Saturday, 1 September 2007

Killing us not so softly. Hostile Nigerian Government attitude to arts and culture.

The Obasanjo Government (1999-2007) brought no discernable development or advancement within the arts and culture sector. It goes without saying that most African countries consider that art and culture has no meaningful role in the development of the nation. When not being completely ignored artists are treated with derision and contempt. In Nigeria any politician sent to head the Ministry of Culture and Tourism considers such an appointment worse than purgatory with little prestige and and a punitive budget. In the last 6 months the assault on the arts has reached crisis level from all tiers of the government especially federal and state. In the last days of his government, Obasanjo through the nefarious Bureau for Public Enterprise – basically the arm that sells, nay privatises public companies, sneakily approved the sale of the National theatre complex. For the last 4 months the art community has been waging a relentless battle against the government for a reversal of that decision.

Whilst privatisation of moribund, money guzzling inefficient government enterprises is welcome as most of them if properly run can survive and even turn huge profits in a country such as Nigeria, the same cannot be said for cultural institutions. Where in the world do you hear of countries selling off – oh the official term in Nigeria is leasing – their cultural heritage. Would France sell the Louvre off to the highest bidder? Or London sell the Tate or South Bank Centre or Australia the Sydney opera house? Who is going to save us from these cultural philistines and illiterate, deplorable politicians?

Still in the throes of that major battle, 3months ago the newly installed Governor of Bayelsa state in the troubled Niger Delta Region issues an order that the Art Department should be closed down and the building annexed to another Department. In His Excellency's myopic view what the state need are more lawyers, engineers and not arts and humanities graduates. What a fool indeed!!! The art and academic community in collaboration with the news media went on the defensive with the kind of speed that not habitual for this passive community. The Governor is busy trying to retrace his demented steps.

Then 10 days ago another bloody assault, the officials of the Lagos State Government bulldozed a prominent art and crafts market which at the weekend is usually a beehive of activities. The email that I received from a concerned art supporter was:

We were shocked today (Saturday, Aug. 19, 2007) to find the well-known Art Market of Maiyegun (Lekki, Lagos) bulldozed without warning by forces of the Lagos State Government. According to eye witnesses several persons received gunshots, one died. The market, home for about 120 artists from the African Pride of Art & Crafts, was completely destroyed today and many more people lost hope and income. Properties and artwork valued provisionally at 30-40 million Naira was destroyed, unnecessarily.Please find attached some of the pictures that document the wanton destruction of this market.

It has been reported that at least 3 people have died as a result of the shock of the action. Once again the art community is up in arms at the unwarranted loss of livelihood for individuals working hard to feed their families. The irony is that the government at all levels spend a lot of time and money trying to develop the tourism and hospitality industry yet spends the same resources destroying an important component of the tourism industry – the arts and culture. This hostility has to stop.
scenes from the demolition


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