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Our Art, Our Democracy: The Review of Nigeria’s Cultural Sector

KEYNOTE PAPER DELIVERED BY

DR. WALE OKEDIRAN

NATIONAL PRESIDENT,

ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIAN AUTHORS.

FORMER MEMBER, FEDERAL HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.

 AT

THE 62nd CORA ARTS STAMPEDE AT THE NATIONAL THEATRE, LAGOS ,

ON SUNDAY JULY 1, 2007.

Mr. Chairman, Guests of Honour, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen.  I wish to say how honoured I am to have been asked to give the keynote at this 62nd edition of the Arts Stampede as organized by CORA.

I will like to commend CORA for the important role it has been playing in the country this past 16 years as a formidable pressure group.  It may be tempting for CORA to think that the outcomes of the various Arts stampedes are not taken seriously by those in authority.  This is not so.  About two years ago, I was with one of our former Ministers for Culture and Tourism when he complained to me that some of the comments at one of the CORA’s arts stampede were unfair to him. That goes to show that even if they don’t respond, many of our policy makers are following most of the discussions that emanate from the pages of our newspapers.  Apart from this, those of us who were associated with the arts sector before going into public office are always mindful of the possible outcome of our official activities.  I could recollect an incident that occurred during one of Professor Wole Soyinka’s visits to Abuja.  When one of the guests was trying to commend me for my performance in the National Assembly, Professor Soyinka quickly replied that I had no choice but to do well knowing fully well where I was coming from and where I will return. It is therefore my fervent belief that CORA has done favourably well as an effective pressure group in the area of arts discourse. I equally believe that this is one of those occasions when I have to return to give an account of my stewardship.

PREAMBLE:      Going through the resolutions from the 46th stampede on the same theme of OUR ART, OUR DEMOCRACY which held on Sunday March 2, 2003, two particular points captured my attention;

i).       “The dismal rate of development in the arts sector has been a reflection of the lack of idea of government as far as moving the art and culture sector forward is concerned.”

ii).      “As far as Nigerian politicians are concerned, artists and all the instruments of their trade are nothing but ingredient of political assumptions and thereafter, they become tools of amusement at both private and public functions.”

My purpose this afternoon is not to refute or confirm the above statements and any other previously held assumptions about the position of our policy makers as regards the arts sector. My mission is  to give an appraisal of what has transpired in the last political dispensation. In the process, I will to throw up some important issues.  It will then be up to the distinguished array of discussants and the audience to map out the way forward.

INTRODUCTION:   The arts has not always been given much degree of prominence in the political agenda in Africa, Latin-America and Asia.  Nevertheless, an increasing number of governments are now recognizing the importance of culture in itself and in connection to social and economic development.

In Nigeria , the right to culture is anchored in the constitution and plays an important part in retaining the national unity in the country.  The Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism which was established in 1999 by the then Obasanjo’s administration and its 10 parastatals is in charge of the cultural activities in the country.  Even though some degree of progress has been made in the area of culture, the Ministry is still seen as one of the most inferior ministries in the country.

An inkling to this could be gleaned from the experience of a former Minister of Culture and Tourism.  This Minister once observed that when his appointment as a Minister was confirmed, he was hailed and celebrated by his town people.  However, the moment it was announced that he would be in charge of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the celebration turned to mourning because he was deemed to have been sent to an inferior Ministry.  This perception of the cultural sector as the Cinderella of the government has persisted till date.  Apart from the fact that the ministry with four departments and ten parastatals is at the bottom of the budget ladder, (allocated less than 1% of the annual national budget) more worrisome is the poor level of budget releases (from 0% to 50%) of amount appropriated.  We shall talk more on this later.

The Administration of Culture in Nigeria

At the risk of being accused of preaching to the converted, I will like to briefly review some basic information on culture.  For instance, it is now generally accepted that culture is fundamental to human existence and human civilization, embodying in its dynamism the totality of a people’s response to the challenges of life and living.  Culture offers meaning, purpose and value to the socio-economic, political and aesthetic ethos of society.  Inevitably therefore, cultural and political formation are inseparable.

In materialistic terms, culture ramifies the production, distribution and exchange categories of social and relational existence of mankind.  Culture, both of the material and intangible categories, offers a window unto the actual contribution of a people to human civilization.

When well funded and managed, the arts has the potentials to create employment opportunities through the establishment of cottage and culture-based industries.  Against the background of the recent spate of literary awards won by foreign based Nigerian writers, the arts has the potentials of giving the country the much needed positive publicity that even the most expensive public relations outfit cannot match.

With the vast and diverse cultural wealth of this country, it is a pity that the country still relies heavily on oil and allied products for its economic resources.  The culture sector has the potentials of being the basis of the much needed technological break through for Nigeria .

