One year after artists’ village’s demolition, ruins remain fresh, hearts still bleed

The saying that “you cannot flog a child and deny that child the right to cry out” captures the agony being experienced by the residents of the Artists’ Village, National Theatre, Lagos, whose means of livelihood and products of long years of artistic and cultural expressions were demolished over one year ago.

The summary of the narrative of the demolition, which had been adequately archived, goes thus: In the early hours of Saturday, January 23, 2016, caterpillar (under the instruction of the then General Manager of the National Theatre, Mallam Kabiru Yusuf Yar’Adua) invaded the Artists’ Village, which belongs to the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), and demolished arts and dance studios, galleries and restaurants servicing the community. And because the occupants, the resident arts practitioners legally authorised by the NCAC, were caught unaware, the demolition was carried out without allowing the artistes and business owners the opportunity to salvage artworks and belongings, hence, it caused extensive damage to property and valuables.

One of the artists, Mr. Smart Ovwie, a sculptor who arrived the scene later and saw the destruction of his properties, staged an unsuccessful resistance; he wasn’t only overpowered by the policemen hired to monitor the exercise, the bullets from the shots fired by the police got Mr. Ovwie in the leg.

Later that day, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed came to the scene, addressed and reassured the Resident Artists of the NCAC Artists’ Village. He promised that the injured would get support for their treatment in hospital and that those who are legitimate residents would be duly compensated for damage done to their structures. The minister confirmed that he asked the head of the National Theatre to demolish shanties at the back of the Artists’ Village along the canal that had been a route for miscreants and not Arts Studios and structures in the NCAC Artists’ Village.

In line with his desire that all avenues for peaceful reconciliation and amicable resolutions in addressing the demolition issue are explored, the minister, on April 6, 2016, wrote a letter to the residents of the village, through Mr. Tope Babayemi, who happened to be the Arts Manager and Coordinator of the village, detailing proposals on how the ministry had resolved to handle the matter.

“Financial support to the tune of twenty million Naira (N20,000,000.00) to artists, who were in legal occupation and have suffered loss as a result of the demolition. The erection of a temporary structure for the artists to work or an alternative place provided within the National Theatre complex as an interim measure. In the long term, the construction of a new and befitting Artists’ Village, which will be in line with global best practices.

“The Ministry is to further support Nigerian artists by mobilising the private sector, lovers of art and NGOs to help raise funds for the promotion of artistic expression. To this end, a committee will be set up with representatives of the artists’ community actively involved in the fundraising drive.

“The Ministry would also like to explore avenues to facilitate artists having insurance cover for their creative works. Additionally, in an effort to continually look for all avenues for peace and reconciliation, I will appoint two liaison persons from the Ministry and the Ministry’s Agencies to maintain dialogue with your good self (Tope Babayemi) and artists and report back to me personally.”

However, over one year after the demolition and nine months after the expression of the lofty goals, they remain on paper. In a brief telephone conversation, the Special Assistant to the Minister, Mr. Segun Adeyemi, reassured that all the promises would be redeemed. The compensation of N20,000,000, he said, has been appropriated in the 2017 budget and as soon as the budget is approved and money released to the Ministry, the payment would be effected.

On the construction of a new and befitting Artists’ Village, Adeyemi disclosed that talks with a reputable developer have reached advanced stage and work would commence as soon as an agreement is brokered.

Meanwhile, on Monday, January 23, 2017, one of the affected artists displayed some fine pre-demolition pictures of the village on Facebook page with the following statement: “This is the pristine environment of the NCAC Artists’ Village which a former CEO of the National Theatre, described as a shanty and hiding under the instructions of the Minister for Information and Culture to demolish illegal structures around the National Theatre, illegally invaded a year ago (January 23, 2016), causing great damage and untold pain and hardship to law-abiding Nigerian citizens in the creative sector.

“Today, one whole year after, we are still waiting for the Minister to fulfill his pledge to compensate affected Artists and rebuild the Village, which serves as creative incubator and a lifeline to unemployed youth that benefit from opportunities created by the Artists’ Village. You cannot flog a child and deny that child the right to cry out. We will keep crying out until those responsible for our pain hear our cry!”

JOLTEDE by the statement, The Guardian launched an investigation into the perceived breakdown in communication between the Minister and the affected residents of the village, which seemed to have been responsible for the lack of translation of the Ministry’s proposals into reality. Mr. Babayemi offered some explanation.

“The Minister had asked us to communicate with him and his office through his SA, Segun Adeyemi, after the demolition. This we did although there was no real traction nor results to the communication.

