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Putting the National Theatre to good use – Punch

By The Citizen

The Federal Government has enmeshed itself in needless controversy over the National Arts Theatre, Lagos. Built in 1976 ahead of the Second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture held the following year, the complex has, since that jamboree, become part of the national culture of waste, confusion and bewilderment. Our government simply does not know what to do with the national monument. It is time to end the confusion and emulate other nations that have recognised the value of the arts as a veritable tool for national development.

The media report of a move by the government to undertake a redevelopment of the complex immediately provoked an outcry. A directive by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Edem Duke, suggested that the  government was up to its usual tricks and was planning to hand over the facility to a private operator, who would convert it to a hotel.  In his rebuttal, the minister, through his media aide, said the government had no plans to turn the main edifice into a hotel, but was only intent on executing the master plan of the complex. According to him, that however includes building a hotel among other facilities on the large expanse of land that surrounds the main building to provide 'world class entertainment and recreational facilities.' He added, 'Approval was also obtained from the President for work to commence on the site through a Public-Private Partnership arrangement.' That struck exactly the right note.

But the alarm bells triggered by the initial report of a wholesale debasement of the theatre have persisted despite the rebuttal. For one thing, why has the minister given a two-week notice to quit to agencies occupying some parts of the complex when a transparent bidding process was not held to select a concessionaire, the standard practice in the PPP option? What emerges from the statement issued on the minister's behalf is that the government may have gone behind the back of Nigerians and stakeholders in the sector to appoint a Transaction Advisor and, then, a partner. Was there a competitive bidding? Who is the favoured PPP partner and how does this transaction align with the laws on privatisation and infrastructure concession? Was the Bureau of Public Enterprises involved in the process? Past experience tells us that anything done by government in the dark cannot stand the scrutiny of due process. Duke has some explanations to give and the National Assembly should so demand.

The National Arts Theatre is the primary centre for the performing arts in Nigeria, modelled after the national theatre of Sofia, Bulgaria, an architectural edifice occupying part of a massive recovered swamp area of Iganmu, Lagos. The main complex, built in the shape of a hat on 23,000 square metres and standing over 31 metres high, has a 5,000-seater main hall with a collapsible stage, two 700-seater cinema halls equipped with simultaneous translation facilities for eight languages and conference/banqueting halls.  The complex houses the National Council for Arts and Culture, Nigeria Gallery of Arts, National Troupe of Nigeria, News Agency of Nigeria and numerous restaurants and petty trade outlets. It is a vital thoroughfare for commuters moving to and from the Lagos mainland. Currently, part of it is close to an embarkation point for the landmark Lagos-Badagry light rail of the Lagos State Government.

While every move to convert the wasting complex into a useful national asset through the implementation of its master plan is welcome, such projects must be done in the open. Duke's preference for opaqueness and President Goodluck Jonathan's approval are simply unacceptable. The procedure and rules for granting concessions and entering into PPP for government infrastructure are clearly spelt out in the privatisation, concession and public procurement laws. There should be no room for secrecy, which breeds corruption and the subjugation of national interest in favour of private interests. It is disappointing that Jonathan has again failed to demonstrate the rigour and circumspection expected of him and given presidential assent to this affront to accountability.

Duke should be stopped before he does some irreparable damage. No country toys with its cultural heritage irrespective of ideology or type of government.  The theatre is a veritable national heritage that should be preserved and developed to promote the thespian arts, our diverse cultures and tourism.  To underscore the importance of culture, the United States government enacted a law in 1846 that still supports the Smithsonian Institution and its 19 museums and a zoological park across the nation. The Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company are two of Britain's publicly funded theatre outlets that have gained global renown.

While we continue to support and advocate transparent privatisation and concession of state-owned enterprises, the theatre, like education, health, water, roads, and security, should be the primary concern of government. And where the PPP option is taken, it must be undertaken in the full glare of the public, through open, well-publicised competitive bidding and in accordance with the laws, with the objectives and timelines clearly spelt out.

The National Assembly should wade in and scrutinise this opaque deal to ensure that Nigerians are not short-changed once more by rapacious officials.