National Troupe Of Nigeria, It’s Sunset At Dawn
Jumai Buba sat on a low stool, clutching a play script. She was learning her lines because of a performance, which she was cast after the original actor called it quits from the production. Occasionally, her voice went up and fell in crescendo.
It is a ritual in this artist’s enclave to hear voices float up like bubbles from under water. Jumai didn’t mind the blazing sun this afternoon. It could be felt above the head and on the skin. It was only the incessant chirpings of birds that rivaled her voice in the carved out space in the National Theatre complex called Artistes Village.
In recent years, the place has become an eyesore. Life in artistes’ village has become stressful for the inmates, especially having to struggle for water to bath and drink.
Like a rundown settlement, the village has turned to appalling squalor. The facility has crumbled with overgrown weeds everywhere, leaving pockmarks of abandonment around.
Though the environment is not conducive for an artist who wants to give his or her best, ‘troupers’, as they call themselves, are blind to the poor and sordid condition, which they work.
Outside the hostel, some few metres to abeigi, the hangout on the complex, some artists of National Troupe of Nigeria bunched together discussing the recent termination of their appointment by the troupe’s artistic director, Tar Ukoh.
Before the arrival of this reporter, some of them were in the hostel but had to leave when the hot, humid sun began to blaze like fire.
Since October, when their salaries were stopped, they have not been mobilised to go back home or when to get their money, all they constantly receive is a threat to vacate the hostel.
“This is our fate,” said Jumai in teary-eyes, as she paced up and down mastering her lines and movements. “I wonder where the artistic director wants us to go after he had terminated our contract.”
It started with a compulsory one month for them to go home so that their hostel could be repaired and made habitable, however, everything has ended in tears —sunset at dawn for these artistes, who, since March 2011, have held forth in the troupe and represented the country both at home and abroad as the country’s culture ambassadors.
The 17 core artistes of the troupe whose employment was terminated are Jumai J. Buba (Taraba State), Victor Coker Charles (Ogun State), Ayuba Olayinka Thomas (Lagos State), Ruth Taye Ogbodu (Delta State), Francis Omoh (Bayelsa State) and Ihuoma Harrison of Enugu State.
Also included are, Kehinde Talatu Musa (Kogi State), Adepuju Lateefa Oguntade (Ogun State), Priscilla Okon (Cross River State), Poopola J. Osisanya (Ekiti State), Musa Oladimeji Awoyemi (Ekiti State), Funmilayo Abe (Ondo State), Ayansola Orisaji (Kwara State), Bola Moshood Adekoya (Ogun State), Johnbull Uweni Henry (Plateau State), Abubarka Damidami Haruna (Niger State) and Blessing Ikede Oreva (Delta State).
Like a modern sultan, one of the artists said, “Ukoh has run the troupe with an iron fist and he is always ready to pull the levers whenever he felt like.”
Majority of these artistes feel there’s a need for government to intervene in the matter, because the National Troupe, as it is now, is a parody of the original idea. “Nigeria is a country where the real troupe is disbanded and replaced by a private troupe,” Ayuba, one of them said.
“We did not just come or begged to come. We were auditioned and selected on merit to be part of the project, which started as ‘Ososa Experiment’. Suddenly, new management came and we were all told to go without compensation.”
A coalition of cultural workers and art patrons called Nigerian Artistes United (NAU), in 2018, accused the artistic director of alleged abuse of office and financial impropriety and even petitioned the Governing Board of the Troupe to ask anti-graft agencies to probe him.
In the petition entitled ‘Continuous abuse of office and financial impropriety by the Artistic Director/CEO of the National Troupe of Nigeria, Comrade Tar Ukoh’ and addressed to the Chair, Governing Board of the National Theatre/National Troupe of Nigeria, Ibrahim Zailani, the NAU requested him to ask the ICPC and EFCC to probe Ukoh.
The three-page petition signed by Patience Aghomo and Adekiba Godspower on behalf of the coalition and backed with other documents including the report of the 2017 capital projects review committee of the National Theatre also accused Ukoh of alleged gross insubordination to the minister and permanent secretary of the ministry.
But nothing came out of this petition.
Already, they have written another petition against the artistic director for their wrongful termination. They noted in their petition, “he singlehandedly took the decision and action without the approval of the office of the minister, permanent secretary and the ministry. More so, Ukoh deliberately went against the advice and warning of his management staff.” In fact, when the executives of the Radio Television Theatre and Arts Workers Union of Nigeria (RATTAWU) confronted some of his management staff, they were shocked at the ugly development, pleading innocence to the alleged ‘wrongful termination’.
They, therefore, sought the minister’s intervention to reinstate them into the civil service, as well as to direct the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) to restore their salaries, which were stopped in October 2019.
Whether this one will be responded to, is still to be seen.
