Kwara Hotel: Another moment of Seward’s folly by Rafiu Ajakaye

Date: 2023-12-28

In 1867, a former US Secretary of State William Seward committed $7.2m of taxpayers’ money to seal a deal that bought Alaska from Russia, triggering a flurry of reactions that culminated in the media historically dubbing the development ‘Seward’s folly’ and calling it an outright waste of public resources.

Poor Seward would become a hero a few years after. In 1869, US netted a huge gold deposit in Alaska. A few years later, Alaska yielded a humongous oil find for the United States, making the $7.2m totally inconsequential. That speaks to vision — or luck?

Closer home, and more consequential for Kwara, a certain Sheikh Rashid Ibn Saeed el-Makhtoum laid the foundation for the greatness and beauty called Dubai. At the height of his investments in the desert city, he was repeatedly called out and derided in unprintable terms. People wondered if he had gone nut. “If you build it, *they* will come” was a quote erroneously attributed to him, even though the often wrongly quoted words fit perfectly into the dream that is now Dubai. el-Makhtoum built and also followed it up — thanks to his equally visionary successors who carried on his dreams to the admiration of the rest of the world.

Enter Kwara Hotel. Over the past few days, the iconic facility has grabbed news headlines as the state government announced a bold attempt to remodel and rebuild the 172-room Kwara hotel in the most comprehensive way ever since it was built in 1975 by the Brig-Gen David Bamigboye regime.

The step, as with all major government decisions, has split the commentariats down the middle. Outside of those who agree entirely with the government on account of their own belief that the administration is patriotic enough to make the right decision, three other schools have emerged: those who want it done, but are skeptical about the cost vis-a-vis the return on investment; those who feel Kwara does not need such a facility and the money should instead be spread on monthly salaries and allowances of workers or some other things; and those who feel the government should rebuild it but should give the job to another firm, Crystal Group of Companies, which they said had committed to fix the hotel for N3bn under a concessioning agreement that allows it to run the facility for some 15 years. To the latter, the government erred as two contracts now exist on the same project.

The differing opinions, a core pillar of democracy, go to show how much people follow government’s activities and programmes. It is welcome. But the argument about the concessioning is mostly incorrect and partisan. There are no two contracts on the project. While the state executive council did indeed approve a concessioning to Crystal, the approval was glaringly conditional upon the House of Assembly backing it. No legislative approval was communicated for the concession; hence, no contract was sealed. This is confirmed by the June 2, 2022 document of Harmony Holdings sent to the Crystal in the wake of the conditional approval by the council.

Besides, the Crystal’s N3bn arrangement was never a wholesale remodelling and renovation of the Kwara Hotel. It was a piecemeal, wing-by-wing, or incremental renovation deal, which then allows Crystal to also manage it for 15 years. The comparison of a piecemeal renovation with complete remodelling, upgrades, and reconstruction that replaces everything in the hotel, except the carcass, is far-fetched. No basis for it.

Next is the argument about due process and transparency. This argument — apologies to lawyers — is deemed ‘abandoned’ as it was not supported by any facts. Government twice advertised the job with all the requirements: first on August 18, 2023; and, again, on October 18, 2023, both in the printed versions of Nigerian Tribune and the Herald newspapers. Three firms applied and went through a competitive process, and one, Craneburg, was picked based on its capacity to fund and execute the huge project. Crystal did not apply. Neither did the Kwara PDP and its allies, who bellyache about which firm got the job. The government has a job to do, and it is its responsibility to ensure that only a firm deemed competent and financially viable is picked. In this job, the contractor brings the money — to be repaid in a structured way over a period of time. This saves everyone the burden of slow job delivery or perennial demand for variation where government directly funds a project.

Why didn’t this one go through the House like the botched process involving Crystal? That is because no concession is involved. All the contractor does is to rebuild and furnish Kwara Hotel to required five-star specifications and hand it over to the state for further decisions on its management.

With an increasingly busy airport and major tourism sites and potentials, a state as strategically positioned as Kwara should not be without first-class hospitality facilities. Having none stunts its socioeconomic growth and limits its potentials to host not just important events but to also harvest the opportunities that come with them.

The Intra-African Trade Fair (IATF) 2023 attracted at least 35,000 delegates and 1,600 exhibitors from across 75 countries, with $43bn worth of trade and investment deals. Cairo, the city in its fourth stage of development, hosted it at its International Exhibition Centre where the first edition of the IATF had also taken place in 2018. Try to imagine the reverberating effects of 35,000 valued guests entering a city for seven days: hotel reservations, visits to the Egyptian mummies, the Pyramids, camel rides, the cruise on the Nile, and hundreds of thousands of gigs along different value chains. That is what comes with such a crowd. But Egypt intentionally created the infrastructure to accommodate high-valued crowd in the first place, including Presidents, Governors, and Ministers, regardless of its own challenges. Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation, said Zig Ziglar.

Tens of thousands of people visit Dubai’s Museum of the Future and other iconic facilities that make the city a tourist delight. That is billions of dollars in revenue. But Dubai did not start today. The dream that birthed one of the most visited places on earth started with a man a few decades ago. And he was criticised for wasting tax payers’ money. He was condemned for building castles in the air. Now we know better. el-Makhtoum is no more, but his dream has turned Dubai to the most visited place in the Middle East after Makkah, the birth place of Islam’s most celebrated Prophet.

Who says that this peaceful and serene Kwara, or its prized capital city, cannot place itself in a pole position for conferencing and resort? Let’s give Governor AbdulRazaq a chance as he re-engineers the Kwara economy towards enterprise, agribusiness, innovation, tourism and hospitality with projects such as garment factory, international conference centre, innovation hub, visual arts centre, sugar film factory, tax house, Shea butter factory, industrial park, special agroprocessing zone, among others.

The road to greatness is mostly paved with huge investments and great efforts — mostly scoffed at in the beginning, by opposition and those who may not see the vision from the start.

One more thing: why can't the government channel the resources elsewhere, some have quipped. Rebuilding the Kwara Hotel and doing other developmental projects aren't mutually exclusive. It is not a zero-sum game. On the day the government announced the Kwara Hotel project, it announced several road projects across the state and the establishment of the Kwara State University Teaching Hospital. Development is not a destination; it is an unending process.

N17bn ($14.4m), some critics said, appears a huge amount! But is it truly huge compared to the financial requirement of building a five-star hotel in an economy where a dollar equals N1,200? In 2018, five years ago when dollar was worth 200 naira, Transcorp Hotels budgeted N40bn ($32.8m) to upgrade its facilities. The Lagos Continental Hotel was built for a total sum of N99.6bn, or $81.1m. Recently, the Lagos Oriental Hotel was valued at N300bn ($250m). While the size and location of these facilities may vary, the point is that premium hospitality facilities like the soon-to-be-rebuilt Kwara Hotel never come cheap. Not here, not anywhere in the world. If you doubt this, check out how much went into building the Burj-al-Khalifa (N1.8trillion), Emirates Palace (N3.6tr), Wynn Palace (N5.04tr), or Abraj Al-Bait (N19.2tr). Yes, these are admittedly very exclusive facilities in choice corners of the world, but they have a long value chain extending to the poorest in their societies. Kwara Hotel, even if not exactly like the ones above, isn't much different if we truly want it to stand out.

•Ajakaye is Chief Press Secretary to the Governor


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