By Hassan Momoh
Saturday January 24, 2016. 5am. Artists Village, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos:
Roaring sound of bulldozers invaded and shattered the peace of the sprawling compound in Iganmu, which in recent years, has served as a community for some 100-plus members of the Nigerian Creative industry.
The raging bulldozers guided by a troop of well-armed and combat-ready policemen proceeded to tear down all structures that housed audio-visual studios, dance studios, drama rehearsal rooms, visual arts studios, craft-making and textile workshops. The frenetic pace of ongoing destruction drowned the wailings and sorrowing of shocked and disoriented victims of the sudden government-sponsored violence against a section of its citizenry. General commotion rose in crescendo as the violent action of the machines continued.
About a hundred creative industry workers who owned properties in the compound, otherwise known as the ‘Artists’ Village’ ran helter-skelter in confusion and panic trying to salvage just about any item of their properties that were being marched on by the monstrous machines. Many of the artistes, especially those in performing arts and audio-visual vocation usually work through the night when they believe there would be power supply and the general calm atmosphere to realise their rehearsals or perfect their editing work in the studios. And especially at weekend, most of the artists do stay over in their respective studios. Those most unlucky were the ones that had gone home. They were hurriedly summoned from whatever their location to the Village, but many of them came too late.
Otherwise known as the Artists’ Village, the site is perhaps the only one, or one of its kinds in the country and possibly West Africa, where virtually all the disciplines in the arts could be found in one place. (see origin of Artists Village below)
THE demolition of the site this darkly Saturday, was said to have been ordered by the General Manager of the National Theatre Complex in which the Village is situated, Mallam Kabir Yussuf, who almost as soon as he became the GM of the Theatre complex, had been having running battles with majority of the artists community in Lagos; a situation that led to many of the artists boycotting use of the Theatre for their shows. Accompanying the bulldozers were mean-looking, armed policemen who tore through the compound shooting sporadically into the air to scare the occupants of the facility. The Divisional Police Officer who led the operation declared that his men were on instruction to shoot at anyone who attempted to disrupt their “action”.
About an hour after the “Action’ began the Village was a total mess of broken dreams and properties… paintings and sculptors lay prostrate on the floor; drums and costumes were in heaps of dust; and damaged audio-visual equipment were piled in shambles in the open. The now homeless and helpless artistes were still in shock, how such an action could have been ordered by a senior public official, who earns his income from the tax-payers, to which the artists belong.
In the melee that ensued between the artists and the demolition squad, some of the artistes were injured, a visual Artist, Smart Owvie was shot in the leg while trying to prevent sculptures in his studio from being marshed to rubbles.
IT had been expected that the occupants of the compound would have been given a notice of the impending demolition, but the artists claimed there was no prior warning even as they admitted that there had indeed been series of eviction threats from the Theatre management in the past. The last such threat was early last year in the heat of the renewed attempt by the Federal Government to “sell-off” the theatre complex due to lack of fund to maintain its gigantic building and as well its surrounding marshlands situated in a decrepit environment, whose landmark is the vast bracky, smelly pool of lagoon water.
Aides of the General Manager who accompanied the squad said that their boss was acting out a directive that the Federal Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had given him. During his last December 26th official visit to the Theatre Complex, the minister was said to have inspected all the facilities in the complex, including the Village, and had expressed displeasure over the “mushrooming of illegal structures” in the compound. He had thus, reportedly, directed the General Manager to ensure that the “illegal structures” were removed.
The GM’s aide revealed to journalists, who visited the site after the action: “During his visit, the Minister complained that the area looked like a slum… he even complained that the people staying there looked more like hoodlums than artistes. So he told the GM to ensure that those “shanties” as he (the Minister) called it were pulled down before his next visit. So I was not surprised when the GM moved there with bulldozers to level those structures.”
Contrary to the claim by the aide, however, it appeared that GM deliberately misinterpreted the minister’s directive. Recounted a leader of the artists, Aremo Tope Babayemi, Executive Director of Different Aesthetics, who has been coordinating the Artists Village community: “While the Minister was conducting his inspection of the surroundings of the Theatre complex on December 28, the GM had manipulatively – as he did when he former minister, Edem Duke visited – taken him through the abandoned canal at the back of the NCAC facility. The minister was truly disgusted at the poor state of the canal, especially when he saw that some miscreants had indeed built shanties along the canal and were openly smoking weeds. The minister said that it was dangerous to keep the situation that way as the hoodlums could constitute security risk. The GM, strangely, misinformed the minister that the dirty canal was the work of artists who occupy the NCAC compound nearby. Luckily I was in the entourage, I sought attention of the minister, I said “Honourable Minister sir, the canal has nothing to do with the artists, who are bonafide tenants of the NCAC facility”. I continued that in fact the miscreants along the canal constitute risks to our members and our properties too, and we would be glad if they were displaced.
