New Telegraph

Lai Mohammed Made Nigerian Tourism Waste Land

As Muhammadu Buhari-led administration looks to finally bow out of office on May 28, with a new administration to be led by the President-elect, Senator Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, on May 29, takes over the reins of government it is only fitting to attempt a review of the administration in terms of its impact on Nigeria culture and tourism sector. It is on record that the All Progressives Congress (APC), Buhari’s party, came on board with the mantra of ‘change’ which got every Nigerian singing, with high expectations pervading the air.

This was for the simple reason that the previous government led by former President Jonathan Ebele Goodluck, was in every sense demonised and labeled a failed re- gime while the former president himself was cast in the garment of a ‘clueless’ president by Buhari and his cohorts before coming into office in 2015. On this score, Buhari came to the scene with a lot of promises and Nigerians looked to the rebirth of a new Nigeria; good governance and quick delivery of the promised golden egg.

However, Buhari and his team started on a slow pace as it took the president almost six months to appoint ministers to man the various ministries of the federal government. For the culture and tourism sector, expectations were high as well on the part of the various stakeholders, watch- ers and observers of the sector. However, that expectation was dashed in November 2015 when the then Ministry of Culture and Tourism, created by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, to drive development in the tourism and culture sector of the economy, was delisted from the roll of ministries of the FG while culture and tourism were merged with the Ministry of Information and renamed Ministry of Information and Culture, with tourism made as an appendage under the ministry.

What was even more disappointing for many of the stakeholders and Nigerians was the fact that the former spokesperson of APC, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, was named the minister for Information and Culture. This development was seen by many as bad omen for the sector as they have expected a minister with some level of business acumen, and experience in the culture and tourism space and not someone who over the years has cast himself in the mood of Paul Joseph Goebbels, who was the chief propagandist of the Nazi party in Germany then, and whose only major work was putting a spin on every news and development from the government, without necessarily serving the good of the people.

With this sad development, stakeholders in the sector had no choice but to wait with bathed breathe for what Mohammed, who unfortunately, had in the course of his service earned for himself in the public space the sobriquet of ‘Lair’ Lai Mohammed. Aware of the ill-feelings within the private sector, the federal government quickly moved to douse the fears by announcing that tourism would rank high as it listed it among the top six sectors of priority for the government. This news was received with a pitch of salt by the stakeholders, who were not in any way convinced by this declaration. This was not also helped by the fact that just like his principal, Buhari, Mohammed also started on slow pace as minister.

In the foregoing paragraphs, attempt shall be made to examine the performance of the minister in a very concise manner given the fact that he served for almost eight years on the scene, making him the longest tourism minister in the history of Nigeria (2015 and 2023).

Policy direction

The first major marker of the minister in this respect was the convocation of a national summit on culture and tourism in Abuja, which held between April 27 and 29, 2016 at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel. It was designed by the minister to give room for the various stakeholders in culture and tourism to dialogue and proclaim a roadmap that was to guide both the government and private sector in developing and promoting culture and tourism. In proclaiming the summit, Mohammed said, “We are aware that similar efforts have been made in the past, without an appreciable result.

The difference this time is our commitment and the different milieu provided by the national imperative to diversify the economy, amidst the crash in the price of oil. “We are not reinventing the wheel, since the creative industry has always been with us. What we are doing is to breathe life into the industry and allow it to become a major player in national development.’’ He further stated that, “We are aware that culture drives tourism, hence we intend to leverage heavily on our numerous cultural festivals in our efforts to boost tourist arrivals.”

Good and reassuring words from the minister though, unfortunately, his han- dling of the affairs of the sector thereafter proved otherwise. If one is to access the minister solely on the basis of this statement, putting in perspective the state of the sector in 2015 and what it is now in 2023, the obvious verdict is a failure, abysmal performance and disappointing, as the minister totally failed in giving vent to the promises he made.

The minister didn’t leave anyone in doubt that he was not interested in developing the sector other than making vain promises when you consider the fact that after a vibrant and robust dialogue during the summit and a communiqué that was supposed to serve as a roadmap produced the minister played his hand by setting up a committee to review the communiqué and make further recommendations.

Unfortunately, nothing was heard from the minister on the committee. In effect, the government and private sector groped in the dark with each doing what its deemed fit and best for its survival as there was no single document for all to fish from and work with in unity, with markers and timeline laid out for everyone to follow through.

