Edo State, the Heartbeat of the Nation, boasts of a rich cultural heritage dating back centuries, making the state a natural tourist attraction. In the last over seven years, the Governor Godwin Obaseki-led administration has been deliberate and intentional in creating the right policies and atmosphere to give the sector the needed boost, and the results are showing. The Honourable Commissioner for Arts, Culture and Tourism, Dr. Uyi Oduwa-Malaka, speaks to a team of The Nigerian Observer comprising the Acting Managing Director/Managing Editor, Osa Victor Obayagbona, Acting Editor, Chuks Oluigbo, and Correspondents Naomi Ewansiha and Oluwatola Fawehinmi, on some of the achievements in this regard and efforts to ensure continuity. Excerpts:

Every ministry has a mandate. What is the mandate of your ministry and to what extent have you so far achieved it?

For us in Edo State, every ministry’s mandate is, firstly, policy formulation. So, policy formulation, regulation, and monitoring. For my ministry, it’s policy in the direction of the preservation, protection, and promotion of our cultural heritage. That’s what the Arts and Culture Ministry is about. Arts and Culture is the gem of Edo, so whatever it takes for us to be able to preserve that is the sole responsibility of this ministry. And not just putting out the policies, you always have to think about the regulations attached. If you have a right policy framework and you don’t have legal frameworks backing it, there’s a problem. So what we try to do in Edo State is to ensure that where we put in policies, we also have the legal backing for all of them. That’s my immediate mandate.

Often, you see Arts and Culture as a ministry, but in your case it’s Arts, Culture, and Tourism. So what are you doing to promote the tourism aspect of this ministry?

I started off by saying that my major mandate was in the preservation, protection, and promotion of our cultural heritage in Edo. That sentence in itself encompasses a lot of other stuff. So when you ask what we are doing to promote tourism, in Edo, this is our unique selling point, our arts and culture, and this puts us in a natural position to drive tourism. That’s what we are basing our tourism on, arts and cultural heritage. Without that, we would be lost; we would be like every other state or every other body out there, but that’s our unique selling point as Edo people.

In the next few days, your ministry will be organising the World Theatre Day programme here in Benin. Could you tell us more about it?

Yes. We have the World Theatre Day coming up on the 27th of March. This year, the theme is “The Promotion of the Culture of Peace”. For us in Edo, we are globally known as peaceful people, but not to be taken for granted though. So this year, our theatre focus will be in promoting the peaceful aspects of our culture, the peaceful Edo. The national body also went a step further by creating dialogue around the creative economy, how we can make it more sustainable through theatre. That’s the topic we’re working on this year. And then, in the ministry, one of our four pillars is in collaborative efforts. Most times when we have to project any particular celebration or festival, as a ministry, we work through collaborations. This year, we are collaborating with the National Association of Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) and our own sister agency, the Victor Uwaifo Creative Hub, to make sure that it turns out an excellent display of our art and our culture in the theatre space. We are making the event open to our younger generation this time. We just returned from a road show where we were talking about a 30-year plan for Edo. We’re talking about the future of Edo and this year, we are also talking about sustaining it. That’s one of the things we’re doing, ensuring that we bring our children on board and that they understand the importance of sustaining that culture, our theatre culture in Edo. It’s a big playing field for us, one that has been largely untapped.

Interestingly, there’s also the World Theatre Day for Children, which is celebrated March 20th, but because we don’t want to have two separate celebrations, we’re having the children come out on the day we’re celebrating the World Theatre Day but the focus is now on our children, our youths. It’s going to be a real display of creativity on stage, because we’re bringing in the younger generation to just show us what they can also do in preserving our theatre culture.

The reforms of Governor Godwin Obaseki in the past seven and a half years have attracted a lot of hospitality investment into the state. You see new hotels springing up, but it seems the concentration is on the Benin City area. What about other locations in the state? What are you doing to encourage hospitality investors to also go into other parts of the state?

