Letter to President-Elect Buhari from a Concerned ‘Creative’. | by Qudus Onikeku

'Iwalewa' choreographed by Qudus Onikeku for British Council sponsored DisFix. Oct 2015. Credit: Eniola A. Soyemi
‘Iwalewa’ choreographed by Qudus Onikeku for British Council sponsored DisFix. Oct 2015. Credit: Eniola A. Soyemi

As many Nigerians take to the streets in a defiant mood, following the victory of our new president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, the nation overflows with the glorious sounds of our music and the ferocity of our multiple dance. Even prior to the elections on the 28th of March this year, our billboards, radio and air waves were inundated with all kinds of creative communications.

Yet, as I hungrily scan President-Elect Buhari’s recently circulated 100 days covenant with Nigeria, I am sorely disappointed to find that music and dance, the arts, culture and the creative industries in general, have been left out of those issues worthy of mention in our new government’s development strategy.

Since this is the time to speak of ‘change’, l must keep my heart open and welcome our new president-elect. However, dear Sir, you are wrong for trivializing the importance of the arts, culture and the creative industries to our nation’s growth.

Sir, no civilization is built on slippery crude or the sheer might of the gun and the well-tarred road alone. Civilizations are built on stories; on the myths that shore them up and the tales of origin and destiny they tell themselves. Culture should be the foundation of every development, for in it is found the standards and values of a people. As a people, we cannot begin to rebuild this great nation, until we have been able to first discover the source of the damage that has already been done. This discovery must be followed by first, the demolition of old and ruinous ideas; and then by the rehabilitation and creation of thoughtful foundations and action.

As an experienced and active participant in the arts and culture sector, I can tell you that my sector has already had a huge transformative power on our creative economy. Nollywood alone boasts an annual revenue of NGN522 billion, and is a source of employment for thousands of Nigerians. Never mind the impact of other parts of the sector such as design, new media, performing arts, publishing, and the visual arts.

There is no doubt that culture and the arts concretely contribute to our economic development. But more so because by the endeavours of all creative minds, we gain an intangible benefit that arises from those who wish to be excellent in the arts and letters, in manners and in the creation of beauty, in the improvements of the mind, and in the scholarly pursuit and creation of new ideals.

Sir, in your 100 days covenant – which is a laudable document for it shows your determination to deal with matters of development – a lot of attention was paid to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for youth issues. For instance, your plan to unveil a policy that will begin to multiply the efforts and effects of technology incubation centres across the nation. But sir, without a parallel programme that gives voice to those segments of society that often do not have one, any development or policy innovation may eventually be stifled by the very same citizens for whom they were built.

Let me remind you that by 2013 Nigeria’s population had reached about 174 million and more than half of these are between 15 and 34 years old. Unfortunately, as the youth population grows, so does the unemployment rate, which may partially explain a poverty level of 46%. In fact, the number of unemployed youth was approximately 11.1 million in 2012, and two-thirds of them are aged between 15 and 24. To my understanding, the unemployed – and often undereducated – youth are not, and do not have the capacity, to be massively engaged with ICT.

It is especially with young unemployed people that the creative industries can have a significant impact. The industry already plays a huge role in creating concrete avenues for young people to explore and develop their creative energies, despite often lacking infrastructure.

Sir, I believe that a healthy society must strike a balance between the stable needs of the individual and those of the collective. And while our material needs are crucial, in the end they cannot be made to weigh more than the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of the individuals within our society. A development strategy that gives a bold space to culture and the arts may not only include growth in material numbers, but also in a range of non-monetized benefits.

Sir, our history, the history of Nigeria in particular, is a testament to the solid position of the arts to national development. Today, we hear of Nigerian writers who are being translated into various languages all over the world, our musicians are perpetually celebrated and emulated worldwide. Nollywood is widely distributing our culture beyond multiple borders. Nigerian fabrics and fashion design continue to grow on the world stage. Nigerian visual artists, dancers, and actors have done much to make our reputation international.

