National Theatre: Before Our Burj Al Arab Escapade by Sulaimon Mojeed-Sanni
When the news streamed in about the impending conversion of the National Art Theatre situated at Iganmu, Lagos into a 5 star hotel via a news report by The Nation Newspaper on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, under the caption, ” Govt to turn National Theatre into hotel”, the thought that jostled my sub consciousness is the identity and uprightness of these people in government. Do they think at all? Are they Nigerians? If they do, what actually guides their thought? Because I don’t seem to understand what could have influenced turning a national monument and heritage, to a five star hotel all in the name of putting the country’s name on world map of having a Burj Al Arab replica!
For those who don’t know, Burj Al Arab is that tourist cum luxury hotel located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It is 1,053 ft tall and the fourth tallest hotel in the world. The hotel is said to stand on an artificial island 280m (920ft) from Jumeirah beach and is connected to the mainland by a private curving bridge. Stories have it that you have to pay to view it from a distance, snap pictures around it and even get to the lobby.
The now to be sold, remodeled and. Converted to a 5star hotel, 37-year-old National Arts Theatre was inaugurated on September 30, 1976 by the then Military Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo as part of the larger plans for the hosting of the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) in 1977. The Theatre was primarily built to serve as a centre for the performing arts and the preservation of culture in Nigeria. The monument built during the regime of Obasanjo, has its exterior shaped like a military hat in the egoism of military mentality (guess that’s not the issue for this piece). “It has a 5000 seater Main Hall with a collapsible stage, and two 700-800 capacity cinema halls all of which are equipped with facilities for simultaneous translation of 8 languages; among others”.
As at the time of the purported 2weeks quit notice issued by Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Mr. Edem Duke, some Federal government agencies using the National Theatre as office and exhibition are National Council for Arts and Culture; Nigeria Gallery of Arts; National Troupe of Nigeria etc. The Centre for Black Africa Arts and Culture (CBAAC) also made use of the place before getting its new office on Broad Street, Marina Lagos. What I am trying to drive out is, the National theatre, over the years has been known for where culture enthusiast meet and propagate developmental issues as it affects the preservation of our arts, culture and heritage which the then Colonialists/Westerners worked assiduously to present we never had.
Sadly enough, our son, in his wishful thinking wants to contribute to culture annihilation. The recent move by Federal Government to do away with the Theatre would follow a similar attempt by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001, when he announced plans to privatize the National Arts Theatre because it wasn’t viable enough. The attempt met stiff opposition and was abandoned. Guess the practitioners should be ready for another thug-of-war, since our leaders had gone mad again!
According to the reports, an investor from Niger Delta has been linked to the project which may be executed with the Marriot Hotel Group but do one subvert culture for luxury; an hotel in this regard even though they (culture and recreation) might serve same tourism purpose? Online Dictionary defines culture as “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc”. How can the Minister be shutting down culture centre in Nigeria and be opening more oversea? Isn’t it a contradiction of purpose and intention for the government to shut-down a building that stands as the rendezvous for culture and art at home and venture into opening cultural centres in Brazil (2008), China (2012) and now South Africa., do one strengthen culture from abroad?
Delving into what most of us grew to know what a theatre is meant for – showing films. One must accept the complacency of Nigeria Theatre practitioners and Nollywood in general. There seems to be vacuum and under utilization of the theatre for its primary purpose thus making the building a burden on government, a major reason Obasanjo wanted to auction it out. I grew up wanting to watch a film in National Theatre but the systematic decay and lack of adequate infrastructure to bring films particularly Nigerian films to the big screen killed the dream. Except a very few, the Nigerian film content, depth and picture quality is infuriating and abysmally low. It’s not that foreign films are any better, but they are better in the acts of make believes and picture quality. Our Nollywood films lines are just too watery to invest ones time and money by going to watch them in the Cinema. Another thing, close to 500 films can be released in a week!
Recently, President Goodluck Jonathan announced the setting up of Project Nollywood programme worth N3 billion, designed to assist the movie industry in the country and enhance its viability. This is coming on the heels of a prior failed attempt to donate $200 million announced at the 30th anniversary of the Silverbird Group in 2011. Mr. President while making the donation commended Nollywood stars, musicians and sportsmen and women for putting the nation on the global stage by their hard work, describing the groups as the nation’s global brand. The question now is, after supporting and commanding, why destroys what they should use to showcase their work and make some revenue for the country? Or is this one of Mr. President’s application of “the carrot and the stick”?
In all honesty, I feel, the theatre practitioners created the room for this present dilemma, a simple research shows there is no documented evidence of how much the film/entertainment industry contribute to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. When evidences shows that UK film contributes over £4.6 billion to UK GDP and more than £1.3 billion to the Exchequer according to an independent report published by Oxford Economics in 2012. The UK film industry is said to have directly employed almost 44,000 people and support indirectly 117,000 people. It employs more people than both the fund management and pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors with 70% of the workforce graduates and, at £32,500, earning a significantly higher than average salary. In the same vein, in the United States of America, more than 2.4 million American jobs depend on the film and television industry. Nearly $180 billion is added to the U.S. economy annually and $15 billion in federal and state taxes.
The National Arts Theatre in the true sense of its name is supposed to broadcast the best of Nigeria theatre to the cinemas. But what we have is just an edifice with partial functionality. It is underutilized and nearly abandoned. Theatre practitioners need to look more inward and use cinema viewings to checkmate the agencies of piracy, protect the creative industry and earn money for the state. It saddens that in this information age we can’t operate a functional website and social media handles that can project the National theatre to the world.
Mr. Minister needs to be told in clear words that pulling down the structure won’t do any good. Even the Ford’s Theatre, US, where one of America’s best known President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated in April 14, 1865 was not converted to an hotel non shut down. The Ford’s Theatre is today, a national monument that tourists and students learn from. Amidst all this contradictions, I think it’s high time the theatre practitioners’ stand up to their responsibilities. That theatre must not become a hotel! And if the minister feels the hotel is very necessary, the fallow swamp across the National Art Theatre should be a good place to consider. If Nigeria desires to be on London stock exchange, Don Jones Street, Wall Street or even oyingbo market, I cared very less inasmuch as it is not our collective national heritage that would be collapsed to achieve such feat.
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