Monday, August 06, 2007

Pain And Ironies Of The National Theatre Concessioning

Pain And Ironies Of The National Theatre Concessioning
Frank Aig-Imoukhuede

( As published in The Guardian Sunday August 5, 2007)

PERMIT me this response to the article by a Mr. Carl Orji titled: Myths and Facts of the National Theatre Concessioning in the Guardian on Sunday July 22, 2007 which characterizes the depths into which we have fallen in our misguided zeal, like a prodigal son, sell off our patrimonies.
I am not a ‘writer from CORA’ whose anti-concessioning actions in recent times must have given the Infrastructica Consortium and its agents nightmares. I am a stakeholder who has spent his adult life (the past half century or more) involved in arts and culture: some 23 of them directly in their administration including the National Theatre. I made inputs for the inclusion of the National Theatre in the 1974 National Development Plan. I was a member of the 1972/73 Federal Government Consultative Committee on the establishment of a National Theatre and served on the Panel which reviewed the Cultural Policy for Nigeria and Federal Government-Owned Film and Theatre Institutions (1984/5).
From 1989 to 1991, the National Theatre was in my charge. I can say the National Theatre’s problems have stemmed from a departure from original concepts and studied pigheadedness or indifference of those in its charge and running. We failed in achieving a National Theatre as it exists elsewhere because of conflicting (often selfish) interests of those concerned or involved. The heading ‘National Arts Theatre’ which Carl Orji and his principles have adopted confirms either ignorance or the depth to which our body politic has been plunged by the confusion. The National Theatre is not the National Troupe (which essentially is self-limiting although the latter can be a part of the former…Nor is it a catch-all institution the Consortium wishes to foist on us. The National Theatre is a building; it is also an institution embracing institutions combined in or associated with the theatre. It contains facilities for shows and performances and for its smooth running.
I read with despair Mr. Orji reference to ‘falling roof structure,’ the ‘sinking basement of the building’ and the needs for ‘the remediation of the environmental pollution on the site.’ I asked myself if the basement is really sinking or it is the surrounding soil that is subsiding and needs to the replenished. I wondered what the Federal and Lagos State governments are doing on the question of environmental pollution’ and why? I wondered where the 1 billion naira given two years ago went if the roof structure is still falling and the basement sinking.
I read with great sadness Mr. Orji’s revelation that nothing particularly works on the site’ and that the job of putting the place in good shape would require ‘a massive and renovation of the site, which the Federal government wouldn’t undertake even in partnership with resources.’ The revelation that "the allocation of national resources for competing national requirements puts the National Arts Theatre at the bottom of the pecking order of pressing issues’ is very damning because the same government has declared tourism the preferred sector of the economy and is poised to launch a tourism Master-plan that places culture at the forefront of the concerns of tourism development. And the National Theatre as a place of entertainment and a tourism capital and asset must have a place in it.
I find the argument as to what is a sale or not mere sophistry. A transaction in the arts in which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or Guggenheim Bilboa offered the Musee du Louvre in Paris its collection of Picassos or Rembrandts for an exhibition is indeed not a sale. In fact, Nigeria and its National Commission for Museums and Monuments once offered its ancient treasures for International exhibitions in U.S, France and China. But for limited periods of less that a year. A 35 – to 50 – year offer of use of an artifact (building or art work) is a different kettle of fish. Such, for example, is the deal involving some stolen Nok terra cottas still in a Museum in France courtesy of a generous concession deal by the Nigerian Government. When that deal leaked in 2001, the top official of the ministry unwittingly involve in its revelation was sent on suspension. It is therefore understandable why in these hard times, the concessioning ‘palaver’ has not been strongly resisted from within the system. So much for calling a spade a spade.
I find the reasoning behind Orji’s article in the class of the encounter between the Director – General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (about 1994) when one of the Budget officers considering the budget proposals of the Commission wondered why the Government was being bothered by that parastatal when all it needed to do each time it lacked funds was to put up an Ife or Benin head for an auction which could fetch it £2m or £3m.
The Tussaud group may have a 200 year operational record operating visitor attractions in London, New York, Austria, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Las Vegas and its portfolio may include over 51 attractions in 12 countries across three continents as Mr. Orji claims, but Mr. Orji needs to tell us if any National Theatre in the World (in Jamaica, Great Britain, Ghana, Japan) or elsewhere is included in the list. Or this type of transaction.
