The National Arts Theatre in Iganmu Lagos has remained a structure of controversy since its idea was conceived as part of the infrastructure to be put in place for the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. The other building project slated for that outrageously expensive jamboree of the oil boom days was the expansive FESTAC Town that is today a shadow of its former self due to lack of maintenance, abuse and misuse of not only the buildings but also the open spaces that made it a landmark and beautiful piece of real estate when it was completed. Then it was a place to reside. Not any more as it has been turned into one of the dirtiest slums in down town Lagos.
FESTAC Town is owned by the federal government through the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) but most of its residents pay tax to Lagos State government. There then arose a conflict of who should maintain it. That conflict may also have affected the National Theatre itself especially after the federal government that owned it opened the access roads around the edifice for public use as highways as part of effort to ease the notorious Lagos traffic that was then a nightmare to commuters. It still is.
At a point, fears began to emerge that it was sinking mainly because of the vibrations from the heavy traffic on that stretch. It must also be noted that the Theatre itself sits on a reclaimed, sand-filled swamp. As a matter of fact, that includes the adjoining Iganmu and Surulere. So it required constant maintenance which was not forthcoming. It fell into disuse as all manner of illegal facilities started springing up in and around the edifice.
Its construction was completed in 1976 in preparation for the collection of National Gallery of Modern Nigerian Art which is housed in a section of the building. The first controversy surrounding it started from the design and construction. The government of General Yakubu Gowon was criticised for imposing a military- inspired design on the nation. Its exterior is shaped like a military hat. The theatre had, on completion, a 5,000-seater Main Hall with a collapsible stage, and two capacity cinema halls, all of which were equipped with facilities for simultaneous translation of eight languages; among other trappings. Though started by General Gowon’s regime, it was completed during the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo.
The second controversy was that it was designed and constructed by a Bulgarian construction company, Techno Exporstroy. Nigerians felt insulted that such an edifice that ought to have reflected the best in the country’s cultural and traditional architecture rather became a glorification of an Eastern European culture.
A third controversy occurred in 2010 when President Olusegun Obasanjo announced plans to privatise the National Arts Theatre. It was actually reported that it had been sold to a Dubai-based conglomerate for the sum of $40million, and that the building would be converted to a duty-free shopping mall. That plan failed as it ought to.
It is from this historical background that this newspaper feels compelled to commend the Buhari administration for the courage of its conviction in taking this bold step directed at reviving a near dead project. And also the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) under Godwin Emefiele for mobilising the banking industry to do the right thing.
The involvement of the Bankers Committee in this project that will gulp close to N25 billion is a follow up to their decision in 2018 to set up the Creative Industries and Financing Initiative (CIFI), with a major focus on four pillars namely; Music, Movies, Fashion and Information and communication Technology. It is envisaged that upon completion in another 18 months, the whole area would have transformed into Nigeria’s Creative industrial Centre which will be comparable to other world class entertainment and convention Centres.
The Lagos Creative and Entertainment Centre Project, as it is known, is a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) project and has two phases. Phase one is to restore and upgrade the National Theatre to its glory days while Phase 2 will be the development of the fallow land within the premises of the edifice.
The better part of the story of this project is that it will not lead to a single job loss. Instead, it will create more. Some 6,000 jobs will be created during the construction phase, while the completed project could generate up to an additional 600 permanent and 2000 to 3000 call-on/call-off jobs.
The development of purpose-built clusters, it is hoped, will provide world class facilities for Nigeria’s Creative Industry. These creative clusters will be supported by other facilities, including multi-storey parking space to accommodate an additional 1,000 cars, a Visitors’ Welcome Centre which will house commercial and retail facilities, as well as administration and management offices.
In our opinion, the resurrection momentum must not stop with the National Theatre. There are similar high profile projects around the country that must attract the attention of President Muhammadu Buhari. They include the Ajaokuta Steel Mill, The Oku Iboku paper Mill and the oil refineries among others.