Days after the United States Government alerted that members of the dreaded Boko Haram sect might attack three luxury hotels in Abuja, the hospitality business in the city took a dangerous nosedive. Deputy Editor Investigations, Ibanga Isine writes.
While Transcorps Hilton, Sheraton Hotels and Towers as well as Nicon Luxury Hotel, were listed as possible targets of attacks, the ominous security alert, like a contagious fever, has spread, catching the big and small hotels.
Abuja, that was prided as one of the most secure cities in the country is now wearing a toga of blood, crimes and terrorism. The road to the on-going infamy in Abuja is long and winding. Apart from the activities of “one change” robbers, and neighbourhood thieves in some parts of the beautiful city, Abuja was not known for high-level crimes and terrorism that ravaged other parts of the country.
But like a beautiful maiden forcefully deflowered on her birthday, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta first violated the sanctity of Abuja. They struck just as President Goodluck Jonathan; an Ijaw man from the Niger Delta was presiding over the celebration of Nigeria’s 50th Independence Anniversary. It was exactly at a time the Nigerian Army was staging an awe-inspiring display of its aerial and artillery prowess, that MEND detonated a bomb, less than 50 meters from the Eagle Square, where Jonathan, world leaders and thousand of Nigerian children, men and women gathered for the epoch-making celebrations.
Before MEND’s mechanics of death detonated the bombs, they sent an alert to the top echelon of the country’s security and notified them of their impending act of wickedness. They even offered insight into how the operations would be carried out and warned people not to attend the ceremony. Against all logical calculations, the threat was carried out and innocent Nigerians were blown out of existence, and MEND, which some prominent Niger Delta leaders always refer to as “our boys” took the credit for the dastardly act that thoroughly embarrassed their brother, Jonathan and the most populous country in the black race. That was indeed the beginning of perilous times for Abuja. After smoking several lives and cars in two blasts that shook the foundations of buildings near the city centre, the “boys” vowed to continue the war of attrition against the once-peaceful city. Although the “boys” never carried out further attacks on Abuja, they however sowed the seed that germinated into the current harvests of insecurity in the city.
If MEND’s attack on the somber celebration of the nation’s 50th Anniversary was considered bizarre and condemnable, then the attack on the Force Headquarters by members of the Boko Haram sect was most bizarre and worrisome.
The attack was carried out a few days after the Inspector General of Police; Halfiz Ringim visited Maiduguri and vowed to run the group out of town. But in a most audacious attacks ever carried out in the history of the country, members of the sect unleashed a suicide bomber on the Louis Edet House and hundreds of cars and a gallant police officer, among others, were blown out of existence.
Apparently emboldened by the success of its operations at the Force Headquarters, the sect launched another attack on the United Nations’ House, killing many staff and visitors. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who rammed through the gates into the main lobby of the building before setting off his merchandise of death. That was the third major attack on Abuja and ever since, the city has lost its sleep. The heightened level of insecurity in the Federal Capital Territory has robbed Abuja of a lot of things. But it seems that the hospitality industry is the worst victim of attacks.
Right from when the first bomb exploded near the Eagle Square, many hotels and guest houses in the city had started feeling the heat. Hotel management upped security arrangements near their facilities and more operatives were deployed but these did not assuage frightened guests. The last one week has witnessed the worst ebb in the patronage of hotels and hospitality centers in Abuja.
With the leakage of the US advisory to its citizens in the country and the subsequent hype of the report by the media, the drought on hotel patronage got to its head. While government and hotel management perfected strategies to wade off attacks, guests and tourists were checking out and leaving the city.
The presence of heavily - armed security personnel and state of the art facilities, have failed to buoy guests’ confidence and improve the patronage of hospitality centers in Abuja. For instance, visiting any of the luxury hotels in the city has suddenly become a nightmare of some sorts. The long queue of cars at the gates and the presence of troops have also heightened the sense insecurity for the supper rich and the powerful, who once used the hotels as their second homes. After passing through the extensive scrutiny including opening of bonnets and boots and scanning the under bellies of cars and luggage, a guests is chauffeured into a deserted lobby.
The situation is also the same at the parking spaces of the hotels. The movement of vehicles within and outside the hotels which were in hundred have now been reduced to trickles. The stiff competition among drivers for parking spaces has been resolved as the empty car parks now beckon in every hotel in the city.
Though some officials of the affected hotels blame the dip in patronage on the just-concluded salah celebrations, Leadership investigations has however shown that hospitality centers in the city enjoy peak patronage during festive seasons. While most of the luxury hotels have been grappling with rising insecurity and frightened guests, the smaller hotels are also suffering. However, Nicon Luxury and Sheraton had a slight increase in patronage on Thursday, against the drought they experienced since Monday. At Sheraton, stakeholders submit organized by the Nigerian Association of Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists in the Americas in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Health drew some guests to the facility.
