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What stake does the former Governor of Abia State, Senator Theodore Orji, have in Abia Mall and other companies currently under investigation by the EFCC? What is behind the growing trend of empty shops and low patronage of the cinemas in the malls nationwide? Nduka Nwosu reports.
The visitors from Lagos were anxious to convince themselves that Umuahia, after many years of underachievement and underdevelopment as rising state capital was beginning to offer something that gives cause for cheer. The expectation had been the attraction of new investments in property and infrastructure development including good roads, hotels, new layouts, improved water distribution and provision of constant electricity.
The evidence was looking more convincing with the relocation of the old market to a new site. The main township with quaint, derelict structures covered with rusty zinc roofs of many decades, still represents the difference between the old and the new.
Gradually and noticeable is a new, urban metropolitan city unfolding with shiny zinc roofs, a palpable panorama of hope complementing quality roads coated with bitumen, well-laid curbs and gutters demarcating neatly paved corridors that lead into exotic condos and a two-star hotel.
Starting with the World Bank Road, the new Umuahia describes a delicate brand of architectural layout. In the years ahead, this unfolding beauty will definitely redefine the old status of Umuahia as the most backward state capital of the South-east.
Nothing tells the story better as the Government House that remains a rented apartment to this day. In his tenure, Governor Theodore Orji initiated a number of projects including the emerging new city, a new Government House, which his administration left uncompleted but obviously meant to correct the anomalies left behind by previous administrations.
Again the people were not impressed for the simple reason that those who had been privileged to govern Abia had been held in contempt for under-developing the state. So try the much he could, Orji who served a master that was considered a major disaster in the state’s development, has lived with that nemesis, his achievements notwithstanding.
His job expectations were cut out to be below average no matter how far he would go. His achievements were like a drop of water in the ocean. That his first three years in office were complicated by the dominant presence of the immediate past governor did not help matters until he dragged the bull out of the lion’s mouth.
It is a fair deal that Orji was able to reactivate the Ada Palm Plantation and rev into action an agricultural policy reminiscent of the agrarian revolution philosophy of the last Premier of Eastern Nigeria, Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara, through the cassava plantation for primary process and the export market.
Unfortunately for reasons of land ownership, the farm settlements were not revived but Orji set the motion for industrial revival on course. The glass factory in Aba, the Golden Guinea Breweries, the Ceramic Industry, and a host of other industrial set-ups were structured along the path of private equity participation or outright sale to investors.
Sadly the road network of the state and the re-building of Aba as an industrial base woven with a 21st-century infrastructure development remains an issue. Aba has failed to capture the dream of an industrial village stretched into Port Harcourt as one huge industrial district as conceptualised by Okpara.
What could be described as the climax of Orji’s signature projects have been reversed by time and turned against him. Nothing tells the story better than his present predicament with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
According to the special investigator of economic crimes, some of these projects including others outside Umuahia, belong to the former governor, even with the state government denying this with clarifications in 2016 and presently.
Abia Mall, one of his signature projects, was referenced by the commission as his property, contrary to what the public is meant to believe. The mall’s problems were compounded for defaulting on its debt obligations. Citizens woke up one morning to see the mall sealed by a receiver-manager, MSI Global Alliance, appointed by a federal high court over a loan repayment dispute between the management of the mall and Ecobank Nigeria Plc.
Surprisingly, there are those who insist with a messianic sense of devotion to Senator Orji, that he does not own Abia Mall, Jetac Hotel and the other projects that come under a property development company Trademore.
According to one of the sponsors of Abia Mall who would rather remain anonymous for now, “Orji is proud of Abia Mall because it was done under his administration.”
Well, the coming of Shoprite to Nigeria became a class act for many states whose governors were able to meet the requirements inclusive of the provision of land in a prime area of town in addition to the stakeholders. However, this was not without its consequences. The popular belief at a point was that these governors sealed the partnership where the South African brand, Shoprite, was a key partner.
Tayo Amusan, Chairman of Persianas, a property development company, gave Nigeria its first taste of Shoprite, which is South Africa’s as well as Africa’s largest food retailer quoted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), and domiciled in the Palms Shopping Complex. Perhaps the coming of Shoprite to Ikeja was the first time a former state governor was openly associated with its ownership.
