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Theatre of the absurd - The Nation

By The Citizen

This is what government's plan to turn National Theatre into hotel is. What precisely is the Federal Government's design for the National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, a cultural monument with a revered history and a significant attraction in the mega city? The alarming news that Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Edem Duke, has issued a two-week quit notice to culture-related government agencies at the 37-year-old arts centre has, ironically, came at a time the administration is planning another monument, the highly publicised Abuja Centenary City, to commemorate the 100th year of the 1914 amalgamation of the country's Northern and Southern protectorates by the British colonial government.

The National Arts Theatre is home to National Council of Arts and Culture, Nigeria Gallery of Arts and National Troupe of Nigeria.

It is apt to wonder whether, given the disturbing development at the National Arts Theatre, the administration is indeed motivated by a positive sense of history, and whether the proposed $40 billion commemorative city in the federal capital will not end up as a monument to visionless profligacy. For, there is no doubt that it takes a genuinely history-conscious administration not only to preserve historical legacies but also to build monuments that have historical merit.

The planned expansion will be carried out under a 'Public-Private Partnership', Duke said, and asked the agencies to relocate their offices 'within two weeks to an alternative location'. He explained, 'This relocation is temporary as the structures that will eventually provide accommodation for your operations are being envisaged under the new arrangement.' Further, Duke argued that these 'infrastructural facilities' will be 'complementary to the National Theatre, as it is with other theatres in other parts of the world', and boasted that the project 'will be a thing of pride when completed.'

Of course, the minister is entitled to his starry-eyed projection, but seems not to see the gray areas that make the entire project highly suspicious. Why the unfair and disruptive haste to get the agencies out of the place within two weeks? If the intention is truly to build 'complementary 'structures on the land without touching the theatre complex, why eject the agencies? What is responsible for the sudden and impulsive attention to alleged details of the master plan? How long will it take to complete the expansion, before the agencies will presumably be allowed to return to the land? Will the envisaged business facilities that will be privately run boost the cultural essence of the theatre, or shift focus from it?

It is noteworthy that the National Arts Theatre has, in recent times, been in dire need of rehabilitation and, as a solution, there were moves by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo administration to privatise the facility which failed, following intense public outcry. The truth is that the people have a sentimental attachment to the architectural masterpiece well known as the venue of the 1977 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC). It remains the country's pre-eminent cultural event centre despite its unfortunate neglect over the years, and there can be no excuse for sacrificing its soul for commercial interests. Besides, there is the important issue of whether the expansion of the theatre will amount to its use for purposes other than what it was approved for, a situation that would create a conflict with the Lagos State government, which by law is the approving authority.

There will always be room for culture in society despite the Philistine imagination of structures of power, which is what Duke's move sadly represents. It is pertinent to ask why the National Arts Theatre cannot be, for instance, like the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, USA. The centre, which represents a public-private partnership, was opened in September 1971, and is the busiest performing arts facility in the United States. It receives federal funding each year to pay for the maintenance and operation of the building, and generates revenue through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations and private foundations. The underlying lesson of this example is: the job of government is to run things, and not to run things down.