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By Aoiri Obaigbo

Looking at Nigeria’s  National Arts Theatre from the Eko bridge, against the sprawling expanse of poorly groomed landscape,  one is reminded of watching the sinking of the Titanic.

Except that the National Arts Theatre never quite sinks, nor floats, but is perennially enmeshed in scandals, controversies—this time, a litigation— and requires periodic sinking of millions of dollars without any hope yet in sight of breaking even nor fulfilling its purpose.

“The status of the National Arts Theatre is not in doubt. It remains the property of the Federal Government of Nigeria”, Sunny Enessi Ododo, the facility’s recently departed General Manager and Chief Executive Officer, told me.

Ododo was the twelveth in a line of helmsmen since the idea to build the National Theatre was mooted in 1973.

National-Arts Theatre in Iganmu

“My husband said to me: Your people need your talent. I’ll come with you. So we came.” This was in 1976 in the build up to the Festac phenomena. Her renowned voice is filled with emotions as she recalls:

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has appointed another CEO for the National Theatre since Ododo left in early January 2024, but most of the material for this article were assembled in December 2023, which means some time before the new dispensation.

  “The ownership (of the National Arts  Theatre)  is not under litigation”, Ododo told me. “But interest in who is to revamp the National Arts Theatre—the physical space— is what is under litigation”, he explains. “Since it has not yet been judicially decided, all I can say is that some people claim to have received the right to revamp the edifice from the government in the past. And the Bankers Committee have got the same right to do so. But right now, those who claim they got that right did nothing and are in court to prove that they got the right. It’s the court that will determine whether they got that right or not. These that are on ground, working assiduously to restore the main edifice through Cappa and D’Alberto Plc are the ones I’m aware of”.

Ododo told me that the ongoing construction is the first major restoration of the National Theatre since inception. “The previous repairs were not as far-reaching as the massive work going on here. A Hundred Million dollars ($100,000,000) is what the Bankers committee has earmarked for revamping the edifice. I don’t have the facts about the spending so far. I’m not the managing director of the project. I’m the GM of the National Theatre. The bankers committee are the managers of the project. I would say they have done up to 70% of the edifice which is the first phase.  Of course, you don’t expect them to invest without expecting returns on their investment. What they’re bringing to the table is not just the revamping which should end next year. There will be more investment in the second phase when four hubs will be created: one creative hub for music, others for information technology,  fashion and films respectively”.

Ododo  told me he was looking beyond the physical structure. “Because culture is far beyond the building. Culture defines who we are and regulates our value system. It points the society the direction to go”.

But he had nothing but plaudits for the Bankers Committee.

“One interesting thing about their approach is what you called sustainability. A facility maintenance company will be engaged to ensure maintenance, for a five-year contract. If they perform well, it will be renewed.”

THE PERIODIC MAINTENANCE IDEA IS NOT NEW to the National Arts Theatre roadmap. It is native to the original template for building the edifice. What came of it?

“It’s on record that I rallied the arts and culture community against Obasanjo’s insistence on selling the National Theatre”, recalls Ahmed Yerima, a Professor of Theatre Arts and the sixth General Manager of the institution.

Enessi Ododo, the recently departed CEO of the National Theatre

“I turned to the corporate world to repair the roof and bring back theatre to the stage there though we were taken off the budget list. It’s true that the curvature of the roof doesn’t encourage water to flow down, as you say, but it had a periodic maintenance plan in place. Every five years, do this. Every ten years, do this and so on”.

Yerima was in charge when the roof of the National Arts Theatre was caving in.

“When Techno Expostroy, the Bulgarian company  that built it, came, they said, look, sir, the material we use, your sun dries it up during the day, makes it firm. And in the evening, it  contracts. And that cracks the roof.  We brought in a Rolls-Royce when we had no roads for the Rolls-Royce to pass. That’s the kind of thing we do in Nigeria.

“We want to have it and let them know I’m a big boy in the streets. And then you bring it, you ride it for some time, it tells you when it needs a service, you say it talks too much, you remove the voice warning, and then you have a problem.

“And so that was what happened to the National Theatre. No other country has had the courage to host another festival of arts and culture for people of African desent  because we made it so grand”, Yerima joked.

 “When I came back in 1991, as Deputy Artistic Director, the TVs were gone, the lights were not working, the whole place had started depreciating”.

Yerima told me: “The Ethiopian Theatre which was built in 1423  is still standing, looking beautiful. We performed there, we danced, we did everything, and we came back home. We took the Minister along to deepen his appreciation of a National Theatre. The Minister was convinced. By the time we came back to Nigeria, right at the airport, when I thought I had won him to our side and he was now going to defend us, he was posted to the Ministry of Health.