Thereafter the minister went on to review the tourism master plan that was designed by the administration of former President Obasanjo. Some officials were flown in from the headquarters of the United Nations World Tourism organization (UNWTO) to assist in this regard. Sadly, the reviewed copy was never made public. Fixated on working with the UNWTO as if they have the magic wand, the minister also went ahead to invite another set of officials from the UNWTO to work the ministry and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and others on the implementation of the Tourism Satellite Account (TSA), which was also a product of Obasanjo’s regime under Franklin Ogbuewe, who was then the minister of tourism.

Again, that effort ended in futility as TSA has no bearing in the Nigerian environment, making it difficult to assess correctly the actual contribution of tourism to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as the NBS is left to devise its means to measure tourism receipts and revenues. This failure of not having verifiable data is the reason why Nigeria hardly features in the quarterly report of the UNWTO Barometre for Tourism, which is responsible for tracking global tourism receipts and revenues.

Tourist attractions/infrastructure

In terms of development of tourist attractions scattered across the country and tourism related infrastructure among others, none was impacted on within the eight years of Mohammed. Some examples will suffice in this instance. First is Obudu Mountain Resort, which by all metrics is Nigeria’s major landmark tourist attraction that can compete globally. But over the years, this resort has suffered majorly from poor access either by road or air.

The two major roads leading to the resort from Calabar, either through Ogoja end or Ikom axis, are in poor state except for the remedial repairs carried out occasionally by the state government. While by air, the Bebi Airstrip for years has suffered for lack of the right navigational equipment. The cost of fixing these are quite beyond the level of the state government and requires the attention of the federal government especially given the fact that the resort is home to a world class Presidential Lodge that has an helipad.

President Jonathan once made use of the resort while President Buhari also did once at the onset of his administration when it was used for the orientation programme of the newly appointed government officials. Other than these two instances, there is no record of the federal government visit to the resort and sadly too, is the fact that Mohammed never once visited the resort and it is doubtful if he knows the way to the resort.

Not just the resort, which has been neglected now but if he indeed he knows anything about Nigeria’s five top tourist attractions if asked to name them. Mention must also be made of Owu Waterfalls in Kwara State, the home state of the minister. Mohammed visited this waterfall twice, with a promise to create access road to the waterfall and transform it to a mega attraction.

Unfortunately, that promise was never kept just like the other promises he made, he was more accustomed to playing to the public gallery whenever you put a microphone to his mouth. It is also on record that the minister never one day presented any memo on the sector to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for consideration and approval. However, he was unashamedly delighted to announce to the country and the entire world the approval of projects on other ministries by FEC whereas his own ministry and sectors under him begged for help.

Engagements with private sector

Engagements with the private sector, which is the engine room of the development and promotion of tourism, as tourism is not- ed globally as private sector drive, were almost non-existence except for the national tourism and culture summit. It is on record that the minister neither initiated any programme/activity nor attended any event held by the stakeholders except when in 2017 he attended the Annual General Meeting of the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP) held in Lagos. Other than that it is difficult to pinpoint any other major tourism related event that the minister attended.

Parastatals’ activities

The same is also true of activities initiated by the different parastatals of the ministry. One of the major events of the sector is the annual World Tourism Day (WTD), which is observed globally through the UNWTO to celebrate and draw attention to the economic import of tourism. The only WTD celebration attended by Mohammed was the one held in Kebbi State in 2021 when he was turbaned by the Argugun Emirate. Not even the numerous events held by the National Council of Arts and Culture and National Institute of Hospitality and Tourism (NIHOTOUR), which consistently held major events yearly, attracted his majestic presence.

Poor supervision of parastatals

His failure and poor handling of the sector was not only obvious from the private sector perspective as he also extended this to the public sector with lack of proper supervision of the parastatals under him, such as NCAC, NTDC, NIHOTOUR and National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) to mention but a few. But for NCAC and NIHOTOUR who covered themselves in glory, the performance of the others was that abysmal that the minister himself was forced once to visit NTDC and read the riot act to the DG, unfortunately, nothing concrete came out of it.

Another glaring lack of supervision and lack of understanding of the workings of these parastatals under him was the fact that both NTDC and NIHOTOUR designed bills that were send to the National Assembly without either the input or knowledge of the minister, whose duty it is to supervise these agencies and offer policies direction and guidelines for implementation. These parastatals were allowed to run independently at the detriment of the sector to such extent that the recently passed Acts for NTDC, which has now transformed to the Nigerian Tourism Development Authority (NTDA) and NIHOTOUR totally out reached themselves in an attempt to gain supremacy over the sector, without recourse to the private sector, which is supposed to be the main driver of the sector.

