It was only Thursday – two days to the showdown – but hotels in Port Harcourt were so occupied that visitors who arrived ahead of Saturday’s national convention of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are at the risk of being stranded.
A PREMIUM TIMES survey of both luxury and budget accommodations in the Rivers State capital shows that presidential aspirants have booked virtually all rooms accessible in the metropolis, and many who only arrived between Thursday afternoon and evening have not been able to find anywhere to check into as of 8:50 p.m. Thursday.
Hotels association executives gave PREMIUM TIMES an estimated 520 hotels in Rivers State, with over 80 per cent of them concentrated in Port Harcourt.
The PDP is holding a national convention on October 6-7 to choose its presidential candidate at Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium, about 12 kilometres north of Port Harcourt city centre.
The 12 candidates are: Atiku Abubakar, Ahmed Makarfi, Aminu Tambuwal, Datti Baba-Ahmed, Attahiru Bafarawa, Sule Lamido, Bukola Saraki, Sule Lamido, David Mark, Jonah Jang, Kabiru Turaki and Rabi Kwankwaso. They have all expressed confidence in their individual abilities to clinch the ticket and face President Muhammadu Buhari as the main challenger in the general election next February.
Bringing the event to Port Harcourt was fiercely debated by party leaders within the past two weeks, sparking a major row between Governor Nyesom Wike and other aspirants. On September 26, the governor insisted that Port Harcourt is the only venue suitable for the convention, threatening that any other town or city would not have his support and would in fact, nudge him into working against the PDP presidential nominee.
None of the aspirants was willing to openly push back against Mr Wike following his comment, but on September 28, the governor was compelled to apologise at a national executive meeting in which it was decided that the convention would indeed be moved to Port Harcourt, PREMIUM TIMES reported.
Multiple sources at the meeting told PREMIUM TIMES Mr Wike regretted his comments and sought a pardon after aspirants protested at the meeting and other party leaders weighed in with their condemnation.
Still, the development was largely seen as another victory for Mr Wike, whose influence over PDP affairs has become more pronounced over anyone else’s, especially following the role he played in getting the chairman, Uche Secondus, elected last December.
But as aspirants and their crew flood Port Harcourt, with a huge presence of journalists and observers, getting a place to stay during the days of the exercise has become more tasking than most anticipated.
The rumour mill around Port Harcourt says Mr Abubakar pre-booked most of the rooms, but PREMIUM TIMES could not independently corroborate this after concerted findings from hoteliers. In fact, many of Mr Abubakar’s campaign staffers and surrogates were also searching for accommodation as of 6:00 p.m. on Thursday.
Some of them were later accommodated at the staff quarters of Intels, a logistics giant in which the former vice-president owned significant share.
It is difficult to determine the number of hotels paid for per aspirant. Hoteliers and front desk officers at 18 hotels visited by PREMIUM TIMES between 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Thursday told PREMIUM TIMES the rooms were paid for by politicians for the convention, but were reluctant to disclose which campaign issued what cheques.
In some hotels like Swiss Spirit, along the famous Ken Saro-Wiwa Road in commercial Rumuola neighbourhood, some of the 12 candidates dealt directly with hotel owners or management rather than front desk officers or supervisors.
“We do not know who booked the rooms, they did not come to us to pay, they discussed with our management and paid to them directly,” a staff member at Swiss Spirit told PREMIUM TIMES Friday morning.
Boma Briggs and Roland Ekpa, who live and work in Port Harcourt, said they have been looking for rooms for their friends coming in from Abuja and Kano for the convention since Tuesday, but were told there would be no accommodation from Friday when their friends planned to arrive in town.
“We have been to everywhere in this same Port Harcourt where we were born and have lived and worked all our lives,” Mr Briggs said outside Echelon Heights Hotel Thursday night. “This one is shocking to us because our friends who must come for this convention may not be able to find a place to stay.”
James Onafowokan, a political consultant, said he went to sleep at a Methodist Church in D-Line because he was unable to find a hotel since his flight arrived from Lagos Thursday afternoon.
“I cannot go back to Lagos because what I came here for is very important,” he said. “And I cannot do anything because there is no place to connect my laptop.”
Through The Roof
Some hoteliers are already cashing in on the glut, selling out rooms at increased rates of up to 50 per cent in some cases.
“I have sold two of these rooms for N50,000 today,” a hotel staff member said, pointing towards a N32,000 room on the rates frame. “The amount you see on our official rates no longer applies, we now use our own discretion to accommodate people.”
A staff member at a hotel in G.R.A. said management tweaked its prices from base N12,000 to N18,000 from October 3 to October 8.
“Our N22,000 rooms are now N35,000 and some are even willing to pay N40,000 if we could forcefully check people out for them,” the staff added.
Although it is the commercial centre of Nigeria’s oil-rich South-South, with the headquarters ofsomr international oil exploration and servicing firms concentrated here, Port Harcourt hardly has an event so big finding rooms to sleep even in budget hotels would be so difficult, said hotelier Eugene Nwauzi.
“This convention coming to Port-Harcourt may be the best thing to have happened to hotel business around here in a long time,” Mr Nwauzi, South-South zonal vice president of Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN). “We appreciate the governor and others who contributed to move the convention here, they have been wonderful.”
Mr Nwauzi, who works at Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt’s equivalent of Transcorp Hilton, said there are over 520 rooms in Rivers State, with four out of five situated in the capital Port Harcourt.
The hotelier, who said Mr Abubakar did not take the rooms at Hotel Presidential, said tourism in the state has a greater potential, which could effectively maximise opportunities for hotels.
“But the electricity sector is the enemy of hotels business, and even other businesses, in Rivers State,” Mr Nwauzi said. “The tariffs they are imposing on us here in Rivers State are too much and illegal.”
“They are forcing us to pay N48.5 per kilowatt while in Lagos they are paying about N31 or N31 per kilowatt. But everyone will not go to Lagos to invest,” he said. “Some hotels are paying up 16 million per month in Port Harcourt. This is wrong, this is what is crippling business in the Niger-Delta.”
A Low-hanging Fruit
Austin Tam George, a former information commissioner, said the accommodation crisis brought by the convention underscores the lurking tourism advantage for Port Harcourt.
“This is the first time Rivers State is hosting a political convention of such magnitude, with many heavyweight presidential aspirants and thousands of party delegates, observers, and media correspondents from across the country converging in Port Harcourt,” Mr Tam-George, who resigned from Mr Wike’s cabinet in June 2017, said.
“The hotel accommodation crisis experienced by the visitors points to a need to develop the long-neglected hospitality and tourism sector of the state. There is a huge potential for growth there.
“Rivers State also needs a modern mass transit system to replace the current disorganised and ramshackle fleet of private buses and taxis. A strategic and sweeping urban renewal plan is needed in Port Harcourt,” he added.