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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Awka International Conference Centre: Deadline Missed But Work Is Proceeding At Pace

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Development of the Anambra International Conference Centre at Awka is ongoing, though project delivery deadlines have been missed. Governor Willie Obiano seems determined to finish the project before his terminal date. But it appears that ancillary developments needed to maximize the economic impact of the project are not yet contemplated by the government. Nor have officials begun to message the broader benefits of the convention centre to the general public.

By Chudi Okoye, with additional field reporting from Stella Nzekwe

You can sometimes sense a slight tremor in the voice of Willie Obiano, governor of Anambra State, Nigeria, when he talks about the International Conference Centre (ICC) being erected in the state capital, Awka. You can even trace an American twang in his tongue or catch a tiny twinkle in his eyes (if unspectacled) sometimes when he announces new milestones in the project’s evolution. There can be no doubt about it: the ICC project, among the numerous that this reportedly vigorous governor has launched, is one that is very close to his heart. The governor himself has said that the conference centre is “very very dear” to him, and his commissioners claim that it would be one of the administration’s landmark projects.

Willie Obiano has visited the ICC project site several times since work commenced in early 2017, according to project sources, sometimes even turning up unannounced. The governor seems to be conversant with key details of the development and is able to describe them with ease. There he was on December 15, 2018, during the official flag-off of the project, pronouncing on the architectural details of the building. At one point he even plunged into the acoustical design being implemented to manage the physics of sound in the conference halls.

Governor Obiano loves the Awka International Conference Centre project! That much is clear.

So it is a little surprising that today, two-and-a-half years after initiation and despite earnest assurances by the governor, the conference centre remains far from finished. Officials had first indicated that the project would be completed within a year after it was initiated in 2017. But following a change of plan and project contractors, Obiano himself announced during the official project flag-off in December 2018 that the project would be completed in December 2019, stating that the contractor had been fully “mobilized to deliver the job in 12 months.” That wasn’t to be, however, as it became clear in the course of the year that the project was overrunning. So later in October 2019, on two separate visits, the governor himself and the contractor as well revised the completion date, announcing that it would now be delivered by the end of March or in April 2020. The Commissioner for Housing, Arch. Mike Okonkwo, told Awka Times that part of the delay had been caused by Governor Obiano’s increase of the scope of work. He insisted that the April deadline will be met, noting that any further delay will be communicated to the public.

So, going by official assurance, the Awka ICC project should be nearing completion at this time.

And yet, when Awka Times visited the conference center site on January 7, 2020 to assess readiness, we found a project evidently in flight but nowhere in sight of landing. On the day that we visited, we saw a bevy of construction equipment though not the frenzy of activity that would suggest imminent completion. When probed by Awka Times about the feasibility of the new deadline, project engineers could only commit to likely completion sometime this year. When contacted to discuss the project, Barrister Venn. Amaechi Okwuosa, current MD/CEO of Awka Capital Territory Development Authority (ACTDA) which is a project stakeholder, seemed more guarded. He told Awka Times that the project would be “ready in the nearest future.”

So, will Awka ICC turn out to be another one of those abandoned projects that have become the hallmark of successive administrations in Anambra State?

Not likely, based on current set of facts. Governor Willie Obiano seems certain to chalk this one up before he takes his final walk as Anambra State governor.

Video: Project architect, Piyous Abah, showing Awka Times round the site

Massive Project

The Awka International Conference Center is a large project by most standards, even from mere visual observation. There is, however, conflicting statistics about the project as obtained from diverse sources. The main ICC building is confirmed by project technicians to be a 7,000 square-meter edifice, similar in size to the Abuja International Conference Centre which was built in 1991. Project sources also indicate a seating capacity of 7,000 (5,000 in the ground floor auditorium and 2,000 scattered around the first floor) as against a seating capacity of 10,000 sometimes touted by officials. The size of land earmarked for the project is inexact. Government sources say that the complex is “strategically sited on a parcel of land… measuring not less than 7 hectares.” And officials provide different figures for the parking space: “1,200”, “1,500 to 2,000” and “3,500” cars, they variously assert, although project technicians affirm the figure of 3,500.

It is worth noting, for comparison, that the London ExCel, an exhibitions and convention centre situated on a 100-acre site, reportedly has 3,700 parking spaces on the campus. And the National Exhibition Centre in Solihull, England, sitting on a 611-acre site, offers 29,000 car parking spaces. It stretches imagination therefore to expect that the 7-hectare Awka ICC site (just over 17 acres) might support a 3,500-car parking facility. Still, even a median in the range of official estimates from Anambra State government would be impressive in the local and regional market.

