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Delta@25… In search of cultural, artistic engagements as celebration nears

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Mungo Park House rotting away on the bank of River Niger at Asaba

Mungo Park House rotting away on the bank of River Niger at Asaba

Drums will be rolled out next week as Delta State – the Big Heart – marks 25 years of its creation in 1991 by a military decree. Modest efforts have been made to grow the state, particularly its capital, Asaba, from a rustic, ancient community nestled on the bank of the River Niger to a sprawling, albeit haphazard metropolis in dire need of town planners. From its first Military Governor, Luke Chijiuba Ochulor to its first Executive Governor, the late Olorogun Felix Ibru, through incarcerated Mr. James Ibori, Mr. Emmanuel Uduaghan and now Mr. Ifeanyi Okowa, Delta State has had its fair share of the vice grip of defective leadership.
 
Nevertheless, various efforts to reposition the state have had little or no input from the artistic and culture sector. Indeed, as noble and bold as Uduaghan’s ‘Delta Beyond Oil’ economic blueprint was, it failed entirely to incorporate into its fold elements of culture. This is sad as Uduaghan had major culture practitioners, Mr. Richard Mofe Damijo and prof. Hope Eghagha, in his cabinet as commissioners, with Damijo holding the culture portfolio.
 
In fact, the two states of Delta and Edo, birthed from the old Bendel State, have produced some of the finest cultural workers in the country. Sadly, these states have failed to devise any cultural platforms to harness the abundant youthful, artistic energy, especially in the face of restiveness, militancy, kidnapping, oil bunkering and sundry vices they have had to deal with, particularly Delta State.
 
And so, from master printmaker, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, pioneer filmmaker and show promoter, Chief Eddie Ugbomah, with his 13 celluloid films and several home movies, the filmmaking Ifoghale Amata clan (Zack, Fred – newly elected Directors Guild of Nigeria, DGN, Ruke, Erumena and Jeta and his Hollywood-made Black November); the Ejiro clan (Zeb – producer of Domitila, Chico – Mr. Prolific and Peter Red – who manages the family’s Film and Broadcast Academy at their hometown, Ozoro); writer, Mr. Toni Kan , comedy merchant and pioneer comedy show business, Mr. Opa William, with his ‘Night of a Thousand Laughs’ from which other such shows have since sprung; the pioneer comedian, Mr. Ali Baba and the comedy gang from his native Warri, a city fertile in the production of the comic genre.
 
Writers also abound. There are the poets and teachers, Profs. Tanure Ojaide, Tony Afejuku and Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, playwright, dramatist and teacher, Prof. Sam Ukala, visual artist and teacher, Dr. Nelson Edewor and many others. Also from Edo State, there are legendary musician, Sir Victor Uwaifo, filmmaker, Mr. Lancelot Imasuen, celebrated writer and polemicist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, dramatist and broadcast entrepreneur, Dr. Pedro Obaseki, painter and art historian, Dr. Peju Olayiwola, dramatist, Ms Eki Faith Eboigbe and countless other established and upcoming culture workers.
 
This is outside the army of countless young ones brimming with talents in these two states; poor politics has continued to deny platforms to harness their talents. While some idle those talents away unused, others take recourse to unhealthy outlets that eventually negate society.
 
Meanwhile, a few kilometres away in Rivers State, CARNIRIV has held for over two decades, together with the yearly book feast, Port Harcourt Book Festival (PHBF) spearheaded by Mr. Rotimi Amaechi. In Cross River State, there is the Calabar Christmas Carnival, which former Governor, Mr. Donald Duke introduced. It has since become a world tourism destination. Akwa Ibom also joined other Niger Delta states providing artistic and cultural platforms for citizens to express themselves, with its 1,000-member strong Christmas Coral Choir, arguably the largest in Africa.

WHILE these Niger Delta states have been enlivening their communities with cultural and artistic engagements, with flourishing platforms, Delta and Edo States have remained outside the cultural, humanistic net. What have resulted are huge voids and continuing rural-urban migration, even in spite of Uduaghan’s politics-tainted ‘Delta Beyond Oil,’ which he introduced at the twilight of his administration.
 