“In August 2016, some newspapers published stories on the fact that the Minister had not redeemed his promise of compensation and rebuilding. Shortly after the publications, the minister asked us to meet him on August 22, 2016 at the National Theatre. At the meeting, Mohammed, imagining that we solicited the involvement of the media, opened the discussions by expressing his displeasure at the recent newspaper publications.

“We, on our part, complained bitterly about poor communication with the Minister and the lack of progress with our discussions with his SA. The minister promised to improve communication from his end and reiterated his commitment to fulfill his promise, stating that on his return from the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, he would ask the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry to expedite action on the payment of compensation and to push to actively support our practice by engaging the Artists’ Village community in forthcoming projects.

“We left that meeting hopeful. Since then, nothing. Communication stopped, when it appeared that all we were getting were reasons why we were not getting attention. We simply got tired of stories of the Minister’s itinerary and engagements, which had no relevance to what was hurting us. I stopped calling HMIC’s SA, when it became obvious that there was no more substance to our communication and I didn’t want to further strain my personal relationship with the SA, who, by all appearance, seems to be a nice person. Now, with the renewed interest of the responsive media, I imagine we are going to be accused again of courting the media to our advantage but that doesn’t matter anymore. You cannot flog an innocent child and deny him the right to cry out.”

He painted the agony in the last one year, “The affected Artists and the Community have gone through untold pain and discomfort in the last one year, destabilising small-scale enterprises and having a negative knock-on effect on young families. Isioma Williams and his Company, Gongbeat, have been working out of other people’s spaces in the Artists Village; Guobadia, the visual artists has been working from a makeshift shed in the sun and rain for one year. Smart Ovwie, the sculptor that was shot in the leg, has been working from home in Ikorodu and out of the hub for a year now. So much for all the noise and hot air about government nurturing creative entrepreneurship in Nigeria!

“In the meantime, the nearby premises of the Film Corporation and the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), which had been abandoned when those organisations fled to new offices on the Island at the height of Kabiru Yusuf Yar’ Adua’s fiefdom and Edem Duke’s attempt to turn the National Theatre to a duty-free Shopping Mall, and which would have been the appropriate location to temporarily house the affected artists, have now been taken over.

“Some of the security personnel of the Chinese Construction Company CCECC stay on the old premises of the Film Corporation while CBAAC security men are now letting out space in the old premises to recalcitrant artists, some of whom were ejected from the Artists’ Village as undesirable elements. When challenged by the Police Command at the National Theatre, CBAAC security told them they had the authority of their Director-General. I know this is unlikely but our hands are already full with challenges at the Artists’ Village so we are just watching to see how the situation develops. The unwieldiness and confusion boggles the mind and makes one wonder who really is driving policy at the Ministry.”

FOR the hitherto cordial relationship to be restored, Babayemi would want the Minister to act quickly to restore the confidence of the residents of the Artists’ Village in his ability to right the wrong and injustice that had been done by government officials under the watch of his predecessor.

“I have done all I can as a professional Arts Manager, as Coordinator of the Artists’ Village and as an active participant in the struggle that brought this administration to power, to prevail on our members to continue to explore the option of dialogue and peace but I have also reached my tether’s end at great cost to my means and reputation. The ball now is really in the Minister’s court.

“When the illegal demolition was carried out, I not only made it clear in all public statements that the minister was not responsible for the illegality but went ahead to commend the responsiveness of the minister and his ‘hands on’ approach to dealing with the matter. It is apparent that the minister has settled into office and some of the people he has inherited are bent on undoing his efforts.

“He must be careful because some of those people are only interested in feathering their own nests. For example, one of the government officials, who accompanied Kabiru Yusuf Yar’ Ardua to the demolition on January 23, 2016 had offices at the Artists’ Village until he was kicked out by the National Council for Arts and Culture for non-payment of service charges some years ago. He was here with us doing his private practice (PP) while still in pensionable employment with government. This fellow is still in service, being promoted and paying lip-service to the nice-sounding words of development in the arts. We know, and the minister should be wary of advice from such characters.”

Babayemi reiterated the point that arts practitioners at the demolished village “are assets to the minister’s agenda to leave the culture sector better than he met it. As such, he should ensure that his people deal with us with a degree of professional respect. After all, many of those who work to administer culture in Nigeria would not survive a week of what we unsalaried professionals endure and continue to endure.

“Apart from accommodating professional artists in all forms and media, the Artists’ Village also comprises guilds and associations such as the Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners (ANTP), Indigenous Movie Makers Association of Nigeria (IMMAN), Actors’ Guild of Nigeria (AGN), the Guild of Nigerian Dancers (GOND) and the Guild of Nigerian Fine Artists (GFA). We are not interested in paternalistic benevolence from government. What we need is recognition of our work and worth and professional engagement with an administration that keeps professing an intention to develop the creative economy in Nigeria.”

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