By Millicent Ifeanyichukwu
Culture and arts are integral parts of any society. With its multi-ethnicity, Nigeria cherishes, promotes and preserves its culture through heritage, artefacts, monuments, etc.
One institution devoted to this cause is the National Arts Theatre located at Iganmu, Lagos State.
It is referred to as Nigeria’s home of entertainment and primary centre for performing arts.
It is home for the National Troupe and a centre for the preservation, presentation and promotion of black arts and culture.
National Arts Theatre can be likened to Sydney Opera House in Australia, Statue of Liberty in New York City, Eiffel Tower in Paris and Taj Mahal in India, in terms of fame and cultural significance.
Designed and constructed by a Bulgarian construction company, Techno Exporstroy, National Arts Theatre Complex resembles the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna, Bulgaria (completed in 1968), but the National Arts Theatre Complex is bigger.
Its exterior is shaped like a military hat and wears the Mother Idia mask.
This cultural landmark started by the military regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon and completed in 1976 during the regime of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, houses a 5,000-seat main hall with a collapsible stage, two capacity cinema halls, VIP lounges and smaller meeting areas.
It was built for stage performances, film shows, art exhibitions, cultural shows, musical performances, conferences, meetings and even indoor sports activities such as table tennis, wrestling, boxing and circus shows.
The grand edifice hosted the historic Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977.
However, for some years now, the 44-year-old edifice has become dilapidated and an environmental nuisance with smelly surroundings including a refuse-filled canal.
Its perimeter fence is also dilapidated, with hoodlums and destitute persons straying around, posing security risks, while animals, sometimes, come to graze on the fields.
Shop owners within the complex describe the complex as a danger zone.
Residents of nearby Costain, Apapa Road and Ijora have called on governments to remove illegal structures around the complex which, they allege, have become a haven for criminals.
Some street urchins have converted some of the structures to places of abode, using the nearby canal as toilet.
Analysts have been blaming the state of the national monument on inadequate funding, poor management and competition from private event centres.
In August 2011, the then Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, joined in the appeal to the Federal Government to revamp the edifice to ensure it optimally carries out its mandate as the national cultural centre and the black world’s centre of arts and performances.
In response to calls for revival of the theatre, the Federal Government on July 12, 2020, handed it over to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)/Bankers Committee for renovation.
At the handover ceremony, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said that after the renovation, the edifice would be handed over to the National Theatre management.
Mohammed said the improved National Arts Theatre would have a hub for fashion, music, Information and Communication Technology, and commercial and retail facilities, among others.
The President of Creative Industry Group (CIG), Mr Felix Duke, praises the Federal Government for the initiative.
Duke believes that the ‘new’ National Arts Theatre will give hope to budding artistes and create jobs for more than one million youths.
“On completion of the renovation, and with adequate marketing and publicity, I believe we will start having traffic in the National Theatre as we used to,” he says.
The CBN Governor, Mr Godwin Emefiele, is optimistic that the National Arts Theatre when renovated and fully operational, will add creative significance and economic value.
According to him, it will accommodate music, movies, fashion and ICT.
“This is as it would create one million jobs for our teeming youths and lead to the buildup for a more resilient economy.
The apex bank’s governor is convinced that diversification of the economy will aid the national objective of reducing dependence on revenues from crude oil.
According to Emefiele, India, in 2018, generated over $240 billion from the export of information technology, movies, music and fashion-related goods and services, which amounted to over five times Nigeria’s annual earnings from the sale of crude oil.
Emefiele believes that Nigeria has the potential to earn over $20 billion annually from the creative industry.
As the Federal Government takes steps to revamp the theatre, some stakeholders call for commitment to making it world-class to enable it to effectively survive competition, generate jobs and income and promote black arts and culture.
The President of National Association of Nigeria Theatre Arts Practitioners, Mr Israel Eboh, blames National Arts Theatre’s loss of glory on the emergence of private event centres, cinema halls and recreational centres with modern facilities in and around Lagos State.
“It is unfortunate that privately-owned event centres, cinema halls and recreational parks took the shine off the National Theatre.
“Government must do the needful to meet demands by way of moving with the trend, upgrading and improving services, and being conscious of competition from private event centres.
“Also, the management should bring professionalism to bear on the running of the National Theatre.
“Government should consider only persons that have the capacity to manage event centres,’’ Eboh urges.
The President of Performing Musicians Employers Association of Nigeria, Mr Casmir Obi, identifies poor maintenance culture among the challenges of the National Arts Theatre.
According to him, in the late 1970s and 1980s, National Arts Theatre was booming with activities.
“From the historic FESTAC ’77 event up to the 1980s, National Theatre was bubbling with activities.
“It hosted many international music icons and concerts, but the activities are now history due to lack of maintenance of its major facilities.
“The main attraction then was the hall which was the largest indoor in Nigeria.
“It needs a total upgrade to be appealing to corporate organisations, promoters and entertainment stakeholders,” he says.
According to the Public Relations Officer of the National Arts Theatre, Mr Steph Ogundele, the CBN and Bankers Committee are taking proper inventory as regards the renovation.
“The purpose is for them to know the extent of work that needs to be done, what to touch or pull and what not to tamper with,” he explains.
He notes that the renovation is estimated to be ready in 22 months.
The General Manager of the National Arts Theatre, Prof. Sunday Ododo, gives assurance that he will collaborate with other stakeholders to make the theatre to live up to expectations.
Ododo recognises the huge roles of staff members of the parastatal-agency in rebuilding it and appealed to them to do their best.
“I will fashion out ways to involve entertainers and cultural experts to see the theatre as an ideal centre for shows and performances.
“We shall ensure that it also generates funds for the government as a tourist site and venue for all forms of entertainment and promotions.
“I believe that working together as one big family, we will emerge victorious and make this place one of the most successful arts theatres in the world,” he says.
Analysts call on all stakeholders to join hands to restore the glory of the national monument.