Efforts to reach Edo State Commissioner for Culture, Mr. Donald Obasuke, failed. He did not take his calls. Although Delta State Commissioner for Culture, Mr. Ernest Ogwezzy, couldn’t hazard a guess why culture has been lacking in the state’s governance programming, he expressed Okowa’s desire to engage the cultural expressions of the various ethnic groups in the state. In this vein, the governor started with his Anioma people and celebrated their day. But it is unclear which ethnic nation’s culture would be celebrated next. Even Delta@25celebration already seems deficit in cultural content. Beyond that, Ogwezzy hit a blank wall on the plans the state has for cultural development.
 
Culture practitioners have decried the absence of museums and gallery spaces for exhibitions, film and theatre halls for performances. Other platforms lacking include art and culture festivals for the exhibition of cultural products of its artistically gifted citizens and a creative academy for its teeming youth talents to horn latent skills.
 
Opa William was recently in Asaba ahead of the celebration. He expressed apparent frustration with the entire organisational set up. He said nothing seemed to be happening in the state, adding, “I just came back from Asaba. I didn’t see what they are doing. My proposal for the celebration would be to do one day of cultural extravaganza of the different cultural displays from the various ethnic nations – opiri, umawho, agbaza, etc. But they tend to have their own plans, but I didn’t see it, and it is 15 days to go, and nothing is really going on. They are saying there is no money.”
 
William attributes the lack of cultural content in governance programming in the state to the governor being more concerned with how to boost the state’s economy. He blames the poor vision of those usually appointed as culture commissioners for failing to project culture as economic resource worth investing in. As he noted, “The culture commissioner should be the one doing it. We are a people of culture, and we need people to expand it. Why can’t culture commissioners bring promotion of culture and tourism to the governance table? Look at Ase and Bomadi beaches wasting away; there is Mungo Park and the Lander Brothers houses lying in disuse; they are cultural and tourism assets.
 
“So, do we say round pegs are not in round holes? Otherwise, we have a lot of cultural sites and things that can generate income apart from the traditional festivals that are in abundance. Somebody somehow is not thinking of using culture to drive economic activities.”
 


Afejuku is worried about the absence of peace, justice and humane politics in Delta State’s governance affairs, saying the absence of these negates everything good that ought to happen in the state. As he noted, “What is significant is genuine peace and unity; these are what Delta State and the Niger Delta need. If we are celebrating, there should be symbolic music cutting across the entire tribes. We must try to advance these to give us economic boom, otherwise, we are pursuing shadows. We must live in oneness; we must imbibe the culture of real justice. We should celebrate the culture of unity. We should ask our writers to write novels, plays and poetry on these aspects of our people.”
 
Bad politics mixed with greedy politicians, who don’t know what culture stands for, according to Afejuku, add up to stunt cultural and artistic renaissance in both Delta and Edo States. “Most times, people who don’t know what culture is, what poetry is, are appointed commissioners,” Afejuku said. “Bad politics colour everything, politics that fails to enrich the state. They think development is only about infrastructural – roads, bridges, transportation; so, they fail to develop the brain, the mind that conceive roads and bridges. Those who govern Delta and Edo have no trace of culture in them. The Benin Moat can be turned into tourism haven. No book festivals. Which books do they promote in Edo and Delta? It’s because there is no immediate contracts to be awarded. Our people are not good; they are simply materialistic. The love of evil money is too great in them.”
 
For Fred Amata, Delta is a hub of creative expression in film and television and wonders why government is aloof to the artistic yearnings of its people. As he noted, “Delta and Edo States have many festivals; it’s innate to them. Culture is key and unique in modern world, but we choose to treat ours with levity. These states need to do something to enhance cultural productions. We are such multifaceted states. Donald Duke came and changed Calabar with that carnival, and today, the state is better for it. Delta should hold a mini FESTAC, and all our arts thrown together in a festival and competition.”

