By Anote Ajeluorou
WITH the promise of change sweeping across the political and economic spheres of the country occasioned by the new leadership, one of Nigeria’s foremost culture workers Mahmood Ali-Balogun has called on President Muhammadu Buhari to cause change to also happen in the culture sector. Specifically, Ali-Balogun has asked for the immediate removal of current General Manager of the country’s heritage symbol, the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, Mr. Kabir Yusuf. Ali-Balogun accused Yusuf of mismanaging the fortunes of the culture edifice, as cultural activities in the prime venue have since grounded to a halt. Rather than the theatre generating income for government, he said, the structure has become a drainpipe on government’s purse.
The first national president of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) also signaled irregularities in the concession process of the National Theatre and called for its cancellation for a transparent process. Ali-Balogun, who spoke to journalists recently at Freedom Park, Lagos, said he’d refrained from speaking about the culture edifice since the sad and controversial removal of then Dr. Ahmed Yerima (now professor of Drama), as General Manager, whose tenure he termed the golden era of the theatre in recent memory. Since Yerima’s removal and the appointment of Yusuf, he said, the fortunes of the once respected culture centre has been on the downward slide such that those who used to patronize the theatre for non-cultural purposes like weddings and other social events no longer do so on account of poor management of the place.
According to Ali-Balogun, “Some of us have not commented on the National Theatre for years. The worse management we’ve had so far is Kabir Yusuf’s, who is the cousin of former President Musa Yar’Adua (now late), somebody brought in from Estate Department. When he saw artists for the first time he was so excited. But over the years and because of incompetence, the place has become sordid. Even Prof. Femi Osofisan contributed to the rot in the place as General Manager. Yerima came and did a lot to uplift the place, but he was thrown out. After him, there was infighting among Assistant Managers until Yusuf was brought in.
“But we knew from the beginning what Yusuf’s end would be. The reengineering that was beginning to happen under Yerima was shut down. Today, the place is just there; nothing is happening. In other spheres, the National Theatre would be Nigeria’s symbol. Today, what is there? Nothing! Since Yusuf has been there as General Manager for eight years, what has he done to add value to the National Theatre?”
Ali-Balogun also said when the concession started some of them in the culture sector decided to endorse it to see how it would go, with the hope that the concession would help improve the place. But he expressed his dismay at its outcome, as discordant tunes emanated from among those involved in the process, which he said was not transparent. He said this was especially so as the bidder Yusuf prefers would not make any commitment to refurbish the National Theatre to the tune of N12 billion agreed precondition apart from developing the fallow land space around the complex. This, Ali-Balogun said, would be a violation of the conditions for the concession process.
Also, Ali-Balogun said his main grouse for asking Yusuf to be thrown out from the culture complex was his incompetence and mismanagement, a situation that has driven Nigeria’s proven culture workers out of their original home of culture. As he put it, “Maybe we’re not politically savvy enough otherwise we should be pushing one of our own into the centre of things and not always be outsiders in things that concern us. Yusuf has done more disservice to the National Theatre than anybody else. During Yerima’s time things were beginning to get better until this joker came. I had my 50th birthday there to showcase what good Yerima was doing there.
“Take a look at abegi, the spot just across from Yusuf’s office; it’s the only place bubbling with activities, but it’s more of a brothel and a homosexual joint”.
The National Theatre management’s incompetence, according to Ali-Balogun, is also manifest in its inability to access funding from world bodies like UNESCO, Ford Foundation and other bodies to revamp the edifice so it could be put to effective use by culture stakeholders in the country. This situation, he argued, was no longer tolerable to culture workers, especially as the theatre no longer enjoy prime status for cultural productions.