Asaba Airport: Prayer for Uduaghan, by Ken Ugbechie 

Asaba Airport: Prayer for Uduaghan, by Ken Ugbechie 

Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan

Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan, a medical doctor, was governor of Delta State for two terms, 2007-2015. Well over eight years after he left office, prayers are still said on his behalf. Last Wednesday, April 10, about 9am, Mama Odera, as she warmly introduced herself, was full of praise and fervent prayer for Uduaghan. Mama Odera (whom I reckon to be a septuagenarian) and I shared a space aboard a 7.30am Aero flight from Lagos to Asaba. A painless, barely one-hour flight which kept to schedule. Mama was chatty all through the flight. From her looks, you could tell she has seen glorious days in her life. She was also very eager to meet her people who had driven from her homestead in Onitsha, Anambra state to pick her from the airport. She had arrived in Nigeria the evening of the previous day from her London station. A frequent visitor to her country of birth, but a conspiracy of health challenges and other issues of life kept her away from Nigeria for over a decade. The last time she ever visited Nigeria was in 2010 and the drudgery of getting a flight to Enugu or Owerri from Lagos before connecting with her people in Onitsha was not a fancy to anticipate with excitement. From her account, she had read that Asaba, which is a stone’s throw to her Onitsha home, now has an airport. Yet, due largely to ill-health, she was kept away from Nigeria for a long time. While booking her flight, she was told that a Lagos to Asaba flight on Wednesday morning will ensure she gets to her Nigerian residence in Onitsha before midday. How wonderful that would be!

 And just before 9am on Wednesday, we were already picking our luggage at the arrival belt in Asaba International airport. You could, therefore, imagine her excitement that morning. When really was this airport built, who built it, government? The questions came in torrents. Another passenger waiting for his luggage volunteered answers. It was built by Delta state government, he offered to quell Mama’s curiousity. It was at that point that I tried to break it down for our zesty companion. The airport was built in 2011 by the then governor, Dr. Uduaghan. Ever since, it has served both Delta state and contiguous states. It was at that point that she burst into a spasm of prayers for Uduaghan. She took us through a brief history of Asaba and how they used to cross from Onitsha to Asaba in those days by canoe across the River Niger. That was before she left the country for the United Kingdom where fortune favoured her.

Asaba was the capital of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. It was home to the then prestigious Royal Niger Company (which morphed to UAC). Asaba was an international trade centre, hosting white men who crossed seas and rivers to trade in Nigeria. It was also the epicentre of the bloody Nigerian civil war. Asaba was the theatre of that carefully choreographed pogrom in which the Nigerian troops tricked the natives and lured them to the valley of death. Asaba still bears the scars of that mindless killing of the innocents.

With such history as the capital of a Protectorate and later state capital, you would expect Asaba to be glowing as an epitome of urban splendour. Wrong! Asaba was left to lapse into a glorified town. Successive military governments since 1991 when Delta was created merely used Asaba as an address, nothing more. One of the drawbacks of military rule was the inability of military rulers from the centre to the sub-nationals to envision and create urban centres out of the many towns that dot the various states. Asaba suffered from such leadership stasis until the rebirth of democracy in 1999. It remained largely a town only recognized as the state capital without the urban dash and splash that make a capital city worthy of its status. It was not until Uduaghan’s era that vestiges of urban renewal began to manifest in Asaba which is not only the state capital but the gateway to the south east.

Asaba as a former capital of a Protectorate deserves more than it’s getting from the Nigerian government. With a near-zero federal presence, Asaba should not just be a sour reminder of the pogrom that happened in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970; it should be an emblem of modernity and a beneficiary of the reconstruction initiatives of the Nigerian government after the war. Uduaghan started that reconstruction during his tenure. Through him and with him, Asaba began to experience infrastructural makeover. Siting an airport in Asaba was one of such symbols of modernity that justifies the status of Asaba as a former capital of a Protectorate and a current capital of a state. Uduaghan deserves God’s mercy and goodness as invoked by Mama Odera for building an airport in Asaba. It’s a creamer on the leadership he brought to bear on the state; a leadership that spread development across the three senatorial zones, across communities. Uduaghan’s leadership never submitted itself to the dictates of ethnicity. He was not driven by the crude vagaries of clannish politics and cliquish loyalty. He was loyal to the state. He spread development across the state, ignoring the inglorious counsel of a few merchants of bigotry who opposed Asaba as state capital and the siting of an airport in the city.

While I join Mama Odera to say God bless Uduaghan for giving Asaba an airport, it is pertinent to counsel the incumbent governor, Sheriff Oborevwori, and any other government to think Delta as a mixed community of people of diverse tongues and persuasions. Uduaghan spread development across the state without recourse to ethnic configuration. His successor, Ifeanyi Okowa, followed suit. The end-point is a vastly transforming Delta with hitherto backwater communities turning into modern towns with relevant infrastructure.

Any leader worthy of honour must think the people first, before self. In choosing Asaba above his own community or local government for the airport, Uduaghan demonstrated sacrificial, people-driven leadership. Today, the airport serves not only Delta state, it comes handy for the Likes of Mama Odera and others from neighbouring states. It has given Asaba the veneer of a capital city, the lustre of a former capital of a Protectorate and the allure of modernity. Uduaghan has long left office, but this airport which he planted in Asaba against the wishes of some ethnic bigots will always speak for him. It will always shut the mouth of even his most acerbic critics. I join Mama Odera to say, God bless Uduaghan.

First published in Sunday Sun