“The GM tried to shut me off, but the Minister insisted I should continue with the information I was sharing. I urged the Minister to go on the nearby bridge and take a look along the canal that he would see that the hoodlums had in fact set up vast line of shanties in the area; the minister said he could see the line of shanties from even where we were. He thereby gave the instruction that the shanties should be cleared before his proposed next meeting with the heads of parastatals on January 28. This whole episode is captured on video camera; even when the GM suggested that the matter should be closed there, and he would brief the minister further in the confine of his office, the minister insisted on hearing the report in the public, saying that the cameramen should continue to record.
“It was that simple, very clear instruction that the GM mischievously misapplied, and brought his demolition squad to the Artists Village, a totally different location, away from the shanties that the minister wanted dismantled.
“Obviously he was doing that to settle an old score. We have always had issues with him, ever since we led the protest against his curious plan to corruptly sell the theatre complex to the so-called investors he brought from Dubai. He had threatened to deal with us at the appropriate time. Saturday’s action was his way of paying us back.”
Origin of the Artists Village:
SINCE the 1992 directive by the federal government that all federal agencies should move to the new capital, Abuja, the Artists’ Village had served as the Lagos office of the National Council of Arts and Culture (NCAC). Like the National Theatre, the NCAC is a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. Though located in the Theatre complex, the General Manager of the National Theatre statutorily has no jurisdiction over the compound. Rather, the premises is administered by the DG of the NCAC, through his Lagos liaison officers. The officials, who interface with the tenanted artists claimed they were not informed or aware of the January 24 demolition exercise.
They told journalists that the exercise took them by surprise too, especially staged in such early hours of the morning on a weekend, when none of them was expected to be on duty. To them, it was a premeditated onslaught against the artists by the National Theatre management, perhaps coming from old animosity when the artists resisted an attempt to evict them in the heat of a proposed sale of the entire theatre complex to some businessmen from Dubai.
Though now resident in Abuja, the NCAC maintains a heavy presence at the facility, with structures that comprised staff offices, a 70-seater auditorium, an exhibition hall, a gallery and a studio. Following the 1992 Presidential directive the facility (sometimes called annex) was converted to a liaison office while a better part of it was leased to artistes. The artists pay rents to the NCAC through its Lagos officials.
A management staff of the NCAC, said “the demolition of structures within the NCAC Lagos Office was news to him’. He said that he was not aware that any notice came from the National Theatre to that effect. “I think the right thing to do would have been for the GM of the National Theatre to communicate us of this intention so that we can ask those artistes to quit by Friday before this ill-fated demolition. The space is ours. We maintain and manage it and control the artistes who use the space. The right thing would have been to carry us along. I am not aware there is any communication like that”.
NEWS of the demolition exercise went viral instantly, and generated quite a backlash for the Muhammadu Buari administration, which is still struggling to convince those who voted for him that the old culture of impunity and disdain with which public officials often treated the citizens would be eradicated. Throughout the day the social media was streaming with the news, especially featuring various cadres of artists threatening to have showdown with the General Manager Kabir Yusuf, whom they accused of ‘over stepping his bound.’ “He had always been interested in dislodging us the artists rather than concentrating on his main assignment of making the National Theatre, which he has mismanaged for six years now, functional”, said an angry protester.
Even though some of the artistes admitted that they had a few days back gotten hint of some secret plans to eject them from the space ostensibly to pave way for government’s continued insistence of concessioning the landmass around the theatre complex to ‘a firm in Dubai for development as an entertainment city; many of them expressed surprise at such a ‘rash action’ as there was no notice from the government that the area would be demolished.
“We had a meeting with the managers of this place (officials of the NCAC) just this Thursday. No one told us of any plan to demolish our structures. If we were told, we would have moved out our things so they can sell the space to their Dubai friends. But no notice at all. Just destruction. This is not why we voted for ‘change’ and government will hear from us’’ said one of the displaced artists, a sculptor.
Whereas, aides to the GM, said he had the full authority of the Minister to demolish the Artists Village, the Personal Assistant to the Minister, Mr Segun Adeyemi, affirmed that the GM may have misapplied the directive he was given. According to Adeyemi, though the minister asked the GM to ensure that illegal structures in the Village were removed before his next visit on January 28, he did not ask him to demolish the artists’ studios and workshops, and destroy their properties. And certainly, he should have given them prior notice before the directive was carried out.
The Minister himself perhaps embarrassed by the negative publicity that the incident was generating in public space, rushed to the scene, where he met the still protesting artists. He was dismayed at the extent of destruction, and said there was no need for such excessive use of force, which led to shooting by policemen.
The minister, Alhaji Mohammed, who since the advent of democracy had been at the vanguard of securing and protecting rights of the citizens against governmental oppression, said he would address and redress the injustice that had been visited on the artists. He asked that a full report on the demolition exercise, the circumstances that led to the fracas between the artistes and the police, which left some of the artistes injured, be submitted to his office. He met with leaders of the artists, and promised to pick the bill of the injured artistes. He also directed that a comprehensive report of damages incurred by the individual artists be compiled and forwarded to his office.
