By Edidiong Udobia
Triskaidekaphobia is the fear, hate, or dislike of the number thirteen (13). There are different stories about number 13 with attendant superstitions, which although not proven, have gained wide acceptance in many countries like the United States. One of such superstitions is the legend of the 13th floor. From my little research, I learnt that in the affected countries, the number 13 is considered unlucky, so most superstitious building owners purposefully omit a floor numbered 13. However, the fact that building/hotel owners deliberately refuse to number a floor as 13 does not mean that the buildings have a real vacuum between the 12th and 14th floors. The owners either choose to give the thirteenth floor an alternate designation such as “12A” or “M” (the thirteenth letter of the Latin alphabet), or close the 13th floor to public use or access (e.g., by designating it as a mechanical floor).
To the best of my knowledge, Nigeria is not one of the countries with the 13th floor superstition, but over the past few weeks, the myth seems to be incarnating in the form of the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom state. For starters, it has now become a mindboggling mystery how a hotel that was commissioned on Tuesday, May 26 2015 (and supposedly ready to commence operations) is yet to open for business three years and four months after. One word – how? Well, until recently, I was among the thousands of Akwa Ibom people who are wondering what kind of mystical power is holding the gates of the 14-storey oval shaped building that the government cannot fling them open for business to commence in the Hotel. Superstition is a global phenomenon so you can’t blame us. But that was me before I was privy to a letter from Starwood Hotel & Resort, dated April 10, 2016, wherein the company drew the attention of the Akwa Ibom State Government to some outstanding issues that needed to be sorted before the hotel could commence operations.
Eureka! After a glance of the said letter, I realized that a very good clue to unravelling the mystery around the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel was hidden in plain sight all the while. Recall that the ex-governor, Senator Godswill Akpabio has repeatedly said that the hotel was over 90 percent (precisely 98 percent) completed when he left office. In other words, the project was uncompleted as at the time of commissioning. First up, for a supposedly world-class facility like the hotel, even a 99.9 percent completion is not good enough to put the facility to full use considering that the remaining one percent can pose a grave danger to the users. Secondly, for a facility that the level of completion can be itemized, ’98 percent completion’ is a vague and bogus statement. Here’s what I mean. According to the letter from Starwood, the outstanding issues included;
a. Operating Equipment (OS&E), including the IT equipment and the property management system funding of $3m (N1,086,510,000.00);
b. Pre-Opening funding of $1.7m (N520,455,000.00);
c. Working capital of $2.5m (N765,375,000.00);
d. Provision of company vehicles;
e. Laying of Fibre Optic data lines to the hotel;
f. Certificate of registration with NOTAP (National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion).
Let’s get few facts straight. Starwood Hotel & Resort are the owners of the Four Points by Sheraton brand so they determine the workability of their franchise. Another fact is that no member of Starwood Management team attended the commissioning ceremony, meaning either of these two; that the then state government did not invite Starwood to the event, or for some reasons, Starwood deliberately refused sending a representative to the event. For me, the later seems to be a more valid explanation because from my findings, the hotel was commissioned without a signed franchise agreement and full complement of requisite furniture and fittings. So, my thinking is that Starwood ignored the commissioning because there was no signed agreement for the franchise. Of course, they knew that the commissioning was a mere jamboree because without their consent, the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Ikot Ekpene will remain a tall useless building.
Back to the issues raised by Starwood. My first question was, why can’t the government just source for funds to tackle the outstanding issues. Here’s the response I got from a reliable source; “All the issues raised by Starwood fall within the building and site improvement cost which forms 64% of the total contract sum but Distinguished Senator Akpabio had approved and disbursed 95% before vacating office. 31% more than the required amount, yet the issues were not tackled”. In other words, the ex-governor had already approved and disbursed the funds for the outstanding issues before leaving office, yet the issues were not addressed. If you do the math well, you’ll know that the first three outstanding issues alone will gulp over N2b. Discovering that the supposed “2 percent” the ex-governor left uncompleted will require over N2b (by my own rough estimation), I was curious to know how much was spent on the much talked about “98 percent” completion.
Further findings revealed that the contract for the construction of the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel was awarded on September 12, 2013 at an initial contract sum of N16.7bn based on average exchange rate of N161.7 to a dollar. Two weeks before leaving office, former governor Godswill Akpabio again approved a variation of N8.7bn (though not satisfactory confirmed) which increased the total contract sum to about N25.4bn. Folks, after these findings, I’ve decided not to rack my brain again on this hotel issue because I have realized that from conception, the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Ikot Ekpene was meant to be a spiral of mysteries; you unravel one to discover another. If you doubt, ask the progenators of the project to show Akwa Ibom people the franchise agreement they signed with Starwood Hotel and Resort which legally authorizes them to operate the hotel. Like the 13th floor, it does not matter which of the stories about that 14-storey building in Ikot Ekpene you choose to believe, the fact remains that a fully functional Four Points by Sheraton Hotel is a myth.
Edidiong Udobia is a journalist and writes from Uyo, Akwa Ibom state.