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Nigeria’s Abundant Potentials In Culture, Tourism Largely Untapped – Dr Uwa Usen


A world class tourism consultant and one time President, Society of Nigerian Artists, (SNA), who also served as its chairman in Akwa Ibom State, Dr Uwa Usen is an amazing personality. From Ikot Akpaden, Mkpat Enin LGA in Akwa Ibom State, Uwa, is a scion of the legendary Chief J. U. Usen of blessed memory, a renowned security expert who retired as a Commissioner of Police in Nigeria.
Uwa, the seventh of his eight siblings, moved round the country and overseas with his father; crisscrossing Lagos, Kaduna, Jos, Owerri, Ondo, Northern states and the Caribbean. His father served as the Head of the Royal Grenada Police Force in the West Indies, 90 nautical miles from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. Uwa had his primary, secondary and university education influenced by his father’s service location. While he did his primary education in Nigeria, part of his secondary education was at Westmorland Secondary School, St Georges, Grenada, and later completed at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Ikoyi, Lagos.
It was there in Lagos that he made up his mind to become an artist, after meeting Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, his teacher and mentor, a Living UNESCO legend, whom he calls the father of arts in Nigeria. Uwa attended the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he graduated in Fine Arts, specialising in Sculptures. He served as a Studio Manager in Benue State during his NYSC. He later went back to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria for a Master’s degree in Fine Arts and Sculpture in 1988 and after a time in business on his return to Akwa Ibom State in 1989, joined the University from where he later proceeded for a Ph.D at the University of Port Harcourt. In this interview with Crystal Express, anchored by Joseph Atainyang, Uwa Usen spoke extensively on Nigeria’s abundant culture and tourism potentials, revealing that it is the largest but most neglected sector in the economy.

As an expert, tell us a bit about culture and tourism?
The operational definition of culture by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has it as “the total way of life of a people in a particular place and at a particular time that is passed on from generation to generation.” That tells you that a culture of a people involves the totality of all patterns of life lived by all categories of people in that place. Then, tourism basically deals with travels, holidays, and visits to places of interests and needs, through a commercial organization and operation doing activity which they do not have at home, but only for a short period of time. It involves organized travels that take people outside their location for the purpose of having new experiences. For tourism to thrive, there must be an enabling environment, the attractions that are painstakingly developed in preparation to receive visitors.
Let’s take Cross River State for instance; it was the first capital of Nigeria but with slow growth. But when Mr. Donald Duke came on board, there were changes. Preceding that were the landmark development undertaken by the then South Eastern State Military Governor, U. J. Esuene. All that prepared the State for tourism. The Calabar Carnival initiated by Donald Duke launched the State into the World Tourism Map. He made sure that people painted their environments; he made sure the roads were fine; he made sure the airport was working and went around to sensitize people so that everyone can be involved and trained. Culture and tourism is the biggest industry in the world because it involves everybody; the Police, Army, hotels, public places and everybody. Calabar Carnival took a model from that of Trinidad and Tobago; at a certain point in time, I consulted on float design for Governor Liyel Imoke’s band as the carnival exploded.

What do you think constitutes the cultural configuration of the Nigerian Federation?
Nigerian culture is shaped by its multiple ethnic groups. It involves everything and everybody. The industry involves aviation, road transportation, sea transportation, hotels and hospitality, food, fashion, tourist sites, shopping and many other things. Nobody is left out. Managers of banks are also part of it, because you must change currencies. It is the fastest growing industry of socio-economic importance.

Do you think Nigeria’s infrastructural development is attractive enough to propel and drive the tourism potentials here?
Yes I think so. Let’s take a look at the Nigerian Tourism Master Plan. The Federal Government has the initiative of improving the socio-economic conditions of its citizens and the diversification of its economic base. The greatest problem we have in Nigeria is that of poor maintenance culture. We have good roads and other infrastructures. But we do not maintain these things. Look at the Calabar-Uyo Road for instance. It was constructed around 1975 and it was fantastic; but it has gone bad. It used to be a 45-minutes’ drive then, but today, you spend up to three to four hours. When you visit the Scandinavian countries like Denmark, you see buildings that have lasted for thousands of years; I believe you read about Macbeth; the buildings that he lived are still intact. They have building standards and they respect them. Imagine the landmass of Nigeria, the languages we speak, the topography of our environment in Jos, Maiduguri, the flat Savannah, beautiful places! But how do we turn that to money spinning ventures?

