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AMAA 2017…National Theatre misses opportunity to host Africa

By Chuks Nwanne
18 June 2017   |   4:28 am
If there’s any structure in Lagos that distinctly portrays the city as a centre for arts and culture in Nigeria, it’s the iconic National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos.

National Theatre

If there’s any structure in Lagos that distinctly portrays the city as a centre for arts and culture in Nigeria, it’s the iconic National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. Even with its current deplorable state, the monument still holds lots of memory and history for the culture sector, in particular, and the nation at large. In fact, the collection of National Gallery of Modern Nigerian Art is housed in a section of the building.

While the edifice brings back fund memories for the elderly, especially those who witnessed the FESTAC 77, for the young, it’s a clear sign that the country once worked.

Primarily designated as the centre for the performing arts in the country, the National Theatre was completed by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1976, preparatory for the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), hosted by Nigeria in 1977. Designed and constructed by Technoexportstroy (a Bulgarian construction company), it resembles the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna, Bulgaria; the roof is shaped like a military hat. Right at the centre of the building is a 5,000-seater Main Bowl, with a collapsible stage, and two Cinema Halls, of which were equipped with facilities for simultaneous translation of eight languages. Also, the edifice has two exhibition halls, a banquet hall and a conference hall of 1,600 seats.

With the royal ivory mask of Benin as the official emblem, the month-long Festival of African Arts celebrated African culture and showcased African music, fine art, literature, drama and dance to the world. About 16,000 participants, representing 56 African nations and countries of the African Diaspora, were on parade. The long list of renowned performers, who mounted the National Theatre stage, included the likes of Stevie Wonder from the United States, Gilberto Gil from Brazil, Bembeya Jazz National from Guinea, Mighty Sparrow from Grenada, Les Ballets Africains, South African Miriam Makeba and Franco Luambo Makiadi. In fact, hosting of the festival led to the establishment of Nigeria’s National Council of Arts and Culture (NCAC) and subsequently, the Centre for Black and African Arts and Culture (CBAAC).

Today, the historic theatre, which once hosted the world, is a shadow of its past glory. But for some Yoruba filmmakers, who still use the cinema halls to screen their movies, and probably the management of National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN) that sometimes organises cultural events for children, the venue is practically starved of cultural events. No thanks to lack of maintenance and poor funding by the government, which led to the near collapse of the theatre.

However, during the administration of a former General Manager, who combined managing the Theatre and the troupe, Prof. Ahmed Yerima, there was a leash of life, as he succeeded in bringing back life to the theatre by refurbishing the cinema halls, banquet and the exhibition halls, as well as attracted events to the venue. But today, the structure begs for total overhaul, while the 5000-seater Main Bowl has remained under lock and key in the past 25 year.

So, you can understand the excitement that followed the recent pronouncement by Lagos State governor, Mr. Akiwunmi Ambode, to renovate the edifice and get it ready for this year’s Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA) 2017. Ambode had also secured approval from the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed to renovate the culture edifice. For some events promoters, who currently pay through their noses to secure venues, getting the National Theatre back to life, especially the Main Bowl will be a huge relief for the showbiz industry.

Ambode, who spoke when he played host to officials of AMAA, led by its Founder/President, Mrs. Peace Anyiam-Osigwe at Lagos House, Ikeja, informed that his administration had concluded plans to begin a total revamping of the theatre in time for the 2017 Africa Movies Academic Awards (AMAA) ceremony billed for July 11.

While expressing optimism that the plan to upgrade the theatre to world class standard would serve as a viable venue for the AMAA event when completed, he had said, “I want to also say that I am very particular about the venue of the AMAA; so, we would use everything possible to make sure that the National Arts Theatre is ready. We are in a process and before the month ends, we should have something to start doing within the first week of April to getting the whole place ready.”

For Ambode, hosting AMAA event in Lagos would add more glamour to the yearlong celebration of the state’s Golden Jubilee and showcase its hospitality to the continent and the world at large.

“This is a very historic moment for us in Lagos,” he also noted. “We are celebrating the existence of Lagos for 50 years. If you look at the calendar, you would wonder in what ways and manner could we celebrate Lagos? Without your sector, there is no Lagos. So, when we say 50 years, we are talking about 50 years of history; somebody documents it, somebody dramatises it, and then somebody keeps it, so that those who are yet unborn would see it even when we are not there.”

However, a few days after Ambode’s pronouncement, many had expected to see signs of construction work at the National Theatre, but that didn’t happen. While some were of the opinion that bureaucracy in government might have delayed paper works between the federal and Lagos State governments over the project, those, who have followed the unending tale of the culture edifice and political intrigues around it, suspected the deal might have hit a brick wall. Notwithstanding, there were high hopes, especially among AMAA organisers, who wanted a perfect homecoming for the award project.

“For 25 years, this place has been locked up,” AMAA founder, Anyiam-Osigwe said in a telephone chat with The Guardian. “There’s a lot of wastage in the country. This is one place that was originally constructed to host theatre events. On the day governor Ambode went on tour of the facility, I was there as well to see the state of the Main Bowl. I remember the first thing Ambode said was, ‘it’s not as bad as they told me.’ So, for me, if we succeed in hosting AMAA there, it will bring to an end the years of waste.”

In fact, AMAA production team had started working on a special concept that would fuse the traditional red carpet with the celebration of Nigeria’s creative industry, which the theatre represents.

AMAA team led by founder Peace Anyiam Osigwe and nollywood stars during a courtesy visit to Lagos State governor Akinwumi Ambode

“We are working on a red carpet that will also have works of renowned Nigerian artists, writers and others on the runway,” Anyiam-Osigwe continued. “This theatre was purposely built for performances. In fact, the location makes it easy for people to access, no matter the part of the city you are coming from. This is a place for us to celebrate the Nigerian creative industry. So, for me it’s a dream and I pray it materialises. I’m confident because I know the people working on the project. I will do everything possible to ensure that we host AMAA there; that will be a perfect homecoming for us.”

