Reviving National Arts Theatre

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The National Arts Theatre located at Iganmu, Lagos, is a monument that has been synonymous with the Nigerian state since it was built in 1977. But after its glorious opening 35 years ago, the culture place has gradually sunk into dilapidation.

Built by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo, the National Arts Theatre is the primary centre for the performing arts in Nigeria. Its exterior is shaped like a military hat, and 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.

In spite of a couple of interventions, the huge 7000 sitting capacity main bowl of the theatre still remains decrepit. Although ranked the largest in Africa, bigger than that of Durban and Cape Town in South Africa, this ruined site has not been fully utilised since it was completed in 1976 in preparation for the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977.

When Edem Duke, current minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, toured the National Theatre and the Centre for Black and African Arts (CBAAC) last year and was told by Kabir Yusuf, the theatre’s general manager, that about N500 million would be needed to acquire a chiller for the humid main bowl, which was last used in 1994 after the stampede that greeted the screening of late Hubert Ogunde’s famous film, ‘Ayanmo’, the minster proposed that corporate Nigeria should step in to assist in restoring the glory of the theatre. But it would seem that nothing has been said about it since then.

In 2001, President Olusegun Obasanjo announced plans to privatise the National Arts Theatre. This sparked off controversy amongst Nigerian entertainers and playwrights, including Wole Soyinka. Now, groups of Nigerian musicians, actors and actresses are staging a series of performances and road marches to protest against the sell-off plans. There were arguments that buyers of the theatre would use it to enrich themselves rather than pursuing its original aim of arts and culture promotion. The worry of most artistes is that the sale of the complex would make them jobless in a country where the unemployment rate is soaring.

It is worthy of note that neglect and poor management by successive governments have turned the elegant edifice into a symbol of ruin and decadence. The air conditioning system failed long ago. The toilets are disgusting and the halls, some with wobbly seats, have a dank and dark atmosphere, without constant electricity supply. The lawns, which used to have well-manicured flowers and shrubs, are now overgrown with weeds.

But we believe the National Arts Theatre is the soul of the nation. Rather than an outright privatisation of the complex, government may want to consider a public private partnership. We agree with the proposal of the minister of Tourism and National Orientation that corporate Nigeria should step in to assist government in the reconstruction of the main bowl and some of the facilities at the theatre. In addition, government can raise money to run the complex by making visitors pay for many of the sundry services.

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