Everybody can be a lay critic of those in government. See, if you have never been in government you cannot understand it. From outside, people see it differently. It’s like you being the arts editor and your editor keeps giving you only what you should publish no matter what you bring in. That is how government is for me. You can have a budget of N10.00 allocated for the year and they probably give you 1 kobo to work with. You can operate zero budgeting for four or five years. Have you ever heard of zero budgeting?
Yes, but that sounds crazy. How can the work get done with that?
Indeed, it sounds so. I was forced to ask stupid questions in my first executive council meeting I attended. I didn’t know about zero budgeting; I didn’t know about deficit budgeting. I said, “If, in a year you are supposed to give me N10.00 in a year, why don’t you say this year you will give me N2.00 and tell me to priotise around the N2.00; that way I can tell you exactly what I can deliver and also you can monitor whatever you have attached that N2.00 to.’ And they said government doesn’t work like that. That is why governments in Africa or Nigeria are designed to fail. You can quote me on that: government is designed to fail in Nigeria because of how budgeting is done! And there are no standards of measurement for projects executed.
And so when a minister says he has N1 billion budget and you give him N1 million, how do you expect him to do the work? How do you expect the contractors to do the work, when you are giving less than one per cent of the sum to work with? That is how government is.
Why is it like that? Is it that these heads of government – president, governors, chairmen of LGs – don’t have the interest of the people they are elected to serve?
Maybe you should ask Lagos State how it functions, because Lagos is the only state where they do that type of my layman’s budgeting that I talked about. Every year, they draw up a budget and say my budget for this ministry is N350 billion and at the end of the year, maybe N20 is released. You on the outside, you are looking at me as a commissioner and you think that I have a N350 billion budget on my plate. Then you want to do a book launch in Asaba and you are saying to me, ‘come and buy one book; it’s N400’ and then I say to you that I cannot buy it. You cannot understand me! There is no way in this world that you can understand me. If I don’t go with my personal money to purchase this book, it doesn’t get done.
If you are friendly with people like Opa William, Zeb Ejiro and all that, they will tell you. In fact, since I left government, do you know the abuses that I got? That RMD went to government and did nothing? But the question is, what was the ‘nothing’ I did? The first year that I was in government as a Special Adviser on Entertainment and Talent Development, I created Delta Talent Quest. In my first speech, I said that by the time I am done I will have what I call four trains running in dance, music, comedy, acting; in one year and in every three months they will be running. To handle comedy will be somebody like Opa Williams; to handle acting will be Norbert Young, handle dance to somebody else. So that in every quarter if you miss this competition, you run to another. That was the plan. After the first two years, the funds stopped coming. After the first year of buying a car for the winner, I succeeded in doing it only four times in eight years! After the first one, the remaining three, I got people who were my friends in Delta state to buy the cars and that was how I was able to run it for four years.
So, money only came for one year?
Now that you mentioned it, I read something that you wrote, which somebody pointed to me and I said, ‘let me not take it up with him because it is stack ignorance, it is somebody who doesn’t know how government works, who writes like that.’ I ended up being the official Government Event Planner; that was what I became because I needed to function and that was what I started functioning as. Every major conference that happened in Asaba or in Delta State, I planned for it. People were saying that I didn’t give them money. I started a competition that the entire country today is copying. All the young people that are in entertainment today, I blazed that trail for them in government. I also got the only foreign investment and partnership that came in; unfortunately, it was also truncated. It was the late Chief Abel Ubeku, who brought it to us. And then I was running the Council for Arts and Culture with my money. When I came in the first time, they were to do a play and I started a monthly play presentation and I discovered that we could not do monthly play presentations. There was no budget for it. Sometimes, I would ask, ‘how much is it?’ just 200K. These things people didn’t know. They came from behind and bypassed me with their proposals. When everything fails, they will abuse me. There was no abuse in this world I didn’t receive.
One day, Chief Edie Ugbomah came to Government House. They promised him they would do this, they would do that. I came to the executive meeting and he didn’t say a word to me. To cut the long story short, after a while they started calling me about the proposal. I said he should be calm that since government said they would do something, they will do it. That one came and passed, nothing happened; they started calling me. I kept telling him that when government said they would do something, they take their time. Sometimes, it will work, and sometimes it doesn’t work. As we are talking now, Ugbomah didn’t get anything! They didn’t get a dime before we left. So, he became my friend again. It’s easy to think that you have so much. When I was leaving government, I told my king. He said that would be foolish, that nobody leaves government. I told him that I was done here; the man who brought me had gone and I couldn’t function the way I wanted to. That was how I came back to do what I know how to do best.