The foundation of the main ICC building is elevated about 3.6 meters high, designed to withstand the effects of flooding in the low-lying area. There is plan to re-channel runoff rain water into a picturesque canal on the grounds of the complex, according to Commissioner Mike Okonkwo, who was once ACTDA MD/CEO and is now helming the housing ministry which is one of the project stakeholders.

Elevated foundation at the ICC to prevent flooding

The Awka International Conference Centre is located in the Agu-Awka outskirts of Awka. The facility, said to be state-of-the-art, will include a grand entrance foyer with atrium, sub-dividable auditorium/ballroom, exhibition hall, well-equipped chalets for conference participants, meeting rooms, green room, storage, an upscale restaurant, stores, a bookshop, conveniences, staff room and associated spaces. There will be two galleries (Gallery A and Gallery B), and an elevated stage. Included within the exhibition hall will be a workshop/seminar area for professionals which will be available all year round. The design concept also envisages a well-planned parking lot, manicured lawns and, as indicated, a picturesque canal.

3D  model of the ICC’s main entrance (source: ANSG Ministry of Housing)

3D  model of the ICC main building (source: ANSG Ministry of Housing)

3D  model of the ICC’s grounds (source: ANSG Ministry of Housing)

3D  model of the ICC’s ground floor lobby (source: ANSG Ministry of Housing)

Governor Obiano has said that the model was “copied from Dubai”, although it is not clear which specific venue in Dubai inspired his administration.

Likely Economic Impact

Anambra State government officials use astounding superlatives to describe the Awka ICC. They say that it will be “the best”, “the biggest”, the “most modern”, and that there will be nothing like it in the South East of Nigeria – some even claim in the entire southern Nigeria! In terms of the actual benefits likely to accrue from the facility, officials seem most exercised by the potential to boost the state’s internally generated revenues (IGR). Governor Willie Obiano said for the umpteenth time during project inspection in October 2019 that the development “will boost the state’s internally generated revenue (IGR).” All the concerned commissioners – Works, Housing – and heads of the stakeholder parastatals emphasize the same thing: an expected boost in IGR once the ICC becomes functional. Occasionally, there is a passing reference to other economic benefits, with Governor Obiano for instance saying that the facility “will create economic activities that will generate jobs and wealth for the people as well as improve the aesthetics of the [Awka capital] territory.” But the clear animating justification for the project from the government’s perspective centers on the expected IGR lift.

The official emphasis on government revenue uplift is understandable. Awka Times gathered that the Awka International Conference Centre – unlike the many public private partnership projects that the government has initiated – is a 100% equity ownership of the state government. Presumably, therefore, all revenues accruing from event bookings will flow directly into the state’s treasury, along with rental income from resident outlets and supposedly slices from sundry other transactions at the facility. Such accruals could be significant if the convention centre attracts brisk business.

Surprisingly however, despite the IGR fixation of the state government, Awka Times found that officials have no modeled projections for the level of expected treasury accruals. None of the official sources contacted by Awka Times was able to hazard even a guess as to the amount of revenues expected from conference bookings and related venue spending.

Even more surprising is what seems like official reticence on the potential impact of the ICC on the local economy. The broader impact of the convention centre on the economy may likely dwarf whatever IGR accruals the government might secure. But it seems, from official responses to Awka Times probe, that no formal study has been done to delineate the cumulative benefits of ICC operation for the broader economy.

Although it now seems doubtful, it would be rather fortuitous were the Anambra State government able to keep the new date of April 2020 that it has set for the completion of the Awka International Conference Centre. That timing would coincide with the Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID) event scheduled for 14 April 2020 (https://www.pcma.org/event/2020-global-meetings-industry-day-gmid/). The event, led by the Meetings Mean Business Coalition, “honors the meetings and events industry’s enduring business value,” according to the organizers. A study authored by Events Industry Council and Oxford Economics estimated the global economic impact of meetings and business events to be $2.53 trillion in 2017. This report provides a guide to estimate the potential impact of the Awka International Conference Centre on the local economy, beyond the arguably narrow revenue focus of the Anambra State government.  

