Parroted as the man who owns Gatwick and former adviser to the United States President Donald Trump, an iconic investor was in town. His visit was fortuitous but nonetheless memorable. He had come to bury his equally well-decorated late father, Nigeria’s first professor of medicine, Theophilus Oladipo Ogunlesi, who passed on a little shy of his centennial birthday. Our August visitor had just performed the ritual of dust-to-dust and decided to breeze into the complex housing Nigeria’s avant-garde international agro-cargo airport.
Time-check: 6:07pm. On hand to receive him was the Governor of the State, Prince Dapo Abiodun and a retinue of his aides – commissioners, advisers, senior special assistants and yours truly.
From a sinecure Range Rover that snaked in through the Ilishan end of the road emerged the debonair lawyer and innovative investment banker. Welcome, Adebayo (better known as Bayo) Ogunlesi. In private employment, he was known to have brokered deals by arranging financing for $20 billion worth of industrial projects in a career that spanned over 20 years with Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB). He made other daring efforts at the bank. Many of his clients were governments and firms developing energy resources in emerging markets. In 2002 Ogunlesi became the head of CSFB’s global investment banking division with 1,200 bankers and $2.8 billion in assets under his supervision.
But, he is by far more famous for his exploits as chairman and managing partner of the private equity firm, Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), with multi-billion dollar global investments across sectors like transport, natural resource and power generation with company’s assets including seaports, freight, rail facilities, midstream natural resources and power generation businesses. The icing on the cake and raison d’être for calling on us this evening was his stake in the aviation industry. His company is the owner of five international airports in First World countries, including the London City Airport, Edinburgh Airport and Gatwick Airport.
A proud Remo man and illustrious son of Ogun State, Bayo Ogunlesi accompanied by his brother, Folabi, a professor and clinician-scientist were met by the State Government team. As Governor Dapo Abiodun thrust his hands in greeting, the legendary financier enthused: “You mean this place was put together under two years? That is unbelievable. That is a rare feat in the history of aviation globally!”
Going down memory lane, Prince Abiodun narrated the history behind the airport that was conceived 17 years ago but remained inchoate – what he calls PowerPoint project – until two years ago.
“It was becoming a pipedream but we are breathed life into it. We are actually transforming this space that was once a refuse dump site into an aerotropolis. This is unique and that explains the pace of project execution, and quality of delivery because we believe in public-private sector-driven investment initiatives and there are waiting markets to be served,” Gov. Abiodun enthused.
Abiodun added that already there is a Special Agro Processing Zone project that has been flagged off with commitment of a $400 million (out of $800million), sited at the Agro-Cargo Airport, to be executed by the state government in partnership with Arise Integrated Industrial Platforms. According to the governor, the project would be completed in another 12 months.
“We are not just building an airport; we are building an aerotropolis – an airport city. Ours is an investment hub for businesses, besides cargo and passenger air transport. Already, a lot of agencies of government and private sectors are scrambling to be here. There will be an international agro-processing centre. We have established with the African Development Bank (AfDB), a world-class agro testing centre in Sagamu, to stimulate the standardisation of farm produce export from Africa and there a large scale aircraft maintenance, repair and operations company that has approached us to commence business,” Abiodun further retorted.
Indeed, the focus of the airport is more on agro-export as a potential non-oil mainstay of the economy. Nigeria is indeed blessed with year-round arable food crops that are now equivalent to crude oil in the global market. Already, no fewer than 22 non-oil products have been pencilled down in the new export promotion programme of the Federal Government and Ogun State has seized the initiative as part of the zero-oil plan currently being implemented by the Nigeria Export Promotion Council in collaboration with the private sector, which is estimated to be worth over $150 billion in yearly export value at full capacity.
Among the products are palm oil, cashew, cocoa, soya beans, rubber, rice, petrochemical, leather, ginger, cotton and Shea butter, tomato, banana and plantain, cassava, cowpeas, and spices, some of which are cultivated in the region.