As was stated earlier, the current Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism was established by the Obasanjo’s administration in 1999.  Prior to this, it was under Obasanjo’s leadership between 1976-1979 that Nigeria hosted the entire black world during the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture tagged FESTAC 77.  The coming of FESTAC then gave birth to such monuments as the FESTAC Town in Lagos , the once magnificent National Theater edifice and the Durbar Hotel, Kaduna .  Also include is the Museum Kitchen and the craft village built outside the premises of the National Museum Lagos.  Just before his exit in 1979, Obasanjo also approved the establishment of a unique Gallery in the National Museum, Lagos as well as the creation of the National Commission for Museum and Monument and the centre for Black and Africa Arts and Civilization (CBAAC).  It was therefore a confirmation of his interest in the Arts sector that President Obasanjo on his return as a civilian President in 1999 created the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

I have gone into all the above as a basis for my subsequent observation on how a president with such an impressive credential as a pro-culture and arts enthusiast could have inadvertently or deliberately spoilt what could have been a glorious cultural era through poor funding and haphazard policies.

CHALLENGES

1.      FUNDING PROBLEMS:

During my four year tenure as a member of the House Committee on Culture and Tourism, poor funding was the biggest obstacle to the smooth running of the Culture and Tourism sector.  With budgetary allocations of less than 1% of the annual national budget, the Ministry was at the lowest budgetary rung.  Even when the National Assembly appropriated funds, the president constituted another implementation committee under the finance ministry to reduce these appropriated votes.  To worsen matters, not all of the reduced votes were released to the ministries and agencies.  An analysis of the 2005 budget is very instructive in this matter.

a)      Nigerian Copyright Commission

Capital allocation by appropriation act was N524,818,655 but was reduced by implementation committee to N50,000,000.

Amount Released        =       N 3,750.000

Percentage                            =       N 7.5%

b)      National Commission for Museums and Monument

Capital allocation as appropriated by the National Assembly was N520,800,000 but reduced by the implementation committee of the Finance Ministry to N408,307,200.

By the second quarter of 2005, no money had been released.

c)      The Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation

The NTDC capital project as approved by the National Assembly was N141,050,000 and was reduced to N110,583,200 by the implementation committee.

Amount released                   =       N19,400,000

Percentage releases   =       N17.55%

d)      The National Council for Arts and Culture

The NCAC got N133,875,000 from the National Assembly which was later reduced to N104,956,000 by the implementation committee.

Amount released                   =       N1,875,000

Percentage                            =       N1.79%.

e)      The National Gallery of Arts

The National Gallery got an initial appropriation for its capital to the sum of N525,000,000 which was later reduced to N409,500,000.

Amount released                   =       N34,968,500

Percentage                            =       N8.54%

f)       Centre for Black African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC)

CBAAC got N118,000,000 from the National Assembly.  This amount was reduced to N92,040,000 by the implementation committee out of which N29,500,000.

g)      National Theatre

N850,000,000 was appropriated but reduced to N663,000,000 out of which N22,874,979 representing 3.43% was released.

h)      The National Troupe was the luckiest in the 2005 budget when it was able to assess about 50% of its approved capital allocation amounting to N39,000,000 out of its N78,000,000.

The above analysis captures the general budgetary trend for the 2003 – 2007 period and could thus explain why the culture sector found it difficult to carry out its official functions.

It is also to be noted that appropriations by the National Assembly which is expected to have taken into cognizance all the expectations   of the stakeholders in that sector is a law which shored not be altered by any person outside the National Assembly.  However, President Obasanjo in his own wisdom never implemented the budgets as passed by the National Assembly throughout his four year tenure.  The president’s excuse for this executive lawlessness was the fact that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had advised him that the budgets as passed by the National Assembly if implemented, would cause inflation in the country.

Unfortunately, the National Assembly which should have opposed this flagrant disrespect for the constitution was held to ransom by the overbearing influence of the ruling party which insisted that its members who form the majority in the National Assembly must obey the party’s policy.  The few legislators who were members of the ruling party who wanted to oppose this anomaly, could not do so out of the fear of being disciplined by their party for party disloyalty.

2.      The Cultural Policy / Endowments for the Arts

Another handicap against the effective management of the cultural sector is the absence of a cultural policy as well as the Endowments for the Arts.  Produced since 1988, the cultural policy is still being reworked and reviewed with the active involvement of cultural workers, scholars.  Various committees have been set up to collaborate with UNESCO in order to make the document very relevant to culture and tourism in the country.

Under the sectoral policies, section of the document, the support for Artistic and Literary creation has been included.

If finally passed, the policy will among other thing make provision for a Federal Fund for the association to artists and purchase of the needed materials.  Other types of support available to artists or writers depend on cultural industries that are directly involved or influence artistic and literary creation.

There are other provisions in the policy for the assistance of members of the arts community such as writers, musicians, artists, actors among other.

Unfortunately, several years after its first production, the cultural  policy is still being worked upon.

From what I gathered at the last sitting of the committee where I was invited, the slow pace of work on the policy is due to the involvement of UNESCO which is keen on bringing up the policy to international standard.  However, as I pointed out at the said meeting, the delay in bringing out the policy remains a big set back to the much awaited endowment for the Arts.