Nigeria is a complex nation with cultural diversity. How does this influence development?
Firstly, through human survival as a means of cultural existence. Secondly, it will contribute to prevent conflict, peace building and development.
Like I have always said, variety is the spice of life. The cultural diversity is a blessing that we should use to better our corporate existence. Because of my background, I meet different people. I speak different languages. I speak Hausa fluently and some Yoruba. I even did Islam in school. All these blends help me have a wider scope of friends and my reasoning is different from those who are not exposed. I have tolerance and I promote peace.

With your exposure, your worldview of life is obviously different. Do you think people should adjust in order to exude a blending character that accommodates one another?
Yes, it is tolerance that we all need. If I am a Christian and you are a Muslim, all we need is respect our different belief systems. We don’t need to condemn one another. An example of this is the Big Brother Niger reality TV show.
The primary purpose of this programme is to promote peace and unity. In spite of the diverse cultures and backgrounds of the people in the house, the initiative promotes cross-cultural and religious interaction. Until we accept each other the way we are, we may not move forward as a people.

Are there catalogues of Tourism sites in the country?
Yes, there are so many catalogues of tourism sites in the country. The tourism sites of Nigeria are almost uncountable. But there are records. What you will get are different compendiums from different States. If you want to bring all of them together, you will be talking about up to 50,000 and volumes of books on that. In Lagos, you have the Badagry sites, Onikan Museum and so many places. Some states have up to 200 sites and more. In Akwa Ibom, a 142 page Tourism Guide produced in 2018, is available for public view. It chronicles all that Akwa Ibom holds in culture and tourism.
How about Akwa Ibom State? What steps are being taken to develop culture and tourism here?
Like the governor said during the 32nd anniversary broadcast, “At 32, we can beat our chests and proclaim loud and clear that we have come of age. A 32 year old person must have learnt how to crawl, walk and run.”
In Akwa Ibom State, we have the Ibeno Beach, Slave Dungeon – Bridge of no Return in Ikot Abasi, National Gallery, Uyo, Oron Museum, the Water Front of Oron Museum, Nwaniba Fountain Play Park, Ikot Ekpene Plaza, Colonial Post Office, Old Opobo Boat Yard, Mary Slessor Memorial Carine, Mary Slessor’s Twin Baby Home, Mary Slessor’s Private Chapel, Old Slave Market, Raffia Craft Market in Ikot Ekpene, Royal Christal Globe, Discovery Park, Sculpture Garden of UNIUYO, Tropicana Entertainment Center, Lord Lugard’s Quarters, Old John Holt Building, Colonial Residence, and many others.
We were lagging behind in Akwa Ibom on documenting the State, until Gab Umodem did a compendium on culture and tourism of the State. In 2017, as a consultant to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, we tried to make marks. We capitalized on the disadvantages and challenges of other States to develop our own brand of tourism. Akwa Ibom was relatively safe with good roads. It was a good timing for the 30th anniversary of the State. We drafted some programmes for the ministry, the first being the creation of a brand identity for the State. That was competed for. His Excellency, the Governor then demanded for a world class exhibition. And we mounted the ‘Usoro Uso’ exhibition at the Ibibio Unity Museum in Uyo. We simulated the exhibition before we had it. That involved a lot and was time consuming. Every fabric in the world was in that exhibition.
International bodies came and top artists in Nigeria attended. Journalists from outside the country were here. Lagos, being the hub of arts in Nigeria was surprised at the standard of that exhibition. We had the ‘Orange September’ which gave us the opportunity to explore the State extensively. We exhumed dishes some persons had not heard of for a very long time and presented all of them to the public. We added beauty pageant to that event where our girls competed. Someone went home with a brand new car. We looked at our unique fashion industry, paraded a big white shark to portray our culture as fishermen, especially of the coastal areas like Andoni, Ikot Abasi, Utaewa, Ibeno, Oron, just name them.
All these were to showcase our enormous cultural potentials as a people. In that same vain in December of 2017, we rolled out the ‘Ukapaisua Carnival’ that Akwa Ibom people had long been yearning for. Other programmes included DISE, a pictorial exhibition I curated that chronicled Akwa Ibom at 30. Others included Ndidia Nyin, Music Festival, Ndoko Akwa Ibom (Miss Akwa Ibom beauty pageant) all in 2017 among others.
So many steps are underway. Tourist sites have been identified and documented. Work is continuously done at Ibeno beach mostly in preparation for the Christmas Season show among others. But government needs to do more by developing others too to a world class status with a local content.

But have we been able to harness these potentials to engender economic growth of our State?
That is why we exhumed all those things people thought were extinct. We visited tourist sites which still have to be developed. We had to do book publications to document all of these things. As a consultant to the Ministry, I told the then commissioner, that we must start our carnival. Our discussions and brainstorming gave birth to the ‘Ukapaisua’ (turn of the year) of December 2017. As a certified carnival specialist, endorsed by the government of Trinidad and Tobago and the government of Cross River State, I gave my all and I am still willing to do more.

