Some Nigerians, particularly those residing in Lagos, might only know of an area called Festac Town. However, many of them might not have heard about the event that brought about its naming: FESTAC ’77.
Also known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ’77 was a cultural gathering that held in Lagos from January 15 to February 12, 1977, a month-long event that celebrated African culture and showcased to the world African music, fine art, literature, drama, dance and religion. The festival attracted about 17,000 participants, representing 56 African nations. Artistes who performed at the festival included Stevie Wonder from the United States, Gilberto Gil from Brazil, Bembeya Jazz National from Guinea, Mighty Sparrow from Trinidad, Les Ballets Africains from Guinea, and Franco Luambo Makiadi from Congo.
Nigerian musicians who performed included Victor Olaiya, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Chief Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade and the late Dan Maraya Jos. At the time the festival was held, it was the largest pan-African gathering.
The inspiration for the event was based on the development of ideas on Négritude (a literary and ideological philosophy, developed by francophone African intellectuals, writers, and politicians in France during the 1930s) and Pan-Africanism with the intention of promoting Black culture and civilisation. In 1966, the First World Festival of Black Arts was held in Dakar, Senegal, on April 1-24, 1966. At the end of the first festival, Nigeria was invited to hold the second festival in 1970 so as to promote a continuation of black unity through cultural festivals. However, a civil war that took place between 1967 and 1970 led to the postponement of the festival to 1977, with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as the then-Head of State. The hosting of the festival led to the establishment of the Nigerian National Council of Arts and Culture, Festac Village (to accommodate the 17,000 participants) and the National Theatre. Most of the events were held at the National Theatre, the National Stadium (Surulere), Lagos City Hall and the Tafawa Balewa Square. At the heart of the event was a colloquium, which was held daily during the first two weeks of activities. About 700 writers, artists and scholars participated in the lectures. Speakers at the colloquium included late Clarival do Prado Valladares from Brazil, Lazarus Ekwueme from Nigeria, late Babs Fafunwa from Nigeria and Eileen Southern from the US.
Apart from the colloquium, there were also durbars and boat regattas. Several art exhibitions also took place at the National Theatre, at the Nigerian National Museum and around the Tafawa Balewa Square. At the Square, each country represented at the festival was given a booth to exhibit its paintings, musical instruments, woven cloths, books and art objects.
One of the people who witnessed the festival was a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Prof. Duro Oni. He served as the Technical Director for the Main Bowl at the National Theatre. He was also a member of the technical team for Nigeria’s drama entry of Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo. He coordinated the technical aspects of performances at the Basketball Pitch at the National Stadium and for the Fringe FESTAC held at UNILAG, he served as the overall coordinator of the performances. The don shares some of his memories of the event in this interview with JESUSEGUN ALAGBE
What is the most memorable thing you remember about FESTAC ‘77?
There are more things to remember about FESTAC ’77 than a single one; FESTAC ’77 evokes a multiplicity of memories. There was the opening of the National Theatre four months earlier. Then there were various performances at the National Theatre, National Stadium, Tafawa Balewa Square, the Durbar in Kaduna and Boat Regatta in Rivers State. Then there was the intellectual aspect: a colloquium themed, “Black Civilisation and Education,” which got scholars from around the world examining the contributions of the Black race to world civilisation.
What role did you play during the preparations?
I played a number of roles at the event and also at the University of Lagos Fringe FESTAC which ran simultaneously. These roles included being the Technical Director for the Main Bowl at the National Theatre along with Dexter Lyndersay and Sunbo Marinho. I was also a member of the technical team for Nigeria’s drama entry of Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo with late Inyang Ema, Agbo Folarin, etc. I also coordinated the technical aspects of performances at the Basketball Pitch at the National Stadium which was an open-air theatre. For the UNILAG Fringe FESTAC, I served as the Overall Coordinator of the performances which included Mighty Sparrow, Troupes from Trinidad and Tobago, Ethiopia and many others too numerous and too long ago to remember and mention here.
Have you ever witnessed any other festival of African culture on such scale anywhere?
