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‘How foreign concept, poor maintenance deepened National Theatre decay’

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Professor Duro Oni

Prof. Duro Oni is an expert in Design and Technology for the Theatre. He was at various times: Head of the Dept of Creative Arts, Dean of Arts and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lagos. He was also a chief executive officer of Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC). He spoke to GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR on the implications and challenges of government handing over the National Theatre to CBN/Bankers Committee to run. He said the Committee could do with some expertise and community engagement.

What’s the implication of handing over the National Theatre to CBN/Bankers Committee?
WELL, it will depend on the reasons that have been put out in the public domain, and what other reasons that are not in the public domain. Ordinarily, one would say that it’s a good idea for the Central Bank and other banks to come to the aid of rehabilitating and renovating the National Theatre, but there could be issues that would surround that. The CBN is not a commercial bank. The Federal Government owns it 100 per cent. They’ve done interventions that I am aware of in universities; they’ve built some centres of excellence at the first generation universities. Similar ones are ongoing at the University of Lagos. But when they bring in the Bankers Committee that could be a different matter.

As banks are set up as commercial enterprises, are they going to use shareholders’ funds? Is it a corporate social responsibility? Or, for them, is it an investment to which they expect returns? All of those things were not stated in the handing-over, and those are very valid questions that need to be asked. There is no problem with the CBN. If you look at the kind of money they are talking about, N25 billion, obviously, that is a lot of money. I’m not sure any private enterprise in Nigeria will be able to cough out that kind of money for a long-term investment that may not start yielding anything for some time, but I know that the CBN has that capacity. But when they bring in the Body of Bankers, what is their own interest in the matter? Is it corporate social responsibility? Do they want to assist the arts or culture in development? Or is this an investment opportunity which they expect to make returns? If they want to make such returns, what would be their involvement and what part of it will become their own investment?

Now, theatre itself is part of the culture of a people. If you look at the figures of that they gave in terms of the N25 billion, they said seven billion would be for the renovation of the theatre itself, and N18 billion for the other works. Obviously, you can already see the shift in terms of the resource allocation; the theatre is to be rehabilitated for seven billion while the other aspects, the surrounding environment for 18 billion. So, is it the surrounding environment that is more of the priority or the work that would be done at the theatre. What are the plans for that surrounding environment? People would want to know. They say its fallow land, I mean, there is no land in Lagos that is fallow. It just depends on when you want to develop it. So, if the interest of the Bankers Committee is in the surrounding environment, what do they want to put there?

National Theatre, Lagos


We heard that there would be hotels, there would be shopping centres, and stuff like that. Why don’t they just approach the Lagos State government and say they want to acquire a parcel of land to do that commercial enterprise? Why are they not doing things that would still surround the arts? If you build a five-star hotel, is it the artistes that come to perform at the National Theatre that would stay at the five-star hotel? Or the hotel guests that will come for the performances at the theatre? If they were the ones that stay in the five-star hotel, then the kind of performances that they expect to see would also be a class thing.

It would be something around their own class, so to speak, and if you are not careful, the theatre might then be doing performances that are beyond the reach of the common man. So, there are lots of information that have not been disclosed in terms of what the plans are, and we need to get that information to make an informed judgment.

But is the PPP arrangement then best, or could another alternative not have been sought?
Where is the PPP now? Because PPP means Public-Private Partnership. Who is partnering who? The CBN/Bankers Committee? The Federal Ministry of Information and Culture? To refurbish the National Theatre? Why don’t they do a corporate social responsibility? If they partner, that means they are expecting returns, and what are the returns? Is it from the theatre, or is it from the other things that they build on the grounds of the National Theatre? I mean, look at the big shopping malls in Lagos, if you give one of them a large portion of space there, of course, they will build a big shopping mall, they will get customers and they will make money. How does that advance the cause of the theatre itself? There is not much that is disclosed or understood. That is the kind of thing that breeds suspicion, which really should not be. The banks are not set up as charity organisations, banks are set up as commercial enterprises, to make money for their investors and those who have subscribed to the bank in terms of shareholding.

If this is something to which they are investing their money to make returns, then let us know; let us get the information about how they intend to do this and what it is they intend to do. What is their projection? In which areas are the partnerships. We’ve heard information that people won’t lose their jobs. To me that is a tall order because most of the staff at the theatre have been there for a long time, and if there are now new operators, so to speak, under whatever range of partnership, then what they are going to do in the theatre may also require a new set of hands. Are they just going to keep the staff until they’re old enough to retire? Some of the staff who still have some skills would be happy to work in the rehabilitated theatre. There is so much that is not clear about this partnership.

You have been following efforts at rehabilitating the National Theatre, what will you say is responsible for the over the years challenge?
You see, I was the Technical Director for the opening of the National Theatre on September 30, 1976. There were three of us that worked with the technical aspects of the theatre — Dexter Lyndersay, the Trinidadian; Dr. Sunbo Marinho and I. When you have a facility like that, what has gone wrong? You know, for me, a small analogy is like having a car, and you used the car without servicing it, not changing parts, and the car deteriorates, then one day, the car breaks down completely. Then they will lift up the tyres and leave the car there in the sun, in the rain, and all of that. What is going to happen? You are no longer doing small repairs. What you are now doing is a total rehabilitation. So, that is where the problem is.