Do you think the Akwa Ibom State government is doing enough to maintain the already established culture and tourism template?
Oh yes, HE Mr. Udom Emmanuel is on track, but they need to do more with attendant speed. Again, yes the government has been able to provide the enabling environment to kick-start tourism. The Victor Attah International Airport is there; the Ibom Hotel and Golf Resort, the fantastic clean roads, hospitals and the rest. Arc. Obong Victor Attah as the architect of modern Akwa Ibom is always commended for laying the tourism foundation. Imagine how prepared the former governor was in applying his personal experience and professional architectural training to put the State in shape for tourism destination. Even the motor parks are well built.
Presently, I think government needs to be more interested in developing the tourist sites. Those places need to be appealing and enticing to attract visitors. State governors must be ready to develop the tourism havens of Nigeria. Akwa Ibom has what it takes to replace Lagos as the tourist haven of Nigeria. This is because Lagos is highly congested and does not allow for free flow of movement. But we did not sustain the spirit on the legacies of 2017 activities. We are yet to explore the full potentials of culture and tourism. However, serious work is in progress led by Rt. Hon. Orman Esin, the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in the State. I am a Team Player working with him and joined by others from the private sector and this is the way to go.

It seems the 9999 voices of the Christmas Carol is reviewed as it was originally. What’s your view?
In my view, they are! You know in the business of tourism, we have the high and the low seasons. The economy may not be wonderful enough to enable its full complement. But the important thing is that the event has become a yearly activity in the State, projecting our own and bringing in musical celebrities worldwide. It is successful. Furthermore, when I was the State Chairman of Society of Nigerian Artists in the State, we initiated the yearly celebration of our State in arts. At one time, we brought a trailer load of the Arts from the National collection to the Women Development Center in Uyo. We created themes for every year and the State government, with its full Exco members attended. Every year every theme has continued by successive governments. This year’s theme from Government is very unique and reads “For I Believe in God”. These achievement propelled me as I also moved on, contested and won election as the National President of the Society of Nigerian Artist (SNA) first to sit on that throne from Akwa Ibom. Others must also join in initiating and sustaining other programmes and we can form a yearly calendar from there for our dear state.
Do you think the Ministry of Information, Culture and National Orientation, is doing enough to make business out of the culture and tourism potentials of Nigeria?
In Akwa Ibom, Ibom Hotel and Golf Resort is a typical example of how government is making business out of the culture and tourism potentials of the State. Recently the Commissioner (a professional in the industry) and his ministry in partnership with the Hotel Resort launched a programme to use an Akwa Ibom face to promote the Hotel commercially and draw more customers for its growth. This is very lofty in line with world best practices. The Federal government should launch similar programmes in line with your question. You see, one of our greatest problems as a nation sometimes is that of putting the wrong pegs in wrong holes. Some people get to a position and learn on it. This slows down progress.
So, we need to encourage government to draw professionals and experts to herself so they can deliver on their mandate promptly. For instance, former President, Goodluck Jonathan had sent for me to advise him on the needs of my industry, along with all Presidents of the creative industries in the country. I was appointed curator for Nigeria @50 celebration for the whole country. But I advised that it was too much a load for me to achieve within a very short period of time. I asked for the appointment of two other persons selected from other major ethnic groups from the North and West. So, one Yoruba man and a Hausa man were appointed and together, we managed the culture and tourism events of Nigeria @ 50. Unfortunately there was no National Gallery of Arts in Nigeria where we could do a national exhibition. We took the exhibition to the Abuja National Stadium and it was fantastic.
I can authoritatively tell you that land had been acquired in Abuja after I meet with President Goodluck Johnathan as one of our request which was televised live on Channels TV. Our prayer to the Nigerian Government under the leadership of President Buhari is to build the National Gallery of Arts Complex on that Federal Government land to accommodate monumental events in due course.
Of course, we have always advised government to build not just a National Gallery Complex but other super structures for tourism to thrive. They did a National Theatre in Obasanjo’s time as Military Head of State. But the structure has not been maintained. The National Theatre does not presently befit the name. We need to imbibe the good maintenance culture so we can develop and sustain a desirable template in the culture and tourism sector.
Nevertheless, if all potentials of Arts, Culture and Tourism of Akwa Ibom State are harnessed and sustained, putting us on the world tourism map, I am confident that the State can replace Lagos as the new Nigeria’s tourism heaven.

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