Much ado about N25bn upgrade of National Theatre

Jide Ojo
“Contrary to what naysayers are spinning. no one is hijacking the National Theatre. It remains our national heritage. This Public-Private Partnership is a win-win for all. It restores this iconic edifice to its glory days and develops the land that has been lying fallow for over four decades, creating massive jobs for our teeming youths and providing a go-to spot for our teeming population.” –  Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, on Sunday, July 12, 2020

Nigeria’s National Theatre is known more to Lagosians as an entertainment and relaxation spot. However, not many know the story behind the cultural monument which was constructed in the form of a military cap. I went in search of information about the complex and got exciting information from the website of the organisation. According to available information, the architectural masterpiece and cultural landmark located at Iganmu, in the heart of Lagos, covers an area of about 23,000 square metres and standing well over 31 metres tall.

The design for the building was taken from the Palace of Culture and Sports in Varna, Bulgaria. The contract for its construction was signed on April 24, 1973, during General Yakubu Gowon’s regime, with a Bulgarian construction company called Technoexportsroy, the main constructors, for the building of the complex. Even though the building has been in use since late 1975, it was formally opened by the then head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, on September 30, 1975, five months before FESTAC 77. Since then, it has hosted a good number of international music concerts, dramas, film shows, symposia, exhibitions, workshops and even sports.

Apart from providing a befitting venue for the 2nd World Black African Festival of Arts and Culture which Nigeria successfully hosted in January/February 1977 and for which the National Theatre provided more than adequate venues, the complex is to be a rallying point for both Nigeria and international artistes wishing to share experience with their Nigerian counterparts.

According to the information minister, in its heydays, the National Theatre hosted all Nigerian State Government functions and performances, including popular musical extravaganzas such as the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Roy Ayers, Skyy, Shalamar, Whispers, Third World and Dynasty, as well as major stage events like Wole Soyinka’s adaptation of D.O. Fagunwa’s Langbodo. It was also reported that the American music icon, Stevie Wonder, once performed at the National Theatre, where he was bestowed with one of his numerous Grammy Awards.

On Sunday, July 12, 2020, the Federal Government handed over the national monument to the Central Bank of Nigeria and banks under the aegis of the Bankers’ Committee to commence the renovation of the facility. This is coming months after the government gave approval to the CBN and the Bankers’ Committee to redevelop the theatre into a world-class convention centre.

The CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, last September 2019, said the apex bank had sealed a strong understanding with the Bankers’ Committee to invest a whopping N25bn in the redevelopment of the moribund iconic building for the creative industry to thrive. Emefiele said, “The National Theatre, when fully renovated, will be able to support skills acquisition and job creation for over one million Nigerians over the next five years.” He said further that after the completion of the renovation works, along with the supporting facilities that would be built around it, the banking sector intended to set up similar creative industry centres in Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu. The National Theatre is being renovated under the Creative Industry Financing Initiative.

According to Lai Mohammed, the revamping of the National Theatre will be in two phases. The first is the renovation of the deplorable state of infrastructure at the complex while the second phase will be the expansion of the cultural centre.

The Phase I of the project which will cost N7bn will restore the National Theatre to its glory days and make it the go-to place for blockbuster shows again. Highlights of the first phase include: Upgrade of the theatres (The main halls and cinema halls, conference and banquet halls, press hall and the bar; Installation of new seats, upgrade of the sanitary facilities, installation of lifts, acoustics and specialist lightings; The air conditioning, lighting, other power and plumbing will also be replaced/upgraded to international standards

Phase 2 of the project which is estimated to cost N18bn will involve the creation and implementation of a detailed master plan for the 134 hectares of adjoining land to the Theatre. The highlights include: Development of purpose-built clusters to provide world-class facilities for Nigeria’s Creative Industry. The new centre will comprise hubs for: Fashion, Music, Film and Information and Technology (IT) hub; These creative clusters will be supported by other facilities, including multi-storey parking 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, among others.

The minister said both phases will be connected by carefully curated soft and hard landscape areas as well as waterways, providing an excellent semi and outdoors spaces for community use and entertainment, including an amphi-theatre; Installation of new infrastructure (roads and services mains) and upgrade of the existing ones.  Mohammed said the project will not lead to job loss. Instead, it will create more as 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 Lagos State governor said the project is expected to be completed between 18 and 22 months.

The renovation plan of the moribund national monument is a welcome development and highly commendable of the Buhari regime. It shows that the administration is walking the talk about diversification of the economy and refocusing the economy from the oil and gas sector. It is hoped that this project will be completed on schedule and that the facilities when upgraded will be well-maintained and prevented from falling back into the deplorable state it currently is.

My optimism about the project has however been dampened by news that indicate that all may not be well with the handover of the renovation project to the CBN and the Bankers Committee as two private companies are claiming to have won the bid previously. These companies have dragged the Federal Government to court over a purported breach of contract.

According to The Cable of July 23, 2020, “In 2007, the Bureau of Public Enterprises conducted bidding round for the privatisation of the national theatre.Jadeas Trust emerged the reserved bidder but was later pronounced the preferred bidder when Infrastructica Consortium failed to fulfil the sale conditions. Due to a change of government, the process was declared inconclusive. The National Council on Privatisation then decided to adopt a private-public partnership model for the theatre and another bidding round held in 2013 in which TopwideAppeas emerged as the preferred bidder. The Federal Executive Council gave its approval to this on August 4, 2013. To protect its interests, Jadeas instituted a lawsuit, seeking declarations that its previous dealings with the BPE constituted a binding contract. On October 12, 2016, a stakeholder meeting which Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, attended resulted in a September 5, 2017 agreement that both companies would work together on the project. The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2019; which was reported to have been endorsed by the BPE and Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission.

If the above is true, then the Federal Government needs to respect the previously signed agreement unless such agreement has been duly and lawfully terminated. The Federal Government should remember the embarrassment caused it by the P&ID contract controversy. I hope this issue will be expeditiously sorted out in order to pave the way for a seamless repair and upgrade of the iconic facility.

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