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Abandoned Nigeria national theater eyed in renewal

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 4, 2013 at 12:25 pm •  Published: April 4, 2013

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's iconic National Theatre rises out of the brackish swamps of Lagos near its islands, a massive concrete and marble structure resembling a military officer's cap and a reminder of when the West African nation had seemingly endless oil dollars to spend.

Today, the theater and its surrounding marshlands have become known more as a good place to dump corpses than to catch the latest play, something the officials managing it even acknowledge. Its massive bowl theater, which seats more than 5,000, has sat decrepit and unused since a stampede in 1994. Luxury purple espresso machines installed ahead of a major arts festival in 1977 only gather dust as footsteps echo hollowly down its massive hallways.

Now, Nigeria's federal government has plans to make the theater as part of a new and sudden push to redevelop the area into a commercial property that could be worth millions of dollars — and provide the money needed to refurbish the structure. However, some have doubts about the project, which has already likely encouraged local officials to demolish the homes of slum dwellers living around it.

"Why should Nigerians say we can't?" asked Kabir Yusuf, the general manager and CEO of the theater. "That I really can't understand, when every day (people) are dropping dead bodies here."

The theater, constructed by a Bulgarian company ahead of the 1977 World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, still inspires awe at a distance when viewed at night, the orange hue of sodium-vapor lights rising through the folds of its sides. Inside the structure, however, its age and disrepair quickly become apparent. Shattered windows allow birds to fly through its fifth floor. Seats inside its massive, stifling hot hall are broken. Dust rises from the floor with each footstep on the musty red carpet. Condom wrappers and other trash lie in the aisles and the scratching of rats in walls carry through the silence.

The theater is a far cry from its glittering 1977 debut, where translators worked in sealed rooms to allow conference participants to understand each other as traditional dancers performed on stage.

In order to raise money for its restoration, Yusuf said the federal government plans to lease land surrounding the theater to private investors. The project is guided by the theater's original plans, now more than 30 years old, which call for a five-star hotel and other amenities.

Already, investors from South Africa whom Yusuf declined to name want to build a restaurant. There are also plans for a massive mall and an amusement park on the site as well, he said. Money from the leases would be funneled back into remodeling the theater, which could host films, plays, musicals and other events, he said.

"Whenever you see the National Theatre, it's a symbol ... of culture," Yusuf said. "How can we save it? This is the way to save. We either save it or we leave it."

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