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Nigeria National Theatre: Rumble in the jungle Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 26, 2021

When news broke that the Godwin Emefiele led Central bank Of Nigeria (CBN), in partnership with the Bankers Committee was going to give the National Theatre, Iganmu, a facelift, the announcement was greeted with a mixed grill of scepticism and optimism for the singular reason of the nuance of a seeming interference and not intervention in the almost concluded process of restoring the lost glory of the National Asset.

Once upon a time, the National Theatre was the meeting port of the performing and creative arts fraternity in Nigeria. Impressively crafted in the image of a military cap, the architectural masterpiece is widely cherished by Nigerians as a national monument and a cultural landmark. For the country’s vibrant arts community especially, the National Theatre assumed a deeper meaning. Beyond providing a physical space for creative and artistic performance, the place was a spiritual sanctuary of sorts for the arts inclined; a safe haven for them to fraternize amongst themselves and express their creative proclivities without inhibition, far from the distraction from the rest of the world.

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Little wonder the cautious optimism that initially greeted the news. Cautious optimism because this would not be the first effort from a Nigerian Government to restore the lost glory of the facility. According to the apex bank, the project would include a ‘facelift’ of the main theatre complex and then the addition of a creative industries park on 40 acres of the fallow ground surrounding the structure. That two of the most influential bodies in Nigeria’s financial scene; the CBN and the Bankers’ committee which comprises CEOs of all commercial banks in the country were joining forces to salvage the ailing national treasure and boost tourist attraction, appears to be enough reason for stakeholders to be excited about the future of Nigeria’s creative industry.

However, on a closer structural and critical analysis of the statements by both the CBN Governor and the current Chairman of the Bankers Committee, the shadow of evident hastiness shows that all may not be as clear cut as it seems.

Analysts have described the on-going moves by both parties as yet another huge controversy waiting to happen; one that is likely to stall the long awaited resuscitation of the national treasure. While some analysts are of the opinion that the entire process is fraught with flagrant impunity and is a breach of due process,  others have out rightly labelled the move as yet another grand scheme designed to muzzle the stakeholders, possibly hijack a transaction that was virtually concluded- ie the concession management of the facility and the surrounding landmass, via the Bureau of Public Enterprise, the Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Council and the National Council on Privatization. The constituted Agencies of the Federal Government that have the mandate to handle concession and privatization of Federal Government assets. Surprisingly none of these agencies and even the Ministry of Culture under whose purview the facility falls, had any knowledge of the purported handover by the Presidency.

According to observers, if allowed to proceed, the so-called intervention by the CBN / Bankers Committee gives an impression of Nigeria to the outside world as a lawless nation which lacks respect for due process and has no regard for international best practice.

Further investigations reveal that there has actually been a long-drawn negotiation dating back to 2002 through 2015 between the Bureau of Pubic Enterprise (BPE) and later the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC), after it was created in 2008, and 2 consortia namely  Topwide Apeas and Jadeas Trust which emerged as preferred bidders of both processes.

Interestingly, one of the companies, Jadeas Trust, was even in court over the matter. However with the intervention of the Presidency, both parties have reached an agreement prior to the purported takeover and signed an MOU with Terms of Settlement duly accepted and signed off by both ICRC and BPE.

At that point, the Public Private Partnership between the consortium and the Federal Government over the Concession management of National Theatre and the surrounding land mass was technically  a fait accompli’ and all that remained was for, the Federal Executive Council, FEC, to give its final nod.  Like a whirlwind, the CBN and the Banker’s committee appeared from nowhere to claim that the same Presidency whose laid down processes the concessionaries have duly followed and kept faith with, has purportedly handed it over the CBN and the Banker’s Committee.

So the question is who gets the right to develop the property? Will it be the joint consortia who have marshalled a formidable team of foreign and local investors and technical partners to develop the entire project as the tourism and entertainment gateway into the country, and which is anchored on the creative industries for sustainabilty? Or the CBN and the Bankers Committee whose role should essentially be to support such an initiative as is done in other climes and not take it over.

 A major component of the Consortia’s Master Plan, is a 55 acre Creative Industries Business Park with film and music studios as well as a Creative Industries Academy, so it seems curious that the CBN Governor and Chairman of the Bankers Committee are proposing to develop a 40 acre Creative Industries Park around the National Theatre. Doesn’t this smack of the piracy of intellectual property which has been one of the major problems facing our creative industries?    

