Among the 25 moribund companies recently put up for sale by the Benue State Government is the Makurdi International Sheraton Hotel, originally conceived at the twilight of the military administration of Group Captain Bayo Lawal in 1979.
Our correspondent reports that the civilian administration of the late Governor Aper Aku, which succeeded Lawal on October 1 of that same year, immediately set out to breathe life into the gigantic project when it moved from paperwork into the construction of the edifice, standing tall today behind the Government House in Makurdi.
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The project, also situated adjacent to the Benue State House of Assembly, overlooking the River Benue from its rearview as gathered, was scheduled to have become fully operational in early 1984 following the contractor’s proficiency in handling the job under the consultant architect, the late Jon Uan.
However, the dream of the highly-rated hospitality facility intended to boost tourist attraction to the Food Basket state, could not come to fruition as intended, occasioned by another military interception led by the then General Muhammadu Buhari, which toppled the civilian government of Aku in December 1983, thereby forcing the project to a halt.
By this time, it was learnt that only N800,000 was required to complete the 9-storey building, which location provides a beautiful aerial view of Makurdi’s North Bank’s suburb before the contract was terminated by the succeeding military regime.
Sadly, nothing else was done by successive governments, who allegedly abandoned the development of the project until the coming of ex-Governor Gabriel Suswam, who worked to ensure the realisation of the dream project when his administration acted in several ways to transform Makurdi city itself from the glorified rural status to an urban centre befitting a state capital.
The Suswam-led government was believed to have handed the project to a private investing firm, headed by David Adorogba, a lawyer, under a contractual agreement to complete and run the hotel in order to generate income for the state.
The Governor Samuel Ortom administration had on July 6 this year, inaugurated the reconstituted Benue State Council on Privatisation and Commercialisation of State Enterprises for the purpose of revitalising ailing industries in the state, including the hotel. The state government advanced several reasons for the abysmal performance and collateral failure of the affected properties.
The management of the hotel, however, according to findings since the development, had continued to dialogue with the state government for more time to actualise the project.
A supervisor at the hotel, Odey Egbodo, told our correspondent that although the property was built by the Benue State Government, the finishing aspect of the structure, like installation of critical facilities was done by the investors.
Egbodo said his principal had committed huge resources into the project to bring it to the current level since taking over the facility for more than seven years ago, and it would require more time from the government to put the place to work effectively.
“We (investors) intend to make the hotel a tourist attraction, with the advantage of a boat cruise. We are looking for partners. We have furnished the facility with state-of-the-art equipment, up to the fourth floor. It is a nine-storey building and renovation has gone up to that point.
“There are altogether 308 rooms in the hotel. Some of the things left to be done include painting. The water cistern and interior furnishing need to be in order. It is quite a huge project,” he said.
The supervisor explained that over the years, the present management had stayed to tidy up the loose ends of the facility and imported some equipment, which they are losing to rust, vandalism and outdated technology.
He added, “One of our main challenges over these years, and even now, is the various government’s policies, which in no small ways frustrate partnership. We invited foreign partners recently and had high hopes, only for government to now put it (property) up for sale.
“Encroachment on part of the land has also posed a challenge. The spaces along the river banks, which were intended to be used for recreational activities for tourist delights, are being encroached on by people.”
Egbodo expressed optimism that the project, when fully operational, would reduce unemployment of youths in the street, promote tourist attraction and generate income.
He appealed that instead of selling, the state government should come up with a plan to encourage the management, who, in his estimation, has good intention for the project to surmount any perceived difficulty in order to make the dream a reality.
“For now, we are just renovating. We are doing nothing much to generate income yet, except that people occasionally rent the halls, which helps us to cut grasses and trim flowers.
“We can generate a lot of money when the project is completed. Our target is to ensure that this project becomes functional. It is just that certain clauses in the contractual document drives away partners, but they have been coming.
“Insecurity in the state as well may have contributed to chase partners away. We have, however, targeted this December for partners to come in; and we surely will deliver,” he maintained.
Similarly, a young woman simply identified as Esther, who was at the facility to inspect the outdoor spaces for a youth programme, urged the state government to allow the present management run the affairs of the facility as they may have invested much money into the project.
Esther described the hotel as Benue’s untapped goldmine capable of raking multiple incomes into the state’s coffers when put to use.
For Nathaniel Ikyur, the Benue State Government continues to lose out as long as the facility remains uncompleted and unable to function in line with its founders’ dreams.
Ikyur, the spokesman of Governor Ortom stated, “The Makurdi International Hotel project was the brainchild of the Benue Hotels Board. But for lack of finance, this project was transferred to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives as a state government project. It was conceived on the eve of the Group Captain Bayo Lawal government.
“The haste in which the project was conceived left a lot of yawning gaps with questions. The mock foundation ceremony was hurriedly laid on September 20, 1979, barely 10 days to the expiration of Lawal’s tenure as the country returned to democratic rule on October 1, 1979.
“When Aku took over, he set out to ascertain government’s involvement and clear doubts where necessary, on duties by government officials in the award and planning of the project. The Aku administration was keen on the project. It believed it would boost tourism industry in the state.
“The ill wind against the success of the hotel project continued even after Aku’s government was sacked in 1983. But before the military struck on December 31, 1983, the Benue State Government had approached the federal government on waivers for the items imported for the hotel.
“The federal government agreed, and so Benue State was not to pay anything. Unfortunately, when Gen Kpera came in, the Buhari administration insisted that custom duties must be paid. Kpera had a choice, either to get the federal government and seek for a review of the approval for the waiver or pay the N2 million that was outstanding and needed to be paid. Kpera would do neither. Because of this, those items that were already imported for the furnishing of the hotel were sold at the port at very ridiculous prices. At the end, it was the Benue State Government that lost. And the loss has continued.”
Meanwhile, a principal special assistant to the governor on culture and tourism, Tahav Agerzua, believes that the search for an investor should not be compromised so that the project will see the light of the day.
“There is no doubt that if the Makurdi Sheraton Hotel was operational, the state would have derived enormous economic benefits.
“The hospitality outfit would have employed hundreds who would have been earning their livelihood with the attendant multiplier effect, and hundreds off the streets, with most of them taking care of others.
“From the foregoing, the losses that have accrued to the state government cannot be quantified.
“The skeletal services the hotel is providing at the moment attract weddings and other social activities weekly, an indication of the viability of the facility. The search for an investor who would complete the project should be stepped up,” Agerzua said.
On his part, the Commissioner for Industries and Cooperatives, Merga Kachina, a lawyer, told our correspondent in Makurdi that the process of involving a new investor under fresh agreement was ongoing.
Kachina said, “The truth is that the hotel is among some of the state enterprises put up for acquisition and commercialisation. The process is still ongoing and members of the public have been invited to express their interest.
“Those who are interested to acquire the property were invited through a newspaper advert; and there was an extension for one month, which will expire on November 12 (next week). So the timeline for expression of interest is still there.
“The investor, who was in possession of the property, is also given the right of first refusal, but it is also open to members of the public. It is going to be through a competitive bidding. So until we get to that stage, we will know who will pick it, whether a new or the old investor, as well as on what terms.”