National Theatre… We stayed too long on the dung heap
The buzzing of flies recklessly pervading the air, spitting and stinging, distracting the squatting anuses whose bowels need to offload have become deafening! These singsongs are coalition of rumour in the culture ministry and among practitioners. These rumour are becoming potent and reasonable. These rumour are obviously becoming a source of concern to all associations involved with the ministry, particularly theatre-related ones.
How do I approach this? Okay, let me first relay some of the rumour going around in the sector, then we shall attempt to make meaning out of them regarding some actions taken or non of it by authorities involved. This, I believe, would in turn help our analysis regarding the supposed growth in the entertainment industry. Let me warn though, that this write-up is not an attempt to cast aspersions on anybody or institution(s), be it government or private individual(s). This is just to intuitively ascertain what could be going wrong with the sector in order to tackle the seemingly stubborn stain of shame that has become the National Theatre’s lot anytime leadership appointments are made or are to be made.
Shortly before Mr. Kabiru Yar’Adua, the immediate former General Manager (or Director General?) retired, rumour had it that he was having issues with the then Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Chief Edem Duke, over the alleged proposed sale of the edifice. That both men were struggling over who should have the right to bring the customer(s)… Well, like I warned earlier, it was a rumour. Anyway, some of us believed that was what stalled the proposed sale of the National Theatre and not the protests against it. Because the deal to sell it off as one of the biggest malls to come into Africa was signed and sealed in Dubai, according to some newspaper/online (Castles lifestyle 2015, etc) reports.
Finally Kabir retired, and according to the rules in the civil service, he handed over to the most senior officer to take charge pending when the new minister appoints a new GM for the National Theatre. At this time, Engineer Nwogu of the engineering department and some other three senior officers were on level 17, according to the civil service grading, but obviously on different steps. According to the rumor, Nwogu was steps ahead of all others officially, but professionally, one of the other three was more qualified… Well, between those four, there was wrangling, backstabbing and backbiting and all-whatnot, even though it was Nwogu that Kabir handed over to.
Shenanigans and all! The new Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, seconded Mr. George Ufot, a Director of Culture in the ministry from Abuja to come save the silent, stinking rancor that was openly gravitating to a ‘civil war’ that was to engulf the National Theatre in Lagos. The new Acting GM was himself not a rookie in the affairs of the National theatre or culture matters in the nation. As a junior officer in those days (1980s), Mr. Ufot went from Lagos to Abuja, climbing the ladder successfully until he rose to become a Director in the ministry. Now he was back at ‘home’ as the Acting boss in charge, the GM, although, his retirement was just some months away, we heard.
As soon as Mr. Ufot touched down in Lagos, having inherited a well refurbished theatre from Kabir, with all formerly dilapidated cinema halls now oozing with cooling breeze of several air-conditioners and all newly and well-carpeted floors and other appurtenances, Ufot engineered meetings with both staff members and interfaced with private professional stakeholders. One thing the ardent followers of the National Theatre events would not forget in a hurry is the legacy Mallam Kabir Yar’Adua left behind. He totally refurbished the venue, kept the surroundings neat, flowers manicured and he constantly ensured that the vast surrounding lawns were grazed. He stepped up security operations around the venue. But he then strangely launched policies that drove content providers and would-be customers away from using the venue and he wasn’t repentant about it. Yet, National Theatre management is not empowered to have or generate provisions or budget to build content within. It only depended/depends on halls rental income from private individuals with programmes or drama/cinema events. We then wondered why he had to spend that huge budget on refurbishing the empty venue in the first place?
Though rumour had it that he refurbished the venue so as to attract better offer during negotiations to sell the soon-to-become-biggest mall in Africa edifice to Mulk Holdings, the United Arab Emirate UAE-based multinational conglomerate.
And on the other hand, the venue was kept empty despite the refurbishment to push home the argument of government that the venue was obsolete for its original intent of use – the arts and culture events (or Theatre Arts?) If this postulation were true, then Mallam Yar’Adua kept a fine balance until his retirement.
Mr. Ufot was lucky to have arrived duty at a time when Lagos State was nearing the completion of her one-year long display of sundry cultural activities all around town in celebration of her 50th birthday. Which other venue in Lagos could be more grandiose to close the events by end of May 2017 other than the National Theatre? So, Lagos State Government was quick to come into collaboration with the Federal Government in this regard, especially that politically, both Lagos and the Federal governments are now from same political party – APC. It was easy for the Ambode-led Lagos State Government to announce to the world that she’ll help the National Theatre fix its main-bowl auditorium: the only surviving rot of the lot that Kabir refurbished.
This, the Lagos government said, was her bit in fulfilling her part of the collaboration agreement with the National Theatre. For Mr. Ufot and his new team of management staff, it was a good omen for their renewed effort at ensuring that cultural event owners returned to patronise the once abandoned Mallam Yar’Adua’s refurbished-but-empty National Theatre. So the barrage of play productions/festivals and film shows from production companies and organisations like Thespian Family Theatre (TFT), Crown Troupe of Africa, QDance company, Theatre And Movie Producers Association of Nigeria- TAMPAN, etc, and the celebration of World Theatre Day and World Dance Day 2017 by National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) and
Dance Guild of Nigeria (GOND), were a rare testimony that indeed, “after a long dark night, the morning shall surely come”
JUST when Acting GM, Mr. Ufot had not settled in office beyond four months, the Abuja list of appointments and appointees into the culture sector of the ministry surfaced in newspapers. ‘Showman’ Tar Ukor (the exponent of Mambisa) was appointed as the new substantive GM of National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria to replace Mr. Ufot’s Acting slot, which was limited only to the National Theatre. Even the surrounding breeze in the corridors of National Theatre was quiet when the news broke. The workers in the ministry in Abuja murmured their confusion to high heavens, much so it filtered through thousands kilometres of travel to tingle our eardrums in Lagos and beyond. Professional practitioners surprise turned to worries as to who, why, where, when and what happened… About then, another two distinctive classical rumour dropped in, and our lull became quieter until it grew to morbid silence.
The rumour-mill continued to spew confounding logic. One of which was that the minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, confided in some close associates that Mr. Tar Ukor’s name was not part of the list he sent to President Muhammed Buhari for approval into the parastatal. On equal strength, we heard former President Olusegun Obasanjo was the one who recommended Mr. Tar Ukor to the Presidency for the slot. Even if these rumour were true, it was obvious that the industry players had become tired of complaining or protesting against government appointees into this office with the way stakeholders got disinterested in ordinary discussion concerning the appointment. Even if it is to abuse, non-came forth. Except “hun, ha, oh…” So, who put Tar Ukor’s name on the list?
Obviously, this is not about the question above! It’s about the seeming uncertainty that pervades the usage of the establishment and the knack of government appointees to not always fit the stakeholders’ expectations from time immemorial. Is it possible that the government is operating on the basis that the National Theatre is a cultural events venue and rightly so? And the stakeholders’ agitations over the years are based on the assumption that the venue is an Arts Theatre? If these questions suffice, then the government and the stakeholders need to do a roundtable conference, and commonly agree on what purpose the building is meant to serve beyond the original reason it was established for the great Festival of Arts and Culture – FESTAC in 1977. That way, the industry players will stop denigrating the government they are meant to work with for better result, both for the industry workers and Nigeria at large.
* Alani On’taba is a theatre director a nd critic