9 November 2017

Nigeria: Budget 2018 - Living On Borrowed Time

opinion

While experts are still dissecting the 2018 appropriation bill presented to the National Assembly by President Buhari on Tuesday and what it means in concrete terms for the average Nigerians, even laymen like me can see that when you combine the amount earmarked for debt servicing with the allocations for recurrent expenditure and then subtract that figure from the total, not much money will be left for capital projects if the budget were based only on our revenue earnings not padded by any borrowing.

What that therefore suggests very clearly is that we are still trying to dig ourselves out of the big hole we have put ourselves as a result of several years of irresponsible living. What is even more worrisome is that the Fiscal Sustainability Index of the states, as released by Seun Onigbinde's BudgIT, presents a distressing picture: Only Lagos, Rivers, Kano and Katsina, in that order, can meet salary obligation to their workers without resorting to borrowing. The situation of some Niger Delta States is particularly pathetic despite the hundreds of billions of Naira that have accrued to them from the federation account in recent years.

Meanwhile, given that the dire economic situation has pushed the nation in the direction of an aggressive tax drive, which is where we ought to have started in the first place, the authorities should also be aware that such monies are meant to fund critical infrastructure and social services, not pay for the indulgence of public servants who store ill-gotten wealth in some 'paradise' havens even as they continue to live large at the expense of poor citizens.

While this is a conversation we must have someday, it is important that we come to terms with the reality that the fundamentals of our economy remain very suspect. And to successfully deal with the problem, we must also begin to fix the politics.

What Tokini Peterside Teaches

On Tuesday, as 'Celebrity Constellation' cruised on the Mediterranean Sea, following a three-day stop at the Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod, I decided to explore the ship, by walking the length and breadth of the 12 decks. Although the exercise took me more than an hour to accomplish, I made an important discovery in the process.

Placed strategically on the wall of the rooftop terrace (which has big and small swimming pools, basketball and tennis courts as well as other sporting facilities) were framed black and white photographs of women hairstyles that looked uniquely Nigerian. Out of curiousity, I moved closer to read the inscription on the name tag that was also pasted on the wall beside each of the frames, and then the find: 'D. J. 'Okhai Ojeikere, B. 1930. Nigeria.'

The first thing I did on getting to my room was a Google search which came up with several writings about the photographer whose works were "included in the arsenale section of the 55th Venice Biennale d'arte, 'Il Palazzo Enciclopedia' curated by Massimiliano Gioni in 2013". More revealing was that this man, described by Giulia Paoletti as "one of the greatest African photographers of the twentieth century", died in February 2014 in Lagos at the age of 83 and I never heard about him before.

While I accept my failings that it would take a foreign ship to learn about such a distinguished Nigerian professional on whom foreign journalists did fascinating reports, that omission is also a reflection of how our society treats artists. For instance, the works of Ojeikere which adorn the cruise ship must have been purchased from some foreign arts promoters who would have made a kill from what probably fetched the late photographer no more than pittance. Beyond that, the fact that we place little premiums on artists and their works accounts for why our prime artifacts are outside the country, many of them given away cheaply by those who could not appreciate the priceless possessions that are part of our heritage as a people.

Given the foregoing, we must commend the vision of Ms Tokini Peterside who has decided not only to give Nigerian artists a platform to shine but also to put our country on the global arts map. This is all the more remarkable, coming at a period several of our young men and women are going into visual arts with all the frustrations that can come with such endeavour in a society where artists are underappreciated.

Explaining what fired her interest in arts promotion with the launch in 2016 of ART X Lagos--the second edition of which held last week in Lagos--Tokini said in a recent interview that it all started when she visited Venice Biennale, the world's largest and biggest art exhibition in 2015. "That experience, for me, resonated in a number of ways. It was very exciting to see African artists positioned on the world biggest stage in such an even way. It also stressed for me that at home we needed to develop more platforms that could similarly bring the world to see the potential of the art sector in Nigeria."