When we talk about Benin City, we’re talking about Oredo, Ikpoba-Okha, Egor, some parts of Uhunmwonde and Ovia North East, which are the local governments that are considered part of the metro area of Edo State, but what we are seeing is not just happening in Benin. We’ve seen tourists come in, and instead of coming into Oredo or the Benin City metro area, they’re actually going to our rural local governments. So there’s been a deliberate interest in tourism at the rural areas. This generation, and by all means, I love the Gen Z, they just pack up their bags and they are off to explore one place or the other, whether you’re ready for them or not, they are off on their own. What we’ve done so far is to say, ‘Come on, we have a ministry that can actually provide some level of protection and guidance for you in that regard’. So a lot of them have been coming in, younger generation, from all over Nigeria, even from outside of Nigeria, and what we’re seeing is a progression towards the rural local governments. So, for example, they want to go to see the hills in Somorika, they want to see Ososo, the caves in Edo North, in Etsako, and the two local governments in Owan. We have a lot of caves, we have a lot of water bodies. We have waterfalls. So there’s so much out there, and there’s a growing interest. Whether it’s a festival or a carnival, there’s something to celebrate. We have rich dances, we have rich music, even our cuisine. Everything in Edo just speaks to tourism and it’s interesting. We are really tapping into that largely.

If you were to name five major things that the governor has done to give this sector a boost, what would they be?

Let me share some exciting news with you. Just a few days ago, Edo received an award for the most tourism-active state in Nigeria for 2023. I have been here a little over eight months but I know that when I looked at my schedule, all of those days, it’s either engaging with a strategic stakeholder, an investor, another government from within and outside Nigeria, just one thing or the other. What’s driving all of this? As I like to say, the government of Governor Obaseki does not react in a knee-jerk approach. We are a process government, so there’s deliberate effort to actually design and have a total plan around whatever the government is projecting or whatever interest the government has. What has happened is, firstly, the mandate of policy formulation, having the right policies in place. When we started, we put together a lot of stakeholder engagements around the tourism master plan. We drove that with the biggest stakeholder engagement that you can imagine and we ended up producing a tourism master plan that gave rise to the tourism agency. So, right now in the state, we do have a tourism agency. You asked for five things. I’m going to list them for you.

First is policy. Policy in tourism led to the birth of the tourism agency with a sitting executive director. It’s run almost like a private sector platform, which gives investors the comfort to come in and invest or do business with Edo State. So, you have the policy in place. You have the people – highly skilled, highly trained civil service. Digital governance.

You then to talk about the infrastructure. Firstly, the Victor Uwaifo Creative Hub. You know, when Governor Obaseki campaigned in 2016, he said, ‘I’m going to create 200,000 jobs’, and people thought, ‘Oh, come on; where are you going to create the jobs?’ But he made it. We broke it down in bits. So he started out by saying, ‘No, we’re not going to create jobs in the civil service. We’re going to create the enabling environment for private sector to come in and invest in Edo’, and that’s what we’ve done. So with Victor Uwaifo Creative Hub, we engaged a lot of independent private-sector organizations, who brought in platforms to set up other companies. We created jobs for Edo people. By the end of the first tenure, we had already surpassed that mark by far in direct and indirect jobs created. We made sure that we provided a platform for our creative Edo youths all over the state. And when I talk about Edo youths, Edo is a very hospitable state, so I’m not just talking about Edo by birth; I’m talking about those who have stayed in Edo, some children who were born here, they have never been to their own home states, and they know no other place but Edo. So we’re not just carving out a niche, or saying you must be Edo, no. We are promoting Nigeria. Look at your team; I was very excited when you came in and introduced a set of young people who come from different backgrounds across Nigeria. That is the show, that is the face of Edo that we want to project as well.

