In February, Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council approved a proposal to renovate the National Theatre in Lagos for 21 billion naira.
The uniquely shaped structure and its lush green surroundings became fixtures in photos showcasing parts of Nigeria. The theatre dates back to 1976 and features historical sculptures, murals, and conference rooms. The funding for much-needed renovations renewed attention to Nigeria’s abandoned arts and culture sector. The oil-focused economy, coupled with social and security challenges, have left the industry mostly forgotten.
Come to Nigeria, if you like a bit of edge with your natural beauty,Afua Hirsch
Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, lauded the approval. “It will be a turning point in the creative industry in the sense that we are going to have a brand new National Theater, an event center that will help in creating more jobs,” he noted.
Nigeria boasts a diverse population with multiple tribes cutting across each region. According to German researcher Erkan Goren, Nigeria is the third most ethnically diverse nation with more than 250 ethnic groups and over 500 languages.
This rich cultural diversity naturally presents Nigeria with an untapped tourism market. Afua Hirsch, a travel blogger with a significant social media following, described the country as an exciting destination: “Come to Nigeria, if you like a bit of edge with your natural beauty,” she noted.
But tourism revenue has dipped in recent years. According to CEIC Data, the numbers dropped from $2.6 million in 2017 to about $1.4 million in 2019. The declining arrivals come amid several challenges within the sector:
• Oil-dependence: Nigeria built its global financial gianthood from its crude oil sales, but the sole dependency has cost the economy its diversity. Other sectors have seen minimal financial allocation and efforts to innovate and update them in recent times. The history of negligence made the National Theatre renovation a welcome measure.
• Urbanization: As more Nigerian cities become financial and business hubs with more efficient systems in place, the traditional art appreciation methods have also faded. The Arts and Craft village in Abuja, for instance, has retained its small, carved-out location in the Central Business District for years without any upgrade to its layout or services.
• Cultural Perceptions: Nigeriansfocus on acquiring multiple degrees and taking up stereotypical jobs, including medicine, law, and engineering, have left the arts sector to suffer. The lineage of people who perform traditional dances at functions and pass on cultural pride stories is fading. Many parents are still unwilling to finance their children’s art education at a higher level and only encourage them to pursue it as a side hobby.
• Insecurity: Unrest across parts of Nigeria has also limited the natural sites tourists can enjoy. Plateau state once drew visitors to its Shere Hills and Kurra Falls. In Sokoto, tourists visited the tomb of Usman Dan Fodio and the Waziri Junaidu History and Culture Museum. But insurgents, kidnappers, and other armed attacks have made many roads unsafe and attacked communities in several states.
Despite the delayed official backing within the sector, urbanization has also brought more foreign players into Nigeria. Many have brought along their love of arts and encouraged private businesses within the industry.
The Thought Pyramid Art Center in Wuse continues to draw art enthusiasts to its gallery. It also hosts special events, including fashion shows and renowned guest speakers from the sector. The Nike Art Gallery in Abuja and Lagos have also continued to enthral visitors with their ‘back-in- time’ vibe, including traditional African outfits, mud huts, and artworks. In Maitama, Abuja, Cube Cafe has also mixed the modern coffeehouse experience with art displays hanging across its walls. The location also hosts book fairs, exhibitions, and special themed events for music and spoken word.
The government can also foster interest and investment in the sector through the following efforts:
•Tourism re-prioritization: As much as Afua Hirsch hailed her experience in Nigeria, she also narrated how her flight lacked sufficient fuel, her delayed transport, and the general sense of insecurity. Nigeria’s tourism ministry can work better to sync up services that cater to tourists, from collating hotel options and proper maintenance of tourist sites to innovative options to offer tourists some security measures.
• Redistribution of Wealth: The National Theatre renovation should serve as a starting point for investing in the arts. Official art centres such as the Cyprian Ekwensi Center for Arts and Culture in Abuja can do more to offer art training and workshops, fellowships, and partnerships with other nations to boost the sector’s global image.
• Stronger Art Education: Schools and other institutions could benefit from better arts funding. The attraction and push will be stronger if the nation steps up efforts to support the sector.
Nigeria already has a rich cultural history, and examples of Nigerian who have broken the mould stood out globally. We would benefit from learning more about their stories and teaching them to our children as inspiration:
• Ben Enwonwu’s painting of the Ife princess Tutu called “Africa’s Mona Lisa” sold at $1.6 million.
• Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sold millions of copies of her books, including “Americanah,” and continues to speak at global events. The book will be adapted into a movie.
• Professor Wole Soyinka was the first Black African to win a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1986. The Nobel Committee commended his “wide cultural perspective with poetic overtones that fashions the drama of existence.”
• Nigerian artiste Fela Anikulapo Kuti took Afro-beats’ to a global stage through his music.
• Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” became a best-seller that sold more than 20 million copies.