There has not been any other festival of the scale of FESTAC ’77, with 59 countries participating and some 30 visiting Heads of State. There are, of course, other festivals which include Panafest, held bi-annually in Ghana, and the National Black Festival held in Atlanta, the United States of America. None of these have been on the scale of FESTAC ’77. At the national level, there have been the yearly National Festivals of Arts and Culture organised by the National Council for Arts and Culture as well as the Abuja Carnival in the last 10 to 12 years. Others have included the CARNIRIV in Rivers State and the Cross River State’s annual Calabar Carnival, which have become major tourist attractions.
Despite FESTAC ’77, Nigeria does not have a standard museum that catalogues our cultural identity. Why do you think this is so?
This is not strictly true. Nigeria has standard museums which include the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, and other regional museums under the auspices of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. These include the museums in Ibadan, Enugu, Kaduna, Jos etc. There is also the War Museum in Umuahia, Abia State. There is, of course, the need for the improvement of these museums. Some improvements, in terms of funding of the cultural sector, would also help.
What was the purpose of the festival?
Essentially, the FESTAC ’77 was the gathering of peoples of Black and African descent for the celebration of their cultural heritage. It covered virtually all facets of Black and African culture, including drama, dance, cultural presentations, boat regatta, durbar and very importantly, a colloquium.
With about 17,000 participants, would you still remember how the crowd was managed?
The first thing the government did was to introduce the odd and even number movement of vehicles to get rid of the perennial Lagos go-slow. For the first few days and weeks, most people were confused as to what constituted odd or even numbers. So they stayed at home. For the 17,000 participants that you mentioned, there were loads of FESTAC ’77 55-seater buses conveying participants across Lagos. FESTAC town houses, numbering some 5,000 units, were developed for the visiting artistes and technical crews from different countries. There were different programmes at different venues, so members of the audience were not concentrated in one place. The FESTAC Local and International Festival Organising Committees effectively managed the crowd with the help of security agencies.
The event held at four venues: the National Theatre, National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos City Hall and Tafawa Balewa Square. Could you describe how the atmosphere was for the one month that the programme lasted?
It was indeed a festive atmosphere. The streets were decorated by artistic embellishments by Erhabor Emokpae. The National Theatre, constructed for the festival, was the hub of activities, while the National Stadium, TBS and Lagos City Hall also served as different venues. There were also the durbars in the North as well as the boat regattas in Rivers State. UNILAG also ran a Fringe FESTAC where some of the acts performed at UNILAG before their main engagement for the festival.
Did you have an idea as to why Nigeria opted to host the festival?
The first festival was held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966 and was tagged, “Festival of Negro Arts,” championed then by Leopold Sedar Senghor. At that festival, Nigeria was the star country and was billed to host the next festival in 1970. The civil war that ensued necessitated the postponements to 1975 after which the General Gowon regime was toppled and finally to January/February 1977, with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as the Head of State following the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed. The star country was the one billed to host the next festival. In Nigeria at FESTAC ’77, Ethiopia was the Star Country that was expected to host in 1980.
Which Nigerian artistes performed at the event?
Essentially, Nigeria had a drama entry that was directed by late Professor Dapo Adelugba with actors, performers, designers and a technical crew of almost 500 performing Ogunyemi’s Langbodo. The dance entry, “Children of Paradise,” was choreographed and designed by Demas Nwoko. Musicians who performed include Victor Olaiya, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Chief Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade, Dan Maraya Jos. I think Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe and Celestine Ukwu also performed. Apart from Nigerian artistes, others who performed were Stevie Wonder, Mariam Makeba. Ipi Tombi. The South African Dance Troupe had performed at the Opening Ceremony of the National Theatre and also made some appearances at the event.
The event started on a Saturday (January 15). Would you recall the atmosphere in Lagos on the Friday that preceded the day?
The atmosphere was celebratory. It was a festive mood that looked like the one at the Independence Eve. There were gaily-dressed visitors from the Caribbean, US, North and South Africa and others.
Were the roads barricaded?
Some venues were barricaded, but the introduction of the odd and even number vehicular movement assisted in curbing the chaotic traffic jam prior to the event. The security was quite tight, as a lot of international visitors were around. The opening day parade was held at the National Stadium and all the countries took part in it. It is perhaps important to remember that Nigeria was under military rule then, which meant the presence of many soldiers.
