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Concerns, misgivings over N21bn renovation of National Theatre

45 years after the National Arts Theatre in Lagos was completed, the structure is getting a facelift with its handover to the Central Bank of…

45 years after the National Arts Theatre in Lagos was completed, the structure is getting a facelift with its handover to the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Bankers’ Committee. Daily Trust Saturday reports that the move is aimed at unlocking the potential in entertainment and creative industry.

In the next 18 months, a new National Theatre to be known as the Creative and Entertainment Centre is expected to be borne following the formal handover of the edifice to the Bankers’ Committee which has set in motion machinery to reconstruct the  edifice.

A monument in ruins? 

The National Arts Theatre was constructed by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon and completed in 1976 by the Olusegun Obasanjo government. The completion coincided with the hosting of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77) in January 1977.

It subsequently hosted some of the biggest and best musical artistes from across the world. It was once the venue for world acclaimed theatre plays and dramas.

In 1977, Stevie Wonder received his Grammy Award via satellite hook-up on the stage of the National Arts Theatre.

Covering an area of about 23,000 square metres and standing well over 31 metres tall, The National Theatre remains an architectural masterpiece any day.

Its 5,000-seater capacity main auditorium with a collapsible stage is one of the features of the edifice. Outside the auditorium were different works of art as visitors enter through the main gate.

For decades, the facility remained the pride of artistes nationwide and across the continent, serving as a hub for budding and upcoming artistes to hone their skills.

But today, the facility is in a sorry state owing to what practitioners call lack of regular maintenance. Though an aerial view of national theatre from afar is still a scenic sight to behold, it is a different ball game going into the premises. The faint painting, dilapidated structures, the dead cooling system and several facilities have decayed. Hence many artistes now look elsewhere to stage their shows.

The COVID-19 pandemic which broke out last year has ensured a near shutdown of the facility which used to be a beehive of different shows and performances. Currently, the hall is used for Sunday service by a church. As expansive as it is, the facility is hugely underutilised, raising concerns in the industry.

Worried by the development, the Federal government approached the CBN and the Bankers’ Committee which has however set in motion to give the building a facelift. A contract to that effect has been signed recently.

At the contract award signing for the refurbishment of the facility, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele, said nearly 45 years after it was built, it has continued to inspire the creativity of Nigerians, especially among the teeming youthful population.

Similarly, the Bankers’ Committee and Cappa and D’Alberto Limited, the contractor to handle the project, signed an agreement to commence the first phase of the renovation, which is expected to end in 15 months’ time.

Additionally, in order to ensure that the National Theatre and the adjoining entertainment hubs retain their ambience upon completion, the Ministry of Information and the CBN/ Bankers’ Committee have also signed an MoU with a facility manager to manage the building complex.

While Cappa & D’Alberto Limited is the main contractor, the Electrical sub-contractor is Nairda Limited while the mechanical sub-contractor is VACC Limited.

Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said at the signing of the agreements in Lagos that the project showed the commitment of all parties involved towards giving the facility a facelift.

According to him, when completed, the National Theatre would be the number one event centre in Africa.

“Not only will the National Theatre be restored; there would not be a single job loss and more jobs would be created during the construction of the facility,” Mohammed said.

From the design of the project, the New National Theatre is to house the Fashion, Music, Movies and IT Hubs. The project will be in two phases:

Phase 1 of the Project – the Restoration of key component parts of the National Arts Theatre (the first of its kind since its construction in 1976) to ensure that the functionality of the building is reinstated.

The restored National Theatre will serve as the focus of a new Creative and Entertainment Centre. The scope of work will include the upgrade of the theatres (the Main Hall and Cinema Halls), the Conference and Banquet Halls, the Press Hall and Bar.

Work to be executed also includes the installation of new  seats, upgrade of sanitary facilities, installation of new lifts, acoustics and specialist lightings. The air-conditioning, general lighting, other power and plumbing will also be replaced or upgraded to international standards.

Phase 2 of the Project – entails the creation of a detailed Master plan for the site adjourning the National Theatre, for the development of purpose-built clusters to provide best-in-class facilities for Nigeria’s Creative Industry (deemed the fastest-growing in the world).

Also according to the federal government, the Master Plan implementation consists of the development of the Signature Cluster, which consists of a building each for Fashion, Music, Film and IT to be built alongside support facilities including multi-storey parking to accommodate an additional 500 cars (the National Theatre currently has dedicated parking for 250 cars), a police station, a fire station and a visitors’ Welcome Centre which will house commercial and retail facilities, administration & management offices among others.

Both phases will be connected by carefully created soft and hard landscape areas as well as waterways, providing excellent semi and outdoor spaces for community use and entertainment, including an Amphi-theatre.

 A statue welcoming visitors to the National Theatre
A statue welcoming visitors to the National Theatre

Stakeholders’ concerns

As ambitious as the project remains, there is however a growing apprehension, misgivings, and doubts in the arts community. For the practitioners and other stakeholders, the concern is the sincerity on the part of the federal government.

Besides, the proposed reconstruction may be challenged by previous investors who were hitherto contracted at different times to carry out the revival.

