At Abuja arts and crafts village, change stirs tension

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Sitting in the shadow of Shoprite, off the Sani Abacha Way in Wuse, Abuja, is a cluster of red huts.

Tourists, as well as locals, can be seen roaming the paths of this quaint village in search of cultural crafts and souvenirs to own. Welcome to Abuja Arts and Crafts Village. PREMIUM TIMES visited the spot recently.

“This place is a national monument,” says Eguakun Kennedy, who serves as the public relations officer of the African Arts and Cultural Heritage Association in the Arts and Crafts Village, Abuja.

“Our mandate is to protect, showcase, and enrich Nigeria’s cultural heritage,” Mr. Kennedy quickly adds with a winning smile.

The village has three distinct craft sections: arts and crafts, painting, and textile.

Although the market officially closes to customers at 8p.m., because of its 24-hour access to electricity, in recent years many of its keepers have been working out of their shops round the clock.

However, the recent appointment of Olusegun Runsewe as director general of the National Council for Arts and Culture, proves to be the dawn of fewer open hours for the Arts and Crafts Village.

The pending change has stirred controversy and resentment among shop keepers who are divided along craft lines.

“I think shutting down would be a good thing for us because the place is turning into something else,” said Tola Ijaiya, a painter who has had a shop in the village since 2008.

He said he has seen people copulating in abandoned cars in the parking lot, and has also seen pick-pockets use the village grounds as a hideaway after assaulting unsuspecting passersby in the area late at night.

Even though Mr. Ijaiya regularly uses the overnight hours of the village to complete many of his pieces, he said he is “in total support of limited hours for now.”

The man implementing this change, Mr. Runsewe, denied that the village was ever meant to be open for 24 hours.

“We don’t do 24 hours,” Mr. Runsewe said with a tone of finality in his voice.

“By 8:30 in the evening, the place should be closed for business. It’s a business environment,” he adds firmly.

To him, 24 open hours would require security round the clock, a luxury the village cannot afford for now.

Mr. Runsewe, who is motivated by the advent of the African Festival for Arts and Culture, AFAC, which is slated to take place in the village this August, says: “the standard (globally) is always high.”

He however believes Nigeria should be up to it.

Some 25 countries world-wide have been invited to participate in the AFAC expo at the village.

A former director general of the nationwide Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation, Mr. Runsewe boasts of having represented Nigeria in “more than 15 exhibitions abroad.”

As part of his inspection process upon his arrival in April, he often visited the village incognito to get an outsider’s view of happenings in the village.

While in disguise, Mr. Runsewe said he noticed that “a lot of things need change”.

He said the village in its current state needs to be reformed with ‘himself’ as its proud reformer.

On the other hand, Musa Kontagora, a tailor who has worked in the village for nearly 10 years, disagrees that limiting hours is the way to solve these problems.

He argues limiting the hours hampers the amount of work the shop keepers are able to produce, and consequently, how much money they are able to take home to their families.

Yet others also argue that tailors should not have shops in the village at all.

Tochukwu Okide, chairman of the Society of Nigerian Artists which represents many artists with shops at the village, said the textile section of the village –those who make cloths – are not fulfilling the intended purpose of the section.

Mr. Okide argues that the section was meant to present cultural clothing, and not “regular” outfits.

“If I want to see cloth from Kogi state, there is someone making it.

If I want to see cloth from Kwara, there is someone making it,” he explained with a dramatic fluster.

“The intended purpose of the textile section is to represent outfits from Nigeria’s numerous and colourful ethnic groups.

Currently, this is not available at the village,’’ Mr. Okide says with a gleam in his eyes.

Tailors became part of the village through allocations made by the Social Development Secretariat, SDS, some years back.

The office of the Federal Capital Territory gave the SDS temporary charge of the village in lieu of it being demolished.

Mr. Kontagora, who is also a chairman of the Tailoring Association of Nigeria explained that the tailors have been paying their rents to the SDS ever since.

Consequently, he is confused why the NCAC, with whom ‘he had no business,’ would come and ‘dictate open hours to the shopkeepers.’

However, the NCAC, through Mr. Runsewe, insist they have the Certificate of Occupancy for the village, which gives them complete jurisdiction.

The details of the issue of rents and control are still not very clear.

PREMIUM TIMES reached out to the SDS for comments and clarification about when the agency stopped collecting rent from shop keepers in the village, but received no response.

But going by Mr. Kontagora’s account, the tailors have been paying rent to SDS even after the NCAC took charge of the village several years ago.

For Mr. Kontagora, he sees this conflict as an issue of government not wanting the masses to survive.
“The masses have no stake in the Nigerian government”, he says.

Although he also agrees that the village needs to be made better, Kontagora says he is wary of the reformer, but he prays better days are ahead for the village.


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