FACE-TO-FACE WITH THE MINISTER

0

Yinka Olatunbosun recounts those cheering moments of a rare meeting of select journalists with the Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Alh. Lai Mohammed in Lagos where he declared, amongst other things, that art, tourism and culture form the nation’s next pot of gold.

If there’s any public figure who qualifies to be called punctuality symbol, then the first name to mention will likely be Alhaji Lai Mohammed. Before he took up the mantle as the Minister of Information, he was the National Publicity Secretary for the political party, All Progressives Party (APC).

This reporter’s first close encounter with the Minister was when he was one of the invited speakers at the National Conference and Elections of the Nigeria Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ) held in Badagry in May, 2014. About an hour before the commencement of the conference, Alh. Mohammed was waiting outside the hall with his colleagues when this reporter approached the twin-hall building, unsure of which of the halls was the venue. Since his face looked familiar, this reporter decidedly asked him to direct her. His colleagues in his company laughed at the thought of making a public figure one’s Google map but he saved what would have been a very embarrassing moment with, yet, a teasing remark, “Well, young lady, I am not a woman. I don’t know anything about the conference.”

He must have noticed this reporter’s frustration so he introduced himself and directed this reporter to the venue. Now, he made quite an impression that day. Apart from his bewildering sense of humour, he arrives early for events. Last Sunday, at a restaurant in Ikeja, the Minister played host to scores of journalists who work as correspondents and editors in the art, culture and tourism sectors. It’s quite an irony for he was the visitor from the nation’s capital, Abuja. Before his speech, the sumptuous cuisine was relished by all. Perhaps, the Minister believes in the notion that “a hungry person resists sermon”. Though his speech was not a sermon, it seemed similar to the usual promises that those in government make to placate the disenchanted citizenry. But how did the Minister command these journalists’ collective attention?

Asides the call to congregate at the said venue, the Minister’s body language had always signalled to the arts, culture and tourism community that there is a responsive government in action. He has honoured most invitations to special gatherings in the sector and his presence had propelled many organisers of art and cultural productions to start events on time and let the shows be worthy of everyone’s time. Last Sunday, the early arrival of his security details was a sure indicator that he is an unapologetic stickler for punctuality.

Set before Alhaji Mohammed was a table decorated by microphones from various media houses. To his right sat some arts and culture journalists while their travel and tourism counterparts populated his left wing. As he was about to deliver his speech, the television set beside the arts and culture correspondents had a channel that was broadcasting a live match. What a major distraction when the speech began and a much-anticipated goal was scored. “IT’S A GOAL!’’

Fortunately, the Minister bore some good news that was in itself a goal. After the sad crash of global oil prices, the optimism expressed by the Minister was that when Nigeria’s economy is diversified to embrace the untapped potentials in the creative economy, Nigeria would be strong again. He informed his guests of the new strategic plans made by the government to develop the creative industry.

“Working with various local and international partners, including the Tony Elumelu Foundation and the British Council, we are mapping our creative arts, by which we mean pottery, weaving, dyeing, sculpturing, amongst others, with a view to reviving them massively through capacity building for those involved and the provision of loans,” he disclosed. “We believe this will not only create hundreds of thousands of jobs, thus keeping our people meaningfully engaged, it will also become money-spinners for the economy and stem the rural-urban migration. We are not re-inventing the wheel, since the creative industry has always been with us. What we are doing is to breathe life into the industry and allow it to become a major player in national development.”

It’s quite a simple logic. Our airports and culture hubs can be the entrance points to diversify our economy. If creative pieces made by Nigerians are displayed at such places, tourists may be attracted and will patronise the products made by Nigeria’s creative entrepreneurs. And that will increase the demand for naira.

Furthermore, the Minister disclosed to all that trainings would be instituted for building capacity in festival management. No doubt, festivals are huge by nature and intimidating by conditions. Some of these conditions come in form of poor infrastructure and lack of technical know-how. To tackle the latter condition, the Minister revealed the framework that his ministry had designed to build capacity.

“We are aware that culture drives tourism, hence we intend to leverage heavily on our numerous cultural festivals in our efforts to boost tourist arrivals,” he said. “That is why we are currently compiling a list of the top 10 creative arts and cultural festivals in each state of the federation, with a view to creating a year-round calendar of such events. This way, those willing to attend such events can plan ahead.”

As regards the infrastructure deficit, the Minister pointed out that developing tourism is multi-sectoral, requiring the attention of all stakeholders in the related sectors to chart a course forward. What the Minister said mirrored our private fears. No tourist would want to return to a country that is perceived as corrupt, lacks adequate power supply and good roads.

“This is why we have decided to call a National Summit on Culture and Tourism, which is scheduled for April 27 to 29 in Abuja, with a view to charting the path forward. We are aware that
similar efforts have been made in the past, without an appreciable result. The difference this time is our commitment and the different milieu provided by the national imperative to diversify the economy, amidst the crash in the price of oil.”

Speaking on behalf of arts and culture journalists, Mr. Ozolua Uhakheme urged the Minister to take steps towards resuscitating existing framework that financially supports artists and art writers. This comment was made against the backdrop of the stringent work conditions at many media houses. Uhakheme’s comment articulated the views of most of his colleagues. He drew the attention of the Minister to the comatose condition of the National Theatre, which had been reduced to mere historical edifice as against its projected image of a cultural reference point.

The Minister was frank to tell the journalists that the government will not do it all for the sector. He cited examples in other climes where taxes deducted from gambling are poured into the creative sector.
However, the assurance the Minister left with his audience was that the federal government is aware of the state of affairs in the sector and will make constructive efforts to deal with the hydra-headed challenges with the support of all stakeholders, including journalists.