the merits of citing or wanting to cite an airport in Aba? It is difficult to establish any justification if all factors such as environmental, space, health and other hazards are considered.

If priorities and other indices of development matter, there are airports in Owerri, Port-Harcourt, Uyo and Calabar, neighbouring Cities barely half an hour’s drive away on a good day and a good road. There is the Akanu Ibiam International Airport in Enugu also within the same geographical zone.

But every state governor simply wants his own landing strip – which curiously, they habitually want to tag as “international airport”. And the state must build it for them at whatever cost.

At least that spares them the risk of bobbing on the craters of bad roads and getting stuck in the traffic, dirty streets and smelly drains of Aba, Calabar or wherever.

Looking beyond Abia, several other States have also been engaged in the wild goose chase of building airports (and other fancies) in Cities without basic amenities like water and electricity and where there are no good roads, no health, educational, or other social infrastructure that directly impact the lives of citizens.

A case in point: Former Cross River State governor, Liyel Imoke commissioned a 1.1 kilometre monorail to run between Calabar International Convention Centre and the Tinapa Resort – itself a comatose enterprise whose full potential Imoke had failed to activate.

Imoke’s successor, Ben Ayade embarked on the fancy pet project of building a cargo airport in Obudu. Never mind that the airstrip at Bebi, which was supposed to be a service route to the Obudu Ranch Resort through the Margaret Ekpo International Airport in Calabar, is missing in the jungle.In 2014 or thereabouts, Jigawa State, one of the poorest in all indexes of development in north-western Nigeria, commissioned an airport whose commercial viability is to be apologized for.

One of the largest and busiest airports in Nigeria, the Aminu Kano International Airport is in the city of Kano, next door to Jigawa. Prior to this, Saminu Turaki, Jigawa’s first civilian governor had conned the entire nation into believing that Jigawa was Africa’s own ICT Silicon Valley.

Many budding tech-inclined institutions were already planning to set up base stations in Dutse, the state capital. But all that has become hot air.The Ebeano Tunnel in Enugu, with which former Governor, Chimaroke Nnamani regaled the media and other audiences turned out to just be an underpass blown out of proportion financially and by other indices.

On-and-on Nigerians could go with examples of projects visible and invisible, for which huge financial resources remain unaccounted. And we always ask: who did this to us?“Wisdom is profitable…” I can’t recall the entire verse but it feels like adding “in building cottage industries that generate employment and social security for a youthful population like we have in Nigeria”.

It profits no one to keep planning for or setting up airports where there are no roads and no electricity or to set up inland dry ports where there are no rail links or indeed, even products for haulage. That was how we ended with a $16 billion hole in the national treasury spent on electricity, but still running an entire economy on generators. And no one has gone to jail!

Julius writes from Tahir Lane, Abuja.

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