Special INVESTIGATION: Insecurity: Requiem for Owerri Hotels

July 11, (THEWILL) – Last Easter, all the over 90 hotels in Owerri, capital of Imo State, were fully booked.  Patronage was at its peak, such that the word “virtually” would not be applicable. And that is the trend most of the weekends in Owerri – a city that has become Nigeria’s headquarters of the hospitality industry.

However, the hotel business boom in Owerri took a dramatic turn after a spell of COVID-19 restrictions, which struck the industry with a brutal stroke. Then came the EndSARS protest – another upheaval across the country.  In the midst of the recovery mood, insurgency struck.  A deadly phenomenon unknown to the South-East region hit Owerri.  The degree of disruption is unimaginable.  Sadly, it signalled a swift move into economic doldrums, which may take decades to reverse.

A City and Its Anecdotes

Many years before Nigeria gained independence from the British colonial masters, Owerri was the seat of government in what was known as the Owerri Province, which comprised the present day Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Rivers and Bayelsa States. Being an administrative headquarters at the time, Owerri town attracted uncommon attention. This paved the way for the arrival of two dominant Christian denominations, the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which made the town their take-off base leveraging on the presence of Shell Oil Company.

Shell had arrived in Owerri for oil prospecting, which ended abruptly. The company later relocated to Port Harcourt before independence, when its technology was found to be inadequate to strike oil in Iho in present day Ikeduru, Imo State.

The departure of the oil company was also said to have been triggered by the hostile attitude of traditional rulers in the area towards expatriates. But the Dutch company had built solid infrastructure in the form of hospitals, schools and a housing estate, popularly called ‘Shell Camp,’ before it left.

Notwithstanding Shell’s presence and the remarkable influence of the colonial government and the churches, Owerri remained a glorified urban centre.  The people’s carefree lifestyle earned the town the sobriquet, ‘Owerri Ndi egwu’ (Owerri the people of music or entertainment).  This is more evident in the areas of highlife music and folklore.

“When you listen to a song performed in a typical Owerri dialect with guitar, conga drums and maracas accompaniment, you will appreciate the people’s preference for a simple and carefree lifestyle.  But that does not connote laziness.  It only shows the people’s love for a peaceful atmosphere, which could prolong their life span. That is how hotels became the only factories in Owerri,” said Dan Iheakolam, a schoolteacher and resident.

The accommodating nature of the indigenes kept attracting visitors who loved to live in the town, notwithstanding its acute housing deficit.

Until the creation of Imo State in 1976, with Owerri as the capital, it was difficult to tell the difference between the town and a typical rural village. The only tarred roads in the town then were Douglas, Mbaise, Okigwe, Port Harcourt and Works Roads. Beyond Wetheral Road, there was a large expanse of farmland. The arrival of Imo civil servants and their families from Enugu, the then capital of the old East Central State, led to accelerated infrastructure development in Owerri.  As such, the hotel and entertainment industry was revolutionised.

Till date, Owerri remains a place where no productive industry exists.

“The skies of Owerri are always neat,” said Iheakolam, alluding to lack of industrial fumes in the area.  Rather, the city has developed into an engine of entertainment that keeps attracting fun seekers. The trend is higher during weekends and public holidays.

“The more they come, the more hotels are built.  That is the only industry in Imo. Hotel is in every corner, coupled with drinking and other entertainment spots,” said Smart Anyanwu, a furniture expert who works for many of the hotels.

Enter Era of Boom

Owerri is noted for its high density of spacious hotels, high street casinos, production studios and top quality relaxation centres. It is the home to the annual ‘Miss Heartland’ and ‘Miss Adanma’ beauty pageants.

A journalist, Damian Duruiheoma, says, “A cluster of hotels and night clubs around an area known as World Bank is a major attraction to visitors. This also makes the hospitality industry crucial to the economy of Imo State.”

But hotels were not really the mainstay of the state’s economy in the past. Owerri is basically a public service place. It is not known for high economic engagements, unlike the business and commercial hubs of Onitsha, Aba, Nnewi and Enugu.   Evidently, no organic linkage can be identified between hotel boom in the state capital and its traditional low economic activity.  What then is the thing about Owerri that gave birth to the hotel boom and earned it the reputation of being the entertainment capital of Nigeria?

One of the factors is the serene, peaceful atmosphere that, before now, was a major characteristic of the city. It is regarded as a place to “come, rest, go and come again.” Unlike the bubbling life in commercial and business cities of Aba, Onitsha, Nnewi and Port Harcourt, from where most of its visitors come, Owerri is a place of rest. Investigation by THEWILL revealed that insecurity in other towns and cities initially drove large groups of people to Owerri in search of fun in a safe environment. The first set of fun seekers to pioneer such periodic pilgrimages probably believed that the city’s location in the ‘bowel’ of the hinterland protects it from danger and activities of criminals.  Again, the place is not known for high cost of living, relatively speaking.  Its location as a converging point for tourists and fun-seekers from the South-South and other parts of the South-East gives it a territorial advantage.

