Concession is the way to go for National Arts Theatre

By Abdullahi Dambe 

More facts seem to be emerging concerning the recent controversy over the National Arts Theatre, Lagos. My findings reveal that while it is true that the CBN is championing a policy to support the creative industries via its Creative Industries Financing Scheme, and in furtherance of that, is working with the Bankers Committee to explore the development of creative hubs and zones in various parts of the country.

However, unbeknown to the CBN Governor, there is an on-going transaction for the concession of the National Arts Theatre and its surrounding land mass which is being conducted by the presidency via the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Council (ICRC), which is at the point of closure and just awaiting the final nod from Federal Executive Council. The World Bank facilitated the BPE transaction and even gave a grant to one of the consortia members which has a globally recognised expertise in the development of the creative industries. The World Bank has also worked extensively with the ICRC to refine their transaction processes and even establish an online PPP portal to inspire confidence in local and foreign investors.  All these resources have been brought to bear in shaping the consortia’s bid and to set it up for success.                      

 The lack of this kind of rigour and absence of the prerequisite technical expertise has been the bane of many well-intentioned public sector initiatives and explains the many moribund white elephant, dead-on-arrival projects that have become a blight on the nation’s landscape. Interestingly, the Master Plan developed by the consortia behind this concession, has the creative and digital industries as the catalyst for the sustainability of what is bound to become the tourism gateway into West Africa. A major part of the landuse for the project is the 55 acre Creative Industries Business Park which will be home to film and music studios with sound stages, and which is being developed in partnership with some of the most successful players in this sector globally.         

The consortia have been working on their plans for quite some time and already have the buy-in and interest of power brokers and several of the leading names of these industries both internationally and locally.                           

One of the issues that have dogged the Nigerian government over the years seems to be the lack of clearly defined roles for government agencies, and a tendency for lines to be blurred. The National Arts Theatre transaction has been a victim of this ambiguity in the respective roles of BPE and ICRC, which resulted in two parallel processes being conducted for the same transaction. This explains why the transaction has dragged on for this long and is not due to any fault of the concessionaries. With kudos to the presidency for brokering a resolution of all parties, which saw the concessionaries signing an MOU to work together as Master Developers for the project, the terms of which have now been endorsed by both BPE and ICRC.  It’s my belief that the collective wealth of resources that both the BPE and ICRC have deployed to see this transaction through and the coalition of local and international partners the concessionaries have mobilised is unparalleled.

There is a tendency for those at the helm of government agencies to want to seize every opportunity as a platform to turn the klieg lights on themselves, and to promote themselves and their agendas at the expense of the common good and the interest of the government they claim to be serving.     

The unintended result is to embarrass the government in the eyes of the international community and portray the country as disorganised, and with no regard for the rule of law and due process, drives away foreign direct investment and leads to a perception that countries like Ghana, Kenya and even little Rwanda are more organised, more investor-friendly and open for business.                    

 How else can one explain an inspection of the National Arts Theatre by the Governor of CBN and Chairman of the Bankers Committee for which the Ministry of Culture was unaware and neither the Minister, the MDAs behind concession nor Chairman of the National Arts Theatre Board was there to host the delegation and show them around? This suggests they were “trespassing” and sends wrong signals.

As CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele said in a recent interview on ARISE TV – “Government has no business being in business. The policies of the CBN are focused on job creation and supporting economic growth. It is understandable given the scale of the problems confronting Nigeria, with sky rocketing youth unemployment, unsatisfactory loan-to-deposit ratios by the banks, smuggling and the unsatisfactory state of our infrastructure for the CBN governor to feel concerned and to feel the burden as he said in his interview that like President Buhari, he has been placed in the position of CBN Governor by God to serve his people and put in place policies designed to enhance the lives of his people.

There is, however, a danger when the CBN Governor moves beyond policy and begins to take on the role of the lender of first resort. The Anchor Borrowers Scheme for the agriculture sector has come under criticism by some of the very farmers it is designed to support who have found it hard to access. Earlier funds for the creative industries such as the Nollyfund were announced with the same kind of fanfare and at the end of the day, were given on terms that were almost impossible to access except for a small group of creative entrepreneurs. The fuel subsidy, multiple exchange rates and the abuses these have been subject to,  should serve as a warning to the CBN that as well-intentioned as they maybe, the way to transform an economy  is not to make incursion into sectors, without sufficient understanding of how the sector works and that are primarily beyond your mandate. But as Mr Emefiele himself has said, to play a supporting role to private sector initiatives, especially when, as is the case with the National Arts Theatre, the private sector, with the stewardship of the BPE, ICRC, the National Council of Privatisation and the Ministry of Culture, has succeeded in bringing on board a wide spectrum of private sector players and multilateral institutions,  who understand the benefits of a cohesive, comprehensive and complementary Master Plan which will ensure the sustainability and viability of this important project. Rather than for government agencies to be working at cross purposes, the National Arts Theatre concession offers an important opportunity to deliver a successful PPP initiative where all the relevant arms of government will chip in their bit and work alongside the concessionaries who are the drivers of the project, to ensure the delivery of a world class project for the benefit of the country at large.     

Abdullahi Dambe is an Art aficionado who writes from Lagos…

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