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National Theatre bazaar and the legislative intervention

By Ben Tomoloju

Recent happenings, concerning the National Theatre Complex, Lagos, have been mind-boggling. The planned concessioning of the edifice has spewed forth more controversies than the proponents probably imagined. From April, when the Tourism, Culture and National Orientation Minister, Edem Duke, issued a directive that all parastatals, professional organisations and cultural SMEs situated on the land, surrounding the complex should quit within two weeks, stakeholders have reacted vehemently against the idea.

The quit notice, we are told, is to make way for implementation of a so-called original master plan of the property “encompassing a five-star hotel, car- park  and shopping mall.”

This development is reminiscent of a recent conflict of interest in Turkey where the government planned to turn a public park into a shopping mall. The whole world was gripped by  the  spontaneous and  earth-shaking protest by the people. It has not died down completely. It is a case of public administrators, taking the people for granted, leading to a protracted social combustion. One only hopes that the National Theatre example does not degenerate to that level  before a people-friendly solution is found.

So far, there are indications that such a solution may be underway since members of the National Assembly have stepped into the matter. They are the elected representatives of Nigerians whose constitutional roles are, principally, to make laws for good governance and protect the people against the arbitrariness of power.

To a thoroughbred, who appreciates the arts as a propelling force in the civilising process of any society, the subjection of a cultural heritage to abrasive mercantilist considerations is a culture shock. The denudation of culture begins with a philistine mindset that views life strictly from a materialistic angle,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               ignoring its spiritual and intellectual  manifestations. Such a mindset is codified in the minister’s five star hotel, car park and shopping mall as against scholarly and popular expression in the literary, performing visual arts and numerous aspects of the creative industry.

The stepping in of legislators is salutary. However, they should use the opportunity to scrutinise the development critically and correct the dissonance in public perception of the officers of state vis-à-vis their role – performance. They should examine the issue dispassionately and bring the vision of Nigerian nationhood in alignment with the classical precept, which, in the book, Unto Thee Grant, lists one of the major attributes of a good statesman as that of a patron of the arts.

What we are witnessing in the National Theatre is clearly the portrait of a “statesman” as a cultural assassin, a paradox, a disquieting contradiction, threatening the very foundation of creative contemplation in our society. The contradiction spreads all over. Discerning lawmakers should spot every bit of it and do a good job in their intervention.

Sample this. One of the strong areas of appeal of Dr.Goodluck Jonathan during his presidential campaign of 2010-2011 was his supposed love for the arts. Quite a good number of artistes featured in his campaign train. The electronic media was abuzz with endorsement by artistes. In fact, some of the Jonathan-for-president promos were rehearsed and produced at the NCAC Artistes’ Village, which is now under the hammer of Edem Duke.

In December 2011, the president spent a whole evening at the Eko Hotels and Suites Banquet hall with artistes drawn from all over Nigeria, brainstorming on the creative industry. His promises were attractive. His manifesto engendered  high expectation from stakeholders to the level of a passion,  more so as he had already demonstrated his commitment by embarking on a literary pet-project                                                                                                                                                                “Bring Back the Book”, which even featured the president, reading side-by-side to students with a titan of the status of Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.

It is, therefore, unthinkable that an appointee of the same president now treats the arts like a piece of rag, running counter to the vision established by his principal.

Another contradiction abounds in the relationship between the National                    Theatre management (NTM) and the other parastatals using the property. It needs to be anatomized for better judgment.

According to reports, the Lagos offices of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN),among others, are targets of Edem Duke’s eviction notice, with the currents General Manager of the National Theatre playing  henchman with unbridled zealotry.

Truth is, all these culture parastatals are joint-owners of the property. The National Theater’s custodianship is a mere compliment, a descriptive nomenclature which is being manipulated under some sort of administrative opportunism by the NTM,backed by the minister for whatever reason, to victimize the rest.

Essentially, the NTM has no supervening power over the others because the old Federal Department of Culture (FDC) was the body originally charged with the responsibility of distributing the assets among cultural and related agencies. And the FDC had started doing this long before the NTM came into existence as a parastatal.