“So all of that, my schooling, the sponsorship on the trip to go abroad to go and see the need for maintenance, all was lost, because on Monday, instead of reporting back to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, he went to the Ministry of Health as Minister of State. You understand? So I had to now start again to school the new Minister.

“You know, in 18 years, I served 18 Ministers. So for each, almost every year, I was telling each minister, this is what to do, just at the peak of it, you find that the minister is gone, another one comes in.

Tola-Akerele, new CEO National Theeatre

“And so we had the issue of maintenance and continuity and sustainability, because if we had a minister who was schooled, who had gone through our process, and we were bringing ministers who were not even interested, we were bringing lawyers, we were bringing this, we were not bringing ministers who were interested in culture and tourism itself. You know, so they even saw it as a bush burning. Can you imagine someone turned the Theatre hall to office space for civil servants, coming in and out, Monday to Friday? It seemed reasonable to him and he had authority. I even had a minister for three months, you know. So those are the kinds of things that created  problems for the National Theatre.”

Even some of the direct managers of the theatre were metaphorically like carpenters making culture with saws, chisels and hammers.

Sunday Baba, one of the more recent past CEOs of the National Arts Theatre, told journalists in September, 2020, that the intervention of the Bankers Committee was to revamp the space and hand over to government.

But the Bankers Committee is not a federal governmental organ, not a charitable agency. The Bankers Committee, with an office on the 17th floor of the headquarters building of the United Bank for Africa, is a constellation of all the managing directors of Nigerian banks, with the CBN governor as Chairman. Effectively, this is the cabal using depositors’ funds to ensure that no bank in Nigeria ever faces liquidation again no matter how poorly managed. Those inexplicable deductions and charges on the accounts of citizens are decided by this committee. Via this vehicle, banks can now make boundless investment directly in competition with businesses who look to them for loans.

This is the committee which is sinking a first installment of $100,000,000 into renovating a national facility that was constructed initially at about $32Million.

There’s no full disclosure document in the public domain, so it’s not clear how the value of $100, 000, 000 was derived, what the costing process in the elements are, and whether there was competitive bidding.

ON APRIL 24, 1973, THE GOVERNMENT SIGNED the contract to build the National Theatre. The main building contractor was a Bulgarian company called TechnoExportStroy. The cost covered 400 piles which were laid for the foundation because of the marshy soil of the location.

It is on record that the then minister of Information and Culture, late Chief Anthony Enahoro whose office superintended the plan for the building, was indicted for embezzlement, though later pardoned.

The National Arts Theatre was modelled after the Palace of Culture and Sports in Bulgaria. Though the National Theatre is four times bigger than the Palace of Sports and Culture in Varna, Bulgaria, covering 23,000 square metres, rising 31 metres into the sky, compared with 15 metres of the one copied in Bulgaria, the cost difference could not add up: the Palace of Culture and Sports, which was completed in 1968, reportedly cost around $4Million at the time.

 The chief architect for both was Stefan Kolchev, and he had a saddle in mind. It arrived in Lagos in 1975 as “Fila Gowon”—named after the head of state when the building was completed in 1975. General Yakubu Gowon himself was overthrown two weeks later, on July 29, 1975.

The coup d’etat government of General Murtala tried all the federal commissioners, including Chief Enahoro and indicted all but two of them for corrupt enrichment.

 There’s an accepted narrative that Alhaji Sule Katagum was Chairman of TechnoExportstroy when the national theatre was built. But he was the chairman of the then Federal Civil Service Commission and was one of those purged by Murtala who was assassinated on February 13, 1976. Tecno Exporstroy completed and handed over the National Arts Theatre to the government of General Olusegun Obasanjo on 5, July, 1976 before it appeared in the records of Corporate Affairs Commission in Nigeria on July 14, 1976 with Sule Katagum as a member of the board.

It would appear that respect for records, processes , due diligence was compromised from the first breath of the National Theatre.

The back story is all too familiar. In the wake of our brutal civil war, came an oil boom and a golden opportunity—as it turned out—to burn the windfall.

On a note of national romanticism, General Yukubu wanted a superlative jamboree to bring Nigerians together and display to the world the country’s blooming status as the giant of Africa. The occasion was the second Festival of Black Arts and Culture— Festac—an ambitious festival of arts, music, dance, literature and culture designed to bring together artists and performers from Africa and her diaspora.  The intention was beautiful, but the process—starting with a copy and paste mindset—led to the squander of over three billion dollars and a history of controversies from the beginning.