The influx of visitors, which boosts the hospitality industry, gave a fillip to the activation of tourism potential of the popular Oguta Lake and the Mbari Cultural Centre.  These had become huge sources of revenue for the operators and the government before they were practically destroyed by bad governance and insecurity.

The Chairman of the Imo State Hoteliers Association, Chima Chukwunyere, notes that until recently, the serene nature of the town was conducive to the hospitality business.

“The serenity of the city is a major positive factor. Owerri is quiet and security has been a major advantage, until recently,” he says.

Flights to Owerri are fully booked from Thursdays.  Many newly launched airlines have Owerri on their routes. You must book well in advance during weekends, festivities and public holidays to secure a seat on an aeroplane bound for the city.

Furthermore, many people believe that the major factor attracting people to Owerri, especially during weekends and public holidays, is sex tourism. This is boosted with the existence of several tertiary institutions within and around the state capital whose female students have become abundant ‘raw materials’ to feed the appetites of male visitors. They observe that the existence of these institutions created a huge opportunity for hotels to thrive in the city.

The institutions include the Federal University of Technology, Owerri; Imo State University; Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education; Federal Polytechnic, Nekede; Imo State Polytechnic, Umuagwo; the Schools of Nursing in Owerri and Emekuku, and the Federal College of Land Resoures and Technology.

But some people do not subscribe to the theory that other state capitals have a similar concentration of educational institutions and serene environment, but lack as much attention and patronage as Owerri. For example, Calabar, the Cross River State capital, also known as called ‘Caanan City’ because of its beauty, serene and tranquil nature, also has a concentration of educational institutions within and around it. They include the University of  Calabar; Calabar Polytechnic, Cross River University of Technology, Diamond Polytechnic, School of Nursing, School of Psychiatry Nursing and College of Education.

“Calabar’s coastal location away from the hinterland could shield you from the prying eyes of those you don’t want to see. There must be  something special about this Owerri that pushes people to it every weekend,” Etim Okon, a transporter who plies the Calabar-Onitsha route, says.

Also, Chukwunyere describes Owerri as a place where wealthy people like to come and enjoy themselves.

“There are no industries in Owerri; instead, people come here to enjoy their sweat. The business is booming because people who have made the money prefer to invest it here. They would not want to invest in a place that gives them trouble,” he says.

End of Boom

Insecurity has worsened in the South-East in recent times and Owerri is at the centre of it all.   THEWILL visited over 20 hotels in Owerri and its environs recently.  Findings revealed that the proprietors of the once booming hotels and entertainment centres are now counting their losses.  What used to be “where it is happening” has become where nothing is happening.

Most of the hotels have gymnasiums, swimming pools, night clubs and other recreational facilities.  They are virtually empty now, with some operators contemplating closing them.

“Everyone is afraid. Nobody wants to lose his life in search of entertainment,” a manager in one of the hotels says.

Some of the hotels visited include the following:

The popular Villa Garden Hotel in New Owerri, which used to be a beehive of activities, looked like a deserted place when THEWILL visited penultimate weekend.  The hotel’s 70 rooms, which used to be fully booked between Thursdays and Sundays; or between 60 and 70 per cent full from Monday through Wednesday, were empty.  The rates for the rooms range from N15,000 to N50,000 per night, but the ‘Senatorial’ and  ‘Presidential’ suits go for N70,000 to N100,000 per night, respectively.

“You can see there is no senator or president in any of those rooms,” a worker said, sarcastically.

The highly patronised Rose Life Hotel has 39 rooms, which used to be fully booked from Thursdays through Sundays and up to 60 percent occupancy on weekdays before the crisis, currently enjoys very little patronage.

“You can see the car park; it is empty.  There are no customers here. This has been the trend for about three months now, especially since May,” an official of the hotel told THEWILL.

Pascaline Global Hotel, a 33-room facility on Toronto Road, now records no more than three or five guests at any time. A member of staff, who spoke to THEWILL on the condition of anonymity, disclosed that the rooms used to be fully booked between Thursday and Sunday, and no fewer than 10 guests often checked in between Monday and Wednesday. The rate for the rooms is between N5,000 and N18,000 per night.  The car park was empty during the visit.

Remmy Kings Global Hotel on Owerri/Umuahia Road by Road Safety Junction is a 30-room facility which enjoyed full bookings at weekends before the security crisis.  The hotel now books about five guests on weekends and most times none on other days. He management has already laid off some of the workers.  The cost of accommodation ranges from N5,000 to N8,000 per room/night.  The parking lot had only two cars at the time of the visit.