The 2005 World Film Market Trends gives Benin 06m for total cinema admissions and for Burkina Faso the toast of the Cinema in Africa, 1.5m. There is no figure for Nigeria. But I am aware that in 1990 even before our Nollywood boom, the figure for the National Theatre alone was estimated at 1.4m. there is no doubt, therefore, about the viability of investment (in infrastructure) in the National Theatre as long as the key factors are firmed. What our National Theatre needs is professionalism in its administration steeped in the economics of culture. Not scholasticism. This will provide the necessary leadership and clear vision for it. The Muson Centre in Lagos is a good example and model.
Since its commissioning in September 1976, the National Theatre has not had the benefit of the service of a professional and qualified engineer to handle the complexity of its functioning. It is little wonder then, when its cooling system began to play up, it was replaced in 1987 or so with a chiller half the capacity of just one of the two malfunctioning chillers. This was picked up at a wharf auction in Lagos. No manual available. No professional advice from its manufacturer who at that time had been out of business.
What the National Theatre needs to work well is a review of its modi vivendi/operandi (including its employment policy) so that its running is results-oriented and geared to self-sustenance and self-reliance (without prejudice to expectations of public-private sector support). I have gone into this distraction because the impression has been given that capacity for a Nigerian content and good service delivery is unavailable for the running of the National Theatre.
I am not a writer from CORA but I find Mr. Orji’s defence of the whole business of concessioning rather confusing — not the buzz-words alone on which he hangs his intervention, but also the impression he gives of a hotch-potch involving the National Troupe, N.G.A, and CBACC — excluding the National Council for Cultural Orientation, NICO the National Council for Arts and Culture and NAN, which are all present on the site. Yet, he brings into consideration the National Museum sited miles away at Onikan and in the process gives one a whiff of the dangers this concessioning exercise poses or constitutes particularly from the proposed ‘complementary African Museum to the National Museum in Lagos’.
The idea of recovering items stolen, acquired illegally, or as booty of war for the National Theatre may have some appeal for its proposers; but this one amount to duplication and the robbing of Peter to pay Paul. It would not promote efficiency; it would compound inter-institutional conflict. It would be counter-productive if one body or institution, that has little to do with antiquities is furnished with a museum at the expense of, or to the neglect of the thirty two museums all over the country belonging to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
It is this type of thinking, of taking or creaming off the best example from the states to showcase as a tourist attraction of Abuja while neglecting them in situ that devalued or tourism efforts so far particularly the Abuja Carnival. It is this trend of transforming other areas of the country with treasures taken from an ignored or neglected region, which has been cited as a factor in the Niger Delta crisis.
I am not a writer from CORA but there are a few other issues raised by Carl Orji’s attempt to defend his clients and the sale or privatisation of the National Theatre. A transaction that lasts, for example, 30 to 50 years cannot be regarded as reasonable for mortals who might not survive its duration. On the question of transparency, it is particularly clear that there was lack of transparency in the manner in which the concessioning was handled. There had been previous Ministers including Mr. Ojo Maduekwe who is now our spokes person on foreign affairs. It would be interesting to see how the sale or privatisation of the National Theatre is explained by him to the 59 black and African entities who participated in Festac and for whom the National Theatre is a symbol of the professions and declarations of the Festac Colloquium.
It might also be interesting to explain the sale (I mean concessioning) from the points of view expressed in our Head of State’s opening address (in the National Theatre) to the Festac Colloquium on ‘our uneven relationship with Europe and now including Northern America’, which continues to make us their trading post run by our citizens who constitute themselves into
a. Intellectual trading post agents;
b. Commercial trading post agents;
c. Bureaucratic trading post agents, and;
d. Technical trading post agents
It is most ironical that the same personality, who urged us passionately to be instruments of our intellectual, technical, bureaucratic, and commercial liberation, approved the National Theatre, for sale or concessioning.
In concluding, it is my humble opinion that the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, and its fellow travellers in privatisation should adopt a different approach with respect to the National Theatre. The institution itself should be left to take care of itself and strengthened to do so while the BPE dreams up BOT schemes that would provide additional facilities that would at the same time generate funds for supporting the National Theatre and the National Endowment for Arts and Culture.

Aig-Imoukhuede is a former Federal Director of Culture

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