If you go to Europe and Russia, for example, you see houses that project their unique cultural architecture. In Nigeria, it appears we are still building houses that do not project our culture. Is there any way Nigerians can be made to start building houses that are truly Nigerian?
Yes. Architectural designs, yes. It is very possible. In the sense that if you go up north, if you go to a Tiv man’s house, you will know that this is a Tiv man’s house. Boys call it Channel O. I learnt that when I was going to Taraba and saw those houses and they said, this is Chanel O. I said which one is Channel O? They said ‘they are houses’ and once again, I laughed. One thing you realise is when you enter those houses you don’t need an air conditioner; they are very cool. It it is very possible for us to have our own architecture. I want to believe that building materials contribute to the natural cooling. The walls are mostly made of mud which absorbs heat. You know, in those days, as a young village boy growing up, we were used to the water pot. The water in the water pot is iced. You don’t need a fridge. Our parents did not need refrigerators. Once you have clean water in a clay pot, it stays over night; the top of the pot will even be sweating. All these technologies, we have them here. When you take water from the water pot in the afternoon and drink it, it’s cool water. So we have things that we can promote. It’s just that our thinking is that anything cultural is not good enough. Actually, I enjoy eating my soup in a clay pot. I am happy there are some African kitchens that are serving food in that manner. Just try it, you will enjoy it. I want to say that it is possible for us to have our indigenous architecture. We have the materials to build such structures that have a Nigerian touch. I remember the first time I went to Johannesburg I saw that everybody built in the same pattern. The roofing sheet was just orange-like in colour. Of course, when you look at the roofs, there is beauty and uniformity. But here in Nigeria, anything goes. Somebody will come with a blue roof, another with a chocolate colour, and the next one with a red, black or wine coloured roof. It is high time we got thinking so that we can come out with structures that people will identify with us here in Nigeria.
Clearly, you have a very expansive mandate and quite challenging too. Culture, as they say, is a way of life. One critical factor in the realization of your mandate is funding. How are you coping? Do you have government support or perhaps, as they say, is it from some foreign aid?
For now, no, we don’t generate any appreciable funding but we are looking seriously at the area of partnership. That informed our redesigning and media workshop for arts writers. Remember, we started on a small scale, but I reasoned that there was the need for us to think outside the box. And we are happy the FCT saw our vision and went along with us; then Gombe state government came in. For now, we are waiting on Akwa- Ibom state government to confirm a date for us. Kwara state governor has agreed, in principle, to the hosting of our programme. So these are our ways of handling the programmes and making the necessary impact without totally funding. If we can do this with all the state governments, it means that we would be promoting the sector. Nigerians will get to know what is happening in such states culturally. The cultural sector has always faced the challenge of funding because government does not believe that money should be spent on the sector, which I think it is unfortunate because if we have to generate revenue from the sector, we will have to look in the area of funding. I will give you the example of Cross River state. With the inauguration of the Christmas Carnival, you know very that from October to December, if you don’t book your accommodation early enough, you will never get a place to stay. And of course, as these visitors are streaming in, what do you expect? They are going to ride in your taxis or okadas or Keke NAPEPs. So those people will be living fine for those days. They are going to your beer joints to drink if it is kunu or zobo even. If it is food, they are going to be buying and of course, if you have artefacts, dresses that are indigenous to you, they will buy. Because they will want to go back to their countries and say, ‘I went to Calabar and this is what I brought from there’. No, we do that when we go out. You go to Ghana and by the time you come back; you want to show that this is what you brought from there. We were in Indonesia and I bought a shirt because Indonesia is the home of batik. And they used the batik in different styles, even to sew suits. As waiters in the hotel, they had on, batik shirts and a George wrapper and they are very happy wearing their own indigenous clothing. For us to look at this sector there is the need for us to attach some level of commitment to serving the country. There are several ventures we are going into but if we look the way of culture, we will solve some of these problems. Because, one thing I know of a truth is that even in our traditional society, during festivals, animosities are set aside. You may have problem with somebody, you may not be greeting but most times, it is during communal festivals that you shake that person and that quarrel is forgotten so we have to know that such festivals are tools for national development. They are tools for social cohesion and social integration. And this is culture, culture is the vehicle that drives tourism and tourism is marketing of culture, so if you don’t have things for people to see, then, there is nothing for people to come to see. If you don’t have places for people to see, then