Story and photos by MUSA JIBRIL
From dawn to dusk on September 17, 2017, the newfangled Abuja Arts and Crafts Village was a bustling beehive, a kaleidoscope of everything cultural, a parade ground where arts, crafts, and enterprise are displayed to the maximum. On that day, the curtain was drawn on a 21-day exposition with a colourful ceremony headlined by Kogi State cultural troupe, but dominated by the creativity and champ quality of Kaduna State. The art and craft festival was a seasonal outing. But the 2017 edition was starkly different. To the teeming artists, craftsmen, connoisseurs, journalists, government functionaries––every discerning mind––at the occasion, they were witnessing the beginning of an impending change. And listening to the man in charge, their belief was further shored up, that the organiser of the expo, the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) as well as Nigeria’s cultural fortune, is on the threshold of a golden era.
The 2017 African Festival of Arts and Crafts (AFAC) Expo, the 10th edition, was a befitting milestone, marked with extraordinary infrastructural transformation. For the first time, the exhibition was staged on its own asphaltic paved arena with standard collapsible pavilions, the completely tarred 1.5 metre venue, embellished with the 37 Cultural Wonders of the various states of the federation. The magnitude of work, the progressive leap and the paradigm shift that went into the transformation is better appreciated before and after photos of the site: once an ‘art and craft village of thatched mud huts;’ now upgraded to a standard that is at par with topnotch expositions like the World Travel Market (WTM).
Various efforts were made towards a 360-degree portrayal of true African traditions. For instance, the conventional ceremonial opening of events with tape-cutting rite was replaced by a calabash-opening ritual of the African tradition. In another instance, a traditional coiffure, Benue State’s Abahi hairstyle was adopted as the festival’s official hairdo for women.
What could pass into history as AFAC’s “Year of The Great Dawn” featured 16 states, over 250 exhibitors, eight African countries and uncountable tourists. Adire from Itoku, brass work from Bayelsa, Nok potteries from Kaduna, oil paintings by Nigerian female artists, leather shoes from Abia. There was a spectrum of Nigerian crafts.
Fashion, herbs and pottery from Cameron, Chad, Ghana and Gambia compete for attention with Senegalese boubou and bobgolanfini from Mali. Crafts from Sudan, South Sudan and Burkina Faso also could hardly be overlooked.
Officially opened on September 5, the fair, tagged ‘Nigerian Crafts: The Untapped Treasure,’ was a showpiece for artists, craft dealers, manufacturers and other stakeholders, a wholesome exchange web for trade, culture and skills, where Lebanese, Indians and Chinese mingled with Africans in pulsating transactional activities.
The 2017 AFAC expo unique in content, packaging and presentation, was reinvented with a gamut of value-added components such as free medical screening (blood pressure, sugar and BMI), skill acquisition programme and security apparatus that included the police, the Department of State Security (DSS) and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps. National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) stayed put for 21 days with three ambulances, one-firefighting truck and mini-clinic to handle emergency situations.
The result is far more impressive by figures: covered by 16 TV stations, each of the 21 days recorded an average of 1,000 visitors with the highest hit of 2,000 visitors in one day; the fair recorded 512 eye test, 620 dental tests and 200 free eye-glasses given out while 2,125 candidates got empowered with seven new skills and certificates.
Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Culture, Grace Isu-Gekpe, who officially opened the exhibition on September 5, conceded a week later “this is the best edition since AFAC started.”
The good news travelled fast and far to Bamako, Mali, where Aliyu Doumbia, who had been to the AFAC twice “almost did not come this year because of the way last year be.”
He arrived four days after the official opening of the festival. He said: “Na somebody call us say this year change dey o, say the person wey dey organise am, say them don change the person, say the person wey dey do am now don do fine, fine stands, make we try come.”
The revolution at AFAC did not happen in a vacuum. The force behind it was the new sheriff in town, National Council for Arts and Culture’s new director general, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe, who has set for himself the lofty goal of repositioning the expo as Africa’s biggest and best.
For Runsewe, the success of AFAC 2017 required neither an abracadabra nor a magic wand but purposive rebranding. “We carefully packaged in line with international best practices,” he said. “This is where my experience at international expositions such as World Travel Market came in handy.”
Why would he task himself with the big assignment of making AFAC the biggest art fair in Africa, given that AFAC is not listed among the 10 most impressive Arts and Craft fairs in Africa?
Runsewe’s belief in the power of branding is unshakeable.
The outcome of the just concluded fair––wrought partly by the alchemy of aggressive communication and marketing campaign––further boosted his resolve. He admitted the imperative of hard work.
Hard work was his habit. He started doing that as soon as he took the helm at the council. The exhibition had the unhonourable reputation of being staged on ‘borrowed’ grounds––such as the Old Parade Ground and Eagle Square––or bare and dusty ground of the NCAC permanent site, while in the intervening years, its allotted ground rot away, taken over by miscreants.
Under Runsewe, an invigorated NCAC dislodged illegal occupants, disinfected the art and craft village of riffraff, and took control and ownership of its permanent site, parts of which had already been appropriated by the government in the past and sold to business concerns. A part of the ground is leased to a private individual, which NCAC is contesting. So far, poached and purloined parcels of land had been reclaimed. A police post now stands in the village as a bold statement of intent.
