Modest proposals on sale of National Theatre
By ’Lasunkanmi Bolarinwa(As published in The Guardian Wednesday 15/8/07)
IN the wake of President Umaru Yar’adua’s assumption into office, virtually everything standing in Nigeria had been sold. Nothing was sacred. Those that were yet to be sold were counting their days. As a matter of historical fact, so obsessed was Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo with the urge to sell at no cost, or is it at all cost, that just as he was waving farewell at Nigerians with one hand, he was, with the other hand counting proceeds from the sale of two of our refineries. He was not just the President, he was the auctioneer. He sold buildings; sold the roads leading to them, sold the furnishings and mortgaged the domestic servants and their families. Such was the reign of the auctioneer who also was the president. We do not know yet if his successor would be – Auctioneer The Second.
If you are an avid follower of privatisation and commercialisation reform package of our government, you would know that as you read this, the National Theatre might have been sold. Do not mind all the hues and cries by stake holders in the industry. You agree with me that if the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is to have its way, all those who call themselves stakeholders in the industry and use their stakes to hold back and derail policies of government would be tied to the stake and shot. Simple! Stakeholders to the stakes! Stakeholders my foot! It is therefore the matter of the sale of the National Theatre that prompts me into this intervention.Those who know me would testify that I am not very good at the business of buying and selling. But that is not to say, I am not entitled to my fair share of clairvoyant thinking; especially when I set my mind to it over a long period of time. I may claim to be a genius, a claim that I cannot prove except when I am in the beer parlour, but sometimes in a moment of flashing divine intervention, I am capable of some quasi ingenious ruminations. So give it to me, I have stumbled, No! found the perfect proposal to apply to the spate of selling going on in the land.
With all proposals, you should know that there must be a background. This, among other things would make us understand the problem statement better and then to appreciate fully the strength of the proposed solution. This is the background I proffer.Let us face it, No matter how stark and ugly it may be. We come from a long tradition of buyers and sellers. Simple. A substantial part of the history of the African continent is that of buying and selling. There was nothing we did not sell. We sold our labour. We sold our intelligence. We even sold ourselves. Yes, we sold our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. We sold our artifacts and traded our culture in. And in each of these cases, what we get in return did not matter. Salt? Rum? Money? Mirrors? Slavery? Colonisation? Deprivation? Anything. Just provide an opportunity to sell and…. Gbam! We are ready to play ball. We must however put the texture and component of this trade in perspective. A major point of note here is that it is usually the powerful who capture and sell the weak and all they have. It is the haves who sell the have nots. It is the rulers who sold their subjects. Ironically, the rulers and the powerful also sold themselves into perdition. But before they knew this, it was too late. Maybe at a latter date, interested anthropologists would conduct studies into the nature of this trading bug that is eating into the African system.
If that glimpse into the past does not help you, what about the instances of how properties, houses, were sold – and are still being sold - off their owners heads by sellers who did not own the house and who knew next to nothing about the house and to buyers who were too greedy to find out the authentic owners of the houses? The emergence of billboards and graffiti on actively inhabited houses saying This House Is Not For Sale, Buyers Beware is one of the recent indications of our penchant to sell everything and anything, ownership not withstanding. So, without any attempt at being mischievously euphemistic, I put it to you that we are a very enterprising people. Take it as a compliment or take it with a pinch of salt. I cannot be bothered. I have stated a fact provable empirically.
It is strange therefore that those who claim to be stakeholders in the art and culture industry have done very little to show an understanding of the culture they are stake holding. They have therefore embarked on this huge protest calling attention to their ignorance about the imperative of selling. They have forgotten that there is no power in the world, no matter how great, that can stop a buyer from buying from a willing seller when it is in their blood to trade at all cost. I know for certain that this is one major reason why government and their partners in trading would not listen to them and that is why I have taken it upon myself to make the following proposal; modest as it may seem, I hope it will show all parties concerned the path of reason.
Why can we not just sell the National Theatre and throw a huge party? What is it doing for us now that we will miss if it is gone? Have other structures not been sold before the National theatre? Who cried foul then? What the hell (don’t mind my French) does it matter if we do not leave anything for generations to come? Can they not fend for themselves? Who says they (future generation) are not going to sell it off anyway? So, why wait for them if we can do it right away?We cannot begin now to ask questions of whether or not government has been meeting its obligations to the upkeep of the structure of the place over the years because this is a land where such sensible questions are expected only from officially certified idiots. So, why bother ask? We see things differently. So, our reactions and attitudes to issues are different. Our definition of government, governance, leadership and followership among others are at cross purposes. To these other people at the other side of the divide of reason what is culture? It is that piece of entertainment you have on the airport tarmac when visitors come flying in. It is the assemblage of young pretty women and men costumed in traditional attires doing exotic dances to the delight of official human beings after dinner in the bouquet hall of a five star hotel. So, where is the place of the national theatre in all these art and culture business? The National Theatre is just a piece of property that can be put to better use by other sectors of the economy.If we know anything about the average Nigerian politician, it is that they know the value of money. They spend a lot of valuable time accumulating (another word for obtaining inappropriately or simply stealing by stealth) so much of it to be able to stand a chance to contest elections. They spend so much of it ensuring that the elections are rigged. When they get into office, so much of it is expended to ensure that they garner more. This is where we must begin to understand that, for an economy that is as practically grounded as ours, where are our esteemed politicians recoup money that will either serve as their severance package or that they will use for the next election campaign if there is nothing to sell? Those who say the National theatre should not be sold should go and sleep and come back when they have alternative suggestion of where to raise pocket money for our leaders from? Am I the only one who suspects that the government officials in charge of the building will make more money on the transaction if it goes through that if it does not?
