Global Policy Forum

That's No Airport. In Nigeria, It's a Grand Illusion.


By Norimitsu Onishi

New York Times
May 26, 1999
Subi, Nigeria -- Palms swaying deferentially before him, J.R. Udofia of Shell Petroleum strolled onto the tarmac to show off his company's new $30 million project.

Here was the runway, smooth, unblemished, open only a couple of weeks, far prettier than most aging runways across this West African country. There was Shell's twin-engine airplane, being fueled and loaded with luggage on a recent Sunday morning, ready to whisk away Udofia, the oil company's general manager in the western part of the Niger Delta. Here was Udofia, like a proud father beaming and avidly accepting compliments on a job well done on the new airport.

"Please," Udofia said, "this is an airstrip."

Somehow it was a surprise to hear the executive of a company that had just spent millions clearing bush in the Niger Delta to build a runway, roads and buildings insist on this humble term, airstrip. Commercial and government planes, not only those belonging to Shell, will fly in and out to get to nearby Warri, one of the two oil centers in Nigeria.

So why not call it an airport?

Only the federal government can build airports; everybody else must be content with building airstrips, which have shorter runways for smaller aircraft. So the Osubi Airstrip, named after the village next door, has a runway that is officially shorter than the 1.24 miles that would transform it into an airport.

"It is officially a 1.8-kilometer runway," or 1.1 mile, Udofia said, "and based on that, the government gave us permission to build an airstrip."

Underline "officially." For at the beginning and end of the runway are so-called stop-ways, each measuring 492 feet and pushing the length of the entire surface to 1.3 miles -- 328 feet beyond the limit. "It is the federal government that can build airports," Udofia said with the indulgent air of a teacher instructing a slow pupil. "So in spite of how it is, it is still an airstrip, because the official length is 1.8 kilometers."

Udofia smiled, a smile that conveyed the certainty gained from years of experience that the impossible is often possible in Nigeria, so long as certain illusions are maintained. Illusions were necessary in a country where the federal government had grown so corrupt over the years, so inept at providing the basic services for its 110 million people, that individuals and businesses began fending for themselves.

The federal government first drew plans to build an airport here in the late 1970s, but got nowhere. The president then was a general named Olusegun Obasanjo, the same man who won the recent elections and who is to take over as head of the new civilian government in a ceremony in the capital, Abuja, on May 29.

For the new president, the hardest task might be to persuade restive Nigerians that their government can accomplish the simplest tasks -- that instead of pocketing the billions of dollars a year in oil revenues, the federal government will use the money to rebuild roads, bridges, schools, a small airport, or put up traffic signs.

"Take Care. Dense Traffic," warns one of many green traffic signs in Warri. The message is enough to make a passer-by believe that a particularly benevolent and nurturing government is behind it -- until the eye wanders to the bottom right-hand corner, where a yellow symbol in the shape of a clamshell reveals that the sign was put up by the oil giant.

Indeed, all the traffic signs in Warri were put up by Shell and the other Western oil companies. In the absence of government, the companies have increasingly been providing nontraditional services in the Niger Delta, the source of almost all of Nigeria's crude oil.

In the hands of the federal government, plans to build the airport here had languished over the last two decades in a mix of neglect and corruption, said oil executives and other businessmen in Warri.

Meanwhile, people coming in and out of Warri continued to use the old airstrip, in a congested part of the city. Its runway was so short that whenever a plane took off or landed, the authorities had to close off an adjacent road to traffic so that a passing car would not be clipped.

Finding it harder and harder to conduct business with the old airstrip, Shell finally decided to build one on its own two years ago, Udofia said. And so Osubi Airstrip was opened to all flights with a ceremony two months ago, although a permanent terminal building, helipads and lighting to permit nighttime flights are still under construction. Shell, which will operate the installation, expects to recover the construction costs through landing fees over five years.

Half a mile from Osubi Airstrip, in the heart of the village of Osubi, people were still talking about the new project.

Peter Morodio, at 98 the oldest man in the village, remembered how the initial plans to build the airport had filled Osubi with great expectations. Delays, and even rumors that the location had been moved to another village, had kept Osubi on edge for two decades, he said.

But the airport was finally here and all the anxieties were forgotten in this village of yam farmers, whose one paved road was built by Shell. Wilson Jire, 72, even expressed greater ambitions. With Osubi Airstrip's opening, factories would gravitate to the area, Jire predicted, providing jobs for jobless youths. Restaurants would open. Someone would surely build a hotel.

"We hope for a government hotel -- no, a Shell hotel, not government," Jire said, laughing at his own mistake. "government is nowhere."

Milling around concrete market stalls recently built by Shell, younger residents of Osubi recalled with pride the first time they had visited Osubi Airstrip and referred to it as "our" airport.

Venture Esi, 36, was born in Osubi but left for Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, to study electrical engineering and eventually worked there. But after hearing that ground had been broken on the long-promised airport, Esi returned to Osubi two years ago with great hope.

"It ties us to the world!" Esi said of Osubi Airstrip. "Our name will be known all over the world!"

Perhaps Esi was overreaching. Surely the world would be a lot to ask for, particularly in a town with no airport but a mere airstrip with a 1.8-kilometer runway.


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