The first beneficiary was the NCAC. Considering that the NCAC had been established by law and allocated the piece of land it currently occupies in Lagos long before the NTM transformed from a unit at the Federal Department of Culture into a statutory agency, we now have the case of the tail wagging the dog, an anti-thesis to rationality.

Other parastatals, including the National Theater Management came into existence later. Some of them had effectively entrenched their operations in this convenient part of the Lagos cityscape before moving their headquarters to Abuja. Such operations in Lagos are validly sustained since they have the mandate to set up zonal offices and branches across the country for national outreach.

In this connection, the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) maintains a viable Language School in Lagos. It also has a Diploma and Post-Graduate Diploma-awarding institute for Culture Administration in Lagos. The bulk of the National Gallery of Arts (NGA’S) priceless artworks by Nigerian masters is in Lagos.

The National Troupe of Nigeria (NTM), serviced by the same Governing Board with the NTM is resident at the National Theater definitely because of the disciplinary interconnectedness of both.

In fact, the Oronsanye report, if approved and implemented, recommends the merger of both the NTM and the NTN, which would make the attempted ouster a subject of laughable revision in future.

There is, therefore, a visionary rupture in the current exercise which will saddle the Nigerian cultural sector with a huge burden in the years to come.

By the way, we hear that, as a palliative measure, the Minister,Edem Duke, is talking about building a theater in Calabar. Happily, distinguished playwright and former General Manager of the NTM, Professor Femi Osofisan, has highlighted the ridiculousness of this proposition as a defence for turning the National Theater lay out into a hotel. One would only add, for the benefit of our legislators, that a standard world class theater has already been built in Calabar by government in the military era as part of the FESTAC legacies. Is the Minister not aware of this? And in any case, what sin has Lagos committed to deserve being scape-goated in favour of Edem Duke’s home-state? This is a political question for the High Chief of Duke-Town.

Beyond this pregnant political poser is the issue of equity between the cultural sector and its tourism counterpart.

The parcel of land in contention, by the order of first legitimate occupier, belongs not to tourism, where the hotel and hospitality business belongs, but to the cultural sector. When it was acquired by the Federal Military Government in the 1970s for FESTAC and other cultural initiatives, the Nigerian Tourism Board was not in the then Ministry of Information and Culture. Tourism had its own assets within a ministerial arrangement completely outside culture.

The National Theatre and all the surrounding property has always been for the development of arts and culture, so it amounts to a grave injustice to already marginalized culture stakeholders to have their assets misappropriated, snatched by administrative fiat and handed over to tourism – robbing Peter to pay Paul. For God’s sake, we are in a democracy. What if in future, another government returns tourism to its former Ministry? It will turn out to be a double loss  for the Cultural Sector because tourism will hold on to it as if it is the original owner.

What would have been rational is for Minister Edem Duke to accommodate all existing cultural entities and enterprises within a new, broader concept of development. A strategy in cultural tourism would have been an extenuating factor in this ‘DEAL’ which, to all intents and purposes, still appears like a personal adventure of selfish individuals, of Cultural administrators as mere land speculators.

And if, perchance, cultural tourism is played up as an excuse, this is not how to go about it. In the current exercise, it is contradictory-again- that the very element, particularly the artistic enterprises, upon which cultural tourism is anchored, is the object of this vicious and desperate assault by the minister.

Economically, his idea also falls flat in the face of current global trends. For instance, the job creation agenda of the Federal Government will suffer one way or the other, especially in the effort at making entrepreneurs of our young graduates. Quite a good number of the artistes whom Edem Duke is trying to dislodge from the NCAC Artistes’ Village and Fine-artists at the Universal Studios are young graduates. Some of them are entrepreneurs in their own right. Severally, they provide jobs for others with about sixty SME’s located at the premises. Interestingly, the presence of Chief Lari Williams(M.O.N) and famous, veteran sculptor, Bisi Fakeye in their midst argue for mentorship and impartation of skills from the old to the young in a creative habitat. That village is an enlarged workshop, albeit at a seemingly informal level, which ought to be adopted, regularized and developed by a progressive public office holder.

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February 2016
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