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Past gains in ruin as CBAAC, other culture agencies suffer neglect

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Gabriel Olatunde Babawale, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Lagos

Gabriel Olatunde Babawale, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Lagos has made landmark contributions to scholarship and national development. His giant strides as the Director-General, the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) between 2006 and 2014 remain evergreen.

However, Babawale, now a Commissioner at the Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC) is pained that “the gains we made over an eight-year period have literally been eroded and some of the achievements we recorded for Nigeria seem to have been wiped off.” He indicts the Federal Government for neglecting the culture sector, while insisting, “no meaningful development can be accomplished without paying serious attention to artistic and cultural expression of Nigerians.”

Since governance ought to be a continuum and given the volume of work you did as the Director General, the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) 2006 – 2014, what is your take on the running of the centre after your departure four years ago?

Unfortunately, one has not been happy to see how the gains we made over an eight-year period have literally been eroded and some of the achievements we recorded for Nigeria seem to have been wiped off.

We entered into partnerships with some diaspora organisations, especially in the Caribbean Islands such as the West Indies, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago; and many parts of Africa.

But perhaps, for reasons best known to those who took charge, no serious attempts have been made to consolidate on those achievements, but as we say, government is a continuum, and I’m seeing a ray of light.

A new broom is there now, even if it is temporary. I can see efforts at giving the place a facelift, even though they have limitations of funding, which, yes, could be part of the problem, but would not explain the lethargy that overtook the institution for a period of four years.

Now, so I think more should have been done. One of the things that we achieved at the Ministry of Culture, not just CBAAC alone, because we are talking about all the parastatals, including the ministry, was that culture took the centre stage in many institutions in Nigeria.

Some 15 years ago, not many universities, even secondary schools, devoted specific days to culture. Even then, out of the last 10 years, that has become, now, institutionalised in Nigeria.

Students’ societies in the universities now have their own cultural day. You would see them wearing the regalia associated with their own communities and their linguistic groups on those days.

So, I’m happy about that. I also know that there have been a lot of diaspora people that have been attracted to Nigeria, for instance, because of the activities of these agencies, including CBAAC. I believe government has a big role to play in making these agencies work.

What is the big role?

It must be painstaking in the kind of people it puts in charge. There is a need to always put round pegs in round holes. People’s pedigree would always be taken into consideration for political appointments.

The other point to make where government is responsible is that there must be effective monitoring. Periodic assessment of what each agency does in promoting culture, and government must publicize this assessment, even if it is to a gathering of these agencies themselves, to promote healthy competition.

We had that at a point when I was in government, at that level. And thirdly, most importantly, there is a need to increase the level of funding. I can report to you, authoritatively, that the funding of cultural parastatals and agencies has been epileptic, even by the current government.

It didn’t start with the current government; it started with the previous governments, but this current government has not improved on that record.

Why are they not doing that for educational institutions? It is because they feel that culture is residual.

So, we must put primacy on developing culture; because culture is also something that improves the education of the youths. If people are not cultured, there is no amount of school that they can go to.

If you do not develop the culture of that community, the education that you developed would be deficient. So, this is where I think government has a lot of role to play.

And then, I would encourage my colleagues who are put in charge of some of these agencies to do more than they are doing.

After all, if we say there is a problem of funding, we have an agency like the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), that even within the limitations of funding, has been doing a few things, and that means the leadership is thinking outside the box and thinking creatively about how to make a difference. Let others follow in that footstep.

Government must also have a template for commending those who do well and reprimanding those who don’t do well. So, it will intensify performance.

Finally, I find it difficult to understand why cultural agencies whose heads have ended their tenures have not been replaced. We have not less than four cultural parastatals now, without substantive heads.

It’s not rocket science to appoint people; Nigeria is blessed with human resources. We do not place premium on that sector and that’s not good for us. I think that government needs to treat that as an emergency.

When you were there, you elevated two major issues to public discourse: Making CBAAC to be to AU what UNESCO is to the UN, and the issue of cultural rebirth, especially when this government picked entertainment as part of its diversification of economy project. Do you think Nigeria can still retrace its steps and energise those issues?

We can, because the resources are there; the people are there. So, what we need is for government to take the lead in encouraging, not just government, but also even the private sector.

At that time, I was in CBAAC, all the other agencies were linking up, partnering with institutions, non-governmental organisations, to drive culture.

I remember when we went to UNESCO, in 2007, to mark 30 years of FESTAC (Festival of Arts and Culture). We partnered with the Ford Foundation and Air France. Air France gave us free flights to Paris.

Ford Foundation gave us 80,000 dollars, which was a lot of money at that time as it is now. We had support from all over to ensure that we showcased Nigerian and African culture at UNESCO. What we got from there – the goodwill – could not be quantified, in terms of cash.

The whole of Africa, thankfully, it was Professor Michael Omolewa who took the lead in mobilising all African countries within UNESCO, to join not just the exhibition, but to actively participate in it. They even brought works from their own countries. It became a carnival of some sorts.

