Monday, 5th June 2023

Buhari and four years of bittersweet art, culture programming

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor (Arts and Culture Editor)
31 May 2019   |   3:03 am
Since the emergence 20 years ago of the Fourth Republic, the longest lasting republic after Nigeria’s independence, no president has won with massive support as President Muhammadu Buhari.

President Buhari (middle), Abba Kyari (left) and some Nigerian artists during the campaign for 2019 Presidential election

Since the emergence 20 years ago of the Fourth Republic, the longest lasting republic after Nigeria’s independence, no president has won with massive support as President Muhammadu Buhari. And for many reasons.He arrived in Aso Rock, Abuja at a moment of great historic urgency — the Nigerian economy was in free fall. Unemployment was spiking high and the financial industry teetered on the brink of collapse.

Buhari seemed cut from folklore: the man with the golden wand and the embodiment of honesty. He had taken oath of office with an unusually progressive agenda focused on the making of Nigeria great again.

In fact, that it took the president so many months to constitute the cabinet did not matter to many in the culture, creative industry (CCIs), what they craved for was a minister who would religiously follow the template already drawn which includes:
• Fast-tracking the realisation of the National Endowment Fund for the Arts; and facilitating introduction of tax rebates as incentives for sponsors of the arts

• ensuring the formal launch and operation of the Nigeria Cultural Policy;

• that action on the reviewed cultural policy for Nigeria and the Endowment Fund for the Arts has been unnecessarily delayed. Action must therefore be taken to establish and make them functional for effective development of the sector.

• giving prime place to the cultural sector in budgeting processes since it has capacity to create massive job opportunities;

• establishing infrastructure and relevant facilities to back up the mobility and diversity of the creative industry;

• ensuring a proactive enforcement of the copyright law so as to make the creative industry lucrative;

• giving artists deserved visibility in matters concerning their trades in government appointments;

• engaging the country’s vast human resources in literature, movies, music, theatre, TV programme, visual arts, etc as tools for building Nigeria’s image abroad.

• setting up machinery for effective monitoring of all cultural agencies to ensure that they are well managed and performing to the best interest of the artistes and creative industry practitioners.

• create a positive image for the country’s national buildings, private cooperate offices and edifices, there is a compulsory need to adorn them with Nigerian artworks in order to empower arts creators; and that measures be put in place to protect the nation’s cultural sites during times of conflict by engendering communal ownership of such sites;

• the MOPICON and Theatre Arts Regulatory Council bills need to be harmonised into one bill, which government could present to the National Assembly for timely processing. We need to urgently regulate the sector and maintain high ethical standards; and

• museums and indigenous languages/cultural/crafts centres should be made part of requirements for building schools across the country in order to orientate the younger generations on the country’s history and cultural values as part of their education.

Expectations ran high.

And with the emergence of Alhaji Lai Mohammed as minister of Information and Culture, it was assumed that the development of the sector would just be a matter of time.Four years after, the failure of government to improve arts and culture infrastructure has meant that benefits of economic growth are still denied the country.

Comprehensive reform or change, as it was, had been All Progressives Congress (APC) Holy Grail. However, the piece of legislation to catalyse the reform was not provided.From the National Theatre to the Tafawa Balewa Square, Artists Village to Ilojo Bar and the several bills unattended to like National Endowment for the Arts and National Gallery of Arts and the MOPICON and Theatre Arts Regulatory Council bills, the past four years have indeed left a yawning gap in the culture, creative sector.

According to Denja Abdullahi, Director, National Council for Arts and Culture and President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), “there has been nothing spectacular about the sector under President Buhari.”He continued, “it is still the same old story of a flurry of motion without movement. The government set out some well-intention policy thrust for the so-called creative sector that has left out some very key parts of the sector, which are the writing and publishing industries. Government, at the federal and at all levels, still needs to know that institutional support for arts and culture is imperative and cannot be all the time a private sector thing.”

He said, “our arts and cultural vitality of today has nothing to do with government’s patronage or support. At best the plethora of government arts and cultural agencies that should be seen at the forefront of supporting the players in the industry are busy competing with them or running them out of business. The examples are there for you to point at in Lagos and Abuja and elsewhere. Huge funds are allocated and accessed by government agencies in the sector that are frittered away on meaningless trips and programmes of doubtful impacts.”