Maybe, if the currently proposed rehabilitation takes place, maybe they will be wise enough to ensure that there are adequate votes for maintenance. There are things that you must replace and service regularly. Even when you build a house, you must develop a maintenance programme for replaceable parts.

The major problem of the National Theatre, for me, was in the design of the roof. You see, if you look at the theatre, when it rains, the rain will fall on the roof, then it will now find its way around the roof tunnels and drain out. But when the drains are not regularly cleaned, then what is going to happen is that the rainwater gets stagnant and piles up. As you are aware, water would always find its way down. So that was what happened to the theatre that almost every part was leaking. Of course, when it leaks, the roof is damaged, the ceiling is damaged, the floors are damaged, the furnishings, stage machinery, carpets and seats are damaged. So that is where the main problem is. No one had a programme that was implemented, in terms of the regular servicing and maintenance of the National Theatre.

Sir, as somebody who was a chief executive in the facility, I mean, the chief executive of CBAAC, you worked in the National Theatre complex and you were the technical director to the opening of what was the reaction that came into you when you saw the decay and gradual dilapidation of the facility?
Very sad. To see the edifice deteriorate gradually to the point that aspects of the theatre have, such as the Main Bowl have not been accessed for over 25 years! You see, it all bothered on a lack of maintenance. I mean there had been some good people that were in charge of the National Theatre.

At some point, it was the Federal Director of Culture, Dr. Garuba Asiwaju, then later, Mr. Frank Aig-Imokhuede. At some point, Colonel Tunde Akogun was sole Administrator of Culture and he had his office at the National Theatre. Then, when I was Special Adviser to the Minister of Culture and Social Welfare from 1990 to 1992 was when we drew up the modus operandi for the National Theatre, that they would have a General Manager, and Assistant General Managers in charge of Technical Services, Commercial Services etc including the National Troupe of Nigeria. Gen. Y. Y. Kure was the Minister and handed over to Commodore Lamba Gwom, who succeeded Kure as the Minister of Culture and Social Welfare. That was what the Ministry was called then.

Based on that, they now brought in the first General Manager, Jimmy Atte from the NTA. Some of those general managers of the theatre were giving peanuts to maintain the place. There was no way they could maintain it. Do you know how many floors the National Theatre has? It’s almost like an eight-storey building. When you look at it from the outside, you can’t really appreciate how huge and complex the theatre is. From the basement to the roof garden it is about eight floors. There was no maintenance scheme, schedule or adequate funding. When the National Theatre started, we thought all right this is a beautiful edifice. Although we were wondering at some of the facilities at the theatre then. Even in the main bowl of National Theatre they had what they called boxing lights. Those boxing lights were embedded in the ceiling. This because the National Theatre is modelled after the one in Varna Bulgaria which accommodates sporting events like boxing and wrestling competitions, volleyball and basketball. So, essentially there was a transposition of a foreign design on a Nigerian setting. Even in some of the restaurants, they built-in milk warmers! The Nigerian National Theatre is four times bigger than its counterpart in Varna. Maybe if the Nigerian government had been wise enough, it could have built about four, five, six theatres. That would have had more impact on cultural and theatrical development.

The biggest hall in National Theatre of Great Britain sits about 600 people, as against the 3500/5000 seating capacity of the Main Bowl. Where the stage of National Theatre is, not many have seen that before, there was a motorised way of lifting up the stage and leaning to the back. There were seats under it. So, when that happens, you have the performance in the round. This was a complex mechanical contraption that I only saw a couple of times in my 44 years’ association with the National Theatre.

Would you say that a strange concept that was brought to the National Theatre was instrumental to the early decay?
Yes, I agree with that because in Nigeria, what you are doing by air-conditioning your houses is cooling the place. In Bulgaria, it is the other way round. They are not cooling those places but heating them up. They have to create a warm atmosphere. They built the theatre with heaters. We built theatres that were totally dependent on the air conditioner. And for the entire complex, a central water cooling system that did not function when there was a shortage of water! Even the smaller halls, the cinema halls, and the conference banquets hall and the VIP lounges. All were built for temperate climate rather than for tropical climate. And that for me is part of the problem.

Over the years, before the intervention of CBN/Bankers Committee, there have been attempts to bring the place back to shape. During the Boma Bromillow-Jack era nothing serious was done.

There were some renovations done by various Ministers including Barr. Bromillow-Jack and Amb. Frank Ogbuewu. During the tenures of Professors Femi Osofisan and Ahmed Yerima, some renovation was carried out but because it was not funded and was not well-provided for, the impact was minimal. Over time, what we have had is peripheral — Repairing one cinema hall today and rehabilitating some toilets there. There was no holistic repair and the first thing is to go from the roof. As long as you have leakages from the roof, there is no serious rehabilitation you will do, that will last. Maybe a first step is to redesign the roof to ensure that it cannot retain water that would cause leakage. In all, the intervention of the CBN/ Banker’s Committee is a welcome gesture, but it is important that all cards be laid on the table to understand what the nation and the cultural and artistic sectors are getting to ensure that the sectors continue to contribute to national development.


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