This point was reiterated in my remark at the celebration the world Cultural day in Abuja on Saturday May 21 2005 where I represented the chairman House Committee on culture and Tourism.  As I put it during the event, “we are also looking forward to the much awaited policy on culture as well as the endowment for the arts; two very important innovations which we hope, will further improve the activities of the cultural sector.  From our investigations it is obvious that the relevant documents for these two innovations are still being fine-tuned by the ministry.  We want to plead with the Honourable Minister of Culture and Tourism to expedite action on these two documents in order to ensure their quick passage into laws.  As representatives of the people, Nigerians from all walks of life are daily bombarding us with requests for the quick passage of these policies into law.  Unfortunately, being executive Bills, there is nothing we can do until the ministry sends the documents to us”.

Up till the time the last National Assembly rounded up its activities in June 2007, the documents are still with the ministry.  My observation on this matter of the Cultural Policy is that if we as the arts community want a quick legislation, we need to take the policy out of the hands of the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Apart from the undue bureaucracy which is slowing down the policy, I have the feeling that there are some powerful forces in the executive arm of government behind the deliberate delay of the bill.  If we as members of the arts community can come together and properly strategize, the policy can be presented as a private member bill for a  much quicker passage into law instead of its current state as an executive bill.

3.      CONTENTIOUS GOVERNMENT POLICIES ON THE ARTS

i)        The Issue of the National Theatre.

The recent decision by the Federal government to hand over the National Theatre to a private arts community.  Government’s reason for taking this action was borne out of the feeling that the Theatre was grossly under utilized and as such needed to be commercialized.

Of course, artists have risen against this decision seeing it as negation of the whole idea behind having a public monument not solely for the purposes of making money but as the soul of the cultural activities in the country.  My own take on the matter is that we need to balance both sides of the argument.  The truth of the matter is that having been involved with over sighting government projects in the last four years, as a member of the National Assembly, I have a lot of sympathy for those saddled with administering public establishments.  Apart from the perennial problem of inadequate funding, haphazard government policies as well as official corruption are impediments towards a smooth running of some of these establishments.  Against the background of these factors, I do not see how such a big edifice as the National Theatre can solely depend on government subsidy without crumpling. I therefore strongly believe that for us to fully utilize the facilities at the National Theatre, we need   a sort of Private Public Initiative.  My  suggestion therefore is for us to allow government to cede part of the edifice especially the cinema  halls to a Private establishment sole while other organs such as the National Troupe, CBAAC among other can continue to play their artistic roles to the community.

ii)      The Abuja Carnival:

The other issue which I consider a contentious government policy is the recently introduced Abuja Carnival.  In his address on the occasion of the world Cultural Day in May 2005, the then Honourable Minister for Culture and Tourism Ambassador Frank Oguewu observed that the Abuja Carnival was established to show case our cultural diversity.  As he put it. ‘our mission of making Nigeria the preferred tourism destination could only be realized if Nigeria has a unique cultural “package” to offer the tourists’

After two appearances, the major criticism against the Abuja carnival is the absence of public participation in the one week event.  Whereas, other carnivals the world over have mass involvement, Abuja as a city is too elitist to showcase our proper culture.  Rather than dancing through the streets of Abuja with very little public participation, it has been suggested that future carnivals be decentralized.  This way, the durbar activities could take place in Kano, while the display of masquerades could be done in the western part of the country and the boat regatta in the riverine areas of the South South.

It is believed that this mass approach will not only reduce the fiesta’s over 800 million naira budget, it would also go a long way in bringing our cultural and tourism potentials to the people.

CONCLUSION:

It is very obvious that the issue of Culture and Tourism is very fundamental and important to the socio economic development of any country.  In view of this, it is my contention that such an important issue cannot be left solely to the government and politicians alone.  While it is government’s responsibility to provide the enabling environment for arts practitioners to practice their work, we as members of the arts community need to organize ourselves into a formidable and effective pressure group in order to guide our policy makers.

We also need to have a say in who is elected to important political positions.  This we can do by taking more than a cursory interest in politics.  One or two members of the art community in politics is not enough.  We need a critical mass before things can change.

We also need to actively and regularly engage our policy makers so that they can fulfill their electoral promises.   Equally important is the support of the private sector and philanthropists in the actualization of some of our demands.  It is regrettable that today most of the financiers and backers of artistic events are foreign embassies and foreign donor agencies.

We need to woo our philanthropists and successful business organizations to give more to the arts.

Finally, we need to encourage those of us who are courageous or lucky enough to get elected into public office.  Having survived the last four years in what I refer to as Nigeria’s political jungle, I can say without any iota of doubt that to stay in politics without compromising your ethical and moral qualities is not easy. While it is important to keep our elected officials on their toes, it is equally important to give them all the support they need. In this regards, I wish to express my sincere and heartfelt thanks for  the warm support as well words of encouragement I received from members of the art community during my last four years in office. I don’t want to mention names, but I am constrained to especially thank the journalists who gave my activities very good coverage as well as Prof Duro Oni previously of CBAAC as well as Dr Ahmed Yerima of the National Theatre. Of course my colleagues in the Private sector and donor agencies such as Cadbury, British Council, Chevron among others have very supportive to me and the ANA. My final thanks goes to the members of ANA nationwide, My prayer is that the good lord will continue to bless and honor you.

Thank you for listening.

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