However, the reality is that this year’s AMAA awards will not hold at the National Theatre as planned. This is as a result of the inability of Lagos State to get the theatre ready for the continental showpiece. Already, the organisers have unveiled Eko Hotel as the new venue, thereby dashing hopes of getting the national theatre up and running once again.

“It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t get the National Theatre ready for the AMAAs,” AMAA founder lamented. “We just have to move to Eko Hotel. From what my staff was telling me, we might be spending up to N40 million to use the venue. Honestly speaking, I think Lagos State Government did its best to get the place ready for the event, but somehow things didn’t work out. For the arts community, this is another opportunity lost, but the show must go on.”

Meanwhile, investigation by The Guardian revealed that the failure by Lagos State Government to get the theatre ready for AMAA is beyond Governor Ambode’s sphere of influence. Inside sources revealed that, though there were obstacles within the corridors of power in Alausa over the hosting of AMAA at the theatre, internal politics within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) at the federal level was the clincher.

According to a source, Lagos State Government was on the verge of setting up a facility management team (comprising representatives of Federal Government, Lagos State and stakeholders in the sector) for the theatre before the Federal Government announced the appointment of heads of agencies and parastatals in the culture sector. This included the appointment of Comrade Tar Ukoh, as the new General Manager of the National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria. For many, the appointment of Ukoh, who allegedly operates from Abuja, is enough suspicion that all did not go down well with the planned partnership that would have led to the revival of the iconic theatre.

Besides, the unusual calm on the side of the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, over the development is an indication that a possible power tussle at the centre might have aborted the plans and forced Lagos and AMAA to look towards Eko Hotel to host Africa’s filmmakers. And with Mr. President currently out of the country on medicals, the deadlock will last for as long as it takes. In the end, the culture sector is at the receiving end.

Meanwhile, Nollywood movies got the highest number of nominations on the list for the 2017 Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). According to the nomination list unveiled by the President of the Jury, Bernie Goldblat, at the Kigali Convention Centre, Kigali, Rwanda, out of a total of 136, Nigerian movies got 43 nominations in the general competitive categories.

In the mean time, 93 Days got the highest nominations in seven categories. The nominations the Ebola focused film earned include Award For Best Nigerian Film, Award For Achievement in Soundtrack, Award For Achievement in Sound, Award For Best Film, Award For Best Director. Others are Award For Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Somkele Idhalama), Award For Best Actress in a Leading Role (Bimbo Akintola). It also got nomination for the coveted Award for Best Film.

Vaya, a film directed by Akin Omotoso, a Nigerian living in South Africa and a South African production, was nominated in 10 categories; Queen of Katwe from Uganda, 93 Days and 76, both from Nigeria, also made it to the list of films with highest nominations.

This year, a total of 30 categories are up for grabs by Africa’s leading actors and filmmakers from the continent and the Diaspora, including a new AMAA Best Comedy category and three special Jury prizes. The new addition, according to Goldblat, is as a result of the quality of films submitted for the awards this year.

According to him, “Every year the competition gets stiffer, and this year in particular, we have great films for consideration. The quality of production in Africa continues to improve and national governments are investing to support the growth of the motion picture industry. This is a major achievement for AMAA in its 13 years history.”

Shaibu Hussieni, a member of the jury and chairman of College of Screeners, also briefed journalists in Kigali about the process that led to the nominees from the pre-college screening stage by AMAA film selectors, to when the College of Screeners decided on the best among the 438 films that were submitted for the AMAA Jurors’ consideration.

In a chat with journalists in Lagos, Anyiam-Osigwe said the uncompromising stance of AMAA jury members has earned the brand a bad name than it has given it a good name, adding that the past 13 years has seen AMAA move away from being an African brand to a global brand.

“Apart from rewarding movie stars in Africa, AMAA has trained over 5,000 youths in filmmaking. Besides, Toronto Film Festival did not just happen; we invested by ensuring that jury members of these international film festivals are part of AMAA. It’s important we begin to make that evaluation between what is a sustainable event and event that survive on its own.”

Having been around for 13 years, Anyiam-Osigwe is determined to see AMAA become a strong, independent brand, with visible corporate support.

“I can’t understand why we can’t have major sponsorship,” she lamented. “I just feel that AMAA does not always need to look to government; that’s one of the things I would like to achieve. It’s about sustainability; AMAA should run without a Peace being around.”

While urging Lagos State Government to take advantage of hosting AMAA to showcase its tourism potential to the world, Anyiam-Osigwe said, “I always say this to states, ‘why are you hosting AMAA? This year, we are supposed to have one of the biggest events because of the kind of films that have been summited and the kind of people that are likely going to turn out for the event. But it’s not something that we can go alone; there are some of these people, who want the tourism people/government to show that they are committed to this event because of security issues.

“These are the issues I have; the lack of understanding is one. For instance, we had a problem with one of our jury members in Rwanda, who should have applied for a visa way before he came in; he has a Swiss passport. But when he had the problem and I called the Head of Tourism Rwanda, he called the head of Immigration and they resolved it. It’s also about the value proposition; a lot of people put money before value in Nigeria.”

She informed that international media organisations have indicated interest to be part of this year’s showpiece in Lagos, adding, “I don’t even think that the country understands the value for them; even Lagos State needs to understand what AMAA means for them. This is your way of showcasing to the world the tourism potentials of the state. It’s actually more important than some of the things they’ve done in a way because film people spread the news quicker. But I’m yet to find out people from Lagos State that will work with us on a day-to-day basis to ensure that they get the maximum benefit from hosting the AMAA.”

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