New Telegraph

Owerri: A city of fading nightlife

Background

Owerri, written as Owèrrè in Igbo language, is the capital city of Imo State and fondly regarded as the heartland of Eastern Nigeria because it is actually in the heartland of Igboland while the state, Imo, it is bordered by Anambra, Abia, and Enugu states as well as Rivers State. It is the Imo State’s largest city and boasts of three local government areas; Owerri Municipal, Owerri North and Owerri West, with an estimated population of about 1,401,873 as of 2016. History records that the city was founded in the 14 century by Ekwem Oha. It was one of the three known capitals of the defunct Republic of Biafra.

Nightlife

The city was once synonymous with colourful, fun filled and vibrant nightlife, referenced by a buzzing entertainment scene for that carefree ‘good life’. Years back, huge traffic into Owerri every weekend from across the country was a common scene, as fun-seekers and night crawlers from within and outside the state scrambled to get a taste of what was popularly known as the ‘Owerri hospitality’. However, that bustling night culture appears to be on the decline as happenings in the city and feelers from the operators of nightlife spots and residents suggest a dimming of its fortunes. So, what’s happening to Owerri’s nightlife? Is it truly fading, or is it transforming into something else?

Hotel boom, leisure bust

One undeniable fact is the explosion of hotels in Owerri. Every corner of the city seems to boast of at least one, making it the fastest-growing city for hotels in the country and particularly in the South-East. This boom can be attributed to several factors. When it all started, it was largely about accommodating fun-seekers who thronged the city every weekend from neighbouring states and far beyond. Gradually, the quality and standard of some of the guesthouses became their selling point as Owerri became a choice get-away leisure destination for many. Gradually, the fame of Owerri grew and for most corporate establishments that want to go on corporate retreat with their staff and also savour a relaxing environment for rich harvest of leisure, the destination of choice is Owerri, as the mere mention of the name strikes a mental note of leisure that tends to suggest: “we are going to take things easy for a while”. Also, Owerri’s cultural landmark, aesthetic beauty, rich culinary varieties and growing entertainment scene draw visitors from far and near, further boosting the need for hotels. Aside from the hotel boom, the story of Owerri’s nightlife is a lot more nuanced. Gone are the days of overflowing nightclubs and buzzing bars. While some popular spots still attract reasonable patronage, however, the overall scene has undeniably shrunk.

The decline

Before the April 5, 2021 prison break in Owerri, the situation was not entirely rosy, but immediately after the jail break, which saw no fewer than 2000 criminals and crime suspects escape the custodial facility, literally, everything about nightlife in Owerri went downhill. With the large number of criminals thrown back into the public space, crime and violent activities surged in the city by day and by night and many residents instinctively withdrew to the safety of their homes as night outings increasingly became a risky pastime. Beyond the security concerns in the South-East region there are other factors that contributed to the diminishing nightlife of Owerri. For instance, the general economic downturn affected disposable income, thereby impacting spending on leisure activities by either day or night. There is also the issue of shifting demographics. Owerri’s population is maturing, those who witnessed the city of Owerri that never slept are growing older while the younger folks that were raised in an era where kidnapping and forced disappearances are becoming normal, are largely opting for quieter evenings over late-night revelry. There is also the issue of competition from online entertainment portals. The rise of streaming services and online entertainment options are keeping many indoors unlike what the situation was previously. Presently, there are just about two thriving cinema houses in Owerri today, at a time most people are subscribed to Netflix. As such, most of these netizens watch all their movies at home instead of the big screens of the cinema.

Hoteliers adapting to the environment

The hotel boom may not directly reflect the state of nightlife, but it highlights Owerri’s potential as a tourist destination. Hotels are adapting to cater to different needs, offering business facilities, conference rooms, and family-friendly amenities. Areas like World Bank and New Owerri see a high concentration of hotels, catering to specific needs like business travellers and fun seekers interested in nightlife hotspots. Mr. Uchenna Anusiem of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel has his views on the matter. For him, there is a gradual but steady resurgence of the Owerri nightlife. He said: “The Owerri nightlife is coming back. It is only the press that tends to always portray the fear of incidents of the recent past. Rather than the emerging vivacious nightlife in Owerri. It’s not as bad as they think.” As for the hotel population in Owerri, Anusiem said: “Hotels in Owerri may be very many, yet very few. Brothels, taverns abound but well-run hotels are few in Imo. There is a management crisis in hotels in Owerri. Politicians in Owerri, when they make their money, they plunge it into a new hotel they do not know how to manage. ‘‘In recent times, not many of these politicians hand their hotels over to professionals to manage. Which is why management challenges are rampant in most of these hotels I am talking about? This is the reason a lot of these hotels are now up for sale, yet people are still investing in Owerri because of the already established culture and sentiments. ‘‘Government on its part is not helping matters. There is no genuine effort by the government to standardise the hotel and hospitality industry in the state. All that matters to them is the multiple taxing of hotels.”

Numbers

tell a story While the exact number of hotels in Owerri is still debatable, it is an acclaimed consensus that Owerri easily has the largest concentration of hotels in the SouthEast. Though the immediate past Commissioner for Tourism and Culture, Hon. Uche Ohia had offered that as of October 2022, hotels in Owerri were about 1, 250 in number; there are other estimates within the region of 1, 500 and 4, 500. Whatever is the case, these numbers point to the fact that there is a significant and thriving hospitality industry in Owerri, with a huge potential for growth.

Last line

Owerri’s nightlife scene may be a shadow of its former self, but it’s not entirely extinguished. It has transformed, adapted, and found a new niche. While the late-night frenzy may be fizzling out, pockets of vibrancy remain, catering to a more diverse and evolving audience. Meanwhile, the hotel boom suggests Owerri is still a destination in the making, with its own brand of charm waiting to be discovered. Whether the city reclaims its nightlife crown or forges a new identity, Owerri’s nightlife story is far from over.

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