Palliatives (COVID-19) era

Years 2019 and 2021 would remain in the annals of Mohammed’s regime as perhaps the worse because this was the era of COVID-19 when the world suffered a lockdown, with tourism indus- try the worse hit. Nigeria government provided palliatives to some sectors of the economy including aviation where some airlines and members of the National Association of Travel Agencies (NAN- TA) benefited. However, the case of culture and tourism was different despite Mohammed setting up a controversial palliative committee to recommend assistance for the creativity sector, a lexicon that became special to him, not a single grant was given to the sector despite the promises made by Mohammed and Buhari at various points.

At every point Mohammed and Buhari made telling references to the creative industry as a robust and major contributor to the economy and creator of jobs. Aside of this, no investment in whatsoever form was made by the federal government to improve the lots of the operators or the industry itself. So much for their commitment to the creative industry, this became the poster industry for the administration to score cheap popularity.

Foreign scene

While the domestic scene suffered largely from the poor handling of the minister and his warped understanding of the interplay and dynamics of the sector, he wasted the huge budgetary allocations of the sector on the foreign scene attending UNWTO events across the world and staging hosted buyers events of UNWTO, with huge ‘takeaway’ for the UNWO Secretary General, Zurab Pololikashvili and his team, who saw Nigeria as a windfall to reap bountifully, without impacting positively on the sector. Beside his constant presence at UNW- TO events in the company of two of his aides that have been tagged, the ‘two wise men of the ministry,’ it is on record that he hosted two major UNWTO events in Nigeria.

The first was the United Nations World Tourism Organisation/Commission for Africa (UNWTO/CAF) Meeting held in Abuja between June 4 and 6, 2018 while the second event was the first UNWTO Linking Tourism, Culture and Creative Industries Conference held at the National Theatre Arts, Iganmu, Lagos between November 14 and 17, 2022. The conference was boycotted by the organised private sector under the umbrella of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN).

The federation mounted a successful campaign both nationally and internationally against the event, including writing an open letter to Buhari. Before this auspicious conference, Mo- hammed had succeeded in curating a visit by Buhari and his team to the UNWTO headquarters in Madrid, Spain solely for a ‘meet and greet’ session with Pololikash- vili. It is sad to note that the country and its culture and tourism were the poorer for it as none of the various foreign engagements attracted any benefit to the country.

It is also on record that the three Nigerian culture houses in Brazil, China and Trinidad and Tobago, were all shutdown during Mohammed’s era. For years budgetary allocations were made to these cultural houses that were no longer in existence except in the books of the ministry. What is even more disheartening is the fact that throughout the years of his globetrotting, the minister never saw the need to open any channel of engagement or marketing of Nigeria tourism and culture with the outside world.

Rather it is on record that none of the parastatals under him, particularly NTDA, which has the responsibility for marketing Nigeria tourism both within the domestic and foreign scenes, carried out this function. The minister was not perturbed by this historic shirking of constitutional responsibility by himself and the parastatals. It is on record that the only two achievements that Mohammed crow about in eight years of wasting Nigeria’s resources hosting and attending UNWTO events were the promise by UNWTO to offer 100 scholarships to Nigerians and to establish a gastronomy institution in Nigeria. In the eyes of Mohammed and Pololikashvili, Nigeria and Nigerians are beggars and poor and can’t afford to train their manpower in tourism.

The question that begs for answer is what has become of the schools under NIHOTOUR that Mohammed is seeking to build a gastronomy school through the help of UNWTO in Nigeria? When as a matter of fact, the various campuses of NIHOTOUR spread across the six geo-political zones of the country, are in shambles and not fit to be called training schools. A visit to the Lagos campus of NIHOTOUR located somewhere in Moshalashi bus stop area in Mushin best depicts what the others are and a pointer to the failure of Mohammed and NIHOTOUR’s DGs over the year in expending judiciously the billions of naira allocated yearly to transform the institute.

Endnote

As shown from the scorecard of Mohammed at both the national and international levels, it is clear that as the longest serving minister of tourism in the history of Nigeria, he had the greatest opportunity to transform the sector but he rather chose to do otherwise as he was more interested in the appurtenances of the office and the perks that came along with it. As the minister of Information and Cul- ture, he was more of the megaphone and chief propagandist of the federal government. The Gobble of modern day Nigeria, allowing culture and tourism to suffer. He forgot the fact that he was the number one brand ambassador for Nigeria’s tourism and culture. Therefore, it is safe to save that Mohammed made Nigeria tourism a ‘wasted land.’

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