When contacted, the hotel’s spokesperson, Nnanji Tyem declined to speak on the fate of the hotel in the face of the dwindling number of guests. Tyem rather referred Leadership to the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA). But when pressed further she insisted that Sheraton still enjoys the same level of patronage but that the hotel makes daily reports on the number of in-house guests and other issues to the NSA.
At the gates of Transcorps Hilton, security van with registration number, Imo AG 386 ABB was strategically packed facing incoming vehicles going into the premises.
Soldiers and riot policemen decked in bullet-proof jackets carry out thorough checks on vehicles and persons going into the hotel.
Shola Adeyemo, the spokesman of Transcorps Hilton however, blamed the obvious low patronage on the public holiday. He said, “People like to blame every security move made on Boko Haram. I have always told people that this hotel is a business venture. Guests travel out of Abuja for the break but we expect to pick up pretty soon.” When asked about the heavy presence of security personnel, he said security was beefed up due to the National Economic Summit which was taking place at the time of visit.
In spite of the security threats, some foreign nationals, including US nationals still went about their legitimate businesses in the luxury hotels listed in the alert. A US national, who spoke to Leadership on condition of anonymity, said he maintains his residency in one of the luxury hotels because he had nowhere else to go. He said, “I have heard that Boko Haram may attack this place but what do you want me to do? I don’t know of any other safe place to go, therefore, I will remain here. There has been significant improvement in security here but I hope that nothing goes wrong.
Given the guests flight from the three luxury hotels, one would have expected a boost in the patronage of other facilities in the city. But alas! Leadership investigations revealed that most of the other hotels in the city were not faring well. The misfortune of the Abuja luxury hotels has not translated into improved patronage for the smaller hotels. There are so many empty rooms in both the bigger hotels and in the smaller hotels.
At Bolingo, there is a heavy presence of military personnel, who screen every vehicle and pedestrian before being allowed into the facility. A staff of the hotel who pleaded anonymity said though the hotel was not listed on the US security alert, it has not recorded any significant increase in the number of guests. He said the hotel still maintains 50 percent occupancy of its 300 rooms.
He said, “Although the US report only named three hotels as potential targets, the foreign guest will always interpret that to mean a ban on luxury hotels which Bolingo is part of. So we are not enjoying any significant increase in patronage.”
The source also lamented the huge loses hotels in the FCT were experiencing lately saying that there were instances where hotel managements had to refund millions of naira to clients for functions earlier slated to take place at in Abuja, but were moved to Lagos due to the security concerns.
On the Garki axis, Leadership investigations showed that most of the hotels also experienced low patronage. The hotels located along the ever-busy Gimbyia Street were almost forlorn, as only a handful of guests turned up. Even women of easy virtue who lined the street disappeared momentarily. The fear of bomb blast by the dreaded Islamist sect thus drove fun seekers from Abuja, leaving empty hotel rooms and parking spaces.
But the spokesperson of the State Security Service, Ms. Marylyn Ogar said the alert which triggered the guest drought was false. According to her, the crisis started from a post on the Internet and was later blown out of proportion by rumour mongers.
She insisted that security operatives in the country were on top of the situation. Ogar, who was speaking to a reporter from the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), however, advised the people to go about their legitimate businesses.
She said, “The problem is not beyond what the Nigerian security agencies can handle. We have challenges and these challenges cannot overwhelm us. Journalists must begin to follow governors and local government officials to know what they are doing for the people.”
She said that the alleged security alert was triggered by a tweet which was later converted into an email and circulated in the country.”
The National Security Adviser, Gen. Andrew Azazi also assured that the Federal Government has taken adequate measures to protect the facilities listed on the US security alert and other hotels within the Federal Capital Territory.
In a statement issued from his office, Azazi said, “The current threat of attack on the three hotels in Abuja is not news. For over three months, the security services have taken proactive measures to protect the designated critical facilities and others.” The NSA also advised the people to go about their normal businesses without fear or hindrance.
While government grappled with the security crisis in the FCT, the US Government yesterday downgraded the level of alert on Abuja. According to it, the possibility of attack on the city has drastically reduced. But this has failed to prop up the patronage of hospitality facilities in the nation’s capital.
The fear of Boko Haram has indeed gripped Abuja and its environs, a situation which has forced patrons of hotels and guest houses to relocate to safer parts of the country. But the fear is that Abuja may fast slide into the inglorious level of insecurity that destroyed business and investment in the Niger Delta region when militants and street gangs held the region under siege.