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Originally published Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 9:51 AM

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Abandoned Nigeria national theater eyed in renewal

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.

Associated Press

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LAGOS, Nigeria —

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."

Already, there have been some improvements to halls on the lower floors of the theater, while school groups continue to visit the musty main dome. Yet earlier plans for the theater and its land have sparked intense controversy. In 2001, plans by the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo to privatize the theater angered artists including Nobel laureate and playwright Wole Soyinka.

Many questions still exist about this current renewal proposal as well. Yusuf said officials would see bids received and approved in June, despite no previous publicity about the government's plans. That potentially means only a few months of little oversight for a commercial project that would involve millions of dollars. A Lagos railway line being built by the Chinese would have a major station at the new development as well, making the land even more valuable commercially.

Meanwhile, Lagos state officials demolished a portion of a slum neighborhood nearby in February, leaving hundreds homeless. At the time, officials said the demolition would be for a new, high-end housing complex, which didn't make sense as the area sits next to a brewery and the swamps surrounding the theater. Now, with the proposed theater project, land would be worth even more and likely puts others living there at risk of losing their homes.

"We certainly do have concern about what this would do and how this could cause further evictions," said Felix Morka, the executive director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center, which is working on behalf of those recently evicted. "Everything around the area ... would be under pressure."

Even if the project generates money, there's still the question of the cash actually getting to where it's supposed to go in a nation roundly viewed by activists and analysts as having one of the world's most corrupt governments. With road projects budgeted into the millions of dollars going undone, Nigerian playwright Wole Oguntokun said he doesn't believe the theater will be renovated.

"It's all the usual factors here. They make money out of it by using real estate there ... but there's no track record of people fixing things like that. There's no precedent for it," said Oguntokun, who directed a Yoruba-language version of William Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" in London last year. "It's the government. They could have found money to fix it before. ... They're going to watch the place fall apart."

That pessimism even found its way into the graffiti left in the dirt covering the National Theatre's windows, clouding a rare panoramic view of Lagos. One bit left behind, unsigned, read: "Nigeria is naked. Who will cloth d nation?"

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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