Going to Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, from Owerri, the Imo State capital, is like a journey through the valley of the shadow of death. The road is pathetic. It is a forsaken place, if it rains. You could hardly see a more wretched terrain.
In fact, travelling to the place leaves a lot to be desired. There is only one route into Calabar and some portions of the single-carriage road have been swallowed by erosion, making the traveller to have his heart in his hand.
When a truck breaks down or falls into a gully on the road, commuters get stuck on a spot for several agonising hours. Again, when you get to Itu Bridge at the boundary between Akwa Ibom and Cross River states, you heart must skip a beat. The bridge is rickety and it appears like it would collapse anytime. Worse still, there is a military checkpoint at the foot of the bridge where soldiers conduct themselves in a very unprofessional manner.
But the terrible state of the road is just one aspect of the nightmare travellers contend with. Kidnappers and robbers, who operate with ferocity, are the kings of the road. You are not only robbed or kidnapped, men of the underworld here beat their victims mercilessly. It was gathered that incidents of kidnapping and robbery are witnessed at different spots on that road every day. Some people have lost their lives there even as immigration officers harass and embarrass travellers.
In fact, when the reporter was boarding a Sienna mini-van from Owerri, the manager of the transport company warned the passengers not to allow the driver to pick any passenger on the way. According to him, kidnappers often pose as prospective passengers and if any driver stops for them, they hijack the vehicle, take it into the bush and relations of the passengers would be made to pay ransom. He said that kidnapping was the order of the day in that axis.
At Adiabo Junction, in Odukpani Local Government Area, there is a signpost pointing to the Tinapa Business and Resort, which is one of the talking points of Cross River State. It is a $450 million facility built by the Donald Duke administration. In a nutshell, it was intended to be a mini Dubai in Nigeria.
Tinapa covers about 80,000 square kilometres of land. According to Duke, “Tinapa is part of the African Renaissance, a place where Africans can come together to do business. Tinapa is a mixture of business and is one of the greatest attractions in our state.”
According to the promoters of th integrated business resort, “it is expected to play a catalytic role in establishing Calabar as a trade and distribution hub in West Africa while at the same time providing a unique tourism experience that will inform the growth and enhancement of the tourism sector in Calabar, Cross River State and Nigeria. Calabar, with its natural potential for tourism, through the unique vision of Tinapa, will transform itself into a global trading hub reminiscent of great international free zones like Hong Kong and Dubai.”
Tinapa came with so much expectation from the business world and fun seekers. And there was so much excitement when it was completed. For many, Dubai had finally arrived Nigeria.
So, while commissioning the project on April 2, 2007, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had said: “My great delight is informed by the fact that we are today celebrating the actualization of the audacious vision painstakingly initiated, devotedly implemented and amicably.
“We must applaud your government for successfully embarking upon and courageously executing this project which is surely going to change the face of Cross River State forever. Tinapa, no doubt, represents one giant step in the direction of unprecedented economic growth and regeneration for our continent.”
Driving into Tinapa, you are welcome by a smooth network of roads, enchanting environment and good structures. But that is as far as it goes. Things have fallen apart in Tinapa and the centre can longer hold. Now, it is like a beautiful, empty shell.
The Tinapa dream is in tatters, to say the least. Getting into Tinapa, your heart would bleed. Even if your heart is made of steel, it would certainly melt if you step into the complex. It is lying prostrate, abandoned like an old woman.
The facility is now a ghost town even as the structures are crumbling. In the abandoned monorail area, you would see roofs blown off by the wind. Virtually all the business ventures there have closed shop. The emporiums are empty. Cobwebs cover the small shops. The banks have disappeared. The water parks and games arcade are shadows of themselves. Indeed, during the trip, the water parks and lazy river were filled with contaminated water. Venturing into the pool would be suicidal. Reptiles had taken over the place, relaxing leisurely in the sun.
Abandoned vehicles littered the place even as administration offices have turned to forests. Worse still, there was no electricity. Different sections were using all manner of generators, messing up the environment. And workers are now owed not less than six months’ salary, depending on their section.
Indeed, in Tinapa, life is brutal. There is nothing friendly anymore. The few remaining staffers are helpless and hopeless. Many of them are weeping in the valley of tears, disgruntled and frustrated. Most of them have turned beggars.
