The just-concluded 33rd National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) is one of Nigeria’s major positive developments of 2020. But the wonderful cultural showpiece was almost eclipsed by incidents of insecurity and the overwhelming impact of COVID-19 pandemic the very period the fiesta climaxed in Jos, Plateau State.
Indeed, the spate of both coronavirus and insecurity was an assault on humanity. They touched the raw nerves of Nigerians and evoked global outcry. While we are still reeling from the shock of recent attacks by insurgents and bandits, it is important to, take a few minutes to exult in the feats of NAFEST 2020.
Aptly themed “COVID-19 and Cultural Dynamism,’’ the national fiesta, held in Jos, Plateau State, drew the usual contingent of members of Councils of Arts and Culture from states across the federation. What unravelled over a week was the usual menu of full-course cultural offerings perfected under the NCAC Director-General, Otunba Segun Runsewe: a burst of colourful portrayals of indigenous culture, a seamless stream of ethnic activities, a kaleidoscope of the ways of life of Nigeria’s vast and varied over 371 tribes.
At the end of the weeklong carnival, from Nov 21 to 28, no one was in doubt that NAFEST still serves the purpose of its creation––a powerful unifying force for the most ethnically-diverse black nation on earth.
Against the backdrop of a COVID-19-scarred year, a precarious period when activities were grounded globally for more than six months and even the most powerful countries are still grappling with how to restart their economy, that NAFEST 2020 held was a tour de force. And what a showpiece it was, of the bond and the beauty of the coexistence that exists among the country’s 200 million people, all displayed without breaching the COVID-19 protocols.
Anyway, no one expects anything less, because over four years, since he took over the mantle of NCAC, Runsewe had revitalised the flagship culture fest with a new algorithm. Kaduna. Port Harcourt. Benin. Now Jos. NAFEST had lived up to its billing.
This year, not less than 23 states including Benue, Cross River, Delta, Ekiti, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Kwara, Lagos, Kano, Nasarawa, Yobe, Rivers, Zamfara, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Enugu and the Federal Capital Territory, participated at the festival. Bayelsa––a consistent top three in the last four editions––won the first position in competitive events such as traditional cuisine, arts and crafts, essay writing, quiz, traditional board game, indigenous fabrics and fashion parade, indigenous music, archery and choral contest.
NAFEST revived and revved, is still a cultural opera. But NCAC had expanded its scope to incorporate free skills acquisition, based on the belief that culture can be leveraged to provide economic empowerment for Nigeria’s teeming youths, to change their status from dependent to self-employed and be transformed into employers of labour. The experimentation of transmuting culture to a key contributor to the country’s GDP has worked in the past four years. Every year, NAFEST affords youths, women, the physically challenged and vulnerable members of the society, the opportunity to avail themselves of focused training in various vocational skills and crafts that enabled them to become productive members of the society. The free skills acquisition scheme has always been an important take-away for states hosting the fiesta. In Jos, at least 1600 Plateau indigenes benefitted from the 2020 NAFEST’s free skill acquisition programme that included tailoring, soap making, cosmetology and the art of head-tie (gele). Beneficiaries went home with certificates of participation given out to them at a graduation ceremony at Langfield Leisure Park, Rayfield, Jos.
The demographics of the beneficiaries indicate how far-reaching the impact of the scheme could be. In Plateau, for instance, one of the beneficiaries, Rita Gotip, is a National Diploma holder. For Gotip, the opportunity to learn Cosmetology was a major milestone in her life, a springboard that set her off on the path of becoming an entrepreneur, the Holy Grail she’d been seeking since the past three years after she completed her national diploma studies at the National Veterinary Research Institute, Vom.
Now that she could produce bathing and washing soaps and shea butter cream for sale, Gotip felt empowered. “All I need now is a little capital to start up,” she had said.
