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Revue:Endless Theatrics Around Nigeria’s Symbol Of Artistic Expression

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
07 June 2015   |   4:46 am
NO one should have a doubt that the National Theatre needs a serious policy statement. And, President Muhammadu Buhari is the only one that can make that now. In almost two decades, it has swung like a yo-yo that culture workers and practitioners are not even aware of the latest information on the place.

TheatreNO one should have a doubt that the National Theatre needs a serious policy statement. And, President Muhammadu Buhari is the only one that can make that now. In almost two decades, it has swung like a yo-yo that culture workers and practitioners are not even aware of the latest information on the place.

And far as much 13 years now, the facility has been in the news, however, for wrong reasons. Paramount of which are: rot, privatisation, concession, and now, Entertainment City.

Acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece and a cultural landmark, the complex, which covers an area of about 23,000 square meters and standing well over 31meters tall, is the face of the country’s culture. Not even the ministry.

The National Theatre is Nigeria’s national cultural centre. All over the world, human communities, including nations, states, cities and other communities set up official cultural centres to: signalize the community’s cultural arrival; embody its artistic values; showcase its artifacts; and incubate the progressive development of its creative expressions.

Because of the importance of the foregoing roles of a national cultural centre, national cultural centres are never: left in the hands of public bureaucracies without specialised training and hands-on experience in facility management and the business of art and entertainment venues; nor concessioned to private entities to govern and operate.

The multipurpose complex, with an exterior shaped like a military hat and size, was established for the preservation, presentation and promotion of arts and culture in Nigeria.

Since it was established in the mid-70s, the complex has been the hub of theatre activities, art exhibitions, symposia and film shows. It has played host to various national and international theatre and musical events.

The reason for this significant role is obvious, giving the facilities it has. The National Theatre a Main hall, a conference/banquet hall, exhibition halls, two cinema halls and a VIP lounge. There is also a roof garden.

The main hall is capable of seating 5,000 people, and from its inception, consists of a collapsible stage and an auditorium. When in proscenium, the hall has a capacity for 3,500 seats.

The design for the monument was taken from the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varma, Bulgaria. The contract for its construction was signed on April 24, 1973, with the Bulgarian construction company called Technoexportsroy, the main contractors for the building of the complex.

Though, the Gowon Administration, initiated the idea for a National Theatre, hosting the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977 (FESTAC ’77) was the catalyst for the birth of the monument.

The concrete arrangements for its establishment started in 1973 when the Federal Government appointed a 29-member Theatre Consultative Committee to advise on the concept and organisational structure of a theatre.

The committee proposed the establishment of a National Theatre, which should also be the home of a National Troupe. General Olusegun Obasanjo, on September 30, 1976, opened the complex, five months before FESTAC ’77.

In line with the National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria Board Decree, No 47, of 1991, the appointment of a management team headed by a General Manager got presidential assent in October 1991, thus making the National Theatre a Government parastatal.

This led to the appointment of Jimmy Atte as the first General Manager and Chief Executive of the National Theatre. The decree sought to make the National Theatre not only relevant to the development, but also the official headquaters for arts and culture in Nigeria.

The magnificent building by its design and construction shows all the attributes of being the national cultural landmark of Nigeria.

However, like many national structures in Nigeria, the National Theatre has had its fare share of neglect and official mismanagement. The complex has been mired in bureaucratic bottleneck, which accounts for its steady decline and dip in its fortunes.

In 2001, when President Olusegun Obasanjo announced plans to privatise the National Theatre, it drew the ire of stakeholders. This development sparked controversy amongst Nigerian artistes, culture activists and playwrights like Wole Soyinka, the late Elder Steve Rhodes, Kolade Osinowo, Dejumo Lewis, Jide Kosoko, among others.

Artistes under the aegis of their various associations and guilds like the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Committee For Relevant Art (CORA), Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Association of Nigerian Theatre Artistes (ANTP), Guild of Nigerian Dancers (GOND), among others staged peaceful protests to stop government from carrying out its plans as it was not in the interest of the country. From what was seen as a ploy to sell the monument, it soon changed to concession.

According to the privatisation plan, by the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE), the National Theatre concession arrangement provides for a single concessionaire/facility manager with 20-year duration in the first instance that would pay a fixed concession fee for the entire period as well as yearly rents, which is subject to review every five years.

