Traders, operators, others get sack notice as bankers take over National Theatre
•Our daily bread is gone —Shop owners •Filmmakers, other stakeholders react
SUBAIR MOHAMMED captures the bitter-sweet story of the emerging ‘new’ National Theatre.
AUTHORITIES of the National Theatre have confirmed that residents of Lagos State currently make a living operating fun spots and relaxation joints on the premises of the premier theatre centre would soon be ejected to give way to a hotel, which will be part of the makeover by Nigerian bankers who were recently handed the edifice in a partnership deal with the Federal Government.
Public Relations Officer of the theatre, Steve Ogundele, exclusively told Saturday Tribune that the plan of the Federal Government was to turn the theatre into an entertainment city. He disclosed that the present relaxation spot where the popular fun spot, Abe-Igi Arena, is situated, is the proposed site for a hotel, which has made it compelling for relaxation spot operators and other traders to vacate the premises.
He said: “The handing over on Sunday has put rumour of selling the National Theatre to rest. The Federal Government has given approval to the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Bankers’ Committee to revamp and develop existing structures and the fallow land. This has put a stop to the rumoured privatisation of the edifice which upon completion would include four hubs of film and music; hubs for film and music productions from start to finish, a computerised fashion hub where film industry can be complemented, a welcome house which is a kind of reception where visitors to the theatre will lounge before going to the cinema hall and an IT hub where information technology facilities are installed for the use of the public.
“These make room for healthy competition and a healthy development for both the staff and visitors to the facility and the development of the cultural centre. It is going to be to the benefit of all stakeholders. Why did I say that? This is a free-market economy. Why we are looking at that is because this is owned by the government and everything is being controlled by the government and it is supposed to be subsidised. But I can tell you that this edifice is still in the hands of the Ministry of Information and Culture and the board and management of the National Theatre. Therefore, nothing will change in the running of the theatre, although its use might attract some extra cost because of the modern technology that is going to be installed. The main national theatre is not going to run as a profit-making venture.
“It is not going to be run by the CBN and the Bankers’ Committee. What they get is just the hubs where they are going to get back the money they invested. So, if you are going to patronise the hub, you have to pay. But for movie practitioners and other artistes, well, it might be subsidised. This is PPP and the private part of the arrangement has nothing to do with the government because that is where they are going to make back the money they invested on the project. It still has to be pocket-friendly but they also have to know that people from outside the country will be patronising us as well. We go to South Africa to shoot and edit. We go to London to shoot and edit and we pay in foreign currency. So, when these people come to Nigeria to shoot and edit, are they going to be paying a pocket-friendly price, too? No!
“But of course, there is going to be some level of understanding between us and the hubs for them to know and identify our members for consideration. There could be some level of price differentiation that would favour stakeholders within the country, compared, to external persons but we cannot determine what price is going to be paid on services. What you probably don’t know is that the National Theatre has a master plan. This is coming into play in this PPP arrangement because it will attract more investors that are coming in to complete the master plan arrangement which include car park, shopping mall and a five-star hotel and a water garden and the rest of them.”
Our worst fear is happening –Abe Igi Arena operators
While the rest of the world, including Governor Babajide Sawo-Olu, is applauding the partnership as a step in the right direction, some Lagos citizens are already in agony of the bleak future staring them in the face as they are gradually being taken out of the picture of what the centre would be in the near future.
Mosunmola Amidu, a retailer at the popular relaxation spot located within the premises known as Abe Igi Arena, said the upgrade of the edifice is farewell to her cool-spot business which was handed over to her by her mother. Amidu was sitting with her friend at the front entrance of her relaxation spot ruminating on the way out of the renovation quagmire when Saturday Tribune walked up to them to share their thoughts on the new development. “It is as if you were reading our lips when you were walking towards us. The question you asked was the subject of our discussion” the duo exclaimed.
Amidu explained further: “The truth is that I doubt if we will be retained here. I know that once the National Theatre is upgraded to international standard with modern facilities, architecture and lightings, definitely, this kind of setting (referring to her relaxation spot) will no longer fit in. I am sure plan for the construction of a five-star hotel, modern relaxation spot and shopping mall would be included in the new design. When it eventually commences, we will be thrown out of the premises. I have been trading here for over 40 years. I took over the business from my mother. I think the best the government could have done is to relocate us to avoid the negative effect of such upgrade which is job loss.
“For me, I don’t want to be caught unawares and as such, I have been thinking of a way out. But if God says we are still going to be earning our daily bread here, the government would retain us but if not, we just have to move on. Even before the planned renovation, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically affected our sales. It is not booming as when national theatre was in its glory days. Back then, on a normal day, National Theatre was fun seekers’ first choice. I would drive in and collect N20,000 to entertain myself but now I dare not remove N2,000 from the daily sale. That tells you how bad things have become. This is further complicated by the low productivity level of the National Theatre because when it was operating at maximum level, the patronage level was high.”