Now that all the banks we have in the country are mega banks, it makes sense to imagine what wonders it will do to have all twenty five or so of them map out the sharing of spaces in the premises of the Theatre. In compliance with the drive to ensure that everything in Nigeria brings money in the name of economic reform, what is the sense in pretending to be protecting some cultural heritage? Just like some musician in the past said ‘grammar no be money’, so also is culture no be money.
I will not be one of those shortsighted people who believe this is about efficiency and effectiveness of a sector. For God’s sake, not even government is effective or efficient in this country and we have accepted that with all sense of humility. If you take privatisation, commercialisation and consolidation in the banking sector for instance, you will find out that, N25m or not, some of them can still not run efficient toilets in their various branches. They cannot present staff members who understand their place against that of costumers. Their branches cannot be found in other places apart from the capital in some states. They advertise internet banking but they cannot deliver on it. They are quick to tell you there is no network when you go for your money. They are quicker to tell you in Ilorin to go to your branch in Onitsha in order to cash your cheque as if it is your fault in the first place that their network is not working. Those that were efficient before the commercilaisation are still the ones leading in the ratings of the person on the street.
I also know of one or two companies that have been privatised in the last eight years but have refused to get any better, at least in my layperson’s perception. If you doubt me, check out what is happening to Daily Times Newspaper or whatever its proper name is. If that is not enough, ask the person next to you what has become of NEPA/PHCN transformation. Maybe they were not commercialised, they were merely ‘reformed’. However, whichever, way you see it, nothing, absolutely nothing, has improved in that parastatal. Although PHCN has not generated any additional megawatt of electricity yet, it is jerking up its tariff at will. That is the way of Nigeria!Yes, other countries, more economically advanced countries of the world, protect their own cultural heritage no matter how fluid it might be in the face of changing economic realities and the challenges of coping with imperialism. What is most interesting is that they are not just interested in their own culture, they are also interested in studying other people’s culture too.
Take the example of the French people who even have a cultural centre in Nigeria! Maybe you can forgive the British for having their Council here in Nigeria. This is a commonwealth nation. They colonised us and the link tends to be stronger. But what about the French and the Germans? Talk of cases of classical busy bodies! Give it to these cultural outposts, some of them have done more for the promotion and positioning of the Nigerian art and culture than some of the people who are clamouring for the sale or concession of the National Theatre now have ever done in their collective history either as people in government or as people in the corporate world. While those who lead in global economic reforms are exporting their culture and promoting other countries’, we are in an annihilative mood under the guise of progress and reforms. But then we all have headaches differently. One man’s poison is after all another man’s breakfast.
In the recent past, those who drive against the flow of traffic in Lagos State were arrested and taken to psychiatric homes for medical examination. The basis for this was that there must be something wrong with your mental state for you to do things contrary to good reason and constitutionality. I think it worked while it was being implemented. But, as usual, instead of improving on it, we have since abandoned it. By now, all the drivers of bullion vans who blow illegal siren would have been put in their places, including big lawyers who think that by quoting the law a lot they have become the constitution. That is the way of our land. In a similar vein, I am not sure if it followed from the Lagos state case, somebody suggested that our political leaders should have their heads examined before confirming their eligibility for elections. Simply put. This would mean that as they publicly declare their economic assets, they are also expected to present a certificate of a clean bill of mental health. We ignored this suggestion. This selling spree is one of the consequences of such lack of attention to important details.
Nigeria is one of the biggest countries in Africa and it is also one of the most, if not the leading irresponsible state. Unfortunately, irresponsibility is a trait that cannot be traded in. Otherwise, I would suggest the outright sale of the Nigerian Armed Forces, as one of the most backward, reactionary, anti progressive institutions in the polity. I would suggest a plan to do a hundred year concession of the National Houses of Assemblies because, in spite of huge investments in time, money and trust, they have achieved only one thing; the grand incapability to serve the ordinary people of Nigeria.It was over a couple of drinks that my friend and I stumbled on this novel idea of trading off leaders like football clubs, especially in Europe and the English Premiership, trade off players. Open a transfer window as they say and shop for the brightest leaders in the market. You can imagine the pleasure of loaning Obasanjo to the Americans and buying Tony Blair back from retirement? We can simply sack our national assemblies and go shopping for replacements in France, Italy and even the United Nations. That way, we would not have to be saddled with all these unproductive elected officers who give the effect of a bad bench and pitch combined. In a way, football seem to be more business like than governance and it is part of my modest proposal that we include ideas such as this in our reform package for the current dispensation. I can bet my better eye that the United Nations would, for this, acknowledge our contribution to world politics.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot ignore some of the age old sayings of our ancestors. They are just too apt. In certain circumstances they say that people who refuse to acknowledge the praise of their lineage in public would most probably take to their heels if they stumble on their father being beaten up in a remote corner. How else do you begin to understand people with little value for that which should matter most to their lives? Sometimes, it is the mere act of suggestion of an idea that implies the rationale of the maker of the suggestion.
To mute the idea of selling, loaning or concessioning the National Theatre is a clear symptom of a peculiar type of thinking that one should be wary of.It is for all these reasons and more that you and I know of but which we would not talk about here that I humbly propose that we sell the National Theatre as quickly as possible and go on with our business as usual. My proposal is a modest one. Just like my ambition in life too. I have no illussion about leaders who lack the foresight required of visionaries. Long live Nigeria!