FLASHBACK to 2011. The future seemed rosy for ‘troupers’. They were everywhere performing. They were recognised as major players in the country’s cultural diplomacy. In six-year, they were already established. Touring different states and countries to represent Nigeria.
Even at that, there was no letter of appointment, so they remained casuals, which the country’s labour laws frowned at. When they sought to have their appointment ratified, they were told to relax, because they were already on IPPIS.
“We had expected that employment letters confirming us as staff would be ready and for the management to stop saying we were contract artists because we were enrolled on IPPIS as staff and had all the benefits of Federal Government workers,” said Ogbodu. “We had hoped on career progression like other civil servants and to partake in promotional examinations in the service.”
Jumai said, “we also loved the situation where we could use our gifts and talents to add more into the repertoire of the troupe in dance, drama, music, costumes, props, makeup, stage management, technical and sound. We are disappointed with the situation of things since Ukoh came on board. He never tried us to know whether we were capable on stage, instead, all he had done was to condemn us.”
Another artiste alleged that the artistic director went as far as accusing them of absconding and refusing to come to work, saying ‘he is always on his knees asking us to work’.
“But we always maintained our readiness to work, even if it meant performing to an empty audience, but all was to no avail,” remarked Okon.
“We were bracing up for another year when we got letters that our services were no longer needed and that we would be paid, after taking us unaware without payment since October to date. No finance to move our luggage, let alone, transport us back home, how are we going to leave the hostel?” Jumai asked.
When The Guardian tried to reach the artistic director on phone, he did not pick his call, neither did he respond to messages.
A staff of the troupe, who pleaded anonymity, claimed that since 2017, when Ukor came in, the troupe has not done any rehearsal, let alone performance. Yet the AD has always featured some people as members of the troupe whenever there was performance outside Lagos. “The troupe has not had a performance in Lagos, because questions would be asked when those outside the core artistes are used,” he said.
Some of the staffers and stakeholders who spoke to The Guardian said from the era of Bayo Oduneye to Yerima, the troupe was focused and enjoyed direction. Since Ukor came in, the place has been a ghost yard. You won’t even know there is a national troupe domiciled in the facility.
Though activities had gone down compared with what happened between 2001 and 2006 due to poor funding, it had become worse under Ukor.
In the year 2002, the National Troupe of Nigeria provided jobs on permanent and temporary bases for over a hundred Nigerian Freelance / Guest Artistes during its numerous activities and productions.
Over the years, the troupe has been involved in the training of artists from all states of the Federation and FCT for the next two years. These artists will, in turn, go back to the states to train other people. In other words, the troupe was involved in the training-the-trainers programme.
“The place has practically died,” said another staff, who spoke under condition of anonymity. “You can imagine the last time drum beats were heard here was when the man was welcomed as the new AD. Artistes don’t have rehearsal again.”
On the moribund state of the National Troupe, Ben Tomoloju, culture communicator, activist and former Deputy Editor of The Guardian, has this to say: “I think the issue demands more than just one’s response in an interview like this. I have written once about the matter in another newspaper. I also commented on it during a recent interview. One’s advocacy here may be misinterpreted. But the truth has to be told; that the current leadership of the National Troupe is unworthy of the office he is holding. Three years without production in an artistic director’s tenure of four years.”
Tomoloju asked, “was he sent to destroy the troupe? You can imagine how disappointed those who worked day and night to see that we have a troupe that rivalled Ballet du Senegal, Ballet du Mali, Ghana’s Abibikroma or the defunct Ipi Tombi of South Africa would be feeling right now. Successive artistic directors of the troupe from Elder Bayo Oduneye to Professor Ahmed Yerima, Martin Adaji and Dr. Adejuwon made a remarkable impact in turns. How would they feel now, not to talk about those of us who privately deployed time, energy and resources for several years into making the troupe a reality? The big irony in this matter is that the current head, under whom the agency is going through this state of inertia, was one of the first set of artists auditioned and recruited into the troupe in 1986, and after a few weeks in Ososa, he abandoned camp. In a country where records are kept and considered sacrosanct, that slice of a person’s history would have shown that he was not quite prepared for the exalted office. Well, perhaps as I said, he was sent to come and kill the National Troupe. If that is the case, he is certainly working very hard at it.”
On decamping 17 core artistes that have been in the troupe’s employ since 2011, Tomoloju said, “a National Troupe is not just about money-making. It is part of the country’s image-making brands in terms of internal solidarity and external intercultural relations. Basically, exploring avenues for making money is one of its mandates, but not by demoralising the personnel. Looking back, our 1990 Panel on the National Troupe, which was chaired by Dr. Sule Bello, made career fulfillment for the artistes a very important aspect of its deliberation. We also recommended that top executives of the troupe like Artistic Director and his immediate deputies in the areas of Drama, Music, Dance, and Designs should be employed on a contract basis, renewable only once. So, there would be no room for complacency. Since there was no White Paper on it, our recommendations were easily sidelined and the executives embraced the regular civil service structure. If we had viewed the National Troupe like, for instance, the Super Eagles, where performance is premium, we may not have ended up in this sorry state.”