Teenagers, too, like Nurudeen Mohammed, 14, who participated in the programme to perfect his skills in tailoring and Habiba Jubril, still seeking admission into a university, who learned make-up and how to tie gele, at a young age had opportunities of economic empowerment, courtesy of NAFEST. So far, almost 10, 000 Nigerians, since 2017, have benefited from the NAFEST free skills acquisition programme.
For Nigerians who in the past five years or so had ceased to travel across the country or anywhere near the North for security reasons, NAFEST was a looking glass that mirrors the state of the host cities. Rivers NAFEST 2018 came at a time wild rumours were circulating that Port Harcourt was on the precipice of apocalypse. Alarming stories of insecurity, of a purported breakdown of law and order. But the weeklong festival in the garden city showed a different picture, the true picture, a picture of a calm, peaceful city, state. There was no Nigerian city safer than Port Harcourt. The state later twice came first back to back in the annual event and again came second in Jos, prompting indigenes of Rivers in Plateau to commend Wike for always supporting the state contigents.
Last year, like bad plume spewing out of a diesel truck, gloomy news oozed from Benin City, a consequence of bad-tempered politicking ahead of an election that was still almost a year away. But for one week that the ancient city was in the public eye during NAFEST, the world saw a different Benin City. This year, it did offer a rare view of Jos, and indeed, of Plateau, a state whose name had been tainted with senseless bloodshed orchestrated by actors bent on enacting anarchical theatre that frequently turned the state into one vast killing field. From NAFEST, we glimpsed a new visage that speaks of the peace that beckons investors and tourists.
Reinforcing the impact of NAFEST on tourism in the city of Jos, Dame Pauline Tallen, Women Affairs Minister mused: “A look at the map of Nigeria shows the unique place Plateau occupies in the heart of the nation and I am proud of what we are seeing here again in Jos.”
Simon Lalong, while declaring the festival closed at Rwang Pam Stadium, underscored the salient benefit of the fiesta to the national psyche: “This festival which is meant to revive our diminishing cultures and also enable our youths to appreciate what we have has achieved its purpose and even beyond. I am sure the seed that this event has sown in the hearts of our children will germinate and grow to create great icons of arts and culture in the future.”
He echoed what is the apparent fruit of the fiesta: “There is no doubt that NAFEST 2020 has united the contingents from across the country to demonstrate that we are a united people.”
The Minister of Youths and Sports, Mr Sunday Dare, amplified the same sentiment when he compared culture to sports as a good recipe for the attainment of peace and unity.
A few words about Otunba Runsewe, the man who turned NAFEST into a force to reckon with: known famously as an “Action Man” since his days as the chief architect of the Abuja Carnival, to the time of his stewardship at the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) when he put Nigeria on the tourism map of the world – the World Travel Market, UK, Dubai Travel fair, and WTM Africa, 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa when Nigeria stole the show with its tourism village – Rusewe has channelled his indefatigable passion and keen vision to drive the cultural agenda of NCAC.
Owelle Rochas Okorocha, Chairman Senate Committee on Culture and Tourism, applauded NAFEST 2020 for how it had been utilised to tell the peaceful story of Plateau. The former governor of Imo State commending the two leading dramatis personae of NAFEST 2020, said: “Governor Lalong has done well despite the challenges of covid 19 to the economy and I must also appreciate the DG NCAC, Otunba Segun Runsewe for making this happen. Runsewe deserves our support and encouragement and that is why I had to be here today.”
Okorocha in the same breath gave Runsewe his next assignment: “NAFEST must be used to market Nigeria, so next time, I will want to see all the foreign diplomatic communities attend this cultural program.”
It has come and gone, the NAFEST 2020, but it left behind a resounding echo. In the year that has so far been a pandora’s box – an unforgettable year when Nigerians were traumatised by recession, COVID-19, Boko Haram butchery, EndSARS upheaval among others – the weeklong cultural jamboree is like the mythical hope in the box, metaphorically.
Despite the year’s bleak outlook, NAFEST 2020 offered glimmers of hope and gossamer of optimism, about the great potential of this country, reminding us why Nigeria must continue to seek until it finds the key to the harmony this country deserves.