we are not talking about tourism. For us to talk about tourism, we should ask ourselves, what are we selling? What do we want to show to the outside world? So that people, when they come, they will know that they have come to see something. Okay, now, we have Argungu Fishing Festival, we have Nwonyo Fishing Festival, we have Osun Oshogbo, there are very many festivals across the country that we can package. If we can help the various state governments to realise that if we package these things very well, once these festivals are taking place, the so-called militants including Boko Haram will forget about these things because they want to be involved, they want to celebrate. So culture is the key but until government realises that money could be made from culture, then we will be treating the sector with levity and it is very unfortunate. And that has really hampered our performance. We don’t expect to generate money for doing things. We are like providing social service to change the mindset of people. Let them realise that as Nigerians, originally, we always tell people, originally, in those days, our fathers left their doors open. If the door had a covering, it could be a mat and any money the man had could be under the pillow. And it was safe. We were never afraid of armed robbers or even thieves though occasionally, people would want to go through the rag tag to come and steal fish or whatever, but not robbery. But what is happening? Our fathers, you travel to Lagos by boat, they used to call the boat creek mail, that could take you two weeks to get to Lagos and maybe after six months, you come back and say you are throwing money around, your father will call you outside and say, ‘come, tell me how did you make that money/ I know that they don’t plug money from trees like paw-paw. How did you make that money? If you don’t tell me, anything you buy in this house, I am not eating. What are you doing for a living?’ that was the kind of society we used to live in. But these days, things are changing. Just recently, in real life story, my Special Assistant has a house in his native Bayelsa; there was an Ibo chap who was a watchman. He was employed by a company to do security work in the house. And after a few months, the boy carried his master’s Jeep and ran away. But thank God for modern technology. The police were able to trace where he was through his cell phone. And by the time they got there, he run away that morning. But at least, they were able to get to his house and arrested his father. And what did he tell his father? That he was in Gabon and he made money and bought the car. How many months? But if it were to be in those days, his parents would not celebrate him. They would throw questions upon questions at him until he would confess if he got the car by foul means. But we are living in a society where crime is celebrated. Somebody goes to kill people and makes blood money overnight and he comes with that money and the next thing is the traditional ruler will give him a chieftaincy title and he goes about as a chief or high chief as the case may be. This was not what we grew up to know in our various communities. It may be Hausa, it may be Yoruba, and it may be Ibo. What I am saying is that we need to redirect and re-orientate ourselves to make sure that, as our fathers believed, a good name is better than all the riches in the world.
You said something about changing Nigerians’ negative perception of our culture. Have you made any attempt to liaise with religious leaders to achieve this?
It is a gradual process. We have a programme we outlined for religious leaders. For now, the programme we are working on is with traditional rulers and local government chairmen billed for May 7th and 8th. We have a conference on culture, peace and national security, how culture can impact on building a peaceful society and the role traditional rulers can play in maintaining peace in their domains. That is what we are looking at. The next one is going to be with religious leaders. We are also looking at the cultural ethics in the banking sector. So it is a gradual process and I think by the time we finish with the traditional rulers, they will appreciate what NICO is doing. For we are into tangible and intangible cultural heritage, cultural practices, belief systems that used to identify us as a people, some traditions, with the new experience; these are the things that we are looking at. Probably, after that I will give you in a publication. We have “Living Human Treasures”. These are people into various practices, the UNESCO project. So we document Living Human Treasures. These are people beyond 60s. They made it. They have been into weaving, they have been into carving, they have been into painting, and they have been into documents. UNESCO thinks that these people, their work should be documented. How they started and what they have done to pass these works to the younger generations should be documented. So that is one of our areas of interest here in NICO. And of course, apart from that, we also have capacity building programmes with UNESCO actually, as at now, we have something like counterpart funding. Somehow, UNESCO is very prudent with funds. For a programme that you think is going to need probably, 50 million naira to handle, UNESCO will tell you what they are going to bring is three million naira; so if you can get the money to do it you go ahead. We have that challenge but we believe that we will continue to do our best to ensure that all UNESCO programmes will happen accordingly. For example, May 21st is World Culture Day declared by UNESCO and we are going to celebrate it in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation.