The story is not different at Explicit Lounge Hotel located at Commercial District G in New Owerri, which used to sell all the rooms at weekends. It now books about five guests and sometimes, none on other days.  The worker who spoke to THEWILL did not disclose the rates for the rooms when she reallised that the reporter was not going to make a booking.

City Cruz Hotel located at Action Layout has 44 rooms that used to be fully booked. Its room-rates are between N18,000 and N48,000 per night on weekends. Hit by low patronage, the hotel now sells between six and 14 rooms. The car park had only three vehicles when THEWILL visited.

The same applies to Harvesters Hotel & Suites in the same neighbourhood (Action Layout) which used to enjoy full patronage.  It has 47 rooms with tariff ranging from N15,000 to N45,000 per room/night.  The story is different now as it barely has five guests at any time, if at all they come.

Zafira Hotels looked deserted when THEWILL visited the 51-room facility located in the heart of the city. It used to be the centre of activities, with the rooms fully booked at weekends and about 80 percent occupancy on week days. Room rates range from N15,000 to N50,000 per night.  The car park was clean and almost empty.

Esbon Hotel, which is located on Toronto Road, by Road Safety Junction, has its fair share of the insecurity-induced lull in business.  Its 31 rooms used to record up to 80 percent occupancy during weekends and 40 percent on other days. Room rates are from N5,000 to N20,000 per night.  The facility is mostly empty, especially during weekends.

High-brow 5-star Rento Hotel located at 40-40 Junction, Area H, New Owerri, used to transfer excess guests to other hotels as the level of patronage before the security crisis was always at its peak.  All the 85 rooms were usually occupied mainly during weekends. “We are now battling with insecurity. The level of patronage has dropped to between 25 and 40 percent now.  Rento is like a ghost area these days,” a female receptionist told THEWILL.

The Raging Haemorrhage

“People are no longer coming to Owerri because of insecurity.  There are many checkpoints where security agents harass people, ask them to come out of their vehicles and raise their hands like captives.  They have their belongings searched or seized.  No one wants to come to Owerri under such a terrible situation,” Chukwunyere said, in a telephone interview.

The Imo Hoteliers Association boss expressed concern over the economy of Imo State, which he described as crumbling due to factors threatening the hospitality industry.  He put the loss suffered by the operators at about N2 billion monthly.  He explained that no hotel would run a generator for only five guests or maintain the same number of workers who are now idle.

According to him, many hotels have begun to lay off their staff, while some proprietors are eager to dispose of their facilities.

“Some of our members have approached me to find buyers for their hotels because the business is no longer profitable and no entrepreneur would want to pay huge taxes or carry heavy overhead when there is no business.

“By 5 pm, the roads are deserted and nobody wants to be seen in the streets.  About 900 hotels and brothels in Owerri are badly affected by insecurity.  These are facilities that were beginning to recover from the COVID-19 restrictions and EndSARS protests last year.”

Apart from operators and direct workers, a large number of indirect employees are also affected.  These include suppliers, transporters and security outfits.  Mr Dan Okwudili, who supplies food items to many hotels in Owerri, lamented over the impact of insecurity on his business.

Okwudili has 15 workers who travel to the food-producing Ohaji/Egbema/Oguta and neighbouring Rivers communities to buy garri, yams, vegetables, fish, snail for supply to the hotels.  His three mini-trucks are now idle and the drivers asked to go home.

Definitely, the economy of Imo is severely challenged.  The state recorded the highest unemployment and under-employment rates among the sub-nationals  and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in 2020, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

The Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Imo State, Ogu Bundu Nwadike, attributes the high level of insecurity in Nigeria to the poor leadership of the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led government.

“The insecurity in the zone and in Imo is fallouts of the duplicitous nature of the ruling party, APC, which not only created banditry and terrorism in the country up North, but also infested the South-East and South-South with all manners of genocidal policies, programmes and projects.

“Meetings that were hitherto hosted in hotels and event centres are now hosted online via  zoom.  Physical meetings are fast turning anachronistic and moribund. The effect of that on the economy is very severe.  Jobs will be lost while profit and income will decline as businesses close shop with passing days,” Ogu Bundu said in a note to THEWILL.

But the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Oguwike Nwachukwu, thinks otherwise.  Nwachukwu told THEWILL in a note that peace has returned to the state and business activities have begun to pick up. He said the people are partnering with the state leadership to achieve success in the fight against insecurity.

“Peace has returned to Imo.  Businesses are picking up and Imolites have risen to the challenge by partnering with the government of Governor Hope Uzodinma to ensure that the state is completely free of security breaches and challenges,” he said.

The facts on ground, however, tell the true story.