Nobody knew Amusan had extended his dominance in the mall business to Enugu where it set up the Polo Mall as well as Ilorin, Ota and Ibadan malls. The mall at Ibadan pioneered by Governor Alao Akala was temporarily halted by Governor Abiola Ajimobi, who suspected the project belonged to Akala as part of his settlement package on his way out of Government House Ibadan.
After a series of investigations, it became apparent Akala had no personal stake in the mall, compelling Ajimobi to endorse the project’s execution. Bad media, it seems, has not been fair to Orji. Some say he is a victim of the negative effects of bad media. But that did not explain the problems the mall experienced in its journey so far. Insider sources revealed Shoprite initially declined to be part of the mall as a brand leader whose Nigerian presence in The Palms, Polo Park Enugu, the ICM Ikeja, Kwara, Ota, Abuja and Ibadan, Warri et al, were already reaping the right returns.
Umuahia was considered a civil service town with little prospects for high profile patronage; there was also the issue of security which even the critics of the governor acknowledge was top of his achievement in office. Orji cleared the state of kidnappers and criminals paving the way for Shoprite to re-assess Umuahia as a viable location for business. Abia at this time was ranked the most secure state of the South-east.
The mall project became a strong selling point for investors coming to Umuahia. The idea was if you point to Shoprite Owerri, Polo Mall Enugu, ICM Ikeja or Warri Mall, Umuahia would be proud to showcase the Abia Mall. Shoprite Umuahia as part of the new modern mall complements Genesis Cinema for weekenders.
Families spend a good time at the mall on weekends, shopping, eating and drinking. It was a total package showing the state capital was heading for a positive change. Before the takeover, the prospects were high and business by the admission of management was good.
In its first week of operation, Shoprite was said to have posted N400 million. At the launching of the mall, both Abia Governor, Okezie Victor Ikpeazu, and Senator Orji were present. Governor Ikpeazu could not hide his excitement when he said the mall would open opportunities for business between Abia State and the rest of the world.
Abia, he said, has joined the long list of states in Nigeria that can boast of a Shoprite and a modern mall in the country. That was a good moment to market made in Aba goods, in particular the leather products that have produced impressive high-quality brands in the country and the sub-region.
Expectedly, he poured encomiums on his benefactor Senator Orji whose administration started the project and many others. His government, he said, had many reasons to be proud of Orji. Orji said he was elated to see the formal opening of the mall which was the product of a memorandum of understanding between the Abia State Government and a group of investors.
That was an opportune moment for him to personally debunk the rumour making the round that he had a vested interest in the mall or was actually the owner of the mall and did not own a section of the shops or any shop at all. He was happy that Ikpeazu, the Amuzukwu community that provided the land and other partners were able to sail through the problems the mall faced to make it a dream come true.
Group Managing Director of Eco Bank, Charles Kie, said the bank’s support was part of its policy asserting that banks have been the leading financial partners in most of the shopping malls where Shoprite is the brand leader with state governments providing the land. Kie noted it was the bank’s policy to support projects that stimulate development and provide jobs for the people, adding that Abia Mall fell in that category.
There was an assurance of a rosy future ahead. That rosy future experienced a somersault too early in the day. Nigerian banks until recently when private investors from South Africa came with their funds have been at the vanguard of funding these projects but Abia Mall at a point was problematic attracting a fund partner to itself.
Fidelity Bank funded Polo Park Mall Enugu; StanbicIBTC and Fidelity funded Ibadan Ring Road Mall. Fidelity and Sterling Bank, which had a different name then, funded Ilorin Mall. When it came to Umuahia, no bank was willing to come on board. They felt that Umuahia was too small, was a civil service capital with minimum commercial activity now and in the future.
Umuahia was rated as not having the resources to attract the big brands such as Spar Park and Shop, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, T.M. Lewin, Niki, McLaren, Hugo Boss, Health Plus, and the middle to lower tier brands. Well, the medium tier brands were willing to do business with Abia Mall and when the big masquerade Shoprite appeared on the scene, that negative image of Umuahia waned.
According to insider sources, that explained why the investors welcomed Ecobank in spite of their disagreements.
“We disagreed and were lucky to find Ecobank which expressed willingness to fund the mall with certain conditions which we met. The funding started in 2014 and ended in 2016. I don’t want to go into the problems we had with them because they were many. They made a lot of mistakes that caused us big money.”