Outside this country, some people do ask: in Nigeria, are you all fetish? In Nigeria, is it all about going to the shrine? I don’t know to what extent your organisation is interfacing with the Nigeria Films and Video Censors Board to influence the content of Nollywood.
This is a very interesting question. I agree with you that those conceptions are there about Nigeria. Incidentally, November, 2010, we were in Kenya for a UNESCO conference and the issues you just raised also came up. And I say if you go to Nairobi, there are two serious television stations. I can’t remember the other one but I remember the Citizens Television station. Now, that station has spoilt many Kenyans. It has destroyed homes because there in Kenya, housemaids no longer work at home because they are always glued to Nollywood. Their programming is such that in the morning, before 8’oclock they show the first film till 9:15 am; when the film is over, then from 9:15 to 9:30, they show part two till 10:45 am. Then for fifteen minutes they have a musical filler; so in essence, the housemaid only uses those fifteen minutes to quickly go and do some household chores and then after that she bounces back. So by the time madam or oga comes back, many things would have been left undone in the house. And, of course, we experienced that during the emergence of marathon transmissions; when NTA Lagos and Lagos state television started 24 hours television broadcast, NTA came up with a marathon television service. And in the night, housewives will keep awake watching films, they were foreign films anyway. Of course, oga will be angry because somethings were left undone. That was the experience I got. But the interesting thing is that you see a lady and you say we are taking you to Nigeria to marry you. She would say ‘no, Nigeria, I hear there are a so much witchcraft there’. I said, why did you say that? She said, ‘they show us on Nollywood’. So that shows the impact of Nollywood. It has made an impact on the African continent and among the black immigrants. So we had a meeting with the DG of the National Censors Board and we talked about it; but everything boils down to funds because we know very well that for us to package a film there is the need for funds. But one thing we realise is that in Nigeria, most of the stakeholders, when you call them to a meeting, most of them will not want to spend their money. They will want the programme to be funded. But the paradox here is that while we ask for that in Nigeria, abroad people will pay their money to go. It’s just like the present confrontation we are having in the aviation industry where somebody from Nigeria going to London will a hundred naira in fare while somebody from Ghana will pay fifty naira but flight hours are just the same. It is absurd. We are seriously concerned about that. There is a paper I am working on for a conference at the Benue State University; I am presenting a keynote address. And what I’ll talk on is ‘Understanding the appearance, reality and cultural confusion in Nigerian video films’. There is cultural confusion because we present certain things as if that is the culture, which is not the case. It is not as for anything that happens you have to run to the witch doctor, but that is the impression that has been given. We have many bright spots in the industry but the idea of presenting things in the ritual style is not ideal; that is what we are looking at.
There is the saying that four out of every African is a Nigerian and there is the problem of proliferation of poor movies; looking back, what do you have to say?