Tomoloju recommends a way out of the panacea: “Pull the troupe out of the civil service structure. Let the government provide the yearly grants and leave the rest to the managerial and creative acumen of the Artistic Director and his team.”
According to Coker, one of the artists, “NTN is a dream, vision, and mission for any theatre artiste (performer) to be in Nigeria.”
He continued, “it is a unique place for creative minds, talents and skilled performers beyond an ordinary place, a national stage of springboard that could propel you to your future desired dreams in life.”
Coker’s disappointment could be seen on his face, as it had drawn stressful lines like calligraphy. “NTN was my dream: standing tall and serving my nation by giving back what it has given me. Sincerely, everybody is really disappointed about the turnout at the National Troupe of Nigeria, which has not lived up to its once great feat in theatrical performance.”
For Coker, a master’s degree holder in theatre arts, whose contracts were not renewed, “the troupe’s significance in the performative act has gone down under Ukoh without any theatrical creativity, innovations, and productions for the past two to three years to show for it. Ukoh lacks the vision and positive theatrical drive to lead NTN. He has completely moved away from the core mandate and vision of Ogunde, where artistes’ welfare, productions to boost the image of Nigeria was paramount.”
He continued: “The present NTN artistic director is all about the money (over head and capital) that Federal Government gives to run the establishment.”
For Harrison, “in 2009, before I joined the troupe, I told somebody, who was already an artiste of the troupe, that I was going to join her soon, she laughed. I asked her why she was laughing and she replied that it was not possible to join like that. According to her, ‘in the history of National Troupe, nobody has been employed as a freelance artist or anyone from a private troupe. You must come from your state’s art council.’ After she was through with her explanations, I told her because of me, National Troupe will do an audition that will involve not only artists from the art councils, but also from private troupes.
“So, the next year, being 2010, I was told that National Troupe was going to have an audition, which is open for both private and state troupes, I went and I was selected. That was how I joined the National Troupe in 2011.”
Jumai added, “to be selected, we had to go through a series of auditions on stage, written texts and workout sessions to test our ability, strength, and flexibility on stage. The management (Director Dance, Director Drama, and Director Music), admin officers and senior colleagues in the troupe carried out this so as to know the department to put us.
“When we were finally selected by the troupe, we underwent a six-month training so as to keep fit and were taught dances of the troupe’s repertoire, drama and voice training. After this training by different persons who were guest speakers/coaches, we were shared into groups to perform, which was our first as certified troupers.”
By the early 1970s, importance of establishing a National Troupe of Nigeria had emerged. Chris Olude, with a group of dancers and musicians, formed the first National Cultural Troupe of Nigeria.
Invitations for Nigeria to participate abroad in different festivals, trade fairs and cultural exchanges also brought about the awareness of the need for a collection of different dances from the states for the purposes of honouring these invitations.
Equally too, with the advent of FESTAC ’77 and the entries of different countries of their national dance ensembles or cultural troupes, it was evident that Nigeria needed a formally established cultural troupe that will engage in international tours on behalf of the country and as well be addressed as the National Cultural Dance Troupe of Nigeria.
What, therefore, became formally known as the National Troupe of Nigeria was approved for the establishment at the Council of Minister’s meeting in November 1981. The objective at the time was to enhance the cultural development and artistic creativity of the Nation. It was also to establish a national repertory system, which was to satisfy the yearnings and aspirations of the professional theatre, dance and music practitioners.
By 1988, with the launching of the cultural policy for Nigeria, the National Troupe of Nigeria was formally included in the policy as a formal arm of Government. It was initially run as a branch of the performing Arts Division within the Federal Department of Culture under the supervision of the then Sole Administrator of Culture, Col. Tunde Akogun (rtd).
During this same period too, the government approved the appointment of Hubert Ogunde as the first Artistic Director / Consultant for the Troupe. He was to organize a formal formation of the National Troupe of Nigeria. Chief Ogunde was to also embark on what was later to be tagged, ‘The Ososa Experiment’. This later became the nucleus of the artists of the National Troupe of Nigeria.
The objective of the Ososa Experiment was to prepare Nigeria’s representation for the Commonwealth Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland and to also convince Government that a group of artistes could be put together, organised and trained for the specific purpose of performance and future representations of Nigeria in both National and International engagements.
The success of the experiment thus led to the formal establishment of the National Troupe of Nigeria in September 1989. In 1991, the Troupe haven, thus, developed was granted the status of a full-fledged parastatal by Decree 47 of October 1991 titled, ‘The National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria Management Board Decree.’
As it is now, the Ososa Experiment has turned to Abuja shame. A discredit on a once viable project that the late Hubert Ogunde midwifed and remained truthful to until he died.
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