“Tinapa is dead. Tinapa is a nightmare. There is no electricity. This is a dead zone. Some of us come here because there is nowhere else to go at the moment. Government is wicked in this state,” a staff managed to tell Daily Sun, as there seemed to be an unwritten law of see no evil, say no evil.
How things fell apart
It could be said that the multi-billion naira project began to sing its dirge in 2013 when consignments transiting to Tinapa from Onne Seaport in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, were suspended by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). The non-release of Tinapa-bound consignment by the NCS brought severe hardship to the operators and ground every aspect of the operation of the facility to a standstill. And with time, the fortunes of Tinapa nose-dived.
When the reporter visited Tinapa in September 2012, it was doing fairly well. It was bubbling. Fun-seekers were all over the place having fun. It was a preferred location for filmmakers. But all that belongs to the dustbin of history now.
Consider what the former general manager of Tinapa Lakeside Hotel, Mr. Michael Idakwo, said before the cookie crumbled: “I can tell you authoritatively with statistics that this hotel is sustaining itself. As I am talking to you, we are even saving for the future of this hotel. We have been able to turn around our revenue; we have been able to block the loopholes in the system and now our fundamentals are very strong. And we are making tangible profits at the moment. We don’t have difficulty in paying salaries.
“We also have added services. We have the artificial lake, where you can go for boat rides. We have our boats there. You can go for a cruise. It gives you that wonderful experience. We’ve also got the best water park in this country here in Tinapa. That is where you have the water slide; it is a delight, a sight to behold. We have also got the best games arcade.”
But those were the good old days. Things have really changed in Tinapa. The hotel has become a mere painted sepulchre. There was no single guest in the 244-room Lakeside Hotel when Daily Sun visited recently.
When the reporter asked for food, a staff who pleaded not to be identified said that the facility could only cater for a conference of 10 or more because of the cost of running generators. In other words, if you are alone or just a few people in number, there is ‘nothing for you.’
She, however, disclosed that the hotel still offers some form of boat service.
On assumption of office, former Governor Liyel Imoke noted that there was need to put in place regulations to create natural incentives through the free trade zone law.
Imoke said: “There are regulatory challenges, operational challenges. We need to work with the Customs, which is a federal agency, not a state agency, to ensure that, operationally, you have a smooth operation so that you don’t have the Customs becoming a bottleneck for shoppers and, of course, the Customs should also not be a bottleneck for tenants who will be bringing in variety of goods into the zone. You have the challenge of regulations, dealing with various agencies. The regulatory procedures have to be addressed. So, these are things that any tenant that goes into Tinapa will want answers to. We are optimistic about Tinapa.”
Even President Goodluck Jonathan promised to untangle the operational debacle, but never did. He said: “We are aware of the situation in Tinapa. We will continue to work in that direction. I want to say what we have in Tinapa is a major investment that federal and state governments should not to waste.”
Jonathan’s promise didn’t amount to much as the NSC waged a relentless war against Tinapa. Someone said that perhaps the Customs thought that Tinapa was another Seme border.
The former managing director of Tinapa, Etubom Bassey Ndem, said: “The action of the Customs has also affected leisure aspect of the resort because trade and leisure were driving each other. When people come on leisure, they want to go shopping.
“Now, when they go, they don’t see anything in the shops. When those that were doing trade come, they will also enjoy the leisure facilities that are there. They don’t come anymore be cause there is no point. Everything is at a standstill. So, it is a terrible blow that Tinapa has received and I am hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be a fatal blow over zone policy in Nigeria.”
It was, indeed, a devastating blow to the project. Gradually, paradise began losing its charm. And, finally, it became a case of paradise lost, or so it seems.
The impasse led to local and foreign investors losing a lot of money.
Stating its own side of the story, the NCS, in an advertorial, said: “The issue at stake in Tinapa is about unpatriotic elements whose attempts to circumvent the laws were thwarted. Customs intelligence has revealed the intention of these operators in Tinapa to use the FTZ as a conduit for importation of contraband goods and fraudulent evasion of Customs duty payment. When their attempt to import illegally have been checkmated, they have resorted to deliberate falsehood.”
