In 2008, the Akwa Ibom State government embarked on the construction of a multi-billion naira massive leisure and business complex, with the hope of turning the oil-rich Nigerian state into ‘Dubai’.
The complex, named Ibom Tropicana Entertainment Centre, sits atop 168 hectres of land in Uyo, the state capital.
It has a 14-floor storey building, the tallest in the state, meant for a 258-room five-star hotel, a Cineplex (six cinema halls), shopping mall, 5,000-seat convention centre, and a theme park, comprising wet and dry parks.
“My vision is to produce a small Dubai within the Niger Delta (region of Nigeria),” the then governor of the state, Godswill Akpabio, who initiated the project, said in early 2012.
By then the cinema was already open to the public, while the other components of the ambitious project were still under construction.
“I have given them Dubai standard Cineplex,” Mr Akpabio had boasted in a government-sponsored TV programme aired on Africa Independent Television (AIT). “So, you walk in there to watch films and you think you are sitting down in Dubai.”
The complex was scheduled to open for business by the end of 2012.
But 10 years after take-off, and three years after Mr Akpabio left office, the Ibom Tropicana Entertainment Centre, remains unfinished, despite the huge money sunk into it; except for the Cineplex and the bar close to it, the rest of the complex has been abandoned. The tall building and the area meant for the theme park look desolate.
A popular retail business, Shoprite, in August 2015, laid a foundation stone for the building of its mall at the Tropicana. After a long lull, Shoprite just started work on its proposed mall in June, 2018, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
The Akpabio administration had said its construction would cost the state N33 billion, but three people familiar with the project said the cost was later reviewed upward to N120 billion.
But while the government shelled out such humongous amounts on white elephant projects, it left its schools decrepit.
Hundreds of schools – primary and secondary – received little attention, a year-long investigation by PREMIUM TIMES revealed.
In some terrible situations, pupils and students sit on bare floor to learn in roofless classrooms.
Kids between the ages of three and four have been found sleeping on bare floor, in at least two schools in the state.
The science colleges in the state are in ruin too. Same with the technical colleges. In one particular case, a top multi-billion naira technical college in the state have been closed down, strangely, and left for several years to rot away.
Poorly-motivated teachers in the state, who sometimes go for several months without salary, are known to have resorted to corrupt practices, including collecting money to allow students cheat in examinations.
The current administration of Governor Emmanuel, just like his predecessor, is yet to tell the Akwa Ibom people how much has been spent so far on the Tropicana project.
The Commissioner for Housing and Special Duties, Akan Okon, whose ministry supervises the Tropicana, did not respond to calls and text messages sent to his phone line by this reporter.
Mr Okon served for one year between May 2014 and May 2015, as commissioner for finance in the Akpabio administration. He continued briefly as finance commissioner under Governor Emmanuel before he was posted to the ministry of housing and special duties.
The former governor, Mr Akpabio, who is the Senate Minority Leader, declined PREMIUM TIMES’ request for interview.
Silverbird Showtime Ltd, a company owned by a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) senator from Bayelsa State, Ben Murray-Bruce, was awarded contract for the construction of the Tropicana. (This was before Mr Murray-Bruce was elected senator in 2015).
Mr Murray-Bruce said during the flag-off of the construction in 2008 that the Tropicana would create up to 5,000 jobs in Akwa Ibom State when completed.
For now, only about 45 persons, including casual workers, are employed at the Cineplex and the bar, which is far less than the 5,000 envisaged, a top-level administrative worker at the Cineplex told PREMIUM TIMES.
An average worker in the two sections earns about N25, 000 ($69) as monthly salary, this newspaper learnt.
Both the cinema and the bar are also run by Mr Murray-Bruce’s Silverbird.
The company has not made returns to the Akwa Ibom State government since the Cineplex was open for business in 2011, according to sources within the Akwa Ibom government.
The top-level worker at the Tropicana said lack of formal agreement between the government and Silverbird is the reason the latter has not been making returns.
“Silverbird isn’t paying anything to government yet until there is a formal contract,” says the worker who did not want his name mentioned because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.
The worker said Silverbird wants to “recoup millions of naira” they claimed they spent on fixing lightings in the Cineplex.
He said Silverbird has been spending money to maintain the facility, as well as buy diesel to power it (the Tropicana was not connected to electrical grid, until May 2018).
In addition, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the state government would not want Silverbird to run the cinema in a businesslike manner, so as not to hurt the locals who may not have the money to pay for the services.
Akwa Ibom, rich in oil and gas deposits, is among Nigeria’s richest states. But poverty and unemployment levels in the state are amongst the highest in Nigeria, largely due to corruption and mismanagement of public funds.