Then, we also have the Edo Film Project. Edo Film Project was set up because we decided that as part of our plan, we would reposition Edo as a film production hub in Nigeria. How do you go about achieving that without having the right infrastructure or the enabling environment? What we did was to ensure that in trying to drive production into Edo, we create the platform for them. What Edo State government offers to production houses coming into Edo are free accommodation, free transportation, free security, free shoot permits, free props, locations across the state, and we actually go in as a ministry and are involved in what they are doing. We’re trying to drive a 70-30 ratio – Edos in that production must be nothing less than 70 per cent, while the 30 per cent could be technical staff coming into Edo. We also put in place a mentorship programme so that where you bring in the technical expertise from outside of Edo, we have our own Edo citizens sitting with you on the job and learning something in the process, thereby ensuring that there’s knowledge transfer.

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Then the beauty, the gem of Edo that’s going to blow out very soon, the Museum of West African Art (MOWAA). There’s been a gradual progression from it being the Edo Museum of West African Art to the Museum of West African Art. Why so? When we engaged the international community, they looked at us and said, ‘You’re narrowing yourself if you put the Edo there’. This museum is going to serve not even West Africa alone, but sub-Saharan Africa. That is just being modest because it’s actually going to serve the world.

What are we trying to do there? The Museum of West African Art has been broken into three phases. The first phase is an institute that will be involved in training, attracting academics from all over the world, art enthusiasts, travellers, tourists, to come in there, engage with our own homegrown and other international artists, and then be able to do some academic work in the space of arts, culture, and creativity generally. It also provides a space for moving exhibitions. In the month of April, Edo State, and our own governor, Mr. Godwin Obaseki, will be leading the Nigerian team to the Venice Biennale, the biggest art exhibition in the world. Edo is going to have a stand there. That is just saying that we’re doing the right things every time we make a move, deliberate moves. The second phase of the MOWAA is the rainforest area, which is going to capture the way that we had our environment in the past. Edo’s vegetation is rainforest, So we’re going to recreate the rainforest in that second phase on what we call “our sacred grounds”. Where we are building the MOWAA is actually where our old palace stood. When the Benin Massacre happened, that was where the palace went down, and there was nothing left there, but that’s where we are creating the Museum of West African Art. It’s also so much a part of our history, our heritage. So we’re going to create the rainforest region in that space, with simulations, so that when you walk through it, it almost sounds like you’re going through the real forest as it used to be in those days.

Finally, we have the third phase, which will house the actual museum. Many people often get confused. They ask, ‘Oh, is this the museum?’ The museum is a huge project. It’s a three-phase approach – the institute, the rainforest, and the museum. By the time the first part is completed, which is in, I think, August/September of this year, the traffic that will come into Edo, we may not even be able to manage it.

Then, if you step out of the Secretariat and take a look around the area, you can see a lot of beauty springing up every day. We have the Edo Mall. Tourism is in different areas. People can travel just for shopping. There’s that bit of tourism that you just want to go have some kind of retail therapy, visit places, buy stuff. There is sports tourism. We have the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, which is a beauty on its own. Our Edo Mall is going to attract shoppers from all over the world because we’re going to have different outlets there by some renowned brands. We have four cinema spaces there right now, fully operational. There was a movie premiere there, our own story, too, an authentic Edo story. It was the first premiere at the Edo Mall, at Genesis Cinema, ‘Osato’, by an Edo director. So, Edo State is deliberate in driving tourism, and we’re attracting a lot of big-time investors every day.

So, you have what you want to do, but you will not be in that seat forever. People coming after you, they may think differently. What are you doing to ensure continuity?

Government policies, government directions, backed with laws and the right regulation. There are certain laws in place that will make sure that no one comes in tomorrow and just throws everything away. It will have to go through a process, and we know how difficult it is to be able to do that. But more importantly, the people. I am a political appointee but I work with an amazing team of civil servants who are the actual engine of government. Whether you like it or not, they are our reservoir, they are our archives, everything. I can be in this office today and move to another ministry tomorrow, but what Edo State government does in ensuring continuity is that everything is domiciled in the civil service. So whether I’m here as commissioner or not, it should just be like a plug-and-play system. When I leave and the next person comes in, there is e-governance. We are the first state in Nigeria to go fully digital; paperless government. In fact, now even other countries are coming to understudy. What can be more than that? So everything you want to see is actually there. Technology is driving everything. When you come in, there’s a historical background to whatever you’re doing. You’re able to trace what we did with tourism, for example; see where we stopped. Who were the players? Who were the people responsible for each area? So you’re able to see all of that, through technology.

