Theatre, Economic Recession and the Quest for Economic Survival


Professor Charity Angya

Former Vice Chancellor

Benue State University, Makurdi

Keynote Lecture delivered on the occasion of the Opening Ceremony of the Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA) Conference held at the University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt, on 1st November, 2017

Permit me Vice Chancellor, Convener, organizers, distinguished Delegates and Guests to welcome you to this auspicious occasion, which marks the opening ceremony of the annual conference of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artistes. It gives me a lot of pleasure to be given the honourable task to address this august gathering. I want to begin by giving my appreciation to the Vice Chancellor of University of Port Harcourt, our distinguished host who kindly invited me to present this keynote address. I remain highly indebted to you, Sir, for the privilege of sharing my thoughts with my highly esteemed colleagues. I would like to thank you for your support to the Theatre Arts Department culminating not only in hosting the conference but extending an invitation to me to attend my Society’s Convention as your guest and in this very special capacity. My appreciation also goes to those who have extended their support in one way or another to the LOC. I would also like to thank the LOC for hosting us in the Garden City and for keeping the SONTA flag flying.

The National body of our association has remained a shining light, holding together the association and ensuring that we continue to grow from strength to strength. Kudos to you, I appreciate you my colleagues, for keeping this association growing with vibrant debates, a lot of humour and interrogation of the state of theatre in Nigeria and the place of the arts within the nation and the world in general. This year is also an election year and I wish us smooth elections and handing over.

I believe that hosting this convention in Port Harcourt is the best option given the trend of national events over this period. Port Harcourt seems idyll, as it is central and yet removed from a lot of the spiralling events that characterize the diatribe of our national discourse.

A comment by Emeka Uka sums up some of the issues we are presently grappling with in this nation and I quote:

We are not really a nation in actual fact. We are a nation on paper. In actual practice we are a nation divided against itself. We are a colonial construct, a geographical expression and not a nation.

I will address this observation by Uka of the Nigerian state later.

Nigeria is currently undergoing the pains of nationhood with a whole lot of challenges. The recession has capped years of wastage and is a distinctive hallmark of unpreparedness for trying to play “catch up” development. The tragedy facing the nation indeed the African continent lies in our refusal to take a good look at ourselves and take hard decisions that will propel development and drive out the picture of Africa as a continent dependent on Western hand-outs. Our refusal to produce rather than consume has brought this nation to her knees. If we had, even within a non-diversified economy, insisted on refining our crude products instead of selling out our crude oil and receiving back the refined product at more than double the global rates, our economy would have had a fighting chance during this very difficult period.

Recession is basically about the economics of the nation, the performance of the economy over a certain period. It is a term that describes the performance of the economy over a given number of quarters within a fiscal year. But the reality of the dismal figures, which reflect our gross domestic product, can be seen and felt in the growing poverty of the ordinary people who struggle to make a living and feed their families. The human condition of those operating within a receded economy can best be imagined than experienced. In the wake of this poverty that stares us in the face, the national discourse is now on restructuring, threats of secession and contending issues of corruption. Our politicians know us well. They know what cards to play and when each card will be played. It is like throwing a bone to the dogs. That action is certainly a useful tool of distraction.

As issues emerge and re-emerge, what is the role of theatre in a society that seeks self-immolation? I see the convening of this conference with the theme, “Theatre, Economic Recession and the Quest for Survival”, as an excellent opportunity for the discourse on our role as theatre artistes within the ambience of the difficult times to be examined not only in relation to the business of the theatre but more so as doctors of the society. While surgical procedures are carried out in the medical hospitals on patients, theatre in the area of performance operates on the society laying bare the contending issues in order to heal the society.

In the wake of threats and counter threats, grinding poverty, with a number of state governments unable or unwilling, I am not sure what term to use, to pay worker’s salaries; in a monolithic economy that sees falling oil revenue; in a nation deeply divided along religious, ethnic and sectional lines; amidst deep suspicions, fuelled by divisive political alliances and a dwindling interest in nation building, the artiste must arise, not only to interrogate but examine and also provide the needed illumination to propel the society towards stated and achievable goals.