Traders, artists should be relocated, not evicted –Rights advocate, Onifade
Critic and rights advocate, Mufu Onifade, is of the view that a sense of accommodation would serve all. Speaking on the fate of the traders whose activities have kept the centre alive for the years the National Theatre was neglected by successive administrations, the former convener of the Coalition of Nigerian Artistes said rather than dislodge fine artists and traders within the premises, the government should try to resettle them. According to him, apart from traders and operators of relaxation joints, prominent fine artists and theatre practitioners have their studios located within the premises.
He said: “Many of these art veterans are old and they rely on proceeds from their studios to feed but if they are sent away, what becomes of them and their trade? So, I think the government should resettle them. And this is not about the traders and artists alone; there is a Universal Studio for visual artists located within the National Theatre. It will be completely out of place if the Universal Studio is dislodged because it has been there since 1982. It is part of the history of the National Theatre. They trained young Nigerian artists right from when they were in school. Some came for industrial training for their higher education while some came in as apprentices. It has contributed immensely to the growth of visual art sector in the country and cannot just be dislodged. As a matter of fact, I think the Bankers’ Committee should restructure the Universal Studio to generate income, even for the government by the time the edifice takes off. It is not possible to go to a stadium without finding footballers around. So, how can you go to a national theatre without finding artistes around? That will be a misjudgment of intention.”
Onifade disclosed that the upgrade of the national monument and siting of entertainment hubs would generate income for the government and even the tourism potential of the state. He, however, advised the government on the need to subsidise and balance its relationship with theatre practitioners.
He said: “There was a period the National Theatre was shut down during the time of Kabir Yusuf. During his tenure, artistic activities were shut down. At that time, industry players like theatre practitioners and fine artists had to look for alternative venues. Luckily, at that time, because the Freedom Park had emerged, a lot of them were directed to the Freedom Park. At the same time, theatre practitioners sought alternative venues. What I am trying to say is this, once the theatre is handed over to the government, they will have to devise means to run it and also balance the relationship with theatre practitioners. In truth, mismanagement by government has led to the degeneration the edifice is currently battling. Thankfully, they are now subjecting it to restoration but after the restoration, expectedly, everything will change. You cannot want to use the National Theatre and be expecting to pay the amount being paid before the renovation. No, there must be a pay rise. When you go to a place like MUSON Centre, you will find a corporate environment with adequate security and all that but this is not so at the theatre. But by the time the renovation is completed, it is going to be turned to a corporate environment where security will be beefed up and the atmosphere will now compete or surpass existing one. With this done, you can’t expect the government to be charging peanuts on facilities.
“For me, what the theatre practitioners should be talking about is a kind of collaboration with the government on price reduction or discount. These are the things that happened in the 70s and 80s, when all the halls were engaged. It was not like the practitioners of the time had enough to pay for the halls. But it was because of the collaboration that had existed between the practitioners and the management of the theatre.”
Traders are our landlords –TAMPAN
For the president of the Theatre Arts and Motion Picture Pictures Association (TAMPAN), Bolaji Amusan, popularly known as Mr Latin, traders within the premises of the theatre are the landlords of the facility. According to him, they should be absorbed in the scheme of things. He said: “With the renovation, many of the traders will lose their source of income. I am appealing to the Federal Government and the Bankers’ Committee to absorb them in their planning. They should find a way of meeting with them to fashion a way of helping them out. Also, I am expecting that they will not use the private cinema hall as yardstick to determine the cost of using the facility to be paid by movie practitioners.
“The National Theatre is a national monument and it should operate like that. Let me quickly say this, a few years ago when the National Theatre changed from what it used to be, people sought comfort and pleasure going to modern private cinema. If the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Bankers’ Committee live up to expectation of the general public and art practitioners, then we will be going there for exhibition. We were called to a stakeholders meeting last year where the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, informed us about the decision of the government to embark on the rehabilitation of the National Theatre. We were adequately informed during the stakeholders meeting and I hope when completed, it will be to the benefit of our members and the general public. The abandonment we have witnessed for many years was as a result of neglect by government. If successive administrations in the country had done the needful, theatre culture would be very much alive in the era. The National Theatre was like our family house. If you wanted to catch a glimpse of popular movie stars, the National Theatre was the place to be. If you were fortunate to show your film at the National Theatre, you were sure to smiling to the bank but this has gradually died off. But now that the Federal Government has woken up to its responsibility, I hope the past glory will be restored.”
Project may go Tinapa’s way –Fidelis Duker
One of Nigeria’s filmmakers and founder, Abuja International Film Festival, Fidelis Duker, also expressed concern over the project and the likelihood of the renovation turning the edifice into an elitist events centre like Tinapa in Cross River State. According to him, the National Theatre should be an events centre where creative persons like fine artists, sculptors and producers would exhibit their works for the public.
