National Arts Theatre, Igamu
National Arts Theatre

By AYOOLA OLAOLUWA

The recent transfer of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos by the Federal Government to the Bankers’ Committee, led by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), has hit a large bump as the current concessionaire of the national edifice, Topwide Consortium, has dragged the government to court for breach of contract.

It would be recalled that the Federal Government had on February 10, 2021, gave approval to the CBN-led Bankers’ Committee to reconstruct the theatre into a world-class convention centre.

Subsequently, on February 15, 2021, the Bankers’ Committee, led by Godwin Emefiele, Governor of the CBN, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Cappa & D’Alberto Limited as the main contractors, Nairda Limited as the electrical sub-contractor and VACC Limited as the mechanical sub-contractor for the project.

Speaking shortly after securing the approval of the National Executive Council (NEC), the elated Emefiele, said that the edifice would be ten times the size of the famous Lima Convention Center in Peru and boost the growth of the ICT, music, entertainment, movie and fashion sectors, among many others when fully completed.

Many Nigerians had also applauded the move to hand over the theatre to a new management, and described it as timely.

However, barely a month after the well publicised handover ceremony, a dark cloud is hanging over the ambitious plan to restore the neglected national monument back to its former self, with a business concern, Topwide Consortium, claiming the new arrangement is an usurpation of its rights as the rightful concessionaire to the National Arts Theatre.

The firm described the handover as illegal and totally unjust, wondering why the government would hand over the theater to another body when there is an existing contract and after it (firm) had mobilized direct local and foreign investments in excess of $2 billion (N970billion) under the concession agreement.

And in a desperate move to stop the process, as well as to protect its interest, the company is threatening to put legal obstacles on the path of the new management, while noting that a motion for an interlocutory injunction to restrain any interference with the subject of the suit filed by their lawyers is pending before the courts.

According to Mr. Chris Ogan, Topwide Consortium’s Project Director, they were surprised at the news of the takeover of the complex by the Bankers’ Committee, after the Attorney-General of the Federation signed-off finally on the concession agreement on May 3, 2017, and road shows were organised in Lagos, Abuja, Johannesburg, Dubai, London and New York to woo investors.

“When the news first broke in 2019 that the government was planning to transfer the theatre to the Bankers’ Committee, we filled a motion for an interlocutory injunction in December of that same year to restrain any interference with the subject of the suit through our lawyers and the suit is still pending before the courts.

“Defendants in the suit include the Minister for Information, Tourism and Culture, and Access Bank Plc among others. Other defendants are Herbert Wigwe representing the Bankers Committee, the Board of the National Theatre, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) and Attorney-General of the Federation.

“The case was to come up on December 15, 2020, but the Federal High Court, Lagos, which is hearing the case did not sit and it later adjourned the case to March 18, 2021. We were also contracted to develop a high rise car park and provide appropriate connections to the Lagos light rail Metro Blue Line station planned for the National Theatre Complex.

“The agreement is that upon completion of the rehabilitation, the upgraded National Theatre would be handed over to the Federal Government for the continued management by the Board of the Complex. Our lawyers, on our instructions, wrote letters-dated Oct. 24, 2019, to all the concerned Federal Government agencies/agents to desist from tampering with our concession contract.’

“None of the officers/agencies ever replied the letters and shunned our entreaties for meetings to clear whatever misunderstanding that informed their actions. We are using this opportunity to reiterate our answer that the suit is very much pending and for which we have retained two commercial law Senior Advocates of Nigeria,’’ Ogan warned.
He further warned that going ahead with the new arrangement with the Bankers’ Committee would result in contempt of the court as well as portraying the country to foreign investors as anti-businesses.

Meanwhile, the threat by the concessionaire, Business Hallmark findings revealed, rattled the Bankers’ Committee, with some members advising that all actions, particularly the deployment of funds towards the resuscitation of the dilapidated edifice be put on hold until all grey areas are amicably resolved.
A top aide to a member of the Committee, who did not want his identity revealed because he did not have the authority to speak on the matter, told our correspondent that members are currently jittery and undecided on the propriety of putting billions of naira in a project that is tied up in litigation.

“The writings were on the wall (crisis), but most members ignored it, possibly because of the assurances from the CBN. Before we committed to the deal, the government had assured us that there were no existing legal obstacles on the path of us taking over.

“But with this new development, several members have called for caution. They are afraid of putting over N21billion in a project that may end up being tied up in an endless legal battle.

“Apart from the demand for the suspension of any deployment of funds and resources towards the execution of the project, they are also seeking assurance from government”, the source stated.

However, another source in the Bureau of Public Enterprises ((BPE) who spoke with BH, maintained that Topwide Consortium do not have a credible case. According to her, there are always clauses in every contract to protect involved parties. And when a party fails to fulfill those conditions, the contract is as good as nullified.

“The only clause in the contract is if the consortium is unable to fund the project after two years of signing the concession agreement, the contract will be terminated. The concession agreement was signed in May 2017.

We are in 2021. In another two months, it will be exactly four years that the deal was signed. So, what are they saying? As far as the BPE is concerned, they don’t have a case.
However, the new investors (Bankers’ Committee) have a cause to be concerned. No one will like his investments to be trapped in a prolonged legal battle. That will amount to an unwise business decision.

“But I can tell you that there are ongoing moves to resolve the imbroglio. The consortiums are aware that they have no case. I think they will be wise to agree to a fair deal. They should cut their losses and run with whatever they could salvage”, the source advised.

But for now, the fate of the long abandoned and deteriorating edifice hangs in the balance, with affected parties waiting for the outcome of ongoing dispute resolution measures.