“Once this programme closed, we would let everyone know that there is a new order in NCAC. We would go for the other portion of the land encroached upon,” declared Runsewe.
Good organisation, as displayed at the fair, is part of the transformation started by the new culture capo. In the Old Order, NCAC allocated space to states participating in AFAC to construct their stands, a process which at times took the first week of the fair. In the New Order, states arrive at the village to occupy already constructed pavilions. At this year’s festival, stands sold out in two days. Where there used to be four units of toilet facilities for the whole village, there were 30, and one VIP. No wheelbarrow-pushing vendor or hawkers were in sight. Visible were policemen and police dogs as deterrents to miscreants. Not a single case of pickpocketing or theft was recorded.
Runsewe’s change also encompassed orientation. A quick example: he discouraged the culture of exhibitors sleeping in their pavilion at the end of the day. “Three countries accosted me and said, why can’t they sleep here? And I said to them, why can’t you stay in a hotel? I told them they have to go somewhere and take hotels. That is how an economic system is built around international expos.”
The NCAC boss attributed his ability to pull off a successful exhibition barely three months in office to his abhorrence for half measures. “I never believe in doing any assignment without putting my best. For any assignment, my integrity is at stake. This is my first outing. I needed to put in my best so as not to disappoint those who have confidence in me so what I did in tourism would not be seen as a fluke or an abracadabra.”
He is proving himself the dynamo he was as the NTDC boss, igniting the sector, setting up domino effects, spreading his belief. Already, states are plugging into the cultural fuse. At the closing ceremony, Secretary to the Kogi State Government, Folashade Ariyike Ayoade ,stated her governor’s readiness to support the council. Similarly, Nasarawa’s Commissioner for Culture, who gave the council kudos for a job well done, also expressed government’s willingness to partner NCAC. Commissioner for Culture and Tourism Ogun State, Muyiwa Oladipo, shares the dream of NCAC boss that “arts and culture represents the future of this country.”
Runsewe was upbeat: “Next year we are changing it to INAC”––that is intercontinental.
What gave him such high hopes?
His words: “The Brazilians came there and the Chinese, they said you mean this is what you people want to do and didn’t tell us? We thought it was going to be like last year. At the time they came, there was no more room, for them and the other states.”
He is not perturbed by the absence of countries from north and south of Africa. He continued: “Last Tuesday, the Chinese and Japanese attaché came and said, we are coming next year. The number will increase next year. The objective this year is to set a brand identity.”
The foundation is already laid for the far-reaching changes he wants to entrench. Next edition will accommodate countries from around the world. That bears out his plan to turn AFAC to an intercontinental event.
Secondly, he prefers moving the date up the calendar to the early part of the year during the dry season when the weather is most favourable. So, the next AFAC could be in March 2018.
His third change is one of duration. Future AFAC would be reduced to a week or 10-day affair, including arrival and departure. “Exhibitions are not meant for selling products, but to showcase and network and, a platform for connectivity,” he emphasised.
Can he really take Nigeria’s culture to an olympian height?
Runsewe has a pedigree. He has passion. He was a juggernaut at the NTDC. The same passion he is bringing to NCAC.
He even arrived at the council with a mantra: “Culture: Nigeria’s new oil.”
Not weasel words, he said matter-of-factly. There is so much we can do with culture, he argued, citing the expo as strategically driving the process of economic diversification along the policy thrust of the Buhari administration.
In October, Kaduna State is hosting National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST). While the state is in the driving seat, NCAC plays a guiding role.
“What we have done at AFAC is to strategically identify each state’s areas of strength. If states come to NAFEST and did not perform well, it is our job to guide them to do well.”
As for the organisation of the coming festival, Otunba Runsewe admitted he has no cause to lose sleep. He opined that Governor Nasir el-Rufai “has really done well for culture. He has upgraded the art and craft theatre in Kaduna. He has given employment to a whole cultural group to become an agency in Kaduna. He has directed that cultural village is constructed in Kaduna for the October fest.”
Tom Adaba, pioneer Director-General of National Broadcasting Commission, taking stock of the closing day activities made a solemn declaration: “What we are doing today is very important to this country, any country, for this, is the identity of any country––language, dance, culture…distinguishing us as Nigerians. We must take it seriously. Art and culture can indeed replace oil.”
That is a morale booster for Nigeria’s ‘Generalissimo of cultural revival’ at the National Council for Arts and Council. Already, he is in overdrive: “The council under my leadership is compiling a list of cultural products in each state of the federation into a compendium to be known as the 37 Wonders of Nigeria.”
Articulating further, he said: “I want to use this sector to start what I call cultural diplomacy.”
Cultural diplomacy, according to him, is having a meeting ground culturally for all people, which could easily neutralise the dangerous brews and infectious ferment of hate speeches and other ethnic wahala bedevilling the country. “In fact, it is one of the ways to solve the problem between Nigeria and South Africa due to the wave of xenophobia over there.”
The big question: Can Otunba Runsewe take Nigeria to the Cultural Nirvana he envisioned?
We can take faith in the wise saying of Adaba that “with him at the helm of affairs, we have nothing to fear. He will do it.”