He stated: “One of the things that killed Tinapa, apart from other political issues, is that Tinapa was an elitist idea. An ordinary man cannot use the facilities and they got obsolete. The powerful structures have not been put to use and they have rotted away because the cost of using the facilities was too much for the creative people. The point I am trying to make is that the National Theatre should be for the majority and not only for the elite so that it will not to go the way of Tinapa. It must be made accessible and affordable for members of the creative industry and those coming into the country that desire to use creative hubs, where they are sure of seeing live painting, theatre on live stage, motion picture on large screen, artworks, even the media hub where journalists are sure of getting materials relevant for media production.”
Commenting on the idea to privatise the national monument, he said: “It is a welcome development, considering what has been promised. But for us, the practitioners, we are more concerned about the implementation part of the arrangement. If at the end of the day, we are able to create more jobs for practitioners and people are able to practise their trade in a friendly and secure environment, that will be very good.
“You will recall that the National Theatre has been totally abandoned for many years. Since the FESTAC ’77 event, most of the halls have been left unused. The main bowl, which is the biggest in Africa, has not been functioning except the cinema hall 2. I think it is a good one but we need to fully understand what the Bankers’ Committee wants to do because bankers are not particularly businessmen but, of course, they would have consultants to manage it. Our fear is that they don’t turn the place into a hotel for commercial purposes. It should be an events centre where creative investors like fine artists, sculptors and producers can exhibit their works. Given the expanse of land, it is massive. So, what are they using it for? We need to be careful so that people don’t exploit the system. We have to be sure that it is for the benefit of the masses and not to be taken advantage of by a few people. Even though hospitality is part of entertainment, they should also realise that the creative must be able to practise their trade within the environment.
“Why I said that is because they can turn the entire place into a hotel or an events centre where you have weddings and other social events, whereas the essence of the National Theatre is for the exhibition of creative arts. For now, creative practitioners cannot afford to pay for a world-class facility. There must be rebate. But if the place is turned into, for instance, an exotic seven-star hotel, how many of the arts practitioners and musicians can afford to pay for it?”
A fading glory
Built in 1976 in preparation for 1977 Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), the iconic monument has suffered series of neglect by successive administration for decades. Located in Iganmu, Surulere, in Apapa Local Government Area of the state, the theatre, which was described as the primary centre of performing arts and other creative activities in Nigeria, is characterised by waning and dilapidated structures, with the premises full of unwanted plants and various categories of individuals trickling in to take a nap in the love garden.
In its glory days, the military cap-shaped edifice which seats more than 5,000 viewers in its main bowl as observed by Mr Latin, was like a family house for many theatre arts practitioners, and a beehive of events.
To revamp the National Monument, however, history was recorded on Sunday, 12 July, as the Federal Government, through its Ministry of Information and Culture, handed over the structure to the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Bankers’ Committee for rehabilitation and upgrade to an international standard.
Applauding the move, Governor Sanwo-Olu said on his Twitter handle: “It is a new dawn for the tourism and creative economy in Lagos State. I am quite excited that this edifice will see a makeover that will transform the tourism and entertainment sector of our economy. It is significant to note that this turnaround will create jobs and boost the creative enterprise of our youths in Lagos and across Nigeria.”
Manning the main gate that leads to the National Theatre are private security guards who, in an orderly manner, stop, search and dole out tickets to motorists who pay to park their vehicles on the premises.
Apart from a few passers-by walking to and fro the main bowl, seated at a fun-spot branded by a brewing company, Abe-Igi Arena, are corporately dressed individuals and other fun lovers chatting over bottles of beer, non-alcoholic beverages with the airspace filled the aroma of spicy pepper soup.
Upon stepping into the reception of the main bowl, Saturday Tribune was confronted with the sight of a sleeping fair-skinned front desk officer who, after minutes of waiting, put a call through to the public relations unit of the theatre. After almost an hour of conversation, Saturday Tribune took time out to walk round the premises to see the extent of decay arising from years of neglect, abandonment and unproductive use of the facility.
One of the structures that attracted large numbers of visitors, apart from the large movie halls, was the cafeteria which, as of today, has become a shadow of itself. In the heydays of the entertainment city, varieties of meals, drinks and snacks were served at the cafeteria.
Call the theatre premises a home for miscreants and you won’t be far from the truth as slum dwellers living around Ijora, which borders the theatre, sneak into the premises to take a nap at the garden or scout for preys.
It is worthy of note that at night, the road from Orile Iganmu leading to the theatre and Lagos Island is a flagged spot for crimes but Ogundele gave the assurance that security guards have secured all the roads leading to the theatre.