Nollywood has really impacted positively on Nigerians and the African continent because, one, it is providing a ready source of income for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians. Remember that the people you see on the screen are just a little fraction of the people that are feeding on Nollywood. Apart from the actors and directors, you have people; the costumiers, production managers, studio managers, transporters, engineers, so many persons. If you go to Enugu for example, there are hotels that have been taken over by Nollywood practitioners; hotels that would have been dead. I know very well that Presidential Hotel Enugu was virtually dead until Nollywood started. So there are a lot off persons that have been provided jobs by Nollywood. These are people that for Nollywood, 30 per cent would have gone into oblivion. Secondly, Nollywood, as earlier mentioned, is defining the image of Nigeria abroad. Without sounding immodest, apart from footballers, Nollywood are the next ambassadors that we have in the country. If you go to some countries and ask of Nigerian leaders, they don’t know, but they will tell you about the Nigerian film stars and they will ask whether you know so and so person. They know the stars; they can count them. They know about Nollywood films. They watch them. Now, most Nigerians don’t watch Nollywood films; but Nollywood is telling the Nigerian story from our own perspective identity. We identify with those actors and actresses as our own. For me, for example, when I see a film is promoted and I see that Rita Dominic is there, Bob Manuel is there, Monaliza Chinda is there or Julius Agu is there, among others, they are people that passed through me so I want to see what they’ve done, and whether they are doing it very well or not. If they have not acted very well, I’ll call and tell them that this thing they did, they goofed, this thing they did was not good enough. So Nollywood has really impacted us, providing a platform for selling Nigeria in various ways, and of course, business wise, people who were waiting for spare parts buyers to come and buy have left for production of films and videos and they are doing very well. And I think for the industry, what is remaining now is for government to now really look in the direction of the industry and see how it can franchise its development because no matter what happens, one, because Nigeria is not definitely fit for Nollywood because the government is playing the part of an ostrich. But if government goes into it, even the fund that government will generate from the industry is something else. Like now, the FCT minister has introduced fees for packing space but I want to warn that as of now, it is like bringing toll gates to Lagos in those days. The people that are working tee will chop. Most of the funds coming from these car parks will not go into government coffers unless there is a method to check them because, when Lagos toll gate started, people were deployed to the toll gate for three months. After three months, a new set of persons were benefiting there. Within three months, you get as much as you want. That is Nigeria for you. So why can’t we now, our leaders go outside. Why should we still be talking about giving tickets at the airports? Why can’t there be electronic payment systems? After all, you don’t know once they collect tickets and re-do it, the next time you are coming in, you get back that ticket; two tickets for the price of one. So the person then sells those two tickets to some other person and gets the money. Then that person goes out and none of that is going into government coffers. But if there is an electronic payment system, of course, the man, whatever he has generated is going into government coffers. So the Nollywood industry as at now, boasts of the artists. It is just maybe the little taxes; the COTs, those ones are going into banks. What is government gaining from the income, the tax that is paid according to how you earn, what happens? Once you don’t know what is happening in a system, there is no way you can get it. So Nigeria will have to draw on the potentials of the industry, and we know very well that Nollywood can change the economy of Nigeria and we know very well that it is very possible, and that is a cultural product.
Looking back, is there anything you want to remember and what vision do you have for the cultural industry and then what call do you want to make on Nigerians?
Well, in the first place, if we have to score ourselves, in the last two years, I will say that we have performed above average though it is a starting point. I believe that if we were where we are now, we were at this level three years ago, I believe by now; the institute would have really affected the lives of every Nigerian. But with what we are doing and how we are going about it, I believe in the next five years, NICO would have passed the line and then we can sit back and say yes, we have achieved. For now, I can say we are trying, God willing. I want to advise Nigerians to realise that culture as our way of life needs to tally with our way of life that could give us our identity, could give us our national pride is something that should not be toyed with. In whichever way we can promote our culture, we should do it because that is what will differentiate us from other people as Nigerians and a people without a culture is a people lost. And I don’t think we will want to lose that term presently on Nigerians, we are happy. Some of our leaders, like I have not met her one on one but somebody like Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala; she is a Nigerian brand. She is a true picture of the African woman and we are happy that by the grace of God, she is a front line contender for the World Bank seat. What more do we want? Why can’t we emulate people like her? Why can’t we emulate people like Dora Akunyili who was also in government office, a brand as far as Nigeria is concerned? So if we are talking about the Nigerian project, it has to start from us because we cannot reform others if we can’t reform ourselves. You have to be a model for somebody to want to follow you and I believe that parents could be role models to their children; teachers could be role models to their students, and pastors and traditional rulers should be role models to their followers. That way, before we know it, our orientation will change, that is the truth. Thank you very much.