The Saturday, July 28 visit by the minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, has again resurrected the once-heated controversy over the status of the iconic edifice, which sits in Iganmu area of Lagos; Nigeria’s National Theatre Complex.
Commissioned in 1977 by then military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo having being started by his predecessor late General Murtala Mohammed, the structure was conceived as tribute of sorts to the first-ever Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture (FESTAC) hosted in the country that same year.
35 years into its existence, the National Theatre has remained a hot point in major arts and culture discourse revolving around its maintenance, ownership and commercial or artistic value, issues which came to verbval and physical exchanges when stakeholders clashed as the civilian administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo had in 2007 handed over the edifice to the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) for onward transfer to private ownership by way of concession or even outright sale.
The move was based on recommendations by the National Council on Privatization (NCP) that the complex be privatized to save government from the huge costs annually incurred on maintenance on the complex.
The decision to privatize the National Theatre in 2007 under the tenure of Dr Ahmed Yerima as director general of the then combined National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria did not sink in well with the arts and culture practitioners whose violent agitations as some point appeared to have calmed down only with the Obasanjo administration seeming having settled for what appeared to be a partial commercialization of the complex.
The resolution tended to have appeased the artists community who still enjoyed accessibility to the facilities at the complex while allowing the management to commercialize some other facilities by partnering with the private sector by way of leasing, build, operate and transfer arrangements.
That arrangement seemingly restored normalcy up until the late Musa Yar’Adua administration which decided on the splitting of the National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria following the retirement of Yerima and assumption of office of Mr Kabir Yusuf under the new designation of General Manager.
Many observed in the sector believed this move by government was preparatory to the eventual privatization of the complex since the National troupe was no longer a drawback on that action plan, thus expressing the suspicion that it would only be a matter of time for the inevitable to take effect.
By subsequently appointing a general manager for the National Theatre, with a mandate to achieve an appreciable level of self-sustainability for the complex, Yusuf went about his business to the letter; hiking fees for some of services and facilities hitherto enjoyed for next to nothing by the artists’ community. In the thinking of Yusuf and his employers, the National Theatre was back in business.
The mandate to run the complex as a purely business entity may not have gone down well with the arts and culture sub sector private practitioners, who had ostracized Yusuf from the artists groups, as it may well have been forced down the throats of the artists who represent till date the complex’s biggest patrons, however, the thought of having the edifice entirely in private hands could also have calmed their frayed nerves after all.
Nonetheless,, the facility tour by Duke to the complex and the negatives unearthed by the visit have served to either indict government’s role in handling and subsequently adopting the partial privatization policy on one hand just as it even validates government’s claim that the facility is best run by a private investor, on the other.
While it could be rightly argued that the protests that greeted the 2007 move to concession or privatize the complex was based mostly on sentiments by those who felt aggrieved that government to a large extent has not even fulfilled its obligations to cater for the creative needs of the people, the sense in those protests was mostly informed by fears that the complex might end up in the wrong hands.
However, government’s position that it can no longer fund the maintenance of the edifice which budget was mounting and competing with lean resources to some extent held strong among objective views.
To describe the National Theatre complex as iconic would be stating the rather obvious. It is the face of Nigeria tourism and the last building standing, of sorts. With a Mainbowl that can sit an audience in excess of 5, 000 in addition to three cinema halls and a conference/banquet hall, there is no other facility in the country that ordinarily can match the National Theatre.
With half a decade gone so far since the commercialization process began and with billions of naira expended or rather sunk in on repairs and maintenance, and with no apparent or clear returns on investment, the federal government may have realised that the many years of policy summersaults by succeeding presidents and their serving ministers over the correct of action to pursue on the National Theatre is about to come back full circle and hit it in the face.
As much as the billions of naira channelled into the complex first in full scale under the Yerima tenure and then partially under the Yusuf tenure, in addition to the change of nomenclature, the visit by Duke revealed that all was not well still for the pride of Nigeria tourism.
Yusuf, to his credit may have returned the complex to 60 or even 70 per cent self sustainability, as well as recovery of the main complex itself, Duke’s visit still exposed the intolerable extent of decay and neglect at the facility, which again raised the controversial question of privatization.
The tour by Duke had officials of the Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), Ministry of Works, Lagos, National Theatre as well as Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, and members of the media.
With dilapidated structures still dotting most corners of the National Theatre, hoodlums and miscreants vandalizing installations, acquiring and subsequently annexing properties of the national Theatre in full glare of the Yusuf and his management and inflicting regular damages the perimeter fencing, invasion of the complex’s land, it was no surprise that many in the entourage had expressed concern in wondering if the theatre’s management have too much on their hands for anyone to even demand from them the extra job of policing the complex.
