The government and businessman Sudhir Ruparelia are finalising a joint venture blueprint to build a modern Convention Centre at Commonwealth Speke Resort Munyonyo to host the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit later next year.
The architectural designs and bill of quantities for the engineering works are still being prepared, but the construction is estimated to cost $40m (Shs140b), multiple sources with working knowledge of the project have told this newspaper.
It is unclear how much each side will invest, considering that Mr Sudhir owns the land, with Finance Minister Matia Kasaija saying the government lacked enough money to build its own convention centre on its land.
“It is an urgent project, and a lot of money is needed which will be difficult for government [to muster at short notice]. [The] government does not have all the money. There are many things we have to do; so, if we find a partner, it is easier,” he said.
He added: “We are undertaking the project in partnership with Sudhir. [The government puts in] and Sudhir puts in money. The architects are still calculating, and then we will know how much government, and Sudhir are going to pay. If we go together in business, when it starts to make money, we share the profits.”
In 2006, the government advanced about Shs8.8b to Meera Investment, the property development arm of Sudhir’s business conglomerate, to build 59 presidential suites at present-day Commonwealth Speke Resort Munyonyo in Kampala to accommodate Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) delegates in November 2007.
The then State minister for Regional Cooperation, Mr Isaac Musumba, told Parliament that the cash constituted 25 percent government equity in the investment, an arrangement which legislators found problematic since the law did not authorise the Auditor General’s office to audit investments in which the government held less than half stake.
The new proposed joint venture, which is happening without a public bid call or parliamentary scrutiny, mirrors the 2006 arrangements preceding Chogm. We were unable to establish if the planed partnership conformed to public procurement rules.
The 2006 joint venture deal ended with Sudhir telling Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (Pac) on April 19, 2010 that Shs13b that the government injected to build a marina and roads at his Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo was unsolicited, and non-income generating, since it simply upgraded his existing marina.
It remained unclear whether a number of new world-class hotels built in the last 15 years since Uganda hosted Chogm do not have adequate presidential suites to accommodate the expected delegates.
Our investigations reveal that President Museveni, cautious to avoid a repeat of venue debacle during the Chogm that Uganda hosted in November 2007, informed Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja to expedite a process for Uganda to have its own national conference centre.
According to highly-placed sources, Ms Nabbanja convened an executive meeting early this month, attended by Sudhir and technocrats from the ministries of Finance and Works led by their respective permanent secretaries.
That meeting was also attended by Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, who lobbied for Uganda to host the NAM summit.
The Movement comprises 120 countries that are not aligned to any of the rival eastern and western power blocs and it was founded during the Asian-Africa meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955.
In its early years, NAM pursued decolonisation.
However, it has in the post-independence period morphed into a powerful bloc — second in numerical strength to the United Nations — to advocate for political and economic rights as well as canvassing positions of member countries on global affairs.
It is leaders of these countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, with observer China and Russia, who are expected to convene in Kampala in November 2023 for the Movement’s summit that due to the Covid pandemic disruptions was last held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in October 2019.
“To host NAM, you need state-of-the-art facilities like first-class accommodation and dining facilities, and a convention centre, which is being planned for at Speke Resort Munyonyo,” Amb Ayebare said last night.
As a follow-up of the early February meeting, Sudhir on Saturday hosted Prime Minister Nabbanja alongside minister Kasaija at his resort where a cross-section of government technocrats and Sudhir’s employees thrashed out details of the project, including previewing the architectural designs.
In one tweet on Saturday, the resort noted the arrival of Ms Nabbanja and Mr Kasaija at the venue and in another, accompanied with photographs, added that “site plan for the new Speke Resort Convention Centre happening now in Albert Hotel”.
We were unsuccessful to speak to the premier despite multiple attempts, while Mr Sudhir, when asked about the rationale and details of the planned joint venture last evening, curtly said: “Leave me out of this”.
Sources familiar with the discussions said the project is to comprise a 3,500-seat ultra-modern auditorium, a suspended restaurant overlooking Lake Victoria, while additional presidential suites will be created with smaller conference rooms for sideline meetings during the NAM summit.
In the initial meeting, Prime Minister Nabbanja reportedly suggested that the proposed project should be undertaken under the pre-Chogm government-Meera Investment joint venture framework, but technocrats raised a red flag.
She had reportedly also talked down experts who pressed the necessity to follow public finance management rules, discounted a suggestion to do soil-testing at the site to determine construction needs and vowed to report anyone who “sabotages” the Convention Centre works directly to the president.
According to three officials with knowledge of the meeting, Mr Sudhir told the government side that it would take him 18 months to build the Convention Centre, and it was up to the bureaucrats to expedite the process if they wanted the works completed ahead of the November 2023 NAM summit.
Negotiations during the Saturday meeting at Commonwealth Speke Resort Munyonyo reportedly centred on how much each party to the proposed joint venture will invest in the project, the asset’s management as well as profits/loss sharing.
Officials are also racing against the clock to finalise a memorandum of understanding, and joint venture contract.
The Commonwealth Speke Resort Munyonyo is a private, five-star resort owned by Sudhir’s Ruparelia Group, and often hosts major government and international events.
Sitting on a 90-acre expansive land overlooking Lake Victoria, the resort, according to information on its website, currently has 19 conference halls and five outdoor spaces for conferences.
Minister Kasaija said after the Saturday event that “mistakes” were made during preparations for Chogm, and that they are this time taking proactive action to ensure a facility befitting 100-plus heads of states and governments is in place ahead of NAM summit.
“We are expecting 126 heads of state for the NAM conference. We have to set up a befitting conference centre where they can deliberate. We are planning, and we will be successful,” he said.
In the run-up to, and after the November 2007 Chogm, big corruption scandals broke out, leading to prosecutions and imprisonments.