So, I feel like giving a small insight to what happened. Failure, for me, is not an option.
When I was leaving university, I was young; I was 21. Before I got into government, I was 47 years old. I got into government in 2007. I had done everything my age could do. So, I couldn’t go into government and not function. So, all I needed was just to go there and cap it up.
Many critics said there are no structures for artistic performances like theatres in Asaba or other Delta cities like Warri, Agbor, Sapele, Ughelli, etc?
You still think you didn’t fail?
For you to call me a failure, it means you do not know half of my work. I have a theatre background and I say to you I wanted to create a Delta theatre, a one-stop playground; I wanted to recapture the museum and I gave a plan for a theatre, a museum, café, art and craft shops, etc. I then did a presentation. It could be hailed from now till tomorrow. The same people who did the Delta Leisure Park were the ones, who did the architectural design. Fantastic theatre; it was going to beat anything that had existed. Don’t forget that I’m coming from Lagos, where the National Theatre is and there is abegi and there is the Council for Arts and Culture. It was supposed to bring the Council for Arts and Culture there from their scattered offices. It was not supposed to close; when offices close, progress goes on in the halls, café, barbing. The plan is there, but the execution is not with the commissioner. How can anybody think that me, an actor, will go to Delta and not present a plan? I will not be able to come out and be screaming to everyday that ‘see my plan.’
Of course, a plan was there. How did they arrive at an event centre? It was under my watch that the event centre came. How will would you think I didn’t have a plan; it’s like coming here to say that I don’t have a plan for a TV station, a radio station. I just shot a complete TV series. There is nothing in this world anybody could have done as a Commissioner for Art, Culture and Tourism that I didn’t do. If the buck doesn’t stop on your table, it doesn’t work. I had plans for a theatre. Didn’t they tell you that I took the troupe to Japan? It was through individual effort! They had never travelled out of Nigeria before. That trip, I ended up not going. You know why? The governor said I couldn’t go with the troupe if the Permanent Secretary (PS) was going. I ended up not making that trip to Japan. The PS was overwhelmed; I have goose pimples each time I remember it. I ambushed the governor to sign for the trip.
Government has Rest Houses in Warri, Agbor, Sapele, Ughelli that are abandoned. I wanted to use the land to build my theatres. But they had taken the one at Agbor; Sapele was under litigation; they had taken the one in Ughelli. Warri’s take-over was being planned. In terms of plan, I’m the king of plans. This was why I was promoted in one year. The guy who was the commissioner before me said I wanted to take his job. I didn’t even know how government worked. All I wanted was to show brilliance. I held the first Entertainment Summit in Delta. A friend said that he loved my enthusiasm, but that government didn’t function like that. They gave me my budget of about N12 million; that was my first budget for Delta Talent Quest coordination. It was to go round Delta, bring the contestants to do regional quarter-final, and state final and bring all the finalists to Asaba and camp them for 21 days. I said that ‘if government gave me money every time I wanted to do Talent Quest, in one year, I will crown four Deltans; that was my mantra – four trains running. I said I would keep every youth that loves performing arts in Delta busy for four or eight years because every quarter, you can start a talent show and end it. After the first one year of doing the show myself in music, acting and comedy and dancing, the next year I would give to Williams, give to Ali Baba, Young, and one guy who was in guild of dance, who would run each while I did other things.
Delta Broadcasting Service (DBS) had no content. I brought all my content from the show and gave it to DBS free. But the guy there said I wanted his job. The idea was that as I’m doing the talent show, it is being recorded while DBS airs the different shows – comedy, music, dance and acting; everything we were doing at Council of Arts and Culture, festivals would come as content; that was solid content for DBS. For radio, I said every Delta person, who had a demo would have it played on radio every week and then you have the top 10 music of all the demos. They would be played and people would vote the best songs. Whoever gets lucky will have a signed contract with a music label. I brought in Kenny Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye (D1) of Kennis Music. All those were part of the plan. It was such that when we were done, DBS would have so much content. But DBS did not show it! It was DSTV that was showing it; I put it on DSTV. It was out of embarrassment that DBS started showing Delta Talent Quest after DSTV had started showing it! I walked out of government with my head held high.
Was it not possible to have asked your friends in the corporate world to help you out in some of these things, using government clout?