While declining to speak about what government is doing or not doing, Prof. Peju Layiwola, Head of Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos, had this to say: “When I compare what privileges artists have in the western world, I lament the situation in Nigeria — lack of funding, support for artist work and initiatives, infrastructure etc. We have a long way to go.”

But Professor Duro Oni also of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, believes that the sector has fared relatively well. “The most important thing for me has been the stability in the system. For once, we have had a minister that has spent the full four years in the ministry. This makes for meaningful continuity,” said the Fellow, Nigerian Academy of Letters.

According to him, “all the cultural and tourism agencies are still intact. Previous governments have always had the proverbial sword of Damocle hanging on the parastatals and agencies, which does not help their development. As it is, the agencies are able to contribute their quota to the development of the nation, which must be multifaceted.”

He added that government should pay some more attention to the sector and not leave the parastatals without full chief executives. “Culture and Tourism parastatals and agencies have been around for a while and there are in-grown staff that have served their time from what we have been observing. I believe the time is ripe for staff that have developed from within to be considered for such appointments. There is also the issue of funding, so that the culture and tourism sectors can take their rightful place in the scheme of things.”

Thumbs up
Policy-wise, government has pushed through a major stimulus package to support the creative industry. Government has been able to grant most segments within the creative industries including, Nollywood conditional access to pioneer status incentives. Pioneer status is a fiscal incentive provided under the Industrial Development (Income Tax Relief) Act, Cap I7, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 (IDA). Eligible companies operating in designated pioneer industries and or producing pioneer products, which apply for and are granted pioneer status, are entitled to income tax holiday for up to five years – three years in the first instance, renewable for an additional maximum period of two years.

In addition to income tax holiday, pioneer companies enjoy other benefits, such as the exemption of dividends paid out of pioneer profits from withholding tax. The Ministry of Information and Culture, in 2017, created a $1 million venture capital fund to assist with better access to finance for stakeholders within the industry. As with most sectors across the economy, poor access to finance poses obstacle to sustained growth across the sector’s value chain.

For the minister, the government has concentrated its effort in providing infrastructure for the sector.Alhaji Mohammed told The Guardian, “there are certain things that are necessary to stimulate creative industry, and infrastructure is number one. For instance, how many film houses do we have in Nigeria? How many film houses have generator? What about the security? My belief is that the moment we get the infrastructure right, other things including artistic enterprise will fall in line.”

Niggling controversy
Many culture workers and stakeholders are of the opinion that the sector has not achieved much in the last four years, because of lethargy in culture administration. They note there are many things that government still glosses over, especially the funding of culture agencies and parastatals. The museum is one good example.

Although, there are about 50 government-owned museum stations across the country, and a large number of private, community and palace museums in various states of the federation, fully operational or in various stages of development, their impacts are hardly felt.

Government’s poor budgetary allocation made it very easy for Ilojo Bar to be demolished. Designated a national monument, it was brought down on September 11, 2016, because of government’s negligence. The demolition happened at a period when Nigeria was focusing on tourism for its non-oil revenue.

Ilojo Bar, also called Olaiya House or Casa da Fernandez, was a Brazilian-styled historic building. It was originally built as a bar and restaurant in 1855 by the Fernandez family who employed returning ex-slaves who had mastered the art of building while in South America.

It was subsequently sold to Alfred Omolana Olaiya of the Olaiya family in 1933 and was declared a national monument in 1956 by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Thus, it is expected that its heritage value will attract tourists. The then Antiquity office under colonial government, via Gazette 25 Vol 43 of April 6, 1955, listed the building among Nigeria’s national monuments.

From the colonial period till the emergence of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), post-independence, Ilojo Bar had been under the maintenance of Federal Government. However, the restoration of the building’s falling structures appeared to have been a challenge, as a result of what the NCMM said was the paucity of funds.

Stakeholders also point to the controversial Motion Picture Practitioners Council of Nigeria bill, which met with criticism when it was revisited in 2016. Alhaji Mohammed inaugurated a 28-member committee to review the bill before it is sent to the National Assembly for passage into law. However, the Nigerian Film Corporation, proposed the Nigerian Film Commission Bill, which is currently before the National Assembly. It said it is aimed at creating an enabling environment for the growth of the motion picture industry.