That was a prelude to the granting of Nigeria a Category II Cultural Institute. That background that we laid, with the effort of the then permanent Ambassador to UNESCO, Professor Omolewa, was there that the argument for Nigeria to hold the Category II institute (Institute for African Culture and International Understanding in Abeokuta and its affiliate, the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU), Osogbo) was built.

It tells you a lot can be done, if we are serious. Don’t forget we had, in 2010, a meeting of the Ministers of Culture, in Abuja, where, I, as DG of CBAAC, presented a paper asking that CBAAC be elevated to a Pan African Cultural Institution by the African Union.

Because of politics, they couldn’t take a decision on it and postponed that decision to 2012 when the Ministers of Culture meeting was going to hold in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and when it did, because of politics, they said ‘Okay, the only thing they could grant CBAAC and Nigeria was that CBAAC would now be an observer at all OAU (0rganisation of African Unity) meetings and sessions’ and that’s where we are till today, six years after. We ought to have gone beyond that level.

To what extent did we take advantage of that decision to make meaningful impact in these meetings of the AU?

There are non-governmental organisations that we partnered with that have enjoyed that observer status and that are influencing decisions, even without having the right to vote. I can mention one of them: the Centre for Research and Documentation on African Tradition and Languages (CERDOTOLA) in Cameroon.

There was hardly any meeting of the AU it would not attend. It encompasses cultural organisations of the central African region.

We worked with it. We partnered with it. In fact, it was in conjunction with CERDOTOLA and others that we formed what we called SICADA, that is, Summit of Institutions of Cultural Agencies for Managing Culture, which still exists today, I can tell you that. The organisation was initiated by CBAAC, in 2007.

We were the one that invited all those agencies from East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, and hosted them in Lagos (and told them) that ‘Look, we should share notes and experiences and be like one’ and that was how SICADA was born.

When I was there, the headquarters was in Mozambique, and the head then was one Professor Lupwishi Nbuyamba, who had come here to give a few lectures. So, we can still achieve that, with effort (and) with making our presence felt in those institutions.

The second one about renaissance is the frequency of our activities and the extent to which we are able to make our presence felt, not just to within our communities, but also to outside. Remember we worked on indigenous languages and we popularised it? We did exhibition in Kenya.

Even at the AU 50th anniversary in Addis Ababa. This was well received. What Nigeria lacks is this idea of continuity. That is because we are not giving the right attention to the culture sector.

I see our current government being more interested in tourism, and there is no way you would succeed with the emphasis on tourism, if you de-emphasize culture; because culture provides the emphasis for tourism.

Tourism without a cultural content is empty. That’s what our government must realise; both of them must go together. In order for you to have a good policy on tourism, you must have a good policy on culture. The document is there.

Yet, we have not published it. I have a draft. That is what should have been, what I call, the manual for cultural agencies and parastatals.

Even the tourism master plan, how many of our people in tourism have that master plan? What about the Presidential Committee on Tourism, which was to be headed by the President himself, as far back as the Obasanjo era? Why are we not reviving it and making it more active? There are avenues where you can use to source funds. People must not think it is only government money that you can use to run culture.

There are monies out there that are available for you to run culture. Even the United States has a lot of funds available for culture, once you can put up a good proposal and tell them what you want to do with it and they see it very realistic.

Beyond that, what about our own people here? We have entrepreneurs that are interested in driving culture. We have artisans and culture connoisseurs who are ready to fund it. All we just need is to let them know that this is going to lift the country and its people.

Even those companies that are operating in our system have what we call Corporate Social Responsibility.

The culture sector could be an area where we could ask them to focus their attention, rather than asking them to spend money in promoting hip hop musicians. Why don’t they promote local musicians, indigenous musicians? Davido doesn’t need to go to anybody; they are going to fund it, if he wants to organise a concert.

All people need to show those companies is they are bringing Davido and funds would begin to flow in, not just telecoms giants, from breweries, from everywhere. But how much is flowing into culture? I would be surprised, if people even supported the last NAFEST in Port Harcourt, from the private sector, apart from the Rivers State government.

As a professional, you have multitasked in the civil service and academia. How did you manage to create your own work-life balance?

I think they are intertwined, in a way. I was trained as a political scientist. That makes this particular job (as an electoral commissioner) easy for me, because I have written about four or five books about Nigerian elections.

I’m a little bit on familiar terrain. In the area of culture, I got there by accident, even though I actually had a bit of knowledge about the subject.

Why? One: because I read history for my first degree; so, I know a little bit about culture; there is no way you want to talk about history without talking about culture of the people, and thankfully again, as a young man growing up, I got very close to a number of friends who were fine artists and because of the arguments we engaged in almost on a daily basis, and sooner than later, I became versed in the subject, and thankfully, as an undergraduate, I did courses in agriculture, without knowing they were going to come out useful for me. I think first, fate brought me into culture.

As I said, the two of them are intertwined. To talk about culture, you need to first understand the society – the behaviour of the people.

Political science just deals with political behaviour. That is an aspect of behaviour, which culture enables me to have understudied. And growing up as a child, I grew up within a cultural context where rural people cherished culture.

