National Theatre: How government’s tardiness could stall redevelopment

Initial fears that litigation could stall the planned redevelopment of the National Theatre following the government’s failure to dialogue with previous concessionaires is coming true, AKIN ABODUNRIN examines the crux of the matter.

IT was an issue foretold. The ongoing litigation trailing the handover of the National Theatre to the Central Bank of Nigeria/ Bankers’ Committee for renovation and redevelopment, that is. When news emerged in September 2019 that the Federal Government planned to hand the complex to the CBN/Bankers for redevelopment, people were happy because it was a needed intervention. However, followers of previous efforts to arrest the edifice’s decay through concession were worried.

Though a laudable response, the issue that critical players in the culture sector were concerned about was the lack of clarity over the previous concession processes and how it might hamper the CBN/Bankers initiative

Following years of underfunding that hastened its deterioration, the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo administration came up with the idea of selling the National Theatre. However, stakeholders opposed the move before subsequent administrations came up with the concept of concession.

The Yar’Adua and Jonathan governments had concession processes for the national edifice, with preferred bidders emerging. Jadeas Trust Consortium, helmed by a daughter of the eminent Professor JF Ade-Ajayi, Yetunde Aina, was reserve bidders at the public opening of the transaction bids in 2007. But following the failure of the preferred bidder to conclude the transaction, Jadeas Trust automatically qualified as the bid winner.

The succeeding Jonathan administration abandoned that concession exercise as it held another one with the involvement of the Bureau of Public Enterprises and Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) among others. The then management of the National Theatre under Kabiru Yusuf held roadshows outside the country to attract investors.

At the end of that exercise concluded shortly before the advent of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, Topwide Apeas won the bid. The two winners from the previous concession exercises initially had differences but reconciled and signed a Memorandum of Understanding to redevelop the Theatre together in 2019.

This was the state of affairs until last September when CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele announced the intervention of the apex bank and the Bankers’ Committee. What was not clear then and is still not clear is if the CBN and Bankers knew about the existing concession agreement between the Federal Government and Topwide Apeas.

Despite the alarms raised by the company that it would oppose moves to cede the edifice to the CBN/Bankers, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, on behalf of the government, handed it to the Emefiele on  Sunday, July 12.

At the handover ceremony, Mohammed explained the redevelopment will be in two phases and will provide over 6,000 jobs. “Phase 1 is to restore and upgrade the National Theatre to its glory days at the cost of 7 billion Naira. Phase II will be the development of the fallow land within the premises of the edifice, at the cost of 18 billion Naira. Altogether, the project is estimated to cost 25 billion Naira.

“Another good news is that this project will not lead to a single job loss. Instead, it will create more. Some 6,000 jobs will be created during the construction phase, while the completed project could generate up to an additional 600 permanent and 2000 to 3000call-on/call-off jobs.”

Mohammed added that the first phase would witness upgrade of all the theatres, installation of new seats, upgrade of the sanitary facilities, installation of lifts, acoustics and specialist lightings. The air conditioning, lighting, other power and plumbing will also be replaced/upgraded to international standards.

Phase 2, he said, “will involve the creation and implementation of a detailed master plan for the site adjoining the National Theatre, or the fallow land if you like. The highlights include the development of purpose-built clusters to provide world-class facilities for Nigeria’s Creative Industry. The new centre will comprise hubs for Fashion, Music, Film and Information and Technology (IT) hub. These creative clusters will be supported by other facilities including multi-storey parking to accommodate an additional 1,000 cars, a Visitors’ Welcome Centre which will house commercial and retail facilities, as well as administration and management offices,among others.

Unsurprisingly, Topwide Apeas, which had earlier headed to the court to halt the takeover, returned to the chambers of justice. The Federal High Court Lagos on Friday, July 17, ordered the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami; Governor of the CBN, Godwin Emefiele, and five others to appear before it on July 24 (two days ago).

They were to come to explain why the edifice was handed over to developers while the subject of a pending lawsuit marked FHC/L/CS/2392/2019. The Presiding Justice AyokunleFaji ruled that Malami, Emiefele and the others should appear to convince him why the handover should not be reversed.

Lawyer to Topwide Apeas Limited, Chijioke Okoli (SAN), had argued that despite the pendency of the matter, the Federal Government proceeded to hand the Theatre to the CBN and Bankers.

Okoli argued that if not reversed, the handover of the structure would render the eventual decision of the court in the suit useless.He prayed for an order “suspending/staying the purported handover on or about July 12, 2020, by the 1st and 3rd defendant/respondents to the 5th-7th defendant/respondents of the National Theatre Complex, Iganmu, Lagos and the adjoining lands thereto, pending the hearing and determination of the applicant’s motion for an interlocutory injunction (by notice filed on December 31, 2019).”

With that judgement, the fears of worried stakeholders became true. They had warned that litigation by the aggrieved concessionaires might truncate the planned intervention and had wanted Minister Mohammed to provide clarity. Indeed, it would have been better for government, the CBN and Bankers to dialogue with TopwideApeas and give them a role in the planned redevelopment.

There’s now a real chance of losing everything because of the government’s non-challant attitude to Topwide Apeas’ concerns. And it could even be worse, as the company, did not foreclose the possibility of seeking justice outside our shores and exacting a heavy toll on the country.

Topwide warned in a statement on Friday: “We are not activists but a business. It is left for Nigerian people to decide what to and how long they would tolerate from controllers of their public institutions and agencies.  For us, we have invested so much- financial, reputational, and otherwise- to meekly suffer the grave damages being inflicted on our foreign partners and us. The Minister for Tourism, CBN and their allies from their utterances (record of some of which we have) and public action have scant regard for the judicial process and have shown readiness to scuttle it in our case.

“But it is necessary to emphasise our readiness to litigate the matter to its logical conclusion including, if necessary, in other jurisdictions where they cannot readily ride roughshod. The problem for Nigerians is that the individuals responsible for the gratuitous probable liability for the country would not bear the costs personally and most likely would have long left the station when the proverbial chicken comes home to roost.”

 

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