The problems of Abia Mall beyond the trending interest in ownership and whether sleaze money was used to fund its establishment are the problems of malls across the country and the globe. High rents and low patronage make it difficult for even high profile tenants with globally recognized brands to meet their obligations.
Pre-COVID-19, Bala Augie who covered the court sealing of Abia Mall reported the growing downturn in Nigerian malls and its international counterparts. If, for example, Johnson Chukwu of Cowrie Assets Management Corporation Limited attributes the low turnover of Abia Mall and its empty shops to low patronage from a civil service populated state capital, it does not tell why the malls housing Shoprite Apapa and Surulere are not only affected by the downturn in the economy but also by the Apapa gridlock in the case of Shoprite Apapa.
Apart from the Palms and ICM Ikeja, the story is the same. Senator Ben Murray Bruce chairman of the Silverbird Group who pioneered the return of the big screen movie in the country said the cinema culture was nailed by the pandemic, asserting that with a trickle of moviegoers managing to keep the culture alive, sustaining the industry was no longer realizable in the short run.
Augie’s report noted over 14 chains in the United States said they would seek court protection as retailers such as Apparel Retail, The Limited Wet Seal, BCBG Max Azria, and Vanity Shop of Grand Forks asked for protection while top retail company Fleetwood filed for bankruptcy.
Why was Abia Mall so celebrated as if that was the only achievement of the Orji administration? The fact is the opposition has least been impressed because Orji’s efforts left the minimum impression to make a difference. After all, previous military and civilian governors of the state misgoverned Abia and were unable to exploit the vast resources appropriated from her internally generated revenues and the federation allocation account since its creation in 1991.
So why does EFCC believe Orji owns Abia Mall? An insider who was in the management team of the mall, said, “I think it is a very simplistic way of looking at things. The most common thing the average Nigerian does is to attribute any development in a particular place or state to personal interest. The difference is that there are people in Nigeria who do things the correct way. They follow the rules. They dot their ‘Is’ and cross their ‘Ts.’ There are many people in Nigeria who work that way.
“But public opinion is jaded. Some people don’t believe a governor can attract business to his state without having a vested interest in such a business. The names of the investors are recorded by the Corporation Affairs Commission (CAC) and Orji is not one of them.”
Some argued Orji could have used a proxy, which is why Trademore came into the play.
The source added, “Trademore however put up a strong argument contesting that it has been in business long before Abia Mall and even before its interaction with the state government.
“There are people who go out of their way to undermine people like Orji. What EFCC has done is to potentially derail the progress report from these malls. That mall has provided employment immaterial of who owns it; it is providing its share of taxes to that state, not to mention the positive image it has brought to the state.
“I just feel the EFCC should do more homework and cross-check its facts before going public. I can tell you for a fact as the promoter of that project, Ochendo does not have a stake in the mall. He does not own it.”
EFCC thinks otherwise. According to the commission, it has traced some property suspected to be from the proceeds of fraud to the former Abia governor. The spokesman for EFCC, Dele Oyewale, had earlier granted the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) an interview, stating that the Mall and other property it seized including those belonging to Trademore could be traced to the senator.
The EFCC spokesman had said, “Ongoing investigation confirms there was alleged financial malfeasance by the former governor.”
The sealed properties include the mall, Benac Hotels and a housing estate on the premises of the demolished old market, which Trademore claims is its property. Going by its previous track records, the EFCC is being asked to trade with caution before it hits a cul de sac as it has happened several times after celebrating the equivalent of a scoop and then proceeds on a media trial that often leads to nowhere except to rubbish the image of the alleged culprit.
This, critics of the commission pointed out, is the lot of many politicians who fall into the net of the investigative body that has failed to do a thorough job before headlining its exploits.
Oyewale added: “Our investigations show that the property belongs to Theodore Orji. We cannot give a time frame within which to charge him to court because our investigations are always thorough and very diligent.
“The sealed properties are proof of the ongoing investigations and the probe will determine if more will be sealed.”
Orji, who represents Abia Central Senatorial Zone in the National Assembly, was Abia governor between 2007 and 2015. He had been under investigation by the anti-graft agency since 2018 for allegedly misappropriating over N48 billion. This followed a petition by a group, Fight Corruption: Save Nigeria.
The former governor has repeatedly denied any wrong doing.