On Dec. 27, 2017, just two days after Christmas, workers at the 40-year-old national monument, the National Art Theatre, Lagos, held a protest rally against plans by the federal government to sell the Theatre and the Tafawa Balewa Square, also in Lagos. The government’s decision was first revealed by the Director-General in the Budget Office, Mr. Ben Akabueze. On Nov. 28, he had told the House of Representatives Committee on Finance and Appropriation that the government would definitely sell Tafawa Balewa Square and National Arts Theatre. The aim, he said, was to generate sufficient revenue to finance the country’s annual budgets for the next three years (2018-2020).
This new government move is coming after its decision in September to sell its equities in joint oil ventures, supposedly, to raise $15 billion to reflate the national economy then in recession. The government bought the idea from Nigeria’s foremost billionnaire businessman Aliko Dangote, supported by the president of the Nigerian Senate Dr. Bukola Saraki, himself a wealthy businessman. The JVCs involved are the national cash cow, the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLG) and the four refineries located at Kaduna, Port Harcourt and Warri. Besides, the government wanted to sell some planes in the presidential fleet. The plans were endorsed by a number of state governors and the Senate, but rejected by the country’s labour unions, particularly NLC and TUC. Somehow, the economy managed to wriggle itself out of recession later that year. Therefore, the sales were aborted.
However, clearly the government had not completely given up, hence this new initiative to find ways of funding budget deficits for the next three years. The 2018 national budget is slightly over N8 trillion and the deficit is estimated at N2.005tr, about a quarter of the budget. Traditionally, budget deficits are financed through external and domestic borrowings. The government’s decision to do away with tradition and instead sell national assets is what the majority of Nigerians cannot understand.
The workers of the National Art Theatre who protested in Lagos on Dec. 27 complained that “Government wants to sell our culture, it is a shame. No, No, National Theatre must stay”. The inscription on one of the placards they held up to television cameras read: “National Theatre can work, we need repairs and not sale. The theatre community says no to sale of the theatre. National Theatre must stay”.
To be sure, the protests were prompted by fear of job losses if the national monuments were sold more than by any patriotic zeal to protect the nation’s cultural heritage. However, it is strange that we are selling off historical monuments at a time that the United Nations, through its agency UNESCO, is yearly adding to its list of World Heritage sites.
Besides, it is doubtful the government will get much from the proposed sales, given that the assets are no real assets at all because they are dead – killed by mismanagement and corruption. We are reminded of the old debate whether or not to sell the refineries under the late President Umaru Yar’adua. He stopped the sales because the refineries were not profitable at the time.
The same argument can be made against the planned sale of national monuments. A sale in their present physical decay will be a dash away. Secondly, national prides dictates that we don’t sell. PERIOD.