BY: VITALIS UGOH, Calabar
In April 2, 2007, the then Executive Governor of Cross River State, His Excellency, Mr Donald Erim Duke, amongst the stakeholders commissioned the Tinapa to boat business and tourism activities in the South South region of the country as well as in the state.
Available records shows that over 350 million US dollars was expended on the initial development of the first phase.
The spirit behind its establishment was to boost the state’s economy and to drive tourism as a means of projecting the state outside the country and the world at large.
There were initial bottlenecks that hindered its full operations, such as laws backing its establishment and Custom regulations amongst others. Tinapa despite all the hiccups became the talk of the town within and outside Nigeria. Donald Duke was held high amongst his contemporaries as governors in charge of other states as a result of Tinapa.
This impression continued till the last days of his tenure in 2009 when he completed his second term in office. Duke tried his best to support the development of Tinapa as he religiously funded the management of the outfit.
Between 2009 -2014 saw the coming of Senator Liyel Imoke sworn-in as the duly elected governor of Cross River State. His administration saw great deal of continuity in administration especially in terms of projects .
This administration was supportive of the day- to -day running and mainteance of the complex. This government was interested as to what was going in Tinapa by way of attracting conferences down there from all parts of the country. Business men and women were encouraged too with not too difficult fiscal policies that could discourage them from investing inside the Free Trade Zone.
Unfortunately, the narrative changed as the Senator Ayade led administration took over the mantle of leadership in Cross River state. The story of the once tourism destination state began to change for the worse.
A critical review of the Zone, shows that “nothing is working” at the Zone. The shopping mouls are under lock and key. The emporiums have been abandoned and deserted.
Sadly, weeds have taken over the entire surroundings and warehouses within the Zone.. There are no electricity connected to the place until the completion of the 24 megawatt power plant.
Ayade had recently attempted to deplete part of the Free Trade Zone and convert it to his proposed private University. This move was obviously opposed by stakeholders warning him not to try it or there shall be a revolt against his administration.
Currently, the then busy area had suddenly become a grave yard. You can walk from one point to another without seeing any person or shops that are open for business. It has never been so. This is an indication that all is not well. Something needs to be done either by the State government or by the Federal government to encourage all the Free Trade Zones in the country.
In an interview an operator in the zone, a former NDDC commissioner and APC deputy governor, Ntufam Ekpo Okon, decried the non interest shown by the present administration led by Senator Ben Ayade. It is sad and unfortunate. There so many obstacles militating against this Zone. There are no good roads linking up to this place. If you are freighting your goods from One Port and unfortunately the trailer falls with building materials like lighting fittings, of course, those goods are gone for good. This is what we are talking about. You don’t blame them because they might not know when they will arrive Calabar enroute to the Zone.
Another major constraint against the sustainability of the Tinapa i can largely be blamed on too many and too frequent changes of government policies. If policies are right, you can afford to do business. while other issues can be managed. Business itself is a risk. There was a time our exchange rate was high, as a business man or woman, you cannot invest your in such crisis situation. Here in Nigeria, government doesn’t consider business men, policies are made overnight and this affects us a great deal.
“Government has got to stabilise its policies and let’s be cleax about what we are doing. This place was meant to be Export Free Zone. Part of the problem we had was government policy. The Tinapa establishment itself, had done so much trying to see who they could build an understanding between the operators and the Customs. This created a lot of problems I could remember then and today nobody is bringing goods here. Are there still importers in this Zone, he asked. None! “
Said he,, “the model is still valid. I have been operating and I know too well that the model is still relevant. It is government policy and its implementation that has slowed down the patronage. We had never had problems with managers, but our problem was with the Customs. Customs came here and acted in a manner outside the policy. We know that if you are buying above 50000, you pay custom duties while goods lower than 50000 is duty free. Rather, they will not allow it but preferred to harass people outside the Zone. All the operators have their invoices with them but Customs will not allow it. It is not right”.
“Commitment is another issue. Maybe Donald Duke who had the idea and vision would have been allowed another term in office to drive it. Also, I can not absolve the state government from blame because when the operators were complaining, , we also needed the government to also be in a position to step inn. We have lost so many operators here. And this is an investment of government. Government should have had the interest to see that it works having invested so much. This place can only work if people come in here and utilise the facilities, he added, “
Another operator in the Zone Alhaji Adejo Badmus, also “blamed the inactivity of Tinapa on the deliberate effort of governor Ben Ayade to see that the idea dies so as to allocate the site to himself for personal use. He has no single interest about Tinapa and the Free Export Processing Zone. Said he, “I am contemplating of leaving the Zone at the end of this year. No sales, no profit, no customers, but you are made to pay different kinds of taxes. No electricity,. We burn our generators day in day out. This is ridiculous and sad”.
Mr. David Agouwa , a resident of Adiabo community where the Zone is sited,, said “I am yet to see the benefit of Tinapa. No business, no job and yet government had sunk billlions of Naira into the place. He called on the Federal government to come and take over the place like it had done in some moribund companies recently,”.