My dear Sir, self-realization is what we are all seeking in our various endeavours; and there is nothing more profitable to a young nation as ours than creating conducive spaces for the young to experiment and to test out and express their ideas.

Our cultural revival is, therefore, the attempt to empower our people in taking their rightful place, not just on the global cultural map, but in the aim of transforming Nigeria itself into a viable participant in the global economy. For this to happen, however, it is necessary to first establish the extent of the creative energies in our society, and the possibility of transforming them into tradable commodities, both internally and externally. To compete in a globally creative economy, we must expand our centres of cultural education. And while our national policies on culture and tourism have largely focused promoting cultural activity, they have failed to effectively link culture with business, so as to build a sustainable industry.

Sir, governments all over the world that are serious about diversifying their economy see the importance of developing their creative industries. But their difficulty has always been in adapting an appropriate funding model. Sir, let me affirm that subsidising the arts is not a luxury, because the eventual social and economic benefit is always higher than the investment. While only 1% of the world’s creative enterprises ever get to the point of being able to fully fund themselves, subsidization always comes either through private or public funding, or a partnership between the two. What is most important is the government’s political will to strengthening tax legislation that makes it attractive for corporations to finance the industry. Having the right policies, structures and infrastructure in place is the key to any successful implementation.

One funding scheme that is highly adaptable to Nigeria’s reality is the Brazilian cultural financing model. The SESC project (Serviço Social do Comércio) or Commercial Social Service, is a private, non-profit entity linked to the chambers of commerce in each Brazilian city in which it operates, and enshrined in the Brazilian constitution. The SESC owes its enviable position to a unique financing model in which the organization derives its budget from a 1.5% payroll tax imposed on all employees and collected by all Brazilian companies. As the Brazilian workforce of nearly 200 million people expands, so does the organization’s social impact. Just like Nigeria, Brazil is a large federation that until recently privileged only the few.

At the heart of the SESC’s and the Brazilian government’s vision is social inclusion; bringing excluded individuals into the rights of basic citizenship through cultural action. In a way, given the extent of the SESC’s activities, it has functioned in Brazil as a supplementary ministry of culture where every citizen is an active stakeholder. It is worth noting that the opening of any SESC centre in a Brazilian city represents a significant change to the urban environment, given the facilities for leisure, education, and culture that it offers the local population.

This is in stark contrast to Nigeria where malls and shopping plazas are taking over the role of public meeting places. The result is the erosion of our societal fabric and of the understanding of ‘public space’ as a cohesive space that removes the borders that keep us insulated from one another in daily life. Ours is rapidly being transformed into a competitive field for self-identification through mass consumption.

Though the responsibility for initiating and supporting growth in the creative economy rests with the government, private initiatives must, however, drive the creative economy if it is to be sustainable and unencumbered by the inevitable stillness of governmental bureaucracy. The ministries of culture and tourism, commerce and industries, science and technology must all collaborate to drive a national strategy for the creative economy. The Ministry for Commerce and Industry should be given the especial interest of mobilizing Nigerian companies to support the creative industries, as a viable tool for diversifying Nigeria’s non-oil exports.

In conclusion Sir, your war against corruption as stipulated in your covenant must not leave out my sector. Arts and serious artists must be offered a respite from the tyranny of profit and commercial demand. They must be encouraged to experiment in finding ways to maintain their focus on our cultural evolution and on encouraging community involvement in arts, culture, and creativity.

The cultural dynamism that is allowed to undergird our economic stability and the importance that this new government places on creative goods and social inclusion, will ultimately make our culture a valid pathway for the exercise of the nation’s soft power, both internally and internationally.

Sir, I believe that we, as a nation, have all it takes to be a major contender in global soft power. With the growing success of Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry, contemporary dance, visual arts, the literary arts, and our fashion industry, a way has already been paved to make our society better known and better understood by ourselves and by others.

Qudus Onikeku is a Nigerian national. He is the founder and creative director of the QDanceCenter | Creative Culture Support Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria.

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