Following series of conversations with artists, comprising mostly members of her generation who were finding fulfilment in their crafts abroad, Tokini came to the conclusion that something needed to be done so that those who choose to stay home can also be rewarded for their talents and creativity. This was the way she put it: "Majority of them were no longer living in Lagos and some of them living in Lagos were looking for ways to leave the country. I thought these artists needed to be present in Nigeria. How do we stop our country's brightest stars from leaving? How do we ensure that many more of them can stay in Nigeria, thrive in Nigeria, sell their works to Nigerians and also to the international market? I then decided to think about what type of platform could do that".

For sure, Nigeria can be very depressing when you reflect on so many things. But when I think about our country these days, I feel optimistic about the future because I look beyond the nonsense in Abuja and many of the states where governance is now synonymous with erecting silly statues to the creative energies being unleashed by our young men and women in several sectors. These enterprising Nigerians in their 20s, 30s and 40s are daily taking up available spaces to deploy their resourcefulness. Hopefully, very soon, these young Nigerians will also seize the political space from the carpetbaggers who have for years held our nation down and denied the people the prosperity that is possible.

That, for me, is the meaning of what Tokini in doing with ART X Lagos though it helps that she also comes from a family with considerable means. That is an advantage in two respects. One, in the short-run when she may have to invest a lot of resources, she won't be lacking in such support and two, she can also use her father's wide connections to draw the right crowd, as she did last week. Ultimately, as a niche player, Tokini will make good money but the true value of her endeavour is that she is going to empower many of our artists while enriching Nigerian history in the process.

I know that when we talk about cultural heritage, what immediately comes to the minds of most people are historical monuments and objects but what is often ignored is that culture includes intellectual endeavours and human creativity. And since heritage implies a connection between the past and future and an expression of a way of living that is passed from one generation to another, it stands to reason that works of arts are critical in building an inclusive society.

What Tokini therefore teaches us is that we can harness the power of arts to create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life for many of our young professionals. Beyond that, she also reminds us that if there is anything the great civilisations and cultures that we read about in the history books have in common, it is the success of their arts. I can bear testimony to that. In all the places we have visited on this voyage, either in Greece or Israel, we were regaled with stories of past societies through graven images, paintings and other artifacts.

That precisely was the point British arts administrator and journalist, John Tusa was making in his 2010 intervention, "The arts matter" where he wrote that "because they are universal; because they are non-material; because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world ... A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future."

Indeed, there can be no greater appreciation of what Tokini is doing than the publication placed in each of our rooms on the ship titled "Art Auctions on Board" by Park West, the world's leading dealer of fine artwork that was founded in 1969 and "has brought fine art to more than 1.4 million collectors around the world". Not one of the 39 artists drawn from all over the world profiled in the publication is a black person or an African. What that says most eloquently is that we need local promoters for our extremely talented artists to command global attention and that is the vacuum Tokini is trying to fill.

It is unfortunate that we live in a society that still does not appreciate our artists. I recall that on 15th June 2013, I was in Ogidi community in Kogi State as keynote speaker on 'Ogidi Day'. On that occasion, there was no doubt as to who was the star attraction: Chief Mrs Nike Okundaye, an acclaimed artist who has not only been promoting Nigeria batik and fabric designs but our culture. The simple woman who by her own admission had no formal education (yet has taught at Harvard University) drew several foreign diplomats to her community through the power of arts.

While I do not know how much financial reward the late Johnson Donatus Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere in whose hands, according to Paoletti, "photography became a means to record the transient creativity that articulated Nigerian social and cultural life" got for his talent while he was alive, a line credited to him in the obituary by the BBC is very telling: "The (Nigerian) state has never really cared about the arts here and, although we have many people who are very rich, we also lack good private institutions for the promotions of the arts."

That is the sort of story Tokini Peterside intends to rewrite with ART X Lagos and she deserves not only commendation but institutional support for her enterprise.

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