As the conversation continued, amidst suspense and surprise, Ogunlesi requested a facility tour of the ambitious project, sitting on 5000 hectares of land in the agrarian community of Ilisan in the Ikenne Local Government Area of the state and industrial hub of the South-west region. Ensconced in the passenger’s seat of the Governor’s staff car, Prince Abiodun, like the lead marketer for the project narrated to Ogunlesi the business model of the Agro-cargo Airport and was overheard saying: “We took the bull by the horn to revive this dream and keep the vision of Ogun First alive.”
From the apron of the airport, the iconoclastic investor saw the expansive 3.8km runway that is 95 per cent ready, the ongoing work on the five-storey control tower, administrative building and fire station, with the twin terminals for cargo and passenger. Barring any shift in timelines, the multi-billion-naira facility, he was told, will hold one of the fastest-built airport records in the country – that is, about less than 24 months from start to finish.
Construction started here in late October 2021. The State government said that the new facility promises far more to the local and regional economy despite viability concerns. Abiodun’s Commissioner for Works and Infrastructure, Ade Akinsanya, was handy to explain the engineering details.
“The strategic location of the Class E facility was strategic to its economic goals. On the west-end of the airport is the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, while the Sagamu–Benin Expressway is on the south. That is central to the entire region. Note that Lagos is too crowded as it is. The cargo operators are not having a good time; the passengers also are complaining. So, this will be a relief to everyone. Passengers can land here and be in Lagos within 30 minutes and those going to the east, they can land here and be anywhere within a few hours. So, the basis for viability is its best location and it will be a big relief for Lagos,” Akinsanya said.
He said further that the runway was built to land wide-body aircraft models like Airbus 350 and Boeing 777, with an apron wide enough to accommodate four aircraft at a go.
“Right now, the runway is ready. We have had a couple of test flights for both commercial and private aircraft. I don’t think any airport can rival it anywhere within this country and the facility is unique. The standards are world-class. The terminals – one for passengers and the other for cargo – are a hybrid of what they have in Morocco and a bit of Paris, in France. It is a work of art. The same thing also with the control tower – it is something unique,” Akinsanya said to the amazement of the home-comer. The team, Akinsanya quipped, learnt valuable lessons from the chaotic Lagos Airport, therefore, opening six access routes into the new facility, to which an unusually patriotic Ogunlesi jokingly interjected: “San Francisco where you (Akinsanya) lived may be going under, not our Lagos and Ogun State!” Akinsanya earned his epaulets as a resourceful engineer in the US city.
As the inspection came to a close and darkness and showers of rain drizzled, Ogunlesi shared his thoughts saying: “This is no doubt the fastest airport to be constructed anywhere in the world. The place is fantastic. I was telling the governor that I have never heard of any airport constructed so fast. In fact, when he told me, I had to bow because I have never heard of an airport built in two years and the concept, the idea, the location and the strategic nature of this airport are fantastic.
“These are exactly the things we need in Nigeria; this is what will take Nigeria forward to the next century and beyond. I am ecstatic because as the governor mentioned, the government’s role is to facilitate the development of the airport; the government has no interest in running airports. There are people whose businesses are to run airports; so, we get it built, we get it financed,” he said.
Ogunlesi said the airport built to international standard is capable of taking any size of plane, noting: “The governor said once we get it built, we will find somebody who is in the business of running airport to come and manage it professionally and by the way, they will pay taxes to the government. So that will be good, that is the way things should be done.
“Think about the strategic location, right in the middle of Ogun State with access to two critical super highways. Think about all of the industrial facilities that can be built around this airport, and all the jobs that will be created. I think Mr. Governor is a visionary.”
As he waved to go, Ogunlesi made a promise: “When next I come home, my plane will land here instead of MMA”, in reference to the busiest airport in the country – the Murtala Muhammad Airport in Lagos.
*Somorin is the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Dapo Abiodu.