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  • #Nollywood Entertainment #Nigeria News: Waiting for Change At the National Theatre

    The new Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed sure has his job cut out for him, considering the size of his portfolio. Therefore, he has been on the move since day one when he was announced as minister, visiting establishments under his supervision and making statements that seem to restore hope of stakeholders in the culture sector.

    His last visit (Monday Dec. 28, 2015) was to the National Theatre, Iganmu, a national cultural monument that is often in the news for the wrong reasons. If the artistes are not complaining about being shut out of the edifice or protesting against government’s planned sale or concessioning of the National Theatre and its vast land mass, the National Theatre Workers Union will be alleging fraudulent contract awards by its management and the latter’s capacity to run the theatre.

    To some observers, the minister probably chose yuletide period to visit the national monument in order to confirm some of these complaints, especially those by stakeholders that the Kabiru Yusuf-led management of the National Theatre has shut the doors of the multi-purpose facility to events which it should rightly host such as film shows, concerts and stage performances. Stakeholders have at various times within the last five years of Kabiru Yusuf headship of the National Theatre lamented their inability to access the facility because of what one of them, a notable theatre producer described as the ‘mercantilist posture of the management of the national theatre’.

    According to the theatre producer, “this current management does not understand the business of running the National Theatre. The man there now is so engrossed with rugging (sic) the halls and fixing chandeliers than making the facility available for shows. We come with proposals for collaboration and he sends us away asking us to pay the same amount as we pay to Eko Hotel before we can use the facility. And you ask, is the government not supposed to be promoting the arts? I am sorry to say that the people there now don’t even sound as artists and this is not how it was in the 80’s and 2009 when professionals like Jimmy Atte, Professor Femi Osofisan and the great Professor Ahmed Yerima ran it.

    They even initiated programmes to keep the theatre busy and collaborated a lot with us producers of theatre and culture, and that way, they created jobs and empowered us and encouraged the development of the profession. That is what the National Theatre is established to achieve. Not to be re-tilling the floors even when it is not necessary. What is the use of fixing the halls when it is not utilised? Go there now, nothing is happening there. Once it is 4 pm, they lock the place and go home.”

    Truely, the doors of the halls inside the National theatre were under lock and keys when the minister visited. Although people milled around the snack and drinks bars at the popular Abe-Igi and around the main complex, some having private picnics on the lawn, there was not a single event happening inside the complex. “Why are stakeholders in the creative industry not using the facility like those in Nollywood,” the minister asked the General Manager Kabir Yusuf as the GM led him on a tour of the National Theatre and the GM inaudibly replied that their doors were always opened but that the stakeholders have refused to bring their shows to the National Theatre.

    Obviously not satisfied by the response by the GM, the minister had at the end of the visit assured that the present government would work at restoring the National Theatre to its lost glory. He also assured that he would get the management to work out modalities on how they can engage with stakeholders for increased patronage. “We will restore the National Theatre to its pride of place and make it more user-friendly. We will also ensure that the management engages with stakeholders in order to increase the patronage of the various facilities at the complex,” he said.

    On plans by the previous administration to ‘sell’ the National Theatre in the guise of leasing the fallowing landmass around the theatre complex, the Minister assured that the edifice would continue to remain a national monument and would not be sold for whatever reason. However, he disclosed that he has been briefed that there is an ongoing Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement regarding the National Theatre land mass, he assured that it would be reviewed and handled in a manner that the Nigerian people will not be shortchanged. “We are not averse to a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement that will add value to the iconic (National Theatre) complex.

    The National Theatre will always remain a national monument and a tourist attraction. We will not allow it to go derelict or become a magnet for hoodlums. This monument is the pride of the nation, and it has always served as the point of convergence for Nigerians seeking fun and relaxation, especially during festive periods, and a centre for the promotion of arts and culture,” the minister said.

    Although the minister did not say whether he was briefed on a botched plan by his predecessor and the GM to lease a section of the edifice to a firm based in the United Arab Emirate for $40 million, a plan that was greeted with a resounding protest, he reiterated the need for management to engage stakeholders on the best way of utilising the edifice, he however promised “noticeable changes at the complex within the next few months.”

    Perhaps, it is the Minister’s resolve to get stakeholders to utilise the edifice, as it ought to be and his readiness to transform the edifice to a magnet of the creative arts that took him to Freedom Park in Lagos on Saturday, January 9, to see the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. Sitting directly in front of Soyinka in his office at the Freedom Park, the minister declared that the visit to the Nobel Laureate was to enable him to drink from his cup of wisdom.

    But before discussion between Prof. Soyinka and Alhaji Mohammed delved into politics and the anti-corruption posture of the present government, the Minister expressed its readiness to make the National Theatre a true home of culture. Again, the minister assured that the national monument would not be sold but would be brought up to standard through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). “We are currently studying the PPP proposal with a view to ensuring that the government and people of the country get a good deal from it.”

    Even Prof. Soyinka agreed with the minister that a PPP deal represented one of the most realistic ways to upgrade the standard of the National Theatre and enhance its functionality. Although he acknowledged that the present National Theatre was adaptable in several ways, Prof. Soyinka brought another dimension to the narrative asserting that the edifice was never designed to be a theatre in the first place. He, therefore, called on the Federal Government to consider building what he called a ‘genuine’ national theatre. “This nation needs a genuine theatre. As long as we keep calling it (National Theatre) a theatre, this nation will never build a theatre,” he said.

    The minister left Freedom Park after a guided tour of what used to be the former colonial prison but which the Lagos State government has converted to performance arena and fun spot. Alhaji Mohammed’s parting shot was the refrain that “that there would be noticeable changes at the national theatre complex within the next few months.”

    Stakeholders say that they eagerly await those changes. However, a few of them think that for the planned changes to have an effect, most urgent will be the need for the Minister to take another look at the leadership of the National Theatre. A notable Culture technocrat who would not like to be named is of the opinion that the problem of the National Theatre began after a questionable de-merger exercise of the once jointly and effectively run National Theatre and National Troupe of Nigeria ordered by a former Minister of Culture, Senator Belo Jubril Gada.

    Following the demerger, Mallam Kabir Yusuf, a retired executive director with the National Orientation Agency and a former unionist and television operative was appointed General Manager to succeed Professor Ahmed Yerima who later resigned his appointment. It was from that point, as the workers union of the National Theatre and some stakeholders affirmed, that the National theatre took a bad turn in terms of leadership and programming.

    In fact, at a forum organised by the former President Goodluck Jonathan for members of the creative community, just before the election, the artiste community openly complained to the President that the present management of the national theatre lacked the capacity to run the place. They told the former President pointedly that the General Manager had not only shut the doors of the National Theatre at them, but that “the General Manager does not understand what the theatre stands for”, hence they canvassed for a situation where only knowledgeable, trained and experienced practitioners in specific field in the culture and tourism sector be appointed to head parastatals and departments within Ministry.

    Though the incumbent minister’s assurance shows his commitment to bring change, time will tell whether he got the right blueprint to turn around the fortunes of the theatre complex.

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