The state occupies the second position among the states with the highest unemployment rate in Nigeria, according to 2018 data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
It is a low-income economy, where most working class people earn moderate salary working as government employees.
At Silverbird cinemas in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and in Lagos and Abuja, moviegoers pay about N2, 000 for a single movie on weekdays, and N2, 500 on weekends.
But at the Tropicana, Uyo, ticket is sold at N1,500 for foreign movies and N1,000 for Nollywood movies.
In the past, a movie ticket was sold for as low as N250 and N500 at the Tropicana.
With billions of naira coming into the state coffers as oil derivation fund from the nation’s Federation Account every month, it seems, clearly, that Akwa Ibom’s development challenge, unlike most other Nigerian states, is not really about paucity of fund, but how to judiciously spend the much they have.
In five years alone, between 2013 and 2017, the state received N1.029 trillion (about $2.8 billion) from the country’s Federation Account.
This is beside the revenue it generates internally.
Comparatively, a state like Osun, South-West of Nigeria, receives less than one-tenth of what Akwa Ibom gets from the Federation Account.
While construction work was going on at the 258-room five-star hotel at the Tropicana, the state government was also building a 144-room four-star hotel at the nearby city of Ikot Ekpene which is about 20-minute drive from Uyo.
Besides these two, Akwa Ibom already has its premier 163-room five-star hotel, Ibom Hotel and Golf Resort, at Uruan which is about five-minute drive from Uyo.
A Turkish company, Ronesans Holdings, handled the construction contract for the four-star hotel in Ikot Ekpene whose value government insiders put at about N50 billion.
The then governor, Mr Akpabio, said in January 2015 during an interview with AIT that he was “struggling to make sure” both hotels were finished and ready to host visitors expected in the state then for a friendly football match between Nigeria and Brazil.
The friendly, which was to take place on March 29, 2015 at the 30,000-seat stadium built newly then by the Akpabio administration, was later called off by Brazil.
“Akwa Ibom can’t afford to put additional money in Tropicana”
Governor Emmanuel is frustrated with the “mega” projects initiated by his predecessor, Mr Akpabio.
In a leaked audio clip of Mr Emmanuel’s meeting with some leaders in the state, the governor is heard explaining his frustration and what he intends to do with the Tropicana in Uyo and the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, in Ikot Ekpene.
The meeting most likely took place at the Government House, Uyo, but the date is, however, unknown.
“We are in recession, we can’t manage Tropicana,” the governor said, in the audio.
“I am going to lease out that place, people will run it, they will give me money and I will use that money to do something. Whenever they run it and take their money, we take back our asset in the future.”
The governor said an incredible amount of money is needed to complete the Tropicana. “I can’t afford it,” he says.
He says of the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel, “That building is not yet a hotel!”
Continuing, he says: “I can’t help it; we must still put in more money. I have heard a lot of people make noise that the governor has refused to open the hotel. Sorry, building is different from hotel. I need $7.2 million to turn that building into a hotel. As at today, I have paid a deposit of $4 million. It is remaining $3.2 million.”
Governor Emmanuel also talked about the premier five-star hotel in the state, Ibom Hotel & Golf Resort, which he said has not been making returns to the state government.
“Unfortunately, Le Meridien has not been audited in the past 10 years, and they don’t render account to the government. I have just discovered they don’t give even one naira to the government from all the money that is made in the hotel.
“At the same time they didn’t even remit their technical management fees to their home office, so they want me to come and pay those technical fees for 10 years.
“But in order to keep them, so they won’t leave, I just remitted $900,000 to them, so that they can stay for us to audit them,” Mr Emmanuel said.
The governor said he eventually insisted that Marriot, the managers of the hotel, must leave.
It’s not clear, however, if the state government claimed any money from Marriot.
Interestingly, building of white elephant projects in Akwa Ibom has become a relay race where one leader hands over the baton to another; Mr Emmanuel, taking off from where his predecessor stopped, is currently building a second Akwa Ibom governor’s lodge in Lagos, and an international worship centre in Uyo, despite huge opposition from the people.
Mr Emmanuel’s administration is also constructing a 21-storey office building project in Uyo. The cost of the project has not been made public by the government.
Some people in Uyo who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said the administration is “strategically” preparing office accommodation for Mobil Producing Nigeria, in order to put pressure on the oil company to relocate from Lagos to Akwa Ibom State where it is drilling oil.
PREMIUM TIMES could not verify the information, as government officials in Uyo declined comment on the matter.
Inibehe Effiong, a Lagos-based lawyer from Akwa Ibom, travelled to the state to lead a street protest in March 2017 against the building of the new Akwa Ibom governor’s lodge in Lagos.
