The Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mr Edem Duke, has moved quickly to deny recent reports that the federal government was planning to convert one of Nigeria's most enduring edifices, the iconic National Theatre in Lagos, into a hotel. However subsequent attempts by officials of the ministry to offer further clarification on the status of the National Theatre only succeeded in opening new areas of concern.
The minister's assistant on media elaborated on the issue when he disclosed that there were indeed plans to "execute a master plan of the heritage" which he noted involved building a hotel complex and other facilities on the expanse of land surrounding the National Theatre which, as the public affairs manager of the Theatre, Mr Toyin Mohammed, noted, would not affect the edifice. This does not sound reassuring.
The National Theatre is a museum, an architectural achievement that was designed to be the home for the National Troupe in particular and the country's performing arts in general. The complex was originally built to serve as venue for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, which Nigeria successfully hosted in 1977. Presently, the National Theatre has a 5,000-seat main hall, a 1,500-seat conference/ banquet hall exhibition halls, a VIP lounge and a roof garden.
Why the government is only now deciding to dust a thirty-year master plan, and asking for its immediate implementation, has not been properly explained. Moreover, there appears to be no indication of a shortage of hotel accommodation in Lagos to warrant the government's plan. In any case, a master plan that is that old would certainly require some medications for it to be applicable today. There is no indication from the statements of government officials that such modifications, if need be, had been done.
The Nigerian Institute of Town Planners recently stressed the need for government take another look at the master plan, because assumptions upon which it was based might have changed drastically, especially following the relocation of the Federal Capital and seat of government from Lagos to Abuja.
Criticisms of the government's proposal have also surfaced, some of which allege that the opportunity for the private sector to invest in the project was never advertised, and that it was filled with many potential drawbacks. For instance, according to these, there was no input from any of the multitude of the nation's art, music or cultural associations, which are supposed to be the owners of the edifice. Secondly, there seem to be some problems with drainage system in the National Theatre and in the larger environment, and needs to be taken into consideration. The government should make the original master plan available to experts to study and make sure the implementation is necessary at this time.
The current conduct of government official in giving instructions for occupants of various buildings around the main arena to vacate because construction would start 'in the nearest future' is premature without this experts' advice, and in the absence of what the government's real aims are. According to some of the government officials, an Inter-ministerial committee, which included officials from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and National Orientation Agency, Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, Ministry of Works, Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Commission, Surveyor General of the Federation, and the Lagos State Government, developed the proposal that sought a Public Private Partnership arrangement to implement, which the president has apparently approved.
Whatever the government's ultimate aim, officials must be watchful in order not be hoodwinked into selling off the complex, whole or in bits, in underhand deals. Creating an environment conducive for arts to flourish, which should by the way be government's priority, is different from commercializing the facility or selling it to private individuals. In the final analysis therefore, the government has not adequately addressed fears that its actual intention is to turn the National Theatre into the events venue of a proposed "National Hotel".