Nobody gives government money! You should know that by now that nobody gives government money and I just told you that I got three cars from friends in Delta State. They did not give me the cars because they are government contractors; they gave me because of my personal relationship with them. The way it should work is this: if the government is doing anything, the Commissioner for Finance or Secretary to the Government is supposed to give me all the names of all the contractors that work for the government. They are supposed to plough back into the project. How are you coping at The Guardian? Would they not drop your story in a heartbeat if there is advert from Mobile? They will drop it for a paid advert. Everybody treats arts and culture like that; I mean, I’m in executive council meeting and we’ would be talking about child mortality and flooding and all that, and I am telling you that I need to go to Abuja to do dance at Abuja Carnival or any festival of arts and culture. After the first two years, I didn’t go again; they didn’t give me money to go. I went for the first Festival of Arts and Culture in Minna and I took a picture of our bus that I met in Delta that had been there since James Ibori or so. I came back and I showed the governor and I said, ‘Oga, please buy us a bus.’ I was on my own when former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan called me to work with him; I was completely naïve. I didn’t know anything about politics.
So, why didn’t you walk away? Wouldn’t that have been the honorable thing to do if you were not being allowed or empowered to do the work you were called to do?
It would have been an indictment and embarrassment to my oga! He was caught in a maze of politics. I found that it was easier for them to do favour to people than do the real work, because it is always about politics. Even my own ‘Made in Warri’ show died although I have plans to revive it. Today, has the man (Uduaghan) not left? Your work will speak for you any day!
How can Nigeria’s political system be reengineered to work for the people, rather than for one man or just a few individuals?
It is for people who are politicians, people who are persuaded along that line. I went to serve; I had an opportunity to serve. I was not a career politician. I did not set out for elective position. I went to serve. For me, if I would ever go back into politics, I will be head of it; that is the only way the kind of change that I want can happen. Then I will do the kind of things that Ahmed Bola Tinubu did in Lagos, where you engineer the entire state. You put structures and people in place that over time people can see genuine work in progress. What role does a commissioner have to play in government? Commissioners are only important, when it is from their ministry that the governors are doing their major work.
If I was the Commissioner for Transport, where all the ports, the boats, water transport, etc, are built or bought, I would not be sitting here. I will still be in Delta. Are you going to sit down in a federal cabinet meeting, like Edem Duke, where they are talking about Boko Haram and the likes and then you look at them in the face and talk about Abuja Carnival? Really? How you want to do a dance festival, how you are going to revive the National Theatre, and they are talking about how there are no roads, no railways…
All the same, the roads still don’t get done at the end of the day, do they?
We are saying the same thing. Truth is, some get done, but the budgets are given and then they are kept for something else. If you don’t have the heart to take it, you can’t do it. Governor Donald Duke went to Calabar; look at what happened to Calabar? If I can’t be in that type of position, there is no need to go. If the man wants to ‘eat’ money through theatre, all well and good. I would create the biggest street carnival in the world for you to attend; I will bring everybody. Edem Duke has one of the best hotels in Calabar, but as minister, he was a lame duck!
I learnt all these being a reporter of art parastatals. It is the orphaned child! So, I’m in an executive council meeting; health will talk; works will talk. When it’s my turn, what will I say? I want to build theatres, and everybody is looking at me…
So, in reality, the future of our young people is not important to them, seeing that the arts is a large employer of youth labour?
They don’t see it from our point of view. They see it in terms of cholera outbreaks, free primary healthcare, roads; those are where the attention is. They forget that it is not by accident that the economy of California (Hollywood- entertainment) is bigger than that of Texas (oil) in the U.S! They don’t get it, that dot.com is what makes the iPad what it is. Do you know what the value of Whizkid is as a product? Look at Nigerian Export Promotion Council; they don’t know that Don Jazzy and his group have an export value! Look at Buhari; will he take me on a trip? But his colleagues will come here with actors, entertainers from Hollywood. Why did the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, come to Lagos and didn’t want to go to Abuja. Why did they have to beg and find a way to drag him there? The revolution taking place in Yaba, they (governments) don’t know it! If I am the governor, if I am Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, I will put free Wi-Fi in computer village. I will not care how much it costs, then watch what will happen!
Now, you don’t want to go into politics and a majority of your colleagues also don’t want to do it. How can that attitude help, given what you have seen?
There are enough people who have the passion. I want to impact from where I am because I have been doing that before and I still do it. I would rather ignore that (politics) for what I am doing. I have seen the result of what I do. I confess I don’t have the same passion; the passion that burns in me in the arts does not burn in me in government. There are people who do it. I am not under any kind of pressure. I will swim or die with Pat Utomi or Ibe Kachukwu any day. I will swim or die with Tinubu, a structured government. So, there are people that you can work with. Maybe, all that will change tomorrow.
I am looking for how I can practice the arts differently. So, this is what I am doing. I am looking for people that I can teach differently. Unfortunately for me, I don’t have the same passion to contest for governorship of my state. For now, I am passionate about my pursuit in getting young people trained in the arts.