So, I lived it as a child. I can feel it. I know it. That’s why there are no conflicts. I’m able to strike a balance between my role as an academic; my interest in culture and my role as an official of an electoral commission.

In your book, Nigeria in the Crises of Governance and Development, you examined Nigerian politics, governance and administration. So, what do you think are Nigeria’s current biggest challenges in governance and administration?

One, I think we have all agreed that we have a challenge of leadership. There is a need for us to work towards what we call transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership is what helps in turning around the society. We have had too much of regular kind of leadership, but we need a type of leadership that is unusual; that would put genuinely the interest of the people in the front burner of the society; and would avoid distractions; and would find a way of actively bringing people into governance.

Right now, maybe because of political differences, we are even taking people away from governance. I believe that we can do more than we are doing now.

Two, I also think followership has a lot to do. In the sense that they have lost focus on their responsibility as citizens.

Those who want to come to equity, as they say, must come with clean hands; if you want to say government hasn’t performed its duties, have you performed your own responsibilities and civic obligation as a citizen? Do you see yourself more as a citizen or as a subject, or vice versa?

A subject does not ask questions; a citizen does. There is nothing that stops us, if we perform our civic responsibilities of paying taxes, doing community duties.

There is nothing that stops us from asking questions and asking our government to be accountable. That is what people do in other societies that are developed. But we seem to remain fatalistic, leaving this act of asking for accountability to God. God will judge. No God would judge those governments for you.

The only way you can judge your own government is to change them when they are not doing well using the power of your votes.

So, these are the two major problems that I see: citizen apathy or citizens’ helplessness and bad leadership, and it is now accepted for people to say that the major problem that we face is the problem of leadership.

How do we tackle this issue of godfatherism in our political system?

Godfatherism is becoming more entrenched, because the political process is becoming more corrupted.

The moment we sanitise that process (by), of course, reducing the cost of participating in elections, stop vote buying, we are going to see an immediate termination of the power of the godfather.

Don’t forget that in times past, especially in the Second Republic, you would find a senator or a member of the House of Reps only people who have made their mark in their profession in Nigeria. I remember the Senate of the Second Republic had Senator Jonathan Odebiyi and Senator David Oke.

In the House of Representatives, you could see a lot of people all over the country who have made their marks in their respective fields of endeavour. I think people like Dr. Taheel.

All of these people made their marks, not by the amount of money that they had, or because they were brought there by (a) godfather.

It was their own name – their own track record, when they went for the House of Representatives. But because the process is now corrupted, and we are corrupting it by making it only available to the highest bidder, expression of interest form and nomination form have to be collected, and they are usually expensive, before people can contest. That has to be stopped. Let people go there and contest.

Let it be affordable to all and sundry so that people can now choose based on the character of the people they are nominating. That means you have made the money provided by the godfather useless, if he doesn’t pay for your expression fees, for your nomination of interest fees, and you can campaign without so much money. I can tell you that our people are ready to remove all those obstacles.

I had the experience when Mimiko was contesting in Ondo State, in 2006. I can say this, because as Ojukwu said in his book ‘I was involved’.

Every campaign rally that Mimiko ran that time, I’m not sure, money spent on those rallies hardly exceeded not even up to N500,000.

How did it happen? People paid their way to the campaign rally, unlike now when you rely on a godfather to provide the vehicles, to provide money for feeding.

People came from their houses, because they knew that there would be people selling food and snacks around there, they would always bring out money to buy and feed themselves. Even groups and communities contributed money to finance campaign rallies.

So, how would you have had a godfather? That was why during Mimiko’s first coming, it was not due to godfatherism; it was based on popular acceptance. So, we can go back to that paradigm – re-sanitizing the political process and removing godfatherism from Nigerian politics.

Moving from a national assignment to a state assignment, how do you see it? What are the differences, similarities and enticements?

I don’t know about enticements, but I know that we are talking about governance at both levels. The only thing I know that is different is, one, I was the head of that organization (CBAAC).

Although, I’m part of the leadership of this organization (LASIEC), I’m not directly in charge. I see that we have a lot in common, in terms of the processes of governance.

My only worry is that it seems that, at the state level, the bureaucracy works more slowly. I think it could be faster. It literally weakens even the leadership when it comes up with fantastic ideas.

In this commission, a woman that has bright ideas about how to make Lagos State Electoral Commission like INEC leads us. We are now in the process of completing a strategic plan for the commission.

I would be the first person to be doing it in partnership with IFES, International Federation of Electoral Systems; they are providing us with logistics, and we have almost completed the job. But where we get slowed down, in spite of the leadership and enthusiasm, is the bureaucracy.

It didn’t affect me at the federal level, because it was an almost autonomous institution; the Federal Government cannot directly supervise all 500 or so parastatals. We only have a ministry.

And the ministry does not do much except for regulating some of the things (we do) and it does not provide us with wages, but I notice that that’s a problem we have at the state level. Redtapism is more pronounced than at the federal level, from my experience.


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