BusinessDay learnt that one of the consortia members had  had a meeting to discuss their plans  with the Chairman of the Bankers’ commitee while preparing their bid and that the bank even signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with him.

 This private sector driven Public Private Partnership are from all indications ready to hit the ground running.  Further detailed checks on the ICRC website show that the National Theatre is clearly listed under the Projects nnder Development and Procurement (pre-contract) page. On the flipside, there was no mention of the CBN’s involvement in the bid. As at press time, the reporter gathered that the consortium, has written to the CBN to caution them and notify them of an on-going court process in respect of the National Theatre Concession.

 The involvement of the apex bank in the project does not only come across a clear infraction of due process but also raises clear- cut questions on the CBN and the Banker’s committee’s involvement especially with no history or expertise in the development of the creative industries.

 The hastiness in getting involved, issues around competence and integrity in handling the project, more so that the world over, Public Private Partnership projects such as this are noted to give incentives to private sector entities with  the proven competence  in the sector to drive such ventures, as opposed to the CBN.

At a time when the CBN seems to be battling with quite a raft of regulatory issues and questions are being raised about the proper direction of our monetary policy in the next few years, you can’t but ask why it seems to be focusing on National Theatre. Or has the Apex Bank abdicated its core functions and wants instead to become a real estate developer or an SME incubator?

Taking a cursory look at the constitutionally defined roles of the CBN, its website defines one of the roles of the bank as the formulation and implementation of various policies, innovation of appropriate products and creation of enabling environment for financial institutions to deliver services in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner. The initiatives are mainly targeted at agricultural sector, rural development and micro, small and medium enterprises.”  So why is the body delving into real estate and creative industry development and steering clear of its fundamental duty of providing monetary and fiscal direction as well as access to financing for small and medium sized companies?   As a matter of fact, while preparing their bid, a member of the consortia received a significant grant from the World Bank to offer capacity building and business development support to the cluster of creative industry SMEs that work out of dilapidated facilities in the NCAC Artists Village on the periphery of the National Theatre building. This would seem to be the kind of support that the CBN and Banker’s Committee should be offering to private sector specialists if they are indeed sincere about wanting to support the creative industries.

Speaking on behalf of the consortium, Prince Chris Ogan rhetorically asked, ‘Is it a crime to follow due process in a Public Private Partnership in Nigeria?’ You conclude concession agreement negotiations with the Federal Government team and like a magician another entity appears to say we are taking over the subject asset.  We and our foreign partners are alarmed to say the least.’

Speaking  to the Senate Committee on Privatization, Mr Alex Okoh, the Director General of the BPE pointed out that State Owned Enterprises such as the National Theatre and the National Stadium gulp $3 billion of Federal Government funds annually,  without any appreciable returns. The danger of the CBN / Bankers Committee proposal is that it appears to be an attempt to continue to subsidize the asset under the guise of support to the creative industries. This contrasts unfavourably with the Consortia’s private sector driven initiative that has succeeded in bringing investors on board and will in fact generate billions in revenue and ultimately in taxes for the Federal Government and Lagos State.

Meanwhile as the dramatic twists and turns over the planned takeover of the National Theatre continue, the National Theatre  and the land it sits on lies in  waste, ruins, broken down, neglected, dilapidated, inhabited by miscreants, rodents and other wide animals. Sadly, the once iconic monument has become a relic and pale shadow of itself.  These days, other than the occasional wedding or social event,  little or no creative or cultural activity happens at the theatre. 

It becomes hard to believe that such a move could have the blessing of President Buhari, given his insistence on transparency and adherence to due process.

 It is therefore sad that the Federal government’s silence on the matter,  puts to question and jeopardy the integrity of the Federal government, its concession process, whilst it also positions Nigeria as a country with  rather unserious, unethical and possibly corrupt institutions, while also undermining the recent improvement in our international rankings on the ease of doing business.

 Most crucially, it continues to leave comatose the iconic national asset which could in the right hands put Nigeria on the global map as a world-class city – a key centre for arts, culture, tourism, creative industries and leisure.

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