The various associations and guilds also met under the aegis of Coalition of Nigerian Artist(e)s (CONA) to review the developments.

The series of protests by CONA yielded some conciliatory results, as the Federal governments seem to have put the idea on hold. A new lease of life came for the embattled edifice, with the appointment of Professor Ahmed Yerima as the General Manager. Yerima immediately began work on the rehabilitation of the monument. Within a year, all the halls, except the main hall adorned a new look, with the air conditioning systems working again.

The stinking and nauseating toilet became as clean and usable as the lobbies. Theatre activities, which had since disappeared, returned to the place. Like a beautiful bride, corporate bodies and agencies suddenly found the National Theatre a worthy venue for business.

Under the almond trees popularly known as Abe Igi, which provides shade and meetings for artistes came alive again. The Nigerian Breweries Plc. soon branded it. The fast food giant, Mr Bigg’s, opened a branch in the complex.

It was not surprising also that the Nigerian Bottling Company, makers of Coca Cola soft drink, also began business there too, with their giant Coca Cola Christmas tree.

The current General Manager, Kabiru Yusuf, also followed with developmental programmes that have left the facility afloat.

The success of the culture community seemed to be ephemeral, as between 2013 and now, there has been a reported scheme to remake the building into a hospitality complex or what is described as, Entertainment City.

High Chief Edem Duke, the former Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, is said to have entered a Public Private Partnership with a consortium on behalf of the Federal Government regarding the management of the National Theatre, against an earlier plan to concession the National Theatre landmass in piece-meal.

The Guardian checks revealed that the scheme was to concession the landmass of the National Theatre to pre-determined private interest in the guise of executing the original master plan of the cultural edifice.

The concession plan was to get firms that would be interested in building structures, which include a 5-star hotel, Casino, shopping mall and multi level car park around the vast landmass of the National Theatre.

The spaces occupied by some government agencies like the National Gallery of Arts and the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) were to be leased out at a projected cost of N3 billion.

The minister was at the top of this plan when the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) alerted the Vice President and Chairman of the National Council on Privatisation (NCP), Namadi Sambo of plans to concession the national theatre, which has long been on the Federal Government privatisation list.

The BPE argued that if there were any such plans at all, it should have been carried out by the BPE, which remains the statutory body established to handle such a concession arrangement on behalf of the Federal Government.

A source hinted that the BPE then prayed the Vice President to direct the minister to stop work on his plan to concession the landmass ‘in piece meals’ and instead allow the BPE to conclude the privatisation process of the National Theatre, which it began in 2006 with a public bidding process, won by a company called Infrastructica.

The bidding process was televised live on national television. The NCP, however, discovered that the anticipatory approval was in violation of the Federal Government Privatization Act. The Guardian gathered that the BPE had on April 8, 2013 asked Duke to subject the concession of the National Arts Theatre to the Technical sub-committee of the NCP.

But the minister wrote the ICRC on April 29, 2013 to secure a no-objection approval for the Public Private Partnership of the theatre arts. But in a separate letter, the ICRC asked the minister to go ahead with the PPP option.

The memo said in part: “We acknowledge receipt of your letter dated April 29, 2013. We are pleased to inform you that the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission is in support of this transaction as it is a laudable project that has great potential to transform the National Theatre into a world-class facility, which can compete with the best theatre in the world.”

The minister was said to have approached the ICRC based on the alleged anticipatory approval he got from President Goodluck Jonathan on December 27, 2012. It was gathered that the minister had raised a memo to Jonathan asking for selective tendering and a release of N100million for the engagement of transaction advisors.

The said N100 million, which was approved by the Presidency, was as follows: N80 million for payment of transaction advisors, N15million operational vehicles and N5million for office.

It was learnt that based on the anticipatory approval by Jonathan, a firm, BGL, was appointed as a technical advisor for the PPP model.

At the Federal Executive Council’s meeting (FEC) held on Wednesday June 26, 2013 an Inter-ministerial Cabinet Committee was set up to consider the parallel concession transactions being carried out by the BPE and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation and recommend the best options.

On the strength of FEC’s meeting, the Senate Committee on Culture, Tourism and National Orientation visited the facility, and promised to increase budgetary allocation and also ensure that the edifice is saved.

Chairman of the Senate Committee, Ahmed Hassan Berata, said: “We have seen for ourselves the building, and we are convinced the place needs assistance. We discovered that the meager amount allocated to the place has been used judiciously.

