A former managing Director of The Sun newspapers, Chief Tony Onyima is currently the Anambra State Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, he gives insight into the Ogbunike Cave project, the investors involved and what the host community stands to gain in the 250-million-dollar investment.
Why did it take this long for the state to develop the Ogbunike Cave?
Like you observed, the cave has been there for years and various government never gave it attention. Not because they didn’t know it existed, but perhaps they felt it wasn’t a priority then, but somebody came to power well prepared. I think the governor of Anambra State Chief Willie Obiano is one of the few governors, who came to power well prepared, in the sense that what he was going to do, was well articulated by a team he put together. That team has since metamorphosed into Anambra Think Tank group. A document was put together, with areas of emphasis; that’s how the Four Pillars of this administration came about, with 15 enablers, which include promotion and development of tourism. So, when he came to power, it was therefore logical that the blueprint should be implemented.
At what point was the decision taken?
Well, shortly after he (Gov. Obiano) inaugurated his cabinet, one of the charges he gave the commissioners is that they should take a copy of the blueprint and study to see how it affects their different ministries. What that means is that it is your duty, as the commissioner, to expand and begin to enunciate policies to implement those items in the blueprint. Therefore, Ogbunike Cave is one of the heritage cites that we just decided to develop to see what we can do with this God-given gift and create a product out of it. The site has been there for ages; what is not there is a product. Locally, people know it, but you can’t market it worldwide.
What level of development is going on at the cave and how did you arrive at the investors?
What we are doing now is to simply tell the world this is what we have and there are number of investors around the world, who are looking for such things. First, we visited the community to explain to them what we need to do with the cave, with the objective of securing their support. Then, we advertised it in the media. After that, we got a number of interests, which was channeled to the Anambra State Investment Promotion and Protection Agency (ANSIPPA). They looked at it and selected two of them, who were later subjected to further analysis. Today, I can assure you that we are ready to work with one of them. In fact, few days from now, we will be signing MoU with Finance Development Agency.
In selecting the investor, did you consider the track record and credibility of the firm?
Of course, that was why we went through the processes I explained earlier. In fact, they have even put together two American companies, who have developed world-class tourist sites across the globe, as technical partners; one of them developed Disneyland. They are coming from the US to help execute this project. Once the MoU is signed, they will design, build, operate and transfer. However, a special vehicle will be formed between the state and the investors. With that, they will invest their money in the project; the state will not finance it. We are hoping that once the MoU is signed, we will move into final agreement and then set up the implementation committee for work to commence.
Can you give us an idea of what to expect when the project is completed?
The bottom line of this project is job, job, job! It’s going to create a lot of jobs for Anambra youths. Again, with this project, Anambra will be on the destination map all over the world because what we are going to do there is very ambitious. We will have leisure area with theme park, hotel, game reserve, cable car, waterfall and the rest. At the last meeting, we were considering if they could do a small golf course there too. The idea is to attract international conferences and all that. Once that project takes off, Anambra will not be the same again.
Some community members have raised the issue of compensation over their lands, what is the government doing on this?
There’s no problem about land; what the government has done is to acquire all the surrounding lands through the Ifite Village. We have taken time to explain the long-term benefit of what the government is trying to do and they bought into it. On the whole, we have about 40 hectares of land there; 20 is what we consider heritage land, which is close to the cave. Because that cave is a UNESCO site, we don’t want to touch the natural environment. However, the investors will develop that area as it is; they will explore the cave and make in habitable so that people can go in and come out, without distorting the natural setting. It is envisaged that the heritage area will be fenced off. The other 20-hectare is where you will have the leisure area. It will create comfort around the cave, while the cave itself remains the main attraction. We don’t have a problem with the community as regards land.
Do they have a stake in this project?
The MoU that we have already put in place takes care of their interest; the equity structure is very simple. The state government will have 25 per cent, while the investor will take 75 per cent. Out of that 25 per cent, Oyi LGA has 5 per cent, Ifite Village, has 5 per cent, while three percent of the net profit will go to the entire Ogbunike community to be spent on CSR. With this kind of arrangement, a very forward-looking community will embrace the project with open arms. When it comes to jobs, there are certain jobs they will have the first right of refusal. So, we don’t have problem with the community, their interest is protected.
Are you saying those who gave their lands will be compensated?
The important thing is that they have embraced the project; every other thing will be detailed when the special vehicle is set up. Whatever name the company will bear, the company will sit down and work out the details of compensation; we can’t be discussing that now. When the company is properly structured, based on the framework already established, they will take it up from there.
In essence, you are assuring that their interest will be protected?
It’s already taken care of, if not, we can’t be telling the investor to give this percentage equity to the host community, it has never been done before. This is a novel arrangement in Nigeria, where from day one, it is written in the MoU that percentage equity is given to the community, without paying anything. From day one, they own 5 per cent of the company; I think it’s more enduring than giving keke or whatever that the youths are interested in now. So, their interests have been taken care of from day one.
What’s the level of work so far?
Well, in the MoU, responsibilities have been shared. Some of the things that the government has undertaken to do is to open up the place. A number of road contracts have been awarded; if you go there, work is in progress. So, with the roads in place, it will be easy for the proper construction to commence. This is a massive project with the initial investment of about 250 million dollars. For now, Ogbunike Cave Theme Park and Resort Limited, has been selected as tentative name of the company.
Anambra is synonymous with trading, but there are tourism destinations scattered all over the state. Are there plans to further develop the tourism sector of the state?
As soon as we get Ogbunike Cave right and it takes off, using the template, we will work on other sites in the state. The second place we will be developing is the Owerre-Ezukala Waterfall. We’ve decided to take them piecemeal; that way, we will be able to make amendments if necessary. With that, the total map of the state will change; it will become a tourist destination. And with the airport that is also being envisaged in Emueri, the Asaba Airport and Enugu airport, it will be very easy to access the place.
What’s the input of the Federal Government in this project?
There’s no federal government input, as far as the development of the Ogbunke Cave is concerned.
But there were reports that the federal government had taken over the cave?
No, the only thing that happened is that UNESCO designated it as World Heritage Site. That was why we had to brief UNESCO on what we are trying to do with the cave. But as for taking over the cave, it’s not true.