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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
National theatre sale angers Nigerians
Lagos National Arts Theatre
Lagos National Arts Theatre: 'The soul of the nation'
By Eniwoke Ibagere in Lagos

President Olusegun Obasanjo's plan to sell off the National Arts Theatre in Lagos has sparked outrage among Nigerian artists.

President Obasanjo, keen to improve people's economic lot, is pressing ahead with the second phase of a privatisation programme, a key plank of his economic policy since he was voted into office in 1999.


The National Arts Theatre is the soul of the nation and it should not be sold

Nigeria's Guild of Dancers spokesman Shaibu Husseini

According to the government, the first phase of the privatisation exercise brought to its coffers $19 million and the second phase will involve 40 public enterprises, including the Lagos Arts Theatre, which will be sold to the highest bidders.

But groups of Nigerian musicians, actors and actresses are staging a series of performances and road marches in protest at the sell-off plans.

Selling our soul

Shaibu Husseini, spokesman for Nigeria's Guild of Dancers (NGD), told BBC News Online: "We have made it clear to the government that the National Arts Theatre is the soul of the nation and it should not be sold."


Recently, NGD held a dance drama at the theatre, packed with an entranced audience, that depicted a "fight" with Obasanjo's government.

In the show, the performers dressed like traditional warriors, armed with spears, shields, bows and arrows, to "wage war against a blind government".

Dance actor Joseph Adikwa, part of the 20-strong cast, said: "This show imitates what will happen in reality as we're ready to take on both the Nigerian Government and buyers of the theatre."

Singer Mary Eyobo added: "Selling the theatre is like a king selling a village square where everyone comes to exhibit their culture. What's so funny is that this same Nigerian king, Obasanjo, built the theatre many years ago."

A military government headed by General Obasanjo built the theatre in 1977.

The complex hosted several countries which visited the commercial capital with artistic performances for the second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture, Festac.

Ruin

But since then, neglect and mis-management by successive governments have turned the elegant edifice into a symbol of ruin and decadence.


Once our performance space is sold, we'll be denied food... we'll be gone forever

Artist George Ishie

The air conditioning system failed long ago. The toilets are disgusting and the halls, some with wobbly seats, have a dank and dark atmosphere and lack a constant electricity supply.

The lawns, which used to have well-manicured beds of flowers and shrubs, are now overgrown with weeds.

Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan, head of a government-appointed board managing the complex, admits it's "like a wasteland" but opposes the planned sale.

"I have been trying to convince the government against the sale of the theatre because it's a national monument that should be preserved for both historical and cultural reasons," he said.

He believes that buyers of the theatre will use it to "enrich themselves" rather than pursuing its original aim of arts and culture promotion.

"If we get the necessary funds from government, my board can also run the place well and generate profit necessary to keep the place afloat. Besides, we must keep alive in this complex that primary purpose of promoting our arts and cultural manifestations."

Soyinka support

A strong voice backing the entertainers is the country's Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who staged his new play "King Baabu" at the theatre in August.

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is a notable supporter
Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka staged a new play at the theatre in August
"You can liken this to a horrendous fate suffered by the black race, pauperised and victimised by public office holders who transform power into an instrument of repression and oppression," he said.

"Privatisation of the theatre can go haywire and I'm totally against it."

Rather than privatising the complex, Nigeria's entertainers and the entertained public want the government to consider other options.

Options

Kingsley Edomoya, a regular visitor to the theatre, said: "The government can raise money to run the complex by making visitors pay for many of its sundry services like using the car park."

Adikwa added: "If government can't provide funds to run the theatre, those of us in the showbiz world can tax ourselves and raise the money."

However, the worry of many artists like George Ishie is that the sale of the complex will make them jobless in a country where the unemployment and inflation rates are soaring.

"Many of us don't know any other job apart from performing arts," he said.

"And once our performance space is sold, we'll be denied food... we'll be gone forever!"

See also:

15 Feb 01 | Africa
Nigeria's performing royalty
06 Aug 01 | Africa
Nigeria's Soyinka back on stage
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