About 700 writers, artists and scholars participated in the lectures, could you recall some of them?
Yes, quite a number participated from some 59 countries. Prominent among them were Prof. Wole Soyinka, Francis Abiola Irele, Moyibi Amoda, etc. It should be recalled that Senegal, which hosted the first festival, pulled out at the last moment and most of the members of the International Planning Committee from Senegal had to withdraw their services. Prominent government officials included Anthony Enahoro, General I.B.M Haruna and Commander O.P. Fingesi. At the cultural level, there were Dr. Garba Ashiwaju and Mr. Frank Aig-Imoukhuede.
What would have happened to Nigeria’s local culture, tradition and religion if Nigeria did not have the opportunity to hold the festival?
Nothing really would have happened. The festival helped to galvanise the rich potentials of our culture and showcase it to the world.
The housing estate (FESTAC Town) was the venue for performance rehearsals and it served as accommodation for the participants. Compared to what we have today, how would you describe the city at that time?
During the festival, it was actually called FESTAC Village. It was not as large as the present FESTAC Town. All the houses were built by the government, unlike now that there are some private developments. The village served as accommodation for most of the artistes even though some of them were just being completed. Countries were allocated blocks of houses for their contingents and there were restaurants at the village as well as the different venues for the participants. I recall that Chief Obasanjo, then a General, visited the camps at FESTAC Village and interacted with the contingents.
Looking at FESTAC Town now, do you think government shouldn’t have sold the houses to individuals?
Government did sell the houses to Nigerians through balloting and the houses are owned by individuals. I do have friends who were successful in the balloting and still live in the houses that they bought then. Nigeria won some African Football Championships (the Segun Odegbami era) the year after FESTAC or so and the team members were given houses in FESTAC Town as well as National Honours. It was also in a similar manner that Chief Obasanjo also had people ballot for the houses built in Abuja for the All-Africa Games. I believe selling the houses was the best thing instead of wanting to maintain such a huge estate.
Would you know of other lasting benefits Nigeria or Nigerians derived from hosting that festival?
There were quite a number of benefits which were got from the festival. First is the FESTAC Town that we just discussed. You can imagine the number of people who live in the estate. There is also the National Theatre complex and perhaps the most important part is the establishment of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation, a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. CBAAC is the intellectual arm of the Ministry charged with research into the contributions and development of the Black race to world civilisation.
Most of the icons and cultural elements celebrated at the time are all but lost today. What could have been done to prevent that?
That is not true. All the materials used by the participating countries are all housed in CBAAC. The intellectual materials are also published in ten volumes titled, “The Arts and Civilisation of Black and African Peoples.”
Why hasn’t there been another Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria since 1977?
Nigeria was not expected to host another festival after FESTAC ’77. Ethiopia was the star country at the festival and was expected to have hosted in 1980. The social upheaval in Ethiopia at that time made it impossible and the festival has been in limbo since. A private initiative by a South African, M.K. Malefane, as the Chairman of the FESTAC International Committee did not appear to yield fruits either.
Some people believe that the festival encouraged people from different parts of the world to bring their idols to Nigeria and that it contributed to the woes bedevilling the country. Do you think such people have a point?
That is a very misguided view. And also escapist! What we are suffering from are years of mismanagement of the economy and looting of national resources. I was the Chief Executive of CBAAC for six years (2000-2006), living with the so-called deities! Some religious zealots always want to advance their causes by looking for blames where none exists. These are valuable works of art. It is similar to what the Islamic State is doing in Syria — destroying artwork and artefacts in museums in the name of the works being anti-religious!
We learnt you met your wife at the festival, could you tell us how it happened?
Yes, I met my wife at FESTAC ‘77. She was a first year student of Theatre Arts at the University of Calabar and their Head of Department, a Trinidadian, Dexter Lyndersay, brought them to UNILAG to witness the event. Though we met in 1977, we got married seven years later in 1984. The marriage is blessed with four grown-up children. All of them graduated from UNILAG.
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