Daily Trust Saturday reports that at different times, there have been three different attempts to privatise the facility which was opposed by the Arts Community.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had attempted to privatise it in 2001 but it was opposed on the basis that the PPP arrangement was not clearly designed. Similar efforts in 2007 also met brick walls with a series of demonstrations, protests and rallies.

A former Artistic Director/CEO of the National Troupe also in charge of the Theatre, Mr. Akinsola Adejuwon, who vacated the seat in 2015, expressed doubt over the workability of the new initiative.

Adejuwon who is also the Chairman of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in Osun State and the Director of Wole Soyinka Museum at Obafemi Awolowo University recalled how they were able to find an investor for the revival only for the project to be truncated after former President Goodluck Jonathan lost the election.

He said, “The company (the investor) must have spent at least a billion naira because they took all the government heads, Ministry, Department, and Agencies to South Africa, Johannesburg, London, Dubai, and New York. We went to South Africa to go and look for investors and the process came through and we found an investor. Lo and behold two weeks to the time of the ground-breaking of the project, since Goodluck Ebele Jonathan lost election; he was coming to lay the foundation, advance party had already come to Lagos.

“Something happened; security report and all that and it was truncated. President Ebele Jonathan couldn’t come to Lagos and that was the end of that programme. The new government came in and dumped that process.

“If you put it under this circumstance, the National Theatre and National Troupe are the controllers of that property. Would you know whether they are a department of the Federal Government of Nigeria or not? Is CBN a department of the Federal Republic of Nigeria? It is all a farce; it won’t end up anywhere.”

Mr. Khoemizona Babalola, a movie producer and director, also doubted the sincerity of government in the new move.

According to him, the several failed attempts to privatise the facilities have cast a doubt on the sincerity of the present move.

He said, “How sincere is this intervention? They have always wanted to demolish the place but the challenge is how sincere are they to the course? Would they allow experts to be part of the process? It can be achieved if they allow those who understand the job and not just one government and financing. It goes beyond that.

“Imagine giving a doctor’s job to a carpenter. If they involve professionals; those who understand the marketing of theatre, it would go a long way and not just somebody that is recommended by somebody because of some kind of connection that they have; it goes beyond that.”

Another fear being expressed by the practitioners is whether the facility would be affordable with the intervention of banks.

Mr. Eliel Otote, a foremost filmmaker and director, warned that it would be detrimental to make the facility less affordable for artistes.

However, he commended the move to give the monument a facelift.

He said, “The National Theatre is a symbolic monument reflecting our artistic and cultural heritage. It does not only house the artistico-cultural potential of the nation, but is also supposed to produce, promote and project the same within and without. Hence, on two occasions, I was part of the protest some years ago, against the proposed sale of the edifice.

“On the above premise, I will want to believe that the planned renovation according to the government is genuine and good-intentioned. Indeed, renovation is long overdue. Those who were privileged to have visited the National Theatre from Festac ‘77 up till the early ‘90s can easily relate to my position.

“That monument has suffered decades of decadence, neglect by successive governments. None seemed to know how to put it to good use. Perhaps, that can be blamed on the usual case of “a square peg in a round hole” which characterised many successive governments whose commitment was contingent on party loyalty rather than ideology.”

The International Facility Management Association, Nigeria Chapter President, Mr. Segun Adebayo, stated that the initiative of the federal government through the Ministry of Information and Culture, the CBN and the Bankers’ Committee should also be extended to other National facilities that are not being put into optimal use.

While commending all parties including Lagos State government, the Acting President also advised the CBN and Bankers’ Committee to activate the “Sustainability Road Map” through the proactive engagement of professional facility management process as they commence the revamping of the national monument.

Expected timeline for project

The CBN Governor, Mr Emefiele, who is the Chairman of the Bankers’ Committee, said the idea behind the project, christened ‘Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre,’ was to restore the glory of the iconic building by aligning most of the fabric, equipment and facilities, in the building with the aesthetics of the 21st century and, secondly, to develop an ecosystem of creative hubs on the adjoining 44-hectare parcel of land.

The new facility would complement and enhance the National Arts Theatre, he said.

According to him, the Bankers’ Committee is funding a prototype cluster located within the National Arts Theatre, a development which we have labelled the ‘Signature Cluster.’

“This facility will be a convenor – providing space, support network, business development and community engagement for the creative, cultural and technology sectors. The Signature Cluster will consist of a building each for music, film, fashion and information technology verticals. In addition to these, a welcome/visitors’ centre, police and fire stations and structured parking for up to 500 vehicles will be built,“ he added.

Emefiele stated that the 44-hectare site adjourning the National Theatre would be developed and utilised for the development of purpose-built creative hubs for the music, film, fashion and information technology.

He said the aim was to deliver a successful creative and entertainment city that would encourage additional investment into Nigeria’s creative industry, adding that the project would generate 10,000 direct and indirect jobs created during the construction phase and over 25,000 people would be engaged in different sections of the centre when the Signature Cluster is completed, with the anticipated multiplier effect of other job opportunities.

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