For dramatist, Eboigbe, who recently celebrated World Family Day in Lagos, frustration has been her lot as she tries to project good cultural programmes to Edo State government for execution. The former commissioner, a lady, brusquely told her the governor was not interested in her culture-based proposals.“We are asking, why haven’t government called us?” she wondered. “The people there are not even doing stuffs. We have all the ideas to present; they don’t even give us audience. It gets so frustrating. It’s unfortunate we don’t get the ears of government. The kind of people they put in government is the problem; they are disconnected; they are afraid to speak the truth and articulate what should be done. They just want to keep their jobs.
 
“I’ve articulated a paper on how to revive the culture sector in Edo State. I’d be glad to come and present it and be part of its realisation; it’s not about the money; just the interest. Igu Street (world famous for its bronze casting) is one area that can become a tourist destination, but not as it is today. We need to make it appealing, restore it and our children can be proud of it in years to come. The palace at Ogbe can be made attractive for people to buy tickets to go there like Osun Osogbo, to showcase all of the glory and essence of Edo people.”

DR. Pedro Obaseki’s experience seems long-suffering. In 1999, immediately Mr. Ibori and Mr. Lucky Igbinedion came to power in the twin states, Obaseki said, “I took a proposal for a film village to Delta and Edo States. I intended it should be cited in the area between Oghara and Ilogbo because of the sheer geographical and topographical nature of the area. A major entertainment and film service village must be close to major cities; the place is just less than 45-minutes drive to Warri and 15-minutes to Benin City. It must also have access to forest and have access to water bodies, which are there – just 40 nautical miles to the sea. And I said I would create a new vista for the entire area. It was to be called Bendel Entertainment Village. I pursued that thing for six years, I tire; Ibori and Igbinedion didn’t see the value in it.
 
“So, when Uduaghan and the comrade governor, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole came in, I started again. I even went to the extent of applying to the Oba of Benin for me to build Oba Erediauwa University for Media Art and Information Technology to be located at the bypass from Warri.”
 
Obaseki, a former teacher of theatre and filmmaker, failed in his bid to be governor of Edo State, and may not actualize his dream of turning that space into a cultural hub. However, he is convinced, “Edo State needs someone who can turn this goldmine of culture into business model to empower the people with the opportunity and development potentials in it”.
 
If nothing else, his experience at America’s The Smithsonian says it all. “One day, I said let me go and see The Smithsonian sef, “he recalled. “On the first corridor, I saw written on a door ‘African Art.’ I opened it and saw things about Nok culture, Yoruba culture and the culture of others; nothing about Benin culture. I felt bad. Then I walked down the corridor, and on the next door I saw ‘Benin Art,’ on its own. I felt tall!”

Author and publishing executive, Imasuen, attributed it to brain-drain of a local type. “For me I believe that the reasons for this lack of cultural engagement are many and difficult to fully characterize,” eh stated. “Is it the multi-decade-long brain drain of many of the best of the old Bendel State to the centres of the nation, first Lagos, now Abuja? And the subsequent loss of the cultural space to those who were not qualified to hold it? You see this everywhere. You see old Bendel indigenes shining in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, and Kaduna. Then go to Asaba and Benin City, and Warri. There is a loud absence.

“There seems to have been an inertness regarding the cultural engagement. I remember as a child the Bendel Cultural Troupe. I remember how avant-garde it was. It still exists, split in two, in Edo and Delta States. But now there is nothing new there. It is as though it has just been still, unmoving, unwilling to move, to see what young people, like their fellows in Crown Troupe of Africa are doing elsewhere in the country.

“You sense this utter lack of curiosity amongst the new gatekeepers of our cultural space. Ask any of them to name a recent Booker Prize shortlist, and they cannot. Ask them if they read a Chimanmada Adichie novel, and you will find that the last new book they read was Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe.

“The matter needs a top-down stimulus. With the decay in all our systems, this is truer now than ever before that we need great men to, at least, shake us back into sanity. It needs the appointment of a commissioner who gets it, who can navigate around the dogs in the manger, who can soothe bruised egos of ignorance, and bring our home states back into the 21st century”.


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