… Celebrate Senate rejection of sale of national monument
By Cosmas Omegoh
Workers at the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, are celebrating the decision of the Senate to halt plans to auction the edifice.
“We are happy, we are elated, we are still celebrating that decision,” Mr. Dayo Akogun, chairman, Amalgamated Union of Public Corporation, Civil Service, Technical and Recreational Services (AUPCTRE), National Arts Theatre branch, said. “It was a good decision. The National Theatre and the Tafawa Balewa Square are national monuments. Selling them off means that we are wiping out our history and our heritage. These are facilities we cannot exchange for money. Culture cannot be equated to money.”
Recently, Senator Fatima Raji-Rasaki, in a motion, urged the Federal Government to halt the proposed sale of the National Theatre and the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos, contending that both were national monuments.
The senator argued that: “The National Arts Theatre was specifically built to host the Second Black African Arts Festival named Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in January/February 1977, where all black people across the globe gathered to celebrate the uniqueness of the black race.”
Days ago, workers at the arts theatre staged a rally at the complex to underline their rejection of the proposed sale and to mobilise Nigerians to do the same. They also showed newsmen round the edifice to debunk suggestions that it was in terrible condition.
On that occasion, the National Arts Theatre was seen sitting in sheer majesty and splendour. As you cruised along the road leading into the edifice, numerous trees beautifying the arena stared at you. A few of the trees have grown into natural umbrellas, making their sheds homes to workers and guests escaping the oppressive midday heat.
Towards its main entrance, the theatre stands like an old lady aging with grace. Everything about it brings home striking memories of its personality way back in 1976. That was when it became ready for the famous FESTAC ’77.
Workers of the theatre and the National Troupe had gathered in its front, singing, dancing and gyrating. Their protest had nothing to do with payment of salaries; they admitted that they had, for months been enjoying prompt payments. Rather, they were angry over the proposed sale of the complex where they work.
The workers carried placards each bearing a different message sauch as: “Say no to National Theatre sale”, “President Buhari, don’t allow Lai Mohammed to deceive you”, “Enough of this madness; political thieves leave National Theatre alone.”
Late in November, the director-general of the Budget Office of the Federation, Mr. Ben Akabueze, stirred the hornet’s nest when he said that some national monuments, among them the National Theatre, were up for sale. He made the disclosure after meeting with the House of Representatives Joint Committees on 2018-2020 Medium Term Expenditure Framework /Fiscal Strategy Paper, (MTEF/FSP) on November 27, in Abuja. He declared that the revenue accruable from the sale would be used to finance the budget as the country was generating little revenue.
Years ago, rumours had been in the air that some powerful politicians were pushing to take over the National Theatre. The move gained currency weeks ago as some persons believed to be agents of the said investors began to stoke the fire.
Speaking to Daily Sun, Akogun bemoaned the sustained efforts at denigrating the edifice by labelling it as rundown.
“For several years, this place has been mismanaged. I was one of those who cried out loud urging that the impunity, corruption and mismanagement going on, including the proposed sale of the theatre, should be checked.
“But before I knew it, I was handed a transfer letter to Calabar. The very moment I went to sign for the letter, I received an alert for the payment of my transfer allowance – something that other worker used to lobby for. The idea was to quicken my exit. That was in 2012.
“Our deputy chairman, Henry Amarachi Ndubuisi, aka Okadigbo, was transferred to Bornu State and later to Jalingo, Taraba State, same for the secretary of the union. But our union fought back, forcing the Ministry of Labour to declare the action as victimisation and to demand our reposting to Lagos.
“Shortly after our return in 2013, we started hearing that government wanted to sell off the National Theatre, that the would-be buyers would turn it to a hotel. Before we knew it, the narrative changed that the fallow land around the complex was the one to be sold. The process had started.
“Next, we were told that the three of us, the unionists, had been sacked. We were dismissed because they knew that we were bitterly opposed to their action.
“We approached the Industrial Court and won our case. Upon our return, the management failed to reinstate us. But the ministry said it wouldn’t be seen as disobeying court orders; then, a new management was appointed and we were reinstated.
“It was last April that the federal government appointed Mr. Tar Uko as the new general manager of the Theatre and National Troupe. The moment he assumed duty, he blocked all the loopholes through which people were funnelling money. He brought a revolutionary style of management that has changed everything for good.
“If you have been here long before now, you would have seen the decay in this place. The water we had was brownish and full of iron. Power supply was non-existent because we owed the power distribution company more than N20 million and we were disconnected.
“But the moment Mr. Uko assumed office he challenged us to turn things around. He organised us into various committees. Now, we have revived our water system by ourselves; we have clean water everywhere in the Theatre. All the rotten pipes that were fixed in 1976 have been repaired.
“Mr. Uko stepped up to clear all outstanding power bills in the region of N23 million. And now, power has been restored. Our broken-down power-generating sets have been repaired by us.
“What nearly killed this place was overpricing of contracts. When they wanted to replace common electric bulb, they put the cost at N10,000 each; how many of such bulbs would they replace? The moment you are unable to replace common electric bulbs, the place will certainly go into coma,” he said.
While addressing the protesting workers, Akogun urged Nigerians to say no to attempts ot hijack the National Theatre.
“When CNN is showcasing the United States, what you first see is the Statue of Liberty; that is their national icon. For Nigeria, our icon is the National Theatre. Now, why does anyone want to sell or buy it? They say that they want to use the proceeds to finance the budget and we ask, what budget?”
Speaking in like manner, the chairman, Radio, Television and Theatre Workers’ Union (RATTAWU), National Theatre branch, Mr. Patrick Onwe, said: “We are here to speak with one voice. We are here saying no to the proposed sale of the National Theatre.
“We know that part of the plan to auction this place is to create the impression that it is moribund. But that won’t work.
“What they don’t know is that things have long changed here. We now have clean water. At night, the theatre now looks exactly like it used to be in 1977 because power has been restored. So, they cannot deceive Nigerians.”
To buttress their claim, the workers took newsmen round the facility. First, the party visited the two 700-capacity cinema halls, the VIP lounge, the 5,000-capacity conference/banquet hall, Exhibition Hall 1 and 2. All of them had clean water running and all the facilities were in good shape.
“The workers have taken full charge of the administration of this place. Now, things are working,” Akogun reiterated. “We want members of the National Assembly, Senate and the ministers to come here and see things for themselves.”
He also talked about improved security and sewage disposal, adding that the National Arts Theatre had the best parking lots and toilet facilities in the country.
Mr. Ndubusi also praised the efforts of the new general manager, describing Uko as a professional who has turned the place around within his first year in office.