However, an investor, Mr. Namso Nyong, countered these claims: “They said that investors in Tinapa were smuggling goods into the Customs’ territory or whatever. They claimed that we were not paying duty and as such we must come and pay duty to them at Onne.
“We found this very absurd because, until now, we had never been called to come and pay duty and we were not supposed to pay duty for whatever reason because we are sellers. We import and sell. The law gives us concession on import duty.
“It is so childish for officers and men of the Customs to claim that investors in Tinapa engage in smuggling. The questions are: At what point is the smuggling done? Is it when the goods are being transferred from Onne Seaport to Tinapa that the goods are diverted? Or are they smuggled out after after arriving Tinapa? These questions are imperative because every container that leaves Onne Seaport for Tinapa is escorted by a designated Customs officer who ensures that the container gets into Tinapa and then hands over the landing certificate to the officer in charge of the Tinapa zone. So, if there is any case of diversion of goods, Customs should be answer to that because it is done under their watch.
“Second, if the goods are being diverted, how is it done when the Customs has a post at Tinapa such that every individual, car and truck that goes in and out of Tinapa is monitored by officers and men of Customs? I wonder how a trailer carrying a 20 or 40 feet containerload of goods will pass by the one-lane road and officers and men of Customs will not see it or the driver will pass and they cannot chase it and stop it to know why it is going out with such goods undeclared. So, it is totally absurd for the Customs to come out and say that investors in Tinapa are involved in smuggling.”
He argued that, if the NCS has an intelligence report regarding nefarious activities of investors as it claimed, the logical thing to do was to follow it up so that they could have exhibits, instead of making wild and unsubstantiated allegations.
According to him, the action of the Customs was a function of ignorance: “I think they are doing this out of ignorance. It’s a shame that Customs men and do not know the policies that surround their operations. There is the tendency for an average Customs officer to confuse the provisions of the act of a particular free zone with another. It is a clear case of ignorance. They need to be educated.
“I want to ask if they have a legal department in Customs. What are the people doing there? Can they not interpret a simple gazette? It’s a shame that our highly-placed officers going about with siren and disturbing commuters on the road do not even know the simple things that regulate or guide their operations as Customs officers in Nigeria.”
There are also allegations of the unseen hand of politics in the capitulation of Tinapa. A source insisted that it was an orchestrated plan to cripple the economy of the South-South and South-East. So, to scare away investors, the forces against Tinapa put a clog in the wheel of the operations of the investors. The result of the impasse was that Tinapa collapsed or, better still, it fell into coma. Investors have abandoned the place as a result of inactivity and interests on borrowed funds used to bring in the confiscated good. One investor told the reporter that he lost more than N600 million.
With the current situation in Tinapa, over 120,000 jobs have been lost, the Federal Government is losing huge revenue that would have accrued through taxes, tariff from shipping lines, utility payments, customs duties, fees and airline licenses, among other sources.
An impeccable source hinted that Governor Ben Ayade has been tiptoeing because of the class war between Duke and Imoke.
An insider squealed to Daily Sun that Tinapa currently has a debt profile of N100 billion.
Crumbs of hope
Despite all the challenges facing Tinapa, Ndem refuses to agree that it is a failed project. He said: “I’ve not been there for a long time, so I really can’t tell what is going on there. But from what I hear, it is not very good. People say it is not quite what it should be.
“Tinapa is not a very comfortable topic for me because I have not been there in the last seven years or so. But I think that it would be myopic to say that it is a failed dream because there is a sense of termination in that phraseology. It may be having challenges now but no one should write off a project that was well built, good intentioned.
“Whatever is responsible for where it is today is transient, it would pass. Someday, things would change and change for the better.
“But I know, when I was there, the challenge we had was the fiscal and legislative environment, the fact that there was a problem between the old officers who were trained on what a free zone is from the NCS and the new ones that took over and didn’t have a clue about what a free zone is and then tried to apply customs area rules in a free zone. So, there was conflict.”
Efforts to speak with the leadership of the Tinapa on the current status of the resort were not successful.
However, a few weeks ago, efforts to sign a memorandum of understanding with a foreign firm with respect to managing the facility failed.
So, Tinapa remains prostrate, begging for resuscitation. Who can save Tinapa from total ruination?