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Feyi Fawehinmi: Vanguard is wrong – President Jonathan’s plan for National Theatre makes sense

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Feyi Fawehinmi: Vanguard is wrong – President Jonathan’s plan for National Theatre makes sense

by Feyi Fawehinmi

The Vanguard Newspapers has an editorial, chock full of brio and righteous indignation, about the government’s (admittedly still vague) plans to sell or concession or privatize the National Theatre in Surulere.

The editorial rehashes the usual arguments about the (unspecified) evils of privatization and unwittingly makes a case for the continuation of the status quo that has led to the current sad state that the theatre is in. Editorials like these help to buttress the widely held view that Nigerian newspapers have no idea what their role in society is and they assume that their readers couldn’t possibly know better.

But I’d rather focus on the most egregious paragraph in the mess

Will anyone contemplate selling London’s Hyde Park that has been open to the public since 1637 or the Royal Festival Hall?  The eight public parks in London cost the government about £30 million (about N7.5 billion) to maintain in 2012 though they generated £18 million (about N4.5 billion) income. Can Americans think of selling the 213-year-old Library of Congress though it cost will $750 million (N166.25 billion) this year to maintain its collections and 4,000 staff?  Will Wembley (the arena or the stadium) be up for sale to become a hotel? What these governments have done is find ways of maintaining their heritages without desecrating them. We seem to have no qualms in our own cases

This is a bizarre argument to make. Hyde Park is a park (the clue is in the name) and it makes no sense to compare that to the National Theatre. Wembley Stadium is owned (nominally) by The Football Association and there is a reason why it costs so much to watch a match or attend an event there. The ‘government’ ownership is an illusion as it is run like a privately owned stadium. Looking at the latest set of accounts for The FA from 2010 (page 37); you can see that the stadium generated £92.3m but still made a loss of £12m for the year. Why? A £23m charge for interest payments relating to the loan that was taken to build the stadium. But since the company that runs the stadium, Wembley National Stadium Limited is part of the group, you can see on the same page that the group overall still made a profit of £15m for the year, in other words, the losses are being subsidized  not by the government, but the money spinning FA. How exactly does this arrangement support the Vanguard’s argument?

How about the Royal Festival Hall? Again, thankfully, the accounts arepublic and it discloses that in 2012, the RFH had income of £42m (page 12). Of this amount, £19m came from the Arts Council (the Arts Council itself is part funded by the government with around 35% of its funding coming from the lottery and investments. See page 57 here ) while the rest of its funding comes from events and other sources like charitable donations. The point to be made about these examples is that they are not ‘government run’ in the way that we understand the term in Nigeria. The amount of disclosure that is available on the internet about their activities is a useful hint to this.

The irony is that the Vanguard is happy to quote figures relating to all these bodies in other countries but it didn’t bother to quote any numbers relating to the National Theatre. Well, let us help them

For ease I have done a quick chart with the budget allocations for the last 4 years I could find on the internet. Note that these are the allocations to the National Theatre via the Ministry of Culture.

National Theatre Chart

What is immediately obvious from these numbers is that, it is not that the government is refusing to fund the National Theatre. Over the last 4 years, those numbers add up to almost N3bn (around £11m). The problem here is that the money is captured by those who have positioned themselves in the money’s path on its way to the actual theatre.

This is what you are defending when you say the government should continue to fund the theatre or increase it’s funding – you are simply calling for a transfer of wealth to a few lucky people. This is the real cost of keeping it in government hands.

Last week, it was widely reported in the papers that the government had come up with some plan to add a hotel and mall to the adjoining area of the theatre. Depressingly, this has been met with the usual howls of ‘preserving our heritage’, as if the current state of the theatre is something to be proud of. The place continues to decay as money is being poured into it, yet there are loud cries whenever any kind of change is proposed.

The question to ask is – who is going to die if the theatre is privatized or concessioned? Is this really such a strange thing to do? In using examples from the UK in its editorial, The Vanguard missed out a glaring one – The O2 Arena formerly known as the Millennium Dome.

The Dome was initially conceived during the government of Prime Minister John Major in 1994. Afterwards, Tony Blair’s government expanded the size and scope in 1997 and eventually and eventually it was opened on 31st December 1999. As soon as it opened however, it soon became clear that the project was fast turning into a white elephant as visitor numbers were well below what had been planned not to talk of the cost of maintaining the place.

By 2002, the company which was set up by the government to fund the Dome’s construction was liquidated with a final bill of £790m and the Dome was closed down. Even while closed, it was costing the government £1m per month in maintenance.

Fast forward to 2005 and the Dome had been sold to the billionaire Phillip Anschutz of the eponymous Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) who then spent a further £600m completely changing the design (pretty much only the shell was kept the same) before finally opening it to the public in 2007.

Most Nigerians visit The O2 Arena when they visit London but what is even more interesting is that the Arena is nominally a concert venue yet a very large number of people go there without attending a concert. I have been there more times to hang out with friends or for a meal than to actually attend a concert. And this is very important – the idea of some kind of grandiose theatre that only draws a core of visitors is by no means sustainable. This is why the idea of a hotel or a mall on the premises makes very good sense. You need those people to effectively subsidize the whole operation but they have to come first.

You don’t even have to come to London to see a similar working model. Just up the road is the MUSON Centre. Surely there are far more people in Lagos who have attended a wedding or party at MUSON than have attended a stage play or musical recital there? Yet without these weddings and parties, does any reasonable person think the venue would still be financially solvent now?

The O2 Arena is surrounded by restaurants, bars, a cinema and other shops. It cannot rely on Beyonce concerts alone to keep the place going. There has to be the ‘daily bread’ aspect to its existence. And it’s just not about money even – the place has to have life and character and you need people to keep coming for that to happen.

The National Theatre was built to host events and stage plays. But there are simply not enough of these to capture the public’s imagination leading to it being turned into a wedding venue. But even this has been turned into a mess because there is no incentive to run it like a proper going concern as this will mean the loss of government funding…and of course the vested interests don’t want that do they?

The last time the government tried to privatize the theatre in 2001 there was so much outrage and defence of the status quo, depressingly led by Professor Wole Soyinka which forced the government to eventually abandon the idea. 12 years on, can anyone say the place has improved after billions have been poured into it?

Privatizing the theatre doesn’t mean that it becomes a private space where no one will be allowed to enter. If anything, the incentives to draw people into the place become far greater under private ownership.

What the debate should be about now is ensuring that whoever takes over the place produces a workable plan – with the numbers adding up – that ensures the theatre is kept open and increases the number of visitors to the place.

But the idea of jumping up to oppose privatization everytime it is mentioned belongs to another era. The government cannot do anything other than sink money into the theatre with nothing to show for it.

The government is right on this one. Sell the theatre. The heavens will not fall.

Feyi is an accountant in London with several unreconciled balances to deal with on any given Tuesday. He takes his job of commenting on any policy issue in Nigeria from the safety of faraway London very seriously. Everything he knows about economics, he learnt from reading reviews of textbooks on Amazon. Twitter: @DoubleEph

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