What the Post revamp National Theatre Main Hall will be, according to the Bankers

Rather than call for designs and competitive bids, Chief Anthony Enahoro and 29 others went gallivanting Europe and America looking for what to copy and paste, without a transparent bidding process. What we got is what Fela Kuti decried and Wole Soyinka described as “That supracultural monstrosity known as the National Theatre. The theatre of which nation, by the way? Of Nigeria? Or of Bulgaria, from where the concrete carbuncle was lifted, then grafted onto Lagos marshlands? What in that… constitutes even a fragment of Nigerian or African architectural intellect, modern or traditional?”

However, Nigeria did light up a moment of ecstasy in Black history, a moment that saddens with its souring sweetness, an event which  Ebony magazine described thus: “For 29 days, black people from everywhere – from Africa, Europe, African-America, South America, Canada and the islands of the seas – testified to the haunting presence of blackness in the world. And what this meant, at least on the level of the viscera, was that for the first time since the Slave Trade, for the first time in 500 years, the black family was together again, was whole again, was one again.”

The carnival coincided with the release of the television international broadcast of Alex Harley’s Roots and stimulated Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus.’ Nigeria glimmered for a moment, as the beacon of home coming for every black person.

“My husband said to me,” said the elder thespian, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett who had performed with stars like Sydney Portier. “Your people need your talent. I’ll come with you. So we came.”

This was in 1976 in the build up to the Festac phenomena. Her renowned voice is filled with emotions as she recalls:

“Olu Jacobs and others. We had many standing room performances. But the signs were there, even in those great days. One would have expected them to send people to see how other national theatres were managed. It’s heart breaking how we let great opportunities slip away in Nigeria. And we don’t even learn from them.”

“I had never acted in my life,” declares Yemi Solade, a younger veteran actor of eminence. “I’d always seen myself as an entertainer growing up. Then Nigeria hosted FESTAC 77, I went for the audition at the National Theatre. I strolled in myself, and I was given a role. It was the first experience. And it was on a big stage. The world stage. Nigeria hosted the world.

“I played the role of Efoiye in “Langbodo”.  Efoiye was one of the stubborn hunters in the “Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmọlẹ̀,” which Soyinka translated into the English Language as “A Forest of A Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga.” But the “Langbodo,” which was play entry for Nigeria for FESTAC 77, was written by the late Wale Ogunyemi, (MON). That was how, as a teenager, I became an actor against the standard when parents wanted their children to study medicine or architecture, accountancy, engineering.

“I knew I was destined for the performing arts despite the fact that people looked down on us back then.”

THERE WAS A TURNING POINT,” recalls Joke Silva, another Nollywood great, reliving her career. “”It was when my father refused for me to go for a particular production at the time that things came to a head.

“He locked me up in my room.

“But my room led to the veranda. Then I jumped from the  porch of the house. When my father realized that,  “‘Eh, girl yì fé ja…’ (mimes bolting away with her fingers). He  told the gatekeeper to lock the gate. But I jumped over the fence. And they didn’t see me in the house for another two weeks. By the time I saw my mom, she was looking so haggard with worry.  And after that, I had a year out when I was allowed to perform. I was working on stage at the National Theatre and all that. The NTA and National Theatre were big deals then.

“The two of them then said,‘Okay, you’ve earned quite a bit of money, don’t you think you should go for proper training?’

“So my mum used my savings to pay for me to go for my auditions for drama school in the UK.

“But gradually, they all began to wonder what a National Theatre could have been”

By the time Olusegun Obasanjo, who started off the  Festac event with a lofty speech of preserving, protecting and promoting our culture in 1977, returned as a civilian president in 1999, he had become an apostate of culture. In 2005, during his second tenure, he marked the National Theatre building and premises for sale.

Before the start of the revamp -The dilapidated state of the National Theatre Main Hall

Some of the legal issues surrounding that national monument may be traced to that downgrade of a national nerve centre of culture to a piece of pawn.

Ododo, professor of performance aesthetics, spoke with glints of a jaded dream dancing in his eyes about a new thinking—a holistic approach to the rebirth of arts and culture.

“When I graduated from Auchi (Polytechnic), the idea of sculpture was scale, for us. And I came to Lagos with that vision in mind and each time you go to that your so-called one wing duplex or one-bedroom galleries, they never show your work in the context in which it was conceived”

But I already felt a sense -at the time of our conversation-that  his job was not assured. The allegations of malfeasance against him indicated that political job hunters in the new administration are already eyeing his position as CEO of a dream.

 More worrisome— given the pedigree of Nigerian banks— is this dream, a gathering of bank hawks, can pull out of the sinking sand?


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