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Oh No! Bintumani all over again

 

 

 

 

 

missing pictureBintumani Conference Center interior. Aberdeen. Freetown, Sierra LeoneBack in the late seventies, when the Bintumani Conference Center was being constructed as part of the preparations for the 1980 OAU Heads of State conference hosted in Freetown there were high hopes for it. It was a state-of-the-art facility, we were told, that would attract high-profile gatherings from all round the West African region; it would boost the economy by encouraging big businesses to meet and invest here; it would help to sell Sierra Leone to the outside world. The reality proved considerably different. In its 34 years of existence the Conference Center has been largely unutilized, hosting just a handful of events, most notably “Bintumani 1” and “Bintumani 2”, the (domestic) conferences that helped to end military rule in 1996. Some time after these, the facility fell into disrepair.

 Now after a massive facelift costing millions of dollars, the APC government of Ernest Bai Koroma is about to reopen what is described as a state-of-the art facility. We got a sneak preview of the building, unveiled in the accompanying pictures. Certainly no expense appears to have been spared in the renovation. The building has the proportions and finish of a palace. If it was grand before, now it is grandiose. The question as always is whether this type of facility can be made to work in today’s Sierra Leone; whether operating costs can be recovered from revenue, let alone repaying the initial capital investment. It is hard to see. One shudders to think of  the air conditioning costs for such a massive, enclosed building, the routine maintenance costs, the cleaning, the painting, the personnel. This building would need dedicated management and regular patronage from clients with deep pockets for it to be self sustaining. Without a government subsidy it is hard to see where the money will be coming from.

 

Even more concerning than the operating costs is the question of repayment of the initial investment.. Much of this came from NASSIT, the National Social Security and Insurance Trust, with money  paid into the Trust by tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans hoping and expecting to draw retirement benefits from the Trust .

 

missing headerKimbina Hotel interior, Aberdeen. Freetown, Sierra Leone Whilst at Aberdeen we took the opportunity to visit another NASSIT project, the newly renovated Kimbima Hotel, formerly owned by businessman Sam King, just a stone’s throw from the Bintumani Conference Center and also apparently soon to be reopened. It has been redecorated in similar lavish style and expanded. It reportedly was running at a large loss some years back before it closed, forcing Sam King to sell to NASSIT. It is not known what strategies NASSIT, who are new to the hotel business, intend to employ to turn the hotel’s business around. President Ernest Bai Koroma apparently also has doubts. On April 22nd this year a release from State House announced the sacking of the Director-General of NASSIT, Sam Bangura, his deputy GibrilSaccoh (membership, finance, systems and technology) and the Investment and projects Director Idriss Turay. No reason was given for the sacking, but the strong suspicion was that it was in connection with poor investment decisions and/or corruption. No further announcement has been made on the matter. The sackings came shortly after President Koroma visited yet another investment by NASSIT at Aberdeen, the Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel, touted as Sierra Leone’s only five star hotel.

 

It is not clear how much NASSIT has pumped into these three projects all told, but it certainly runs into many millions of dollars. The latest (2012) Auditor-General’s report (available at http://www.auditservice.gov.sl/report/assl-auditor-general-annual-report-2012.pdf ) reveals that in 2010 NASSIT had about 2 million US dollars (equity and loans) in Kimbima Hotel. It had about 2.5 million US dollars invested in the Bintumani Conference Center. Since construction has been ongoing since 2010 these figures presumably have risen considerably.