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Mixed Feeling Trails Return Of Culture To Information

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Lai Mohammed

Lai Mohammed

WITH the recent inauguration of a new cabinet came the merging of Ministry of Information and that of former Tourism, Culture and National Orientation. Many culture workers and enthusiasts viewed the development with mixed feelings. Although many of them were not taken unawares, especially with speculations of government’s proposed cost cuts through merging and scrapping of ministries. As one of the most neglected sectors, it was a bit of a surprise that it was not phased out outright.
 
Even with the merger, some are still apprehensive over the likely concentration of attention on information at the expense of culture considering that the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed is more of an information strategist than culture ambassador. But an art enthusiast and culture administrator, Mr. Ben Tomoloju, shared an entirely distinct opinion as he quickly dismissed the fears of his colleagues.
 
He told The Guardian in a telephone conversation that the ability of the minister to deliver on the culture mandate rather than the merger should be of primary concern to Nigerians. Tomoloju pleaded with his colleagues for calm, recalling that the greatest achievement recorded by the sector took place at a time culture was an appendage of information and social development. 
 
He said, “The return to the old ministerial arrangement of Information and Culture should not be anything to worry too much about. I am aware that some of my colleagues with whom we fought literarily for the separation of culture from other ministries would not be happy that it has returned to the former position but I am appealing that it should not be a big deal.
 
“The main issue is for culture to function effectively because I want to remind us that when we hosted FESTAC 77, it was under the Ministry of Information, Sports, Social Development and Culture. It was this ministry that implemented the largest gathering of culture experts of blacks and African origination all over the world. So, if we are having just information and culture and can achieve even as much as FESTAC committee was able to do and activities move forward and not backward, it would be wonderful.
 
“So, this arrangement should not border us because after the liberation of culture from official bond, some of the beneficiaries did not show that they have enough commitment to bring desired results. My prayer is that those that are there now would be able to make a difference”.
 
And when Mohammed had his first meeting with the heads of parastatals in the culture sector, he attempted to douse the fears of his critics going by the direction of his remarks.
 
Indeed, if the minister goes ahead to walk his tough talk, then the sector would be on its route to self-recovery. According to him, “Ladies and gentlemen, you all are sitting on a gold mine, but you have either refused to realize this, simply feigning ignorance or totally lacking the capacity to mine the gold. It can no longer be business as usual. Stop feeling second class; snap out of your complex and mine your gold. Culture drives tourism, and both are good for creating jobs, reducing crime and diversifying the economy, which are three of the cardinal programmes of the Buhari administration.
 
“It is important to state here that Information and Culture is a key vehicle for the massive national reorientation campaign which we are planning to launch soon as part of efforts to drive the change agenda. Culture is particularly important in this regard.
 
“We need the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, National Council for Arts and Culture, National Gallery of Arts, National Institute for Cultural Orientation and, of course, National Orientation Agency to be part of this campaign, just like we need the Film Corporation as well as the Film and Video Censor Board”.
 
Interestingly, Mohammed spoke passionately on the need to reposition the sector and save it from low esteem that has bedeviled it over the years. As he put it, “We will give the necessary leadership to ensure that these parastatals realise their potentials for the benefit of Nigerians. I encourage you to think out of the box to bring about the much needed change in your various organisations.

“Imagine cultural activities in one cultural city daily, and you will have such activities for 365 days, all year round! This will improve the economy and lead to a reduction in crimes.”

The National Troupe of Nigeria, he said, could borrow a leaf from its counterparts in Uganda and Kenya that perform for the public every two hours, adding, “Just imagine the kind of money these National Troupes in Kenya and Uganda will be making. Not only will they be self-sufficient, they will have enough money for other things”.

He also made another example of The National Theatre, “This magnificent and historic edifice is mostly lying fallow all year round. Why can’t the management make it available for the use of the creative industry, like Nollywood and others? Even the movies that used to be shown in halls within the building have either dwindled or stopped altogether. No wonder a past administration almost succeeded in selling it off. A less magnificent and less historic building elsewhere within or outside Africa is a money-spinner. Yet, all we hear is that there is no money to do this and no money to do that.”

IF the minister’s delivery on the need to engage the listed parastatals in the campaign for change agenda was anything to go by, it then buttressed the willingness of the administration to retain the parastatals and engage them optimally for effective results. Besides, he also read the riot act to chief executives based on his perception of critical lack of understanding of the core mandate of their agencies. Without mincing words, he gave reasons for the comatose position of most parastatals in the old culture and tourism sector.
 
According to him, “Without mincing words, the parastatals under the old Culture and Tourism Ministry, which are now under the new Ministry of Information and Culture, are suffering a crisis of leadership. There are are square pegs in round holes at the leadership cadre of some of the parastatals. Sometimes where academicians are required, administrators are holding sway. There is a critical lack of understanding of the mandate of the various parastatals by some of the heads, and where they understand the mandate, there is a serious lack of capacity. The implication is that those heading these parastatals simply invent their own agenda sometimes and impose such on us, with devastating consequences. That explains why most of the parastatals are lying comatose”.
 
As Tomoloju put it, “I have a party affiliation with him though we did not interact personally, but then I can say that he is a very interesting personality. He is an achiever, no doubt, and the whole of Nigeria believes that he is an achiever. That is one point that one can always relate to and identify him with.
 
According to Tomoloju, “If somebody has a goal and he pursues the goal and achieves it, it is such a person you will be able to vouch for without any equivocation. Lai Mohammed is also very strict. Though a lawyer, he is so fantastic as a propagandist, information strategist and an administrator. When it comes to interconnectedness with culture, the first thing I imagined is that he is going to use culture to perfect some of the ideas and ideals of this government. I can always see that drama will go out to preach, that music will go out to preach and that visual art will go out to preach because Lai Mohammed is a totalist.
 
“He is utilitarian in terms of total utilization of any medium or any resource. So, I can see the art networking with national orientation. I believe that he should be very thorough as a disciplinarian and get all the human and natural resources related to culture in this country to move. Because I heard from reliable sources how he reacted at his first meeting with the chief executives of culture and said it is no more business as usual. My prayer is that he should implement his talks”.
 
He went further to list some of the expected reforms in the sector. Among them was the establishment of cottage cultural centres across the country, increase in the number of programmes as well as boosting of existing ones. Tomoloju, however, cautioned against any attempt to stop national festivals and events including National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) and Abuja Carnival.
 
According to Tomoloju, “The biggest advocacy on my side is that Nigerian government should build cottage theatres around lucrative urban centres. You can equally call it cottage cultural centres but with theatre as the commercial base. A place like Lagos can accommodate about 57 cottage theatres; Ibadan can accommodate as much and same with other cities across the country.

It means that 57 shows could be going on simultaneously in Lagos during performance period. You will create jobs for so many people. That is one reform I want to have.
 
“I will also want those heading agencies to be given the opportunities to run programmes. They cannot get good publicity if it is not programme-based. They have to publicise with particular strategic programme. There are some who achieved that in the recent past but things are sliding down now. I would like the minister to insist on programmes, not press releases. Let the culture sector be programme-based; let it be job creation and wealth creation based”.
 
While the Mohammed settles down for action, the art community is anxiously waiting to witness a shift from eloquent speeches of the past that amounted to naught to positive action.


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