Earlier, on January 23, 2016, the Artists’ Village at the National Arts Theatre in Lagos was demolished on the orders of the theatre’s management.The village operates as an annex to the theatre with various structures operating as workshops and studios, mainly built by the artists themselves, and has also become a place for up and coming artists who cannot afford steep rental prices in the rest of the city.

Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed confirmed that he approved the demolition, but that it was only for the demolition of shanties and not for the Artists’ Village itself.Since the 1992 directive by the Federal Government that all federal agencies should move to the new capital, Abuja, the Artists’ Village had served as the Lagos office of the National Council of Arts and Culture (NCAC).

Meanwhile, three years after the demolition of the village, which housed several art studios, workshops, dance studios belonging to artists and some service contractors, the Federal Government has failed to fulfill its promises to the former tenants whose property were destroyed.

It would be recalled that the demolition of the village was allegedly carried out in the wee hours of January 23, 2016 by a team of armed policemen and officials led by the then General Manager of the National Theatre, Mr. Kabiru Yusuf, who apparently acted on the orders of the government.Although the Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, had promised to pay the artists the sum of N20m as compensation for property lost during the demolition and to rebuild the village, he has failed to do so.

National Theatre, Tafawa Balewa Square and other national monuments
Meanwhile, the Senate has reaffirmed its commitment to the non-sale of the National Theatre, Tafawa Balewa Square and other national monuments. This is sequel to the adoption of the report of its Committee on Culture and Tourism in its plenary on Thursday, May 8, 2019.

The Senate had earlier called on the Federal Government to halt the planned sale of the National Theatre and Tafawa Balewa Square, both in Lagos State.The lawmakers while adopting a motion by Fatimat Raji-Rasaki, Ekiti, described the move as a threat to national identity.

The Director General of Budget Office, Ben Akabueze, was quoted as saying that TBS, the National Arts Theatre and some selected power plants under the National Integrated Power Projects were part of the key national assets the Federal Government has concluded plans to sell to finance the country’s yearly budgets for the next three years.

In dismissing government’s intention, the Senate observed the Tafawa Balewa Square was instrumental to the country’s history and the National Theatre was built for all blacks gathered to celebrate the uniqueness of the black race. The monuments were important to Nigeria’s history and should not be sold off, as selling them will be a great mistake, as the historic identity attached to them would be erased, while generations to come would not have any sense of Nigeria’s history.

Boosting of Sector
However, for the poet, playwright and UNESCO Regional Expert (Africa), Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH), Denja Abdullahi, “until government takes its proper role by enacting and implementing supportive laws like the National Endowment Fund for the Arts, which will marshal state fund for the support of the practitioners of arts and cultures, there can be nothing like a boost.”

The NLNG Prize nominee said all the government interventionist policies to support the sector such as the Project Act Nollywood, Film Fund and the newly announced CBN initiative for special loans etc for the sector have to be warehoused under a central initiative as in the National Endowment Fund for the Arts, “as it is done in other saner countries who value the immense contribution of the arts to society’s civilising ethos. Government at all levels must be compelled to set out budgetary fund to support worthwhile projects of individual artists and groups within the sector. Government must give funds to arts and culture NGOs to operate. The neglect of arts groups within the sector who often derive grants and aid to function from foreign cultural agencies does not augur well for the ideological purity of practice in the sector.”

The ANA president is angry that the writing profession has not enjoyed under Buhari. His words: “I will definitely say it has not as I have not seen them thinking about us in their policy loop and various schemes set out for the creative sector. When people in government talk of the creative sector, the idea in their head is all about musicians, filmmakers, fashion designers etc. The writing and the publishing industries are the orphans of the creative sector.

“We just finished the Nigerian International Book Fair in Lagos, most of the government people invited there were not found there except the National Librarian and the DG of the Nigerian Copyright Commission who are both known to be active players in the sector before their appointments.

“It tells you that the government must think well before appointing people to head agencies in the creative sector. They must appoint persons with knowledge about how the creative sector works and who will see creative people as partners not competitors to be muscled out of practice. The government needs to pay more positive attention to writers as they are the preserver of national being and the visioner of a better tomorrow.”