The Arts

August 22, 2013

Don’t reduce National Theatre status to shop-window item – Ben Tomoloju

National Theatre, banker's committee

National Theatre Iganmu, Lagos.

By Japhet Alakam

Mr Ben Tomoloju is a respected culture activist, film critic, playwright, theatre director and former Deputy Editor of The Guardian . As someone who has followed developments in the culture industry, Uncle Ben T as he is fondly called in this interview with Vanguard Arts bares his mind on the controversial issue of the planned concession of the National Theatre into a five-star hotel, shopping mall and car-park by the Culture and Tourism Minister. Excerpts.

MUCH has been said about the purported concession of Nigeria’s foremost cultural edifice, the National Theatre, into a five-star hotel, shopping mall and car-park by the Culture and Tourism Minister. As a stakeholder in the culture industry and one who has followed developments in it, what is your take on it?

The National Theatre is not just an edifice, it is a monument, an embodiment of a distinct aspect of Nigerian cultural history. It is a major reference point in the creative life of the people and an iconic factor in Nigeria’s international cultural relations. This means, in addition, that the National Theatre is a booster to the international image of this country by the very fact of its history.

As such, you don’t reduce such a monument to the status of a shop-window item in the rat-race of economic potentates.

Government has a duty to promote, preserve and propagate Nigerian arts and culture through a proper management and use of the facility. It is a challenge that no one should run away from. I am amused, for instance, by a manager who accepts the offer of an appointment as the General Manager of the National Theatre and the best way he thinks he can perform this role is to sell off the facility. Sheer indolence.

But that is just by the way. One serious problem besetting the planned transaction is the lack of transparency and a conscious attempt to sideline the community of artists and culture producers in the whole process.

Do they think this large group of professionals are a bunch of morons over whom a tiny clique of individuals will exercise an aristocracy of knowledge?

Aristocracy of knowledge

That property is part of our commonwealth and we simply demand that stakeholders be carried along and participate in every decision-making process having to do with it.

We are justified even to have a hunch about the morality of the process. These are times when people who are highly connected with government slug it out in the public over one government property or the other they want to convert to private ownership. Many government properties are going into private hands through dubious transactions and the self-centred manipulation of IMF and World Bank prescribed economic policies.

We do not want our cultural wealth to go down the way of other public properties where people use government money to buy government property, privatise it and it’s bye-bye to the real stake-holders.

So, I believe there should  be a convened forum where a broad representation of interest groups from government, corporate Nigeria and the creative industry converge and address relevant issues about the National Theatre and the adjoining parcel of land.

Mind you, we have our position. The Artiste’s Village and the Universal Studios should be adopted and developed as a viable part of that creative habitat. All the parastatals, that is, the National Council for Arts and Culture, the National Troupe, the National Institute for Cultural Orientation, the National Gallery of Art, the News Agency of Nigeria, etc. should be left alone to take advantage of cosmopolitan Lagos to achieve their greater objectives.

The vision accommodates tourism

only insofar as it is anchored on cultural tourism where the various capacities of artists can be put to relevant use rather than a humiliating situation where they are being treated as outsiders in a place which should be professionally their home.

The Minister based his argument on the fact that the National Theatre Complex, with its enormous space, is under-utilised. In your own opinion, do you think the place is under-utilised?

Is the under-utilisation an excuse for the attempted eviction of cultural agencies and artists from a place established to promote culture? Does that not even appear anti-culture? Shouldn’t the Minister be the one to promote the interests of these bodies and professionals instead of destroying them?

Some of these excuses smack of moral subterfuge, others of blackmail. And the National Theatre Complex you are talking about refers primarily to the building. It is a complex by the facts of its architectural sophistication and multiple utility value which I should be able to explain later. You see, the primary victim of under-utilisation is the theatre itself. And what government should do is to place competence above politics in the appointment of the manager of the theatre. Imagine, when Professor Yerima was the Director-General of both the troupe and the theatre, there was a breath of fresh-air.

The two Cinema Halls and Exhibition Hall were rehabilitated and he was going to start tackling the main bowl when he retired. That is talking about competence, the can-do spirit. With appropriate funding and effective management the fortune of the theatre can be turned around.