By Anote Ajeluorou
GENUINELY worried by the apparent lack of interest and even plain ignorance to cultural matters and the place of culture in the life of a nation amongst Nigerian politicians and elites, a foremost culture producer and traditional ruler has proposed that those in the business of culture production and promotion should begin courting those in power to realise the huge potentials in the sector. This is especially so since the Cultural Policy document has remained unimplemented over two decades after it was formulated in 1986.
This is the submission of the Fadesewa of Simawa, an autonomous community near Sagamu, in Ogun State, Oba Gbenga Sonuga, whose thoughts on the subject matter have been documented in a new book he just published entitled, Introduction to Cultural Activism in Nigeria.
The book examines the journey of culture producers in their efforts to lobby for the implementation of the policy since it was formulated and the many setbacks they have had in convincing those in power to endorse it as a workable, actionable document that has the potential to lift the much maligned, marginalised sector.
Sonuga unveiled his book at the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2012) that ended a few weeks ago, a forum that had several culture producers and promoters in attendance held on the first floor of the Kongi Harvest's Arts Gallery inside Freedom Park, Lagos, on the third and last day of the three-day festival.
Sonuga retired from active culture production as the director of the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture about two decades ago.
Writing the book, he said, was an emotional journey for him, as his passion for the sector where he worked all his adult life has been abiding one. But it has been a wounded passion as the sector has not attracted deserved recognition from government.
Sonuga, who is reputed the most influential director of the Lagos Arts Council to date, argued that the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation has merely existed not for the needs of culture practitioners but for the interest of civil servants in the ministry, who wrangle and hijack whatever should have been due to industry players.
It’s this sense of persistent failure on the part of government officials, especially top culture directors in the ministry and the consistent appointment of ministers that have no knowledge of cultural matters that give Sonuga headache, enough to jolt him into action even after retiring many years back. So, he lamented, “After 50 years of Nigeria’s existence, I never thought I would write about Nigeria’s cultural policy”, a policy that ought to have been long established for culture to bloom.
He continued, “It’s terrible to drive a car without a manual. Cultural Policy should have been in existence before independence. British colonial policy was to kill our culture; we needed to have reacted to that colonial policy of demoting our culture but it never happened because our politicians never learnt there was an art to the building of human beings. We need to expose culture to our young people. Many people don’t know about cultural activism. We’re saying there are many ways you can be active in culture”.
Sonuga, who trained at Demas Nwoko’s New Art Studio in Ibadan after bagging a degree in Theatre Arts at Ibadan, urged those in government to accept and adopt culture as everything in the life of a nation and treat it with deserving attention, including culture practitioners. He reiterated that culture is the totality of a people’ existence and that art is the mode of transmitting culture, adding, “We need a definition of culture, which has to be precise – culture is contemporary -- what was before, what is now and what will be in future. At Nwoko’s studios, I learnt everything from aesthetics to the administration of culture”.
On the Culture Policy that has not been implemented since 1986, Sonuga stated, “Civil servants killed it after its launch. The policy is full of good intentions. The civil servants do not understand the policy and the ministers not being culture people have compounded the problem of its implementation. All the agencies of culture in the ministry engage in in-fighting over which gets the lion’s share of budgets that do not get to culture producers. Now, we don’t have a workable culture document. But we cannot give up because it’s affecting our lives”.
Sonuga said the ordering of the ministry’s name is anachronistic and amounted to putting the cart before the horse, saying, “You can’t have a Ministry of Tourism and Culture and expect it to work. It’s like putting the train wagons before the engine”.
He acknowledged the dichotomy between artists and politicians and regretted how far apart their approaches *re, a situation he said is at the root of culture producers’ woes, noting, “Artists don’t like to be politicians and politicians definitely don’t want to be artists. My thinking is that let’s look for senators, legislators and politicians of all shades and seduce them to our side to understand what we do.
“We need a National Endowment for the Arts as enshrined in the Cultural Policy, but the policy has to be put into effect first. The British National Lottery funds the arts and sports from funds accruing to it. We can do the same here. So, let’s make friends in politics. Let’s try the strategy of wooing politicians to support the Endowment Fund for the Arts. The sooner we channeled our creative energies towards cultural activism the better. We must do something about the Cultural Policy. Our salvation lies in being radical and creative. Let’s cultivate friends in politics to see that our creative people get help”.
LAUDABLe as this strategy seems, however, Sonuga may just being over optimistic. Dr. Wale Okediran, himself a politician, writer and as then president, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), had, in his only term at the House of Representatives, brought a bill to the floor of the house seeking legislative support for the arts, but it was shouted down by his colleagues, who didn’t see its importance. In relating his bitter experience with his colleagues, Okediran had said the federal legislators saw the bill as making monetary allowances for mere dancers and singers and promptly overturned it.
IN his intervention at the presentation, Chike Ofili, a poet, argued that although Sonuga’s idea may be a good one, there is need to first educate the nation’s politicians on what culture meant both to technocrats in government, politicians and corporate Nigeria as first step towards wooing them over to the noble objectives of supporting culture.
He noted, “Shouldn’t we first be talking about culture understanding and application to those in government and the corporate world rather than through activism? From experience, government and corporate Nigeria don’t understand what we are doing as culture producers and why they should support us”.