So much tension has enveloped this nation. It seems we are even more divided now than we were at the time of birth at the amalgamation. It appears that we have learnt nothing from our past and our alliances have failed to secure even a glimmer of patience for the other person from the other section. Years of living together have bred contempt for the various groupings rather than enhanced our understanding of ourselves. Our diversity, which should have been our strength, has become our weakness and instead of celebrating and encouraging values and principles based on humanity, we are more concerned with ethnic posturing. We argue strongly that we have experienced recession because of the leadership of a certain group and because a certain group has not had enough control of power and resources.

I use the term, experienced recession, as a past tense, because we have been told that the performance of the economy in the last quarter has improved and so we appear to have emerged from the recession. The reality is that life for the man or woman on the streets remains bleak, it is a daily struggle to make ends meet; workers’ salaries remain unpaid; educational institutions are still grappling with issues of funding, etc. Whether we are in or out of recession, until the welfare of Nigerians improve, figures and statistics make little or no difference.

I come back to our arguments on who is responsible for where we are. For me, understanding the vagaries of our existence as a nation and the roles played by individuals is quite critical and by all means this discourse should be pursued with scripts written and dramatic skits and plays about our national history, characters that have influenced and dominated our body polity and so on. But more fundamentally for me is our discourse on nationhood and nation building, celebrating our values and value systems, celebrating our identity as a people not entwined or caught in a web of nepotism, patriarchal hegemony and a warped sense of concern only for the here and now with no vision for our future as a nation and where we think we want to be, fifty or a hundred years from now. What role do we see our nation playing among the comity of nations in the near and distant future? Do we see this nation as one that can forge for its citizens a place that is harmonious with equal opportunities for everyone and is there room for development of capabilities and growth of talent and skill? We are seen as a nation of scammers, yahoo boys and girls and fraudulent in all our interactions. Is this our reality? How far has the big screen and small screen gone ahead to feed this picture? Is there an alternative reality? Can we also begin to tell stories of our core values and the beautiful heart-warming engagements of ordinary folks? Until we begin to see good in ourselves our writing will portray majorly how the world sees us.

Nigeria is in the throes of pain and we are faced with critical choices as a nation, individuals as well as a body of artistes; choices that will kill or heal; make better or worsen the situation. The theatre artist not only entertains but serves as critic and watchman, examining societal ills, lampooning the quirks in our characters and attempting to proffer solutions as well as ensure the sustainability of our heritage. Our role in society is barely acknowledged, sometimes ridiculed and even vilified. We are sometimes mocked or made fun of, but increasingly there is a growing realization especially in other climes, that theatre is critical to shaping as well as providing deep insights to critical issues that affect the society. Society is mirrored in the play and a tautly woven story becomes the lens through which we see ourselves, judge our actions and re-examine our decisions.

Coming close to home, how then does theatre fare in a situation of economic recession or even depression given the escalating levels of unemployment, mass retrenchments and folding up of medium and small scale businesses due to the harsh economic environment and scarcity of foreign exchange to do business? In addition some of the economic policies while serving as a windfall for a few have left many entrepreneurs frustrated and unable to conduct business. Furthermore, the pursuit of a corruption free society must also take cognizance of the markets and free enterprise and we must be aware that the global market is not going to stand still for us to fight to rid ourselves of the twin forces of corruption and weak institutions. Government must therefore be deliberate in taking steps that will ensure that our institutions are strong and well equipped to ensure compliance with regulations irrespective of contending issues and at the same time pursue policies that will protect both the formal and informal sectors while ensuring that corruption is totally eradicated.

The theatre faces the threat of becoming a frivolous venture if the needs of the people are not clearly elucidated and our drama remains only at the level of entertaining without addressing our tensions, interrogating our contradictions, bringing to the fore the existing and emerging paradoxes and generally fearlessly confronting the forces of evil that are at war with our humanness and our society. In essence, drama makes us better. Drama brings out the “inner realities of nature”, “selects, arranges, emphasizes, and distorts them (the material) in order to reshape nature into a new object that best fits his (the artiste’s) vision” (Clifford, 1972). In essence, theatre serves a myriad of roles and goes beyond simply being a pleasurable experience, concerned basically with the aesthetics to meeting “intellectual, social, moral, and recreational needs” (Clifford, 1972). The theatre must therefore face up to the challenge of meeting the needs of the whole person and rescuing society from the quagmire of insults, accusations and counter accusations as well as  intellectual barrenness  which has enveloped  national discourse and political equations in the wake of economic hardship.

