It feels like a miracle. The second phase of the multi-purpose Arua Stadium is almost complete marking a new era for West Nile.
The outside wall which forms most of the work is nearing the roofing phase which represents a major milestone for the development of the 9.7 acre piece of land.
For many decades, West Nile has earned the right as the capital city of football talent in Uganda but such immense talent could not be recreated in real terms.
Huge capital investment normally sets real progress in motion, but West Nile continued to suffer a talent drain with many prospects literally heading south.
Earlier efforts by teams like Arua Central to capitalize on the abundant talent were spooked with challenges of maladministration.
According to John Aita, the chief executive Joadah Consult, a local construction company with mega projects across the country and an African presence, “no amount of convincing could make any investor come to West Nile. It was a laughing matter even by our Arua businessmen.” A valuable venture of a football revolution Onduparaka started. “With the massive support of fans in the stadium, it was apparent that something had been missing in West Nile. Soon all eyes turned to West Nile and Onduparaka ruled the football world,” Aita said.
But the engineer-turned businessman had to think globally from the start when he took over Dove All Stars from lawyer Gilbert Buga and partners.
Aita wants to market West Nile football for markets thousands of miles away.
Before Aita renewed the hopes of West Nile, there were two main teams followed – Onduparaka and the Provincial team that plays in the annual Drum tournament. Onduparaka ended up creating a great brand which it failed to sell while the Drum acts like a dating service for the football powers.
Aita thinks he has a shortcut to the foreign markets. Even before the team starts the real action in the Big League where they face a humongous task of qualifying to the Premier League, he has tried bootstrapping. His connections have landed him partnerships with Egyptian side Wadi Degla as well as Israeli’s FC Ashdod. In the sense, Aita is tackling the stifling role of shifting the business outlook of football.
A great experiment
The watershed moment for Aita is through construction of a 20-seater stadium to a tune of $10m.
The Arua Hill ground which had gone to the dogs, will hopefully paint a glittering picture of Arua’s skyline by 2021. “During a corporate league game, a person I know was bruised badly. He missed some days at work. This was a wake-up call that I am answering,” Aita said.
Paidha Black Angels, probably the club with the biggest fan base in West Nile, was taught an invaluable lesson about the price of dependence. They had to move from Zombo to Arua for their league games causing them significant financial loss while blowing away home advantage before they got relegated from the Premier League.
“I knew if I had to invest in football, I had to invest in infrastructure,” he says. Like many facilities owned by local governments, he had to convince Arua District administration to hand him a 49-year lease on condition that their newly formed Arua City FC (formerly Diamond Stars) will also use the ground for their West Nile Regional league games. It was a bargain since Arua City will take over the facility at the expiry of the lease.
He has devoted tremendous resources to the project. In order to make it sustainable, what Aita calls a ‘living stadium’. Naming the facility, Arua Stadium Business Park, the stadium will have a four-star hotel, apartments, state-of the art medical facility, bank, supermarket and shops.
He has sold out more than 80 per cent of the available space to local businessmen as the project enters its final stages. But he has had to overcome bias within the West Nile business community. He approached many prospects to buy space yet many turned a blind eye. These prime spaces were available for Shs100m for 49 years.
“This stadium is not about who is who in Arua because surprisingly ordinary people own most of the space,” he said.
Long-term stability means shifting the business paradigm from a charitable cause toward industry.
Joadah Consult is dedicated to pursuing innovation focusing on first-rate urban design, streetscape and public spaces. The stadium has a shopping centre with 300 shops located along the highway to Kampala with emphasis on the principles of healthy community building.
Survitec, a subsidiary of Joadah provided the planning approach, urban design and landscape architecture for the facility and surrounding streetscapes. The space is layered with facilities for other sports including basketball and basketball, a rock bar and play area.
The facility is expected to keep generating revenue as a multi-purpose property with residential, retail, hotel and office space.
“It was important to invest in a thorough planning process. The imprint started as an in-house assignment and I am very proud of what we have all collectively created for the city.”
The excitement about the stadium is creating fears. For a long time the political leadership was always out of sync with the project.
There were concerns over the close proximity to the narrow road arguing it was so close to the highway.
The authorities were also stuck with the earlier deal of the eco-city plan that was aimed at establishing a 40,000-seater Inzikuru Stadium in Barifa.
The joint partnership between Development Model for Africa (DMA) and Joadah Consult signed in 2012 was moved to Bionas, a consortium of 26 Malaysian and six Chinese companies, for implementation. But every criticism left some progress behind, says Aita. “This is how we refined our architectural plan,” he says.
With top sides emerging in West Nile, including Mvara Boys, Onduparaka, Arua City and Arua Hill, fans will be spoilt for choice. But by recruiting players and administrators from Onduparaka, it looks like a direct assault to the Caterpillars’ legacy. Aita disagrees though. “We can co-exist. Arua is now a city and having more teams is healthy,” he says. “We shall distinguish ourselves with an attractive brand of football.”
Rogers Jakisa, a football fanatic says “I don’t believe in football stadiums surrounded by shops because it loses its primary purpose.” Aita though says businesses are key to sustainability.
But after decades of frustration, the main job is done to the great benefit of the city and West Nile. Sports enthusiasts are hailing the progress. Stanley Turu, a tennis coach said “I am sure it is not a mirage”.
But the point that Arua Hill should and must grow itself faster is crucial. Hussein Mbalangu, whose major credentials are in Somalia has been handed the baton to fix the inevitable golden chase of the Premier League promotion while former KCCA backroom staff Bosco Dudu and Joseph Kiwanuka head the challenge to find the next superstar.
Mbalangu has been granted his wish and he has recruited heavily including the likes of West Nile hero Caesar Okhuti, Rashid Agau (Maroons), Dan Birikwalira (Vipers), John Adriko (Vipers and Express), Alfred Leku and Mike Kawooya (Tooro), among other experienced legs. But the team must grow through the stages.