Total impacts of global business events (2017) (Source: “Global Economic Significance of Business Events”, Events Industry Council/Oxford Economics, 2018, p. 6)

Established models for measuring the economic importance of the meetings industry typically include the following, although not all inputs would apply in the case of Awka ICC:

  • Exhibition and conference event bookings
  • Hotels and other accommodation services
  • Food and beverage serving services
  • Railway passenger transport services
  • Road passenger transport services
  • Water passenger transport services
  • Air passenger transport services card services
  • Transport supporting services
  • Transport equipment rental services
  • Shopping and other retail services
  • Entertainment and related services
  • Recreation and other equipment services
  • Travel agencies and other reservation services
  • Tour operator and tourist guide services
  • Cultural services
  • Sporting and other recreational services
  • Miscellaneous tourism services (e.g. insurance, travel)

From these micro-inputs conference modeling then estimates macro-level economic impact in terms of the following metrics, among others: gross domestic product/gross value added, employment generation, wages and salaries, and taxes.

Meetings industry model (Source: “Measuring the Economic Importance of the Meetings Industry”, World Tourism Organization, 2006, p. 12)

If the Anambra state government has commissioned studies to understand these larger effects, officials certainly aren’t talking about it. So it is more likely that no such study exists, a departure from global best practice.

Requisite Developments

If the Anambra State government is to maximize IGR and trigger other economic benefits from the ICC, it must invest in developing a convention ecosystem around the Awka International Conference Centre. It should not simply plunk down a swanky conference centre in an arid ecosystem which is not conducive for conference tourism. There must be adequate road infrastructure, modern transportation infrastructure including a local passenger airport shuttle, world-class hotels, restaurants, shopping outlets, and a myriad other destination infrastructure, to attract large-scale meeting events from other competitive destinations.

The officially-certified traditional ruler of Awka town (the position is contested), Eze Uzu II Gibson Nwosu, speaking through his traditional prime minister, Chief Ben Okoye, told Awka Times that the community is not directly involved in the planning and implementation of the Awka ICC project. He said however that “the development of Awka infrastructure should be a priority for the state government, not just because Awka as capital is the face of Anambra State, but also because the development of the town’s infrastructures will do more to attract meetings, exhibitions, tourism and investment into Awka far more effectively than mere marketing could ever do.”

Officials are not yet talking about developing such conference ecosystem. Attention is simply focused on completing the conference centre project before Governor Willie Obiano’s exit. But officials must assess the potential for the Awka ICC to attract major national or international events at the expense of more developed venues elsewhere in Nigeria. If the Awka International Conference Centre, however opulent, exists in a primitive or sub-par tourism ecosystem, it will likely not be competitive and may end up a waste. The sums of money being invested in the project may not be recovered in a reasonable time frame, if ever (government sources would not confirm the exact amount being spent on the Awka ICC project, except to say that it is over ₦2 billion).

Anambra State Commissioner for Housing and Urban Development, Arch. Mike Okonkwo

When Awka Times raised these perspectives with the responsible commissioner, Arch. Mike Okonkwo, he defended the government, saying that the siting of the Awka ICC project was deliberate because it is surrounded by different structures like Awka Millennium City Estate, Stanel, Women Development Centre, and a yet-to-be-built five star hotel. Nevertheless, proximity to a gated residential/commercial development, or to a gas and servicing station, whilst perhaps necessary as part of an ecosystem for a conference venue, may not be sufficient. The “five-star” hotel, if and when built, would be more integral, as would road and transport systems.

Similarly, Awka governing institutions, in particular Awka Development Union Nigeria (ADUN) as well as the local kingship institution, should be involved in the planning. Around the world municipal authorities are often involved in destination marketing, including the promotion of convention and exhibition venues. Awka Times checks revealed that the Awka South local government authority, just like the Awka community governance institutions, is not involved in planning for the Awka ICC. Without local participation to guide central command planning, it will be difficult to manage and measure the broader impacts of the Awka International Conference Centre on the local economy. And in the end, the local community and the state at large might not see the fuller benefits of the development, long after its champion, Governor Willie Obiano, has departed from the scene.


Awka ICC Project Vendors

Contractor – ZTC Nigeria Limited, 178 Lugard Avenue, Lagos, 09060000581

Consultants –  JIL Engineering Associates

Consultants – RB Consultants Ltd, Plot C Presidential Road Independence Layout Enugu, 08033041300, inforbconsultantsltd@gmail.com

Architects – Geometrics Associates

Mechanical/Electrical – Vencou Engineering Co Ltd, 07064835199, 36 Akin Adesola Street Victoria Island, Lagos, vencoultd@yahoo.com


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