Sounding very optimistic, the General Manager of Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort, Mr. Francis Ekom, stated categorically that Tinapa can work again if both Federal and State governments can streamline and stabilises its policies.. Some of ithe challenges are policy summersalt by the Federal government.
“As I speak with you, there is this Tinapa/AMCOM ownership committee existing. The state government is working to see how the issue of management can be resolved. There has also been expressions of interests for investing here by different organisations. They have been coming. Some from us and some from the state government and so the possibility of Tinapa bouncing back is really high. I don’t think that is as serious or difficult than addressing the issue of policy summersalts that is the one that totally outside our control.. Yes, we can discuss terms, negotiate with would be investors and agree at some point, but we have no control over what policies that may arise or may come from Government on the Free Zones, but we are hoping that government would take a look at that and improve upon their supports for Free Zones in the country”
“We had implemented rent free policy here for a long time. When people tell you they can’t afford to pay even statutory charges which we cannot wave because the are statutory, it is an indication of the fact that they are not serious business people. Every business should be able to pay itself even its overheads even when rent is free, then the person should take a second look to his business module, maybe, it is faulty and they cannot blame the management in that aspect otherwise we have been known to have waved every that is waveable, he added”.
Leisure is another aspect we are encouraging investors to come and take a lo9k at to see the opportunity that abound there. We are equally marketing this aspect, in that there has been a down turn in this leisure sector in the state. So, frankly that has affected us. However, there is a team that is working on events for this Xmas festivities for the state government. The team has visited us here and we are on collaboration with them to see how one of the major events can be staged here in Tinapa.
Ekom said the loan repayment has not been the major problem. Yes, we have some debt, but between the state government and AMCOM that is been handled and that is not the most depletating factor as much as the issue of uncertainty. Before any investment is done, and I tell you that people who are interested in investing here because they know that the business model is still very sound.. There are people who are interested and any serious investor must make sure his investment is secured. And one way to do that is to ensure that the risk is minimized and part of that risk is the political risk etc.
According to the general manager, “the biggest problem in Tinapa for me is “uncertainity”. Uncertainty because we cannot tell people for sure what the Federal government would decide to do tomorrow. The bottlenecks are not something that we cannot resolve. But more importantly, the fact that the Free Zone is not fully protected, insulated from fiscal policies that government implements at short notice. Decisions are taken by fair and even zones that should operate like entities outside Nigeria itself are affected directly. So except government renews her interests in implementing the Free Zone Scheme and how will government do that by protecting operators. Now, if we had over time redirected people from smuggling to rather use their entry routes into the country instead of doing things illegally,, you subject yourself to due processes and all that then there would have been no need for us to shut the borders. It would have made the Free Zones more attractive. It would have only be someone who is irrational that would go and smuggle. We can provide those incentives here. We can continue to build on quality and the value of the incentives that we offered.”.
Frankly, “there should be a study on why people go to Benin Republic to smuggle in rice and cars to Nigeria. We can go to those places and make a list of those things that attracts them there and come back and replicate them in the Free Zones as guinea pigs or incubation centres to try out some of these things. That was what China did and when the were able to perfect it within their Free Zones the now implemented them in phases across the country. We can do that. We can find out what these incentives are and implement them in the Free Zones that we have.”.
Free Zones in Nigeria are not observing the laid down best practices like is done all over the world. This is our major problem.. People should learn to do things correctly and in accordance with the law and things will fine. With our Free Zones, we can colonialize Africa as a whole.. But are the incentives there working? Some have been found to be hollow incentives. We have found some to be not so viable to investors any more. Investors are even ready to pay taxes if we provide a conducive environment and if they are assured of certainty and a climate that takes them into cognizance. They insulated and they know thatbefore a policy is implemented that will affect them, they are given prior notice such that they will prepare. If the are stop the importation of certain products, they will need a lieu time of say about 90days, to six month to one year. By so doing, they can redirect their businesses, they can shut down in a systematic way or adjust, diverse from that business and get into another one to sustain their business.
This idea of waking up one morning with the news of new policies cannot drive a business. This style has thrown so many people out of jobs and yet there is no employment anywhere.
The problem of Tinapa is not Customs, but yes, customs is used to implement some of these policies that is how they came to have a bad name. It is more serious than that, our inconsistencies in policies is our major problem. It is not about Tinapa, if you take a tour of the very first Free trade zone in Nigeria, you will weep . If you go in there and see warehouses that have long been abandoned by policies that where not even sustained. In a flash the big companies were closed down. Billions of Naira have been lost..
Free Zones are very necessary especially as many countries had used the same system to develop their economies. Their economic policies can attest to this. We can use the Free Zones as a test case before we begin to implement in a wider economics sphere.
Efforts to get the Chief Press Secretary and Special Adviser on Media to the governor, Mr. Christian Ita proved unsuccessful .