“Mr Governor, you took an oath of office as the governor of Akwa Ibom State. You did not take an oath of office as the governor of Lagos State,” Mr Effiong said to the crowd.
“You took an oath of office to protect Akwa Ibom people, not Lagos State. Mr Governor, you do not need another lodge in Lagos!” he said.
In the tension that ensued, several government officials were dissing out conflicting figures as the project cost. One senior government official said then that N10 billion was budgeted for the new lodge, while another said it was “less than N10 billion”.
In responding to the criticism, Mr Emmanuel said the government was going to spend a “paltry” N1.6 billion for the new lodge which he said is meant to host people who would want to invest in Akwa Ibom. The old lodge in Lagos is dilapidated, he claimed.
“Will Akwa Ibom people feel proud for me to host so many consular-generals, investors in those kinds of dilapidated buildings?” Mr Emmanuel said.
Akwa Ibom State also has a governor’s lodge, said to be one of the most sophisticated, in the nation’s capital, Abuja.
“Lagos State is a commercial capital of Nigeria, no doubt. But it is not the only entry point into Nigeria. It is also not a mandatory stop-over for potential investors, especially the ones who are interested in investing in Akwa Ibom State,” said Uyo-based lawyer, Imo Akpan, who was among those who protested against the building of the new lodge in Lagos.
“The best place to receive an Akwa Ibom bound investor is Akwa Ibom. This is where to exhibit our rich cultural background; this is where to showcase our potentials; this is where to discuss and negotiate hands-on the deals that will move this state forward.
“If you have investors who are attracted to the Lagos skyline, chances are that they will not invest in Akwa Ibom.
“But if you have serious-minded entities that are committed to genuine business and must be hosted in Lagos, the best place will be to welcome them into the existing state government-owned Liaison offices in Lagos,” says Mr Akpan.
How Funds Sunk Into Tropicana, Other Projects Would Have Helped Education
N120 billion Ibom Tropicana Entertainment Centre, Uyo
The Akwa Ibom government could have used N69 billion, from the Tropicana money, to construct three classroom blocks, at the unit cost of N20 million, in each of the 1160 public primary schools in the state.
Similarly, at a unit cost of N20 million, government could have used N20 billion to construct four classroom blocks in each of the 250 public secondary schools in the state.
Also, N17.78 billion from the fund would have constructed and equipped science laboratories in all the 1160 primary schools, at a unit cost of N15.5 million, while N3.88 billion would have constructed same in all the 250 secondary schools.
Three billion, forty-eight million naira (N3.48 Billion) would have been used to purchase instructional materials and equipment for one year for the 1160 primary schools, at the cost of N3 million per school, while N2.25 billion would have done same for the 250 secondary schools for three years.
N50 billion Four Points by Sheraton Hotel, Ikot Ekpene
From the fund spent on the hotel at Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom government could have used N10 billion to construct four hostels, at the unit cost of N10 million, for each of the 250 secondary schools in the state.
With N7.5 billion, libraries would have been constructed, furnished and equipped, at the unit cost of N30 million, in each of the 250 secondary schools in the state.
Instead of using it to build hotel, the government would have used N11.6 billion from the fund to construct borehole water project in all the 1160 primary schools, at the unit cost of N10 million. Also, with N2.5 billion, each of the 250 secondary schools would have had potable water.
From the money, N2.25 billion would have been used for drug and medical supplies for two years for each of the 1160 primary schools, at the cost of N1.1 million per year for each school, while N550 million would have used also for drug and medical supplies for two years in each of the 250 secondary schools.
The government would have tackled open defecation in schools, by using N10.21 billion to construct a block of six modern toilets in each of the 1160 primary schools, at the cost of N4.4 million per school. A block of nine toilets would have been constructed in each of the 250 secondary schools, using N3.3 billion.
N10 billion International Worship Centre, Uyo
The N10 billion would have served the state better if it was used to offset six years unpaid salary of more than 400 teachers who were teaching in six community secondary schools before the state government took over the schools in 2012, while part of the money would have been used to settle gratuities of primary school teachers who died while still serving the state, as well as pension for retired teachers in the state.
N9.5 billion New Akwa Ibom Governor’s Lodge, Lagos State
About N5.31 billion from the money used in building the controversial governor’s lodge in Lagos State would have bought school desks (at the unit cost of N5,000) for 1,061,353 pupils which is the enrollment in primary schools across the state as at September 2017.
For secondary schools, N2.93 billion would have been spent to buy desks for 585,180 students.
This is the sixth and the concluding part of a six-part series on how corruption, poor budget planning and implementation, and outright neglect has led to the near-collapse of public education in Akwa Ibom, one of Nigeria’s richest states.
This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.