It is the country’s second busiest aerodrome facility after Entebbe, Uganda’s only international airport. A one-way flight from Entebbe to Arua costs Shs350,000 and takes one hour; significantly lower than the eight hours of a 520km road ride from Kampala to the West Nile regional hub at Shs35,000 or Shs50,000.
Because flights are for the well-to-do, a raging dispute arising out of Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) demand for additional land to expand and upgrade Arua airfield to handle international flights has the poor against the initiative. They fear a land grab.
Ms Deborah Buatru of Kijoro Village says: “How do we leave our land when no agreement on compensation has been made? We are not against development but we need genuine compensation.”
Unlike her, most residents don’t see personal benefits in a bigger aerodrome facility with more frequent international flights. CAA plans to expand the airfield; 105 metres westward and 300 metres eastward toward the Arua-Rhino Camp road. The 1.7 km dirt runaway is to be widened to 30-45 metres and extended to 2.5km. It is this plan which has landlords and tenants in Tanganyika Ward worried. Why?
The predominantly Muslim area has a high population density, meaning evictions for the development will affect a comparably higher number of people. Then as fate would have it, the airfield developers made an unexpected mistake, galvanising residents against CAA. It is alleged they gobbled up prime land belonging to late Buatru, who was a popular head teacher at Ediofe Primary School, and failed to compensate the family.
The family charged and residents, fearful of falling in a similar trap, rallied on their side. And now none of them wants an inch of their land offered to CAA unless the aviation authority pays them upfront but only after resolving the existing land dispute in favour of Buatru’s family.
Five acres of land from the perimeter fence belongs to the family of former President Idi Amin.
Work on a Shs1.5b passenger terminal at the airfield, 4km north of Arua Town, began in 2009 but has since stalled as a result of the conflict. The massive terminal building to handle at least 200 passengers at one go has not been used since its virtual completion last year.
The government began the upgrading works in July 2009 to help boost tourism and regional trade across the borders. But about 600 people affected by the project want compensation for their land and property before their displacement. Now there is a deadlock.
“The affected people are saying unless Buatru’s family is compensated, and CAA commits to compensate before taking their land, they won’t give up,” said Bernard Atiku, a Member of Parliament representing Ayivu, where the airfield is situated. He has been among leaders trying to broker an understanding between CAA and aggrieved residents. According to him, there is some progress.
For instance, Mr Atiku said during their meetings, CAA’s Up-country Airfields Manager Samuel Wonekha said they had been unable to survey and value the land for determination of compensation claims ostensibly because the chief government valuer had retired. With a replacement in office, the Authority hopes to fast-track the exercise.
People in Arua have a sentimental attachment to the airfield because it was established by former President Idi Amin, a son of the soil. Put another way, it is to them his shining legacy. Amin reportedly procured Israelis to build an international airport in Arua, but fell out with them shortly afterward, stalling the works. A 2006 government financial allocation to upgrade the airfield to international standards was reportedly diverted to improve Kasese airfield ahead of the visit of UK’s royal household which was in the country in 2007 to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The present standoff has frustrated some residents, both farmers and political leaders. Many wish the matter is resolved faster so upgrading --- which involves a new terminal building, construction and surfacing of a longer runway and installation of modern aviation gadgets --- is expedited to enable the facility handle international flights.
The terminal building is up but not equipped.
Arua presents lucrative opportunities---both by road and air --- for the enterprising owing to its border proximity to both South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Its central location in the Great Lakes region has turned the airfield into an outpost for re-fueling aircrafts on counter-LRA operations in the DRC, South Sudan and Central African Republic.
For instance, the UPDF, UN, private planes on regional missions presently land and re-fuel at the airfield, meaning many such guests are already contributing to the growth of the local economy when they spend in Arua Town.
The airfield was the tactical military base during Operation Lightning Thunder in 2008 that helped UPDF flush LRA rebels out of Garamba lair. But the hold up of development is irritating some. “I am unable to supply my customers in China on time because of delays I incur between Arua and Entebbe. It would be a big advantage for us if Arua was an international Airport,” says Stanley Dradria, an exporter of pigs to China.
The other millstone is that even when Arua is closer to DRC, Sudan and South Sudan, anyone in the district intending to travel to the neighbouring countries by air has to first fly south to Entebbe only to board a plane and head via Arua to the northern destinations, including Europe. Such back-and-forth trips are expensive, time-wasting and unnecessary, according to Obongi MP Hassan Kaps Fungaroo. He said: “Why should I first have to travel to Entebbe when I’m going to Juba? I think these injustices to the people of this region is too much.”
During the ground breaking in 2009, Dr Rama Mukuza, the executive director of CAA, said the upgrading would promote tourism and boost business within one year of completion. “We need this land urgently. We want the airport to serve as a tourism and commercial centre for East and Central Africa as well as a point for international entry and exit,” Dr Mukuza said. The gods, it appears, have been reluctant to smile on his plea and the region’s development.