As the demolition continued, some of the artistes tried to resist the demolition exercise but they were prevented by men of the Nigeria Police Force. However, one of the protesters, Smart Owvie a sculptor was not so lucky. He was reportedly “shot on his right leg” in the process. “We rushed him to a nearby hospital for treatment” one of the protesting artistes said. Owvie, whose said his destroyed sculptors was worth over N100million, soon returned after treatment with a bandaged leg and a medical report “to protect whatever is left of my inestimable works”. He confirmed that he was shot by one of the police officer, who wanted to scare protesters away from the scene of the incident. ‘’The officer fired sporadically. A bullet even hit a car and another hit me on my right leg as you can see’’ Owvie said
NOTABLE among the tenants in the facility are notable actor, poet Mr. Lari Williams, who in appreciation of his work, the federal government garlanded with the prestigious national honour, Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR);
The renowned known fine artist, and former chairman of Society of Nigerian Artists (Lagos) Olu Ajayi; the famed eclectic theatre director, Felix Okolo, and one of Nigeria’s best known dance artistes, widely-travelled Adedayo Liadi aka Ijodee. These artistes and scores of others have their various studios, workshops, offices, rehearsals rooms and performance areas in the premises.
It was impossible to reach the Director General of the NCAC and the General Manager of the National Theatre as their phones were ‘switched off’.
Reactions to the demolition: One of the artists, a notable fine artist, described the demolition exercise as ‘government sponsored terrorism against the arts’. He said ‘this is most unfair. The other day it was the Lagos State Commissioner of Police that ordered the performance artist Jelili Atiku to be arrested and imprisoned. Today, the table has turned to us. Sadly this did not happen during former President Jonathan but it is happening under President Buhari that we thought would have greater respect for the artists considering his diversification policies. This is not the change he promised us and we shall resist this attempt to destroy the arts”.
Some other well-established artists whose career had been formed and shaped in the Village have also since been leading the protest against the destruction of the village, especially properties of the artists:
*Qudus Onikeku, International dancer, choreographer, founder/director Q Dance Centre:
“Let it be on record before the battle begins, that the DG (Kabiru Yusuf) of the National Arts Theatre has become a complete nuisance to the Artists community. And since he is a representative of the Federal Government, his recent action further tells us that this present government is bent on completely destroying the arts and creative expressions. This is another call to action for the general public, the symbolism of constant menace to the artists in our society, should make us all worry at the level of inconsideration that is yet to hit many of us within the larger society. In the name of advancement, cruelty is becoming the proposed weapon here. I am highly worried because obviously this is an order coming from the minister Lai Muhammed who visited the edifice few weeks ago. I, like many others, began our careers in this village, this is a very sad news because we still got our memories imbued in those demolished edifices, and the destruction of that space may lead to trauma and a creative discontent which the state is not willing to go into with its creative citizens… the DG of the national theatre has called for a battle and he will get it beyond his wildest imagination… Art is a profession and not a hobby I insist. Artists should be respected just as other professionals I insist. It’s time to speak truth directly to power”.
*Segun Adefila, Theatre artiste, art activist, founder of Crown Troupe of Africa:
“Today, Saturday, 23rd of January 2016, while idle youths who have found engagement in crime roam the city almost unchecked, the Artists Village (the only artistically functional part of the National Theatre — a gigantic edifice with no soul) is under invasion. Many young artists who have found a creative outlet for their youthful energy (have been) violently uprooted from this space. Their properties destroyed, savings stolen and all of them rendered idle. These artists shall soon begin to envy their contemporaries, who have taken to crime by wrecking havoc on a sleeping society. Shame, a big shame…”
*Isioma Williams, percussionist, founder/director, Drumsview Concepts (whose properties were destroyed while he was on assignment outside Lagos):
“This country doesn’t regard us at all but take note… Art is not a hobby but a profession. You will definitely regret the tears you have caused upon our youths who have taken art as their source of living just to stay away from engaging in social vices. Our artistes today are shedding tears. But this not the end of life. Art still goes on. The show must definitely go on, whether you like it or not”.
*Dayo Liadi, widely travelled Choreographer, dancer, founder of Ijodee Dance Company
“From now on, please don’t blame me if the credit of my works and achievements goes only to God, ME, the peoples and organizations behind my success and the countries behind my success. I have given more than a lot to a country that does not believe in my dreams and my profession.
“Ijodee has represented Nigeria countless time and has given too many glories and credit to Nigeria for the love I have for Nigeria without a single handshake to say ‘thank you’ from any brainless and … in government.
“This is my 23rd year of travelling around the world in the name of this country and doing great in the name of Nigeria… We even got an award this January in the name of Nigeria!!!!!
It’s a new year, new mindset and new direction. Blame me not and please don’t ask me why… you already know the reasons!!!”
*Momoh, an artiste, culture journalist, based in Lagos originally contributed this piece to The Guardian newspaper