To survive in this climate, the law of survival of the fittest seems to be at play. There are soaring levels of crime and the veneer of civilization is wearing thin in people’s disposition to each other. We must therefore arouse our audience to the virtues of love, care, responsibility, integrity etc. without which no meaningful constructive engagement can take place and we can relearn to be our brother or sister’s keeper. For us to chart a course for good governance, accountability as well as bring hope in the midst of despair, fundamental virtues of what it means to be human must first be entrenched.

I watched an interesting video on the social media and the senior military officer addressing a crowd possibly at a commencement ceremony or some such occasion said something, which caught my attention in the opening lines of the speech: “If you want to change the world, first you must learn to make your bed”. Amusing, but quite apt as we seek for the quest for survival; the basic principles we know, basic nobility of human character lies in the wisdom of the ancients as we were taught while growing up. There is therefore the need for us in the fast paced world of technology and human achievement to retrospect and emphasize for ourselves and our children and children’s children these values, which if relegated to the background make existence less meaningful. Theatre should, therefore, in reflecting the depths of human depravity, especially in these times also give hope, show possibility of redemption and generally reflect in a didactic manner the divine in the human.

Mr. Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests and colleagues, the recession has eaten deep into the pockets of the have-nots and many of the wealthy have not been spared. On a positive note some have opined that wealthy Nigerians are learning financial prudence. On the other hand the middle class in Nigeria has been totally wiped out. One is either extremely rich or poor. Poverty levels have soared to over 70% and that is stating it mildly.

As difficult as the situation has been, there are life lessons to be learnt. There are basic principles that if we propagate in life and work, will yield immeasurable good for our collective ethos-ethics, integrity, responsibility, the rule of law and respect for humanity, work ethic, understanding the law of sowing and reaping, ability to save and invest and the will to be productive, and punctuality. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Many more attributes can be added. Remember the words of the Officer earlier mentioned, “to change the world, learn to make your bed”. I understand that this means the mundane, the everyday drudgery is as important as the concepts, ideas and big dreams and visions.

We need to begin at the basics in order to get our act together. The humanities must chart the course for understanding our plight and how we can survive at the individual, community and national level. I quote briefly Keeney’s comment on the arts that, “in our search for objectivity and detachment, we may have lost our relevance for the society that supports us and in order to flourish, find it again.” (The Arts and Humanities, their Support and Development, PMLA Vol. LXXIX, No.2, May, 1964, November 2, p.5). That statement made in the 20th Century still makes a lot of sense in today’s world.

The rhetoric of our national discourse is intense and the language passionate. The vitriolic language in use points to the difficult dialogues we as a nation are engaged in. The South-East wants independence, the South-South wants to leave, the South-West wants to go and the North has joined the clamour to dismember the country. The root of all these is the poverty that stares us in the face. A few are exempt from the current hardships that Nigeria is facing but attention has shifted from the various root causes of the discontent and we believe that moving out or dissolving the various regions will translate to gains that are impossible to access in the current dispensation.

This conference in order to be socially responsible must not shy away from addressing cores issues of national politics, economics and the deep divides which have surfaced on the national debate. The conference serves as a platform on which to intellectually and artistically interrogate issues and bring out a position as men and women of understanding of the times we are in. Given the fact that we are assembled from all over the country, our articulation of these issues at formal and informal spaces in reasonable and disciplined manner should yield very fruitful ideas as to what really are the issues at stake, what is currently been done and what should be done. We cannot escape the responsibility of a discourse on these volatile, contentious but very topical and burning issues confronting our nation.

Here, we are at a most definitive point in the history of Nigeria. We have come together as theatre artistes concerned with our profession, and concerned about our existence, forging linkages, growing ideas and ensuring that our great association SONTA moves on to even greater heights.

I come from the Middle Belt of Nigeria. I am therefore smack in the middle of the entire politics, standing as an observer in the heated discussions of independence of the republics of the regions or restructuring depending on the side, which the proponents or depositors are on. As the very soul of Nigeria is Balkanized and various interest groups make declarations and claims, I ask, where is the theatre artiste in the midst of all this tussling and tossing. Make no mistake about this; our major role as theatre practitioners is to entertain. But with the responsibility of entertainment comes the responsibility to influence to positive action. If the very nature of our art forms especially the dramatic, is to bring together human action and human truth in a complex and distilled form that shows cause and effect and leave our audience not only better informed but also with a finer taste for appreciating the arts, in what ways are we doing this?

Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, my dear colleagues did you make your bed this morning? If we can tackle the small tasks then we can begin to see our way to tackling the larger ones. As theatre practitioners, even when we operate with the rule of the thumb – to entertain as our mantra, we are conscious of our collective responsibility to our communities, societies, and nation and what we write and perform should reflect this responsibility. Mr. Oluwasegun Adeniyi, while delivering a paper on The Platform (Channels TV, 2nd October, 2017), struck a chord with his assertion that,

Nigeria is no more than a meal ticket to many of her elites. What is even more unfortunate is that the people who speak ill of her the most, especially in a season like this, are those who have benefitted immensely from the opportunities presented to them by this supposedly useless country. 

He further asserts that the current agitations are a result of things not working for majority of the citizenry. I agree with this summation. And I think that the nearly out of woods recession offers a challenge and opportunity.  The challenge, as Adeniyi aptly states,

is to create an environment with less suspicion and more equitable distribution of power and resources among the critical stakeholders in our country.

The opportunity on the other hand lies in our seizing the moment to look at the waste in our governance structure, pruning down various areas to save resources, diversifying our economy and using constructive dialogue to fight divisiveness and emerge a more united country with a clearly defined blue print of where we are and where we are going as a collective. We as artistes need to challenge a society steeped in stupor and unwilling to answer the hard questions while looking for answers in the wrong places. We need to play the role of exploring, helping define the collective vision of this country, fanning the embers of cultural values and providing an alternative vision to the pessimistic futuristic projections of apocalypse of the federating units.

We owe our communities and the nation the duty to bring to the fore what matters and what does not matter, what is critical and crucial to harmonious existence and what is mundane and divisive. The “unborn child must be born” and a forward course charted for the survival of this generation of Nigerians and future generations. Western interference in political affairs of developing nations especially with the aim of destabilizing these nations must be resisted in order for us to be truly liberated. Our governments must begin to truly understand the need to give good governance and not only pay lip service to ideals of democracy.

Past administrations failed to translate the gains of the oil wealth to drive meaningful development and build other sectors of the economy to yield the needed foreign exchange even when the oil dries up. We were like the proverbial chicken with its head in the sand refusing to see what is right before our eyes. Our institutions are weak and unable to drive or provide transformational leadership or even articulate a vision for change. Poverty, greed, avarice and the mentality of “grab as much as you can”, have become the order of the day, and then we wonder why nothing seems to be working.

Societies that became transformed had visionary leaders, men and women, willing to make sacrifices. We must tell the nation more of these stories. Our leaders need to also, in addition to becoming more sensitive to the plight of Nigerians, articulate our yearnings and strive to meet our needs, and also understand the economics of the global markets and push for fairer trade deals for our nation and region. They must also, as we emerge from recession, expunge in a decisive manner, the corruption that sustains some of the worst exploitation to be seen in global market policies.

I will end this address by specially requesting that we pray for Nigeria, for better days ahead. As we pray for Nigeria, two quick stories come to mind:

First story: The church gathered to pray for rain; only one little boy had the faith to bring an umbrella.

Second story: A bar opened close to a church and members of the church held a night vigil for its closure. One day, lightning struck the bar; it burned to the ground and the bar owner sued the church. The church argued that it was not responsible for the natural disaster. The Judge in delivering his judgment mused:

This is a very difficult case to decide, the unbeliever believes in the efficacy of prayer, but the believers don’t.

As we pray for Nigeria, for both the gainsayers and naysayers, let us all believe that these prayers will work; and let us put faith to action by doing the works. Let us banish pessimism and embrace a more positive outlook and work towards a brighter future. As we deliberate at this conference, may there be an underlying thread of hope for the future. We do not need to see it to believe it. Faith, the Good Book says, is the evidence of things not seen. Let us by all means come with our umbrella ready for the rain of unity, progress and rapid development, eradication of corruption and poverty.

Permit me to use former US President Barak Obama’s mantra, “YES WE CAN”. Let’s believe that better days are ahead. But even more importantly, as theatre artists, let us work towards making the brighter and better Nigeria a reality.

Mr. Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, my dear colleagues, I wish you all a wonderful Conference and very useful deliberations.

Thank you for listening.

God bless our nation, Nigeria, and bless you all. Hasta la vista; till the circle comes round again.