The National Arts Theatre is visible from the motorway system which connects Lagos Island and the mainland: an iconic modern structure which rises, it is often noted, like the peak of a military cap from the surrounding parkland. On the first day of the four-day Eid public holiday there are no arts to be seen: the theatre and the art gallery operating within are both closed for business, guarded by relaxed-looking men in military uniform. The park is full of children walking, running, sitting, playing; smartly dressed children shooed by their mother, clip-clopping along the pavements; colourful stands sell snacks and drinks; miniature bottles of liquor scattered in the grass. This enthusiastic misuse of the site reflects some of the reasons for which it has, in the last two decades, become a huge problem for the Federal and State Governments.



The Theatre was built during the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo, by a construction firm working from a plan of the Palace of Culture and Sports in Vama, and finished in time for the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. Until recently the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) printed elegant and ambitious books of Nigerian, African and international black culture from an office in the Theatre. The sale of the building in 2001 was a significant part of Obasanjo’s programme of privitisation when he returned to power as Nigeria’s elected President. The idea of the sale prompted furious protests from many Nigerians. Wole Soyinka, whose fable of abusive sovereignty, King Baabu, premiered at the theatre the same year, said “You can liken this to a horrendous fate suffered by the black race, pauperised and victimised by public office holders who transform power into an instrument of repression and oppression”.



Having failed to convince the public that privitisation would be beneficial, but nevertheless still incapable of fulfilling the ambition of the site’s original architects, buoyed by the oil boom of the 70s and inspired by a program of cultural nationalism and black internationalism, the state has remained an unhappy steward of the site. The theatre appears to have lost its status as a beacon of cultural nationalism: there’s a National Gallery of traditional arts, two cinemas showing films. Try-outs for the popular tv dance competition, the Maltina Dance All happen in one of the cinemas; the main auditorium has been closed for decades.

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