We will make sure that adequate money is budgeted for the facility in 2014.” On the issue of encroachment on the National Theatre’s land, he said those identified would be invited to the Senate to defend themselves.

The team, which also compromised Senators Babafemi Ojudu and Abubakar Tutaza, for almost two hours, toured all the facilities and listened to a presentation from the BGL Equity Group, which has been hired as transaction adviser for the concession project.

The House of Representatives Committee on Culture and Tourism had also visited the arts facility as part of efforts to restore the asset to its initial glory and help its revenue generation capacity.

Though, at the tour, Senator Berata declined comment on concession issue because details were still sketchy. He, however, promised that his committee would invite BGL for interaction after full reports must have been read.

The management of the National Arts Theatre, earlier in the year, came out to debunk reports that the Federal Government has sold the facility to some foreign investors. Part of the deal allegedly worth $40m was said to involve renovating the facility and converting the 30,000m2 of the existing space into various tourist and entertainment structures.

According to the GM, a concession plan is still very much intact. “We came up with a recommendation to revive the Master Plan through public-private partnership. The Federal Executive Council accepted it. So, we embarked on a road show in Lagos on November 6, 2014. “What we wanted was a five-star hotel and a multi-level car park, among others.

The purpose was to make sure government did not have to spend its money. We wanted individuals to do the spending instead,” Yusuf said.

For The President’s Ear IF you speak with anybody in show business in Lagos — whether music promotion, stage play, comedy shows, dance gigs, movie premieres – securing a venue at a reasonable price, is a major challenge. In fact, it appears even more challenging for show promoters than developing the content itself.

When you want to be economical and rent a cheap venue to stage a show with gate takings, then you run the risk of selling the tickets to mostly intimate friends and family members. Besides, half of the tickets must be complementary for sake of the camera.

And if you are bold enough to dole out million just for renting venue, how will you charge to recoup your investment? It is that challenging here in Lagos.

For instance, the Expo Hall of the Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island, remains the best bet when it comes to live shows in Lagos, though the structure was not built specifically for concerts. But securing the 3000 to 4000-capacity hall, without other facilities, costs as much as N7 million.

When you add the cost of facilities such as light sound, projector etc, then the price will come up to about N15 million. On the alternative, you have the Oriental Hotel, which charges as much as N5 million or thereabout, just for renting the hall. There’s also the InterContinental Hotel, Victoria Island, which rakes in as much as N3 million per day for renting a hall.

Then you have the most affordable of them all, which is the Shell Hall, MUSON Centre, Onikan, which goes for less than a million; that’s when it is available. Right now, you are likely not to get space at MUSON till about February 2015; that’s how lucrative events venue are in Lagos.

While the theatre management has made efforts to keep the Cinema Halls, the Banquet Hall and other facilities in the Theatre alive, the main bowl remains in the dark.

Meanwhile, years after it was constructed, the MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos, which currently serves as an alternative to the National Theatre, in terms of hosting art events, still stands.

The centre, which was built by the Music Society of Nigeria, ranks among the list of best-maintained facilities in the city of Lagos. Under Jimmy Atte, the place was always in the news, and for good reasons.

There were frequent radio and television commercials. The catchline was, The venue makes the event.

There were equally corporate sponsorship of programmes and events. Alex Haley’s Roots enjoyed such support of the art house.

The economic advantage, there in, was such that made the place where to be. For Bunmi Davies, the producer of Stand Up Nigeria comedy show, the National Theatre is vital in the development of the art sector.

“The edifice was built to be home for the arts in Nigeria, but how it turned to what we have today, I can’t explain. Sometime ago, I rented one of the halls there for an event and I was amazed with the kind of equipment I saw; most of them have never been used before.

In some cases, you have sound equipment, but no body to operate them. Inside that theatre, you have facilities for cinema, which are not utilised. If government is serious about support for the art, then there’s need to get the theatre working.” Davies added, “there’s need to rebrand the place and encourage people to come to the theater.

Right now, there’s this impression that the place is not safe, so, in the process of rebuilding the theatre, lot of sensitisation need to be done; that’s the only way you can get Lagosians back to the National Theatre.”

Though, the place is in order, investment still continues to yield less returns. Multinational corporations (MNC) still advertise their products, in spite of returns on investment and years of operation as a way to boost brand profile, that is not the case with National Theatre.