I’m also throwing that back to the Edo people. You can’t take one step forward and take ten steps backward. So our next decision has to be deliberate; it has to be intentional. This is the Ministry of Arts and Culture. You have a healthy work environment. This is the only state, I think, across Nigeria, where civil servants get paid as and when due. So why would you want to reverse all of that? So I’m throwing it back to the people. For you to ensure that all of this continues to go on, make sure that in your decision for who takes on the baton, you put all of that into consideration. Governance has changed. The governor is very deliberate, and we are his foot soldiers, whether we like it or not and we’re passing it on. We’re not going to sit down there. I will go to the field and campaign vigorously to make sure that we get the right leadership in place, and I know a lot of my colleagues will do that. So it’s back to us.

Your ministry was involved in the recent read-a-thon by a young lady, Osariemen Angel Asein. What led to that and what’s the message from that outing?

I spoke about the resilience of the Edo child. What we saw at the read-a-thon by Osariemen Angel, a young girl who decided to go on a read-a-thon for 200 hours and even went above to 230 hours, was part of that die-hard spirit of an Edo child. Wherever we find ourselves, we always try and get something productive out of it. So for us, what Osariemen did was a reawakening of the reading culture amongst our Edo children. That whole exercise was driven by about five ministries in the Ministry of Education space but because she brought in the cultural aspect by reading Edo literature, which for us is a proud thing because we also want to tell our stories in our own way, that’s why the Ministry of Arts and Culture was involved. Every child should be a reader in Edo. What she did was bringing that back into space and projecting the reading culture that the government is trying to project in the Edo child. It was a laudable project and she did brilliantly with the support of so many MDAs and my colleagues; even the governor. There was top government involvement in that. We are trying to encourage our young ones to look for what they know to do well, what they have an interest in and just bring it to the attention of the government, there is always someone that will listen. That whole conversation started with a visit to me. She doesn’t live in Edo, she’s a student of Lagos State University, but she came and said she wanted to do this and we all threw our weight behind her. This is what we project; government is here for you, you tell us what you can do and let’s work together; it’s a partnership, a very positive and progressive partnership that we will want to continue to grow.

You are a titled chief in Ozalla land. Could you tell us about it and what drives your interest in traditional affairs?

I’m the Uzoyare of Ozalla, that means ‘the defender of the people’. And it’s interesting because many people say, ‘No, no, no, why are you doing the traditional thing?’ I’m just really passionate about my culture, my heritage.

It’s the sense of who I am. I am aware of who I am. I am a proud Edo woman and I bring that everywhere I go. I am wearing my coral bead, so I tell you about my bead, for example. I tell you that when you wear the “ivie”, you can’t do anything wrong. So this is my sense of pride, my sense of dignity as an Edo child. I am wearing my Idia head; Idia, warrior princess, warrior queen. It shows that tough side of the Edo woman, the resilience, the tenacity with which we drive anything, our sense of purpose, our true and total knowledge of our heritage. That’s all I bring into everything I do and I am very passionate about being an Edo woman.

Finally, how do you balance being a wife, a titled chief, an administrator, and a mother?

I’ve been married for about 27 years, happily married with three amazing children; they are all adults now. My kids are 25, 23 and 21, but there was a time I had to make all the sacrifices. There was a time I took a five-year break to focus on my children and my home and I preach that to every young girl out there – you need to transfer your values to your children in the right way and you don’t leave that to anybody. Times may be difficult, but make sure you are teaching your children the right things. I took a five-year break from banking to raise my children myself; that was important to me, and when I came back some of my mates had gone ahead of me but I made my choices, and life is about the choices you make. I am married to a very supportive husband, so every time I shine, it is always him pushing me and saying, ‘Go out there, I am right here, I got your back’. So a very close-knit family is one of the things that give me a sense of balance in everything I do.