“The environment of the National Theatre has been compromised. It has become a habitat for hoodlums and other social miscreants,” Duke said.
Indeed, the National Theatre is not just home to artistes housing the famous artistes village, the edifice has also become to a sizeable population of domestic pigs who roam the premises with reckless abandon being farmed by an illegal occupant and who in turn has converted portions of the complex into a pigsty.
The complex is also a refuge to hoodlums who constantly break down the perimeter fencing erected by the theatre management to hide from the law after their nefarious activities in the area and who, according to Yusuf, are responsible for much of the criminal activities in the theatre and its suburbs.
“The situation is even better now. Before now when you come here, you’ll see dead bodies everyday of the week. Died somewhere else and dumped here. We’ve tried to erect a barricade along with the perimeter fence but each time we do that they break it open to sneak in and hide after they have committed their crimes,” Yusuf lamented.
Added to that is the dilapidated state of the structures housed within the theatre complex itself which drew condemnations from the Ministry of Works officials on the tour. Some of these include the national gallery of Art archives, the artistes village, library, theatre and many others.
In the view of many, the theatre should not remain in the state it is in already considering also that the Lagos State government’s soon to be commissioned Blue Line project which when completed as part of the light rail projects by the CCECC that terminates at Okokomaiko, would position the National Theatre as a drop/pick station for the rail services using its second gate at Ijora end of the complex.
Secondly, according to Duke, with 24 months ahead of Nigeria’s centenary celebrations, the edifice which represents much more to the country than just a structure has to be in shape for that milestone event, and also against the backdrop of the government’s recent directive to its various agencies and parastatals to address the decay and dilapidation of public structures.
“Government is not happy that most of its public buildings are in a state of decay and dilapidation and as such has directed all the agencies and parastatals in all ministries to forthwith embark on measures geared towards rescuing these structures and restoring the pride of the nation which these structures represent. The state of the national theatre is not acceptable to it. I doubt if any sound mind would even accept it. We have to explore ways of funding and returning its seemingly lost glory.
“The government is not happy and it would do no one any good if this structure collapses. The management of the National Theatre has done its best and it is still doing it best, but when you consider the budget the management is only enough to buy stationery or is even the budget for stationery in some other agencies and parastatals, you’ll appreciate the efforts they’ve put in so far,” Duke said.
Thereafter, inputs were canvassed by Duke on the way forward during which suggestions like revisiting the moribund cultural policy document with a view to implementing it as it caters for the adequate funding of the National Theatre.
Others also advised the management of the theatre to fully partner with the private sector by ways of leasing out lands on the premises to private investors, and returning to the masterplan of the complex, just as some were of the opinion that it has become imperative for government to separate the National Theatre from the National Theatre complex itself.
“This would be an option that should go down well with every stakeholder and which when implemented allows the theatre to be funded by interest groups in the arts sector in such a way as to keep the edifice as an art and cultural centre as well as a tourist’s attraction. Also, the National Theatre as a complex would see the engagement of private sector participation with a view to developing sections of the property and in turn generate revenue for government and remain self sustaining,” opined Mr. Tope Ogbeni-Awe, a travel and media consultant.
It should be noted that this is not the first time since the National Theatre status controversy began that government representatives had gathered interest groups to seek input from them on an acceptable and viable option for the edifice, hence, the apathy with which many took the session.
Nonetheless, government’s admission that it may not have taken the right decision is worthy of note going by the hordes of interesting suggestions put up during previous parleys with interest groups on an acceptable policy to engage in running the National Theatre but which regrettably were not adopted.
It would also be recalled that last July, last year, Duke on assumption of office and during a facility tour to the premises of the national Theatre, had described as ‘deplorable’ the state and condition of the National Theatre Complex, Iganmu, Lagos, just as he also reaffirmed the belief that the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan will begin with the culture sector.
Duke on the event of his maiden official facility tour of Lagos-based culture parastatals in his ministry, noted that the state of the National Theatre was unacceptable and did not represent a true image of a national icon on the country’s landscape which it should be.
That July, 2011 tour took the minister to the offices of the National Theatre (NT) management and the National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN), all located at the theatre complex, as well as to the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) in Broad Street, Lagos Island.
However, many are of the opinion that government’s move to reopen the old wounds inflicted by many months of battle for the soul of the National Theatre with a view to charting a viable and generally acceptable option for maintaining the iconic structure this time around comes with a well intentioned tag having perhaps realised the shortcomings of previous policies.