I had the misfortune of going to the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos last week. What I saw broke my heart. Not the National Theatre itself. It still stood resplendent in its glory from Festac days in 1977. Built in the shape of a military peak cap for the glorification of the military junta that conceived and birthed it, the theatre itself is still an architectural masterpiece worth visiting by tourists and Nigerians alike. That was the theatre that hosted the popular dramas of the late Hubert Ogunde, arguably the most prolific theatre practitioner that graced these shores. The driveway is being re-paved with beautiful paving stones and the contractor is doing a fantastic job. The National Theatre is coming back!
What broke my heart was the Nigerian National Troupe offices located in a corner of the sprawling National Theatre grounds. I saw an area where food is sold to visitors and workers, the dirty plastic chairs, the broken concrete driveway and the general decay noticeable and repulsive to a first-time visitor. The flies I saw had tribal marks! I was complaining about the dilapidated area with sheds that look like lunatic makeshifts when a man seating quietly nursing a cold Trophy lager moved close and told me that area hosts the National Troupe and invited me to take a peep. The renowned National Troupe that is respected worldwide and plays before kings and presidents? That represents Nigeria at high-profile cultural fiestas and events globally? It resides inside this filth? This decrepit slum?
I could not believe what I was hearing. So, I took a look. I walked down the driveway strewn with broken pieces of concrete and all manner of jetsam. On the right, just before a black gate that has weathered and rusted was an area fenced off with planks between a dirty BQ-like building and the gate house and wall. With rags hanging on the horizontal pieces, the place looked like where a mad man can spring from any moment. The area also reeked of urine, probably generously offloaded by drunken men who patronize the various joints in this area of the National Theatre grounds. Rats must be grateful to the Federal Government for this piece of real estate for which they pay no rent and are not under any threat. I shuddered.
By the gate is a well-designed signboard with a white background and rusted edges on which was boldly written “NATIONAL TROUPE OF NIGERIA – The Nation’s Cultural Ambassadors”. The only other inscription on the signboard is the logo of the national troupe. This signboard turned out to be the only redeeming feature in the home of the National Troupe of Nigeria! Just beside it is the view window of the security gatehouse – just haphazardly patched with brownish mortar against a background of a building that used to be painted white. The ugliness of the contrast is stark. I shook my head in wonder and disgust.
Then I ventured into the yard. All I could see were some dilapidated office blocks and unfinished structures, one at roofing level, the other had arrested development at foundation. The look of the blocks convinced me that these projects have been abandoned for decades. The beautiful Indian almond trees (ebelebo in Yoruba), under which cars and some buses were parked, provided a cool canopy for the vehicles and a serene ambience for the theatre troupe members and office workers. But the un-mowed grass looked like a place that grass-cutters and snakes would love to play games. Only the driveway to the offices was bare of grass but not because they were cut. It was the oppression of moving vehicle tyres that prevented them from growing. I thought in my mind, what is the cost of a lawn mower that such an office could not buy to keep its environment clean and tidy? Only God knows what lay inside the offices themselves! Did the sage not say that cleanliness is next to godliness?
The contradictions that are the hallmark of our government establishments were clearly visible and were in the form of hardware and ‘software’. Firstly, parked in splendid regality and contradictory aloofness was a brand-new Toyota SUV that must have cost close to 30 million naira if the LPO was processed by a considerate procurement official. Possibly assigned to the chief executive officer and head of this agency. In this filth and decrepit backwater in a corner of the National Theatre grounds, the opulence of such a luxury vehicle stands in condemnation of those leaders in various facets of our government who, rather than render public service, choose to feather their own nests. The mandate of their offices can go to hell! This was the situation I saw at the National Troupe of Nigeria premises in Lagos. The leader of such a filthy edifice at best deserves a decrepit ‘Keke Marwa’ or a ‘Korope’ bus for an official vehicle. That was the hardware.
On the soft issues side, I came across a man who works for the agency. He was bitter, weather-beaten and has seen better working days. He had not been paid his miserly salary for three months, he said! He has children and a wife to feed. Dependents do not know, nor care, whether he is suffering himself. They still call to ask for help even in this his state of helpless hopelessness. But his boss drives a mint-fresh SUV, he said. He resigned himself to fate, ending his comments on the sad note that “this world is not balanced!” The money spent on that SUV could have refurbished the National Troupe offices and spruced up the environment thereby providing an ambience that is good for motivation and productivity. And, do not forget, national pride!
This state of affairs at the National Troupe of Nigeria is symptomatic of a malaise that is commonplace in Nigeria’s public sector. There are so many unprofitable MDAs whose directors or DGs drive 2023 Toyota Land Cruisers and the latest Lexus SUVs. They budget for these and the oversighters and budget-approving authorities are paid to close their eyes. Or they look without seeing because they have been ‘seen’. But their contribution is only measurable in their corruption and not in productivity or mandate delivery. As we prepare for imminent transition, those who helped do odd jobs in the campaigns are salivating the prospect of becoming board members and directors in agencies of government charged with service delivery.
These jobbers include brilliant folks who have an idea of what to do, crooked individuals eyeing the possibilities that corruption will open for them, the thugs who enforced the violent directives of their principals beyond even what was planned and has no clue as to what public service is all about. The budgets that they propose, and bribe to get approved, eventually get used to fund their greed and the so-called oversight by the other guys in the Three Arms Zone. You go to some agencies and all you see are dilapidated furniture and broken windows. But the Director or DG is a multiple landlord at Asokoro and Banana Island, though he was a perpetual debtor before his appointment!
That is why we are where we are. The real change is still peeping through the window and vagabonds are trying not to let it in. Nigeria is on the precipice and the beautiful one is being forced towards a still birth.
*This piece was written on 17th May 2023.