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Inside Abuja’s Arts and Crafts Village controversy

Tenants of the Arts and Crafts Village in Abuja are now scattered across the city. “Some are now roadside artists or at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers,” Mahmoud Mahmoud, Managing Director of Ummakhalif Limited said.

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The Art and Crafts Village, located in the capital city’s Central Area is the permanent site of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). Early February this year, Daily Trust reported that the police raided the place, where they found a firearm and substance suspected to be marijuana.

But there is brewing controversy as some shop owners continue to insist on their right to access their property within the village. Amongst them is Mahmoud and Lawal Shuaibu Mohammed, Secretary of African Arts and Cultural Heritage Association.

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Mahmoud said in 2009 they were allocated space to build 35 shops in Arts and Crafts Village on Public Private Partnership, Build Operate and Transfer basis for 25 years. “We constructed up to 21 shops. By 2013, while they were on construction, the then Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Bala Mohammed, decided to transfer ownership of the village from FCT to Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. And we only read this in the newspaper,” Mahmoud pointed out. 

So, they went to the Federal Ministry of FCT and complained to the minister. They wrote to the Department of Arts and Culture, Social Development Secretariat among others, asking the status of their lease. “Our lease had not expired and there was no communication from the FCT,” Mahmoud said. “Unfortunately, the FCT were not willing to listen to us. We went back to NCAC (a parastatal of the Ministry of Culture), the body that was given the Certificate of Occupancy of the place and showed them a copy of our lease agreement. They told us that we were illegal occupants of their land and so we must vacate.”   

Mahmoud and his colleagues had no option but to go to court, where they instituted a case against the Honourable Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, the Federal Capital Development Authority, the National Council of Arts and Culture and “we cojoined the Honourable Minister of Tourism and Culture as dependent, in a suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja. The court issued a court order that restrained NCAC from evicting us and also restrained us from continuing our developments. By then, we had 21 shops, 14 more to be built.”

But “within this period, NCAC had about two or three DGs, but all of them have been observing the court order issued in 2013, until June 2017,” Mahmoud added. 

Accordig to Mahmoud, when Mr. Otunba Olusegun Runsewe was appointed as the DG in March 2017, exactly on June 28 2017, he went into the village, and locked the rear gate, which according to their lease agreement with the FCT, they are allowed to open a back entrance that leads to Silverbird Galleria. 

Mahmoud narrated that a court order affirming the 2013 order was re-issued twice, yet Runsewe flouted them. He also accused the NCAC boss of setting fire to the village, an act he did not witness, yet felt was substantiated because “Runsewe has not commiserated with people who lost their property,” he said. 

“Since the shops caught fire, the owners decided to put people who will sleep in their shops. A move Runsewe countered by evacuating them.” Mahmoud said. “Some people in the village wrote letters to organisations, including some embassies and he reported it to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, that they are extorting money from corporate organisations, to the extent that the chairman and secretary had to spend a night with the EFCC.”

Mohammed on the other hand pointed accusing fingers at where payments went since NCAC took over. He said sometime in 2014, they were given an allocation by the FCT, but when Runsewe, the new DG came, he said the Certificate of Occupancy of the place belongs to him. “We confirmed this with the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC). From then, he asked us to pay arears of three and a half years. Our members, owners of over a hundred shops, paid three and a half years’ arears to a non-government account, instead of TSA which we paid to when we were under the FCT,” Mohammed said. 

Amid these accusations, Runsewe emphasised that since the Arts and Craft Village was closed down, Abuja residence have had some level of peace. “When I resumed as the DG of NCAC, I believe that posterity will not forgive us all when we go outside the country, see the best, and allow the worst to be in Nigeria. We went to Arts and Craft Village sometime between April and May 2017. We met with the tenants and said we need to upgrade the place to international standard, and they were all happy,” he said.

According to Runsewe, tenants had not been paying rent since 2010 and NCAC’s former management was using government’s money for overhead, to pay for security, water, and refuse collection. 

“Tenants were supposed to pay a ridiculously small amount of N46, 000 per year in Central Area. I told them to pay the outstanding, but start paying a new rate by July 2017 and the place should be able to maintain itself,” Runsewe narrated, adding that government didn’t give NCAC money for the place because it wasn’t captured in the budget. So NCAC had to source the services of facility managers who helped to put the place in proper shape. Everything was then going fine.

Unfortunately, on December 10, the village caught fire and About 30 shops were affected. Some of the tenants then accused NCAC of doing the bad deed. “We addressed a press conference and got the fire service to conduct proper investigation and they found out that the fire actually started in shop 47. We also got the Nigerian police’s investigation report. These two are the only ones that can investigate,” Runsewe said. 

NCAC told the police that the Arts and Craft Village was becoming unbearable because over 300 people slept there. “The Abuja master plan does not recognise people sleeping in the market. Why do we have security agents?” Runsewe said, adding that if other DG’s had been patient with what was going on, “a new sheriff was in town.” So when he went to the village one evening and saw over 300 people sleeping there, he invited the police and DSS, who came and evacuated them. 

“They had shanties where they lived and there were about 35 abandoned cars. All these information, we gave to the police. Many people who wash clothes dried them in the market,” Runsewe said and pointed out that at the time he became DG, tenants were owing security N1.4 million. “Nobody was paying. That was why we acted.” 

According to Runsewe, NCAC asked the police to let them reorganise the village and they didn’t listen, until they realised criminals resided there and robbed, then they conducted a raid. 

Runsewe revealed that a lot of tenants had five to 10 shops and turned to mini-landlords. “And government’s intention was to help the ordinary man. One of them was paying NCAC N40, 000 but rented the same premises for N3 million. How did we know? When they closed down the woman exposed it. A lot of them who paid N46, 000, rented out for N250, 000. But the good news is that majority of them have packed out.”

But what is the way forward for the culture hub? Runsewe said NCAC is looking at the possibility of getting investors to put the Arts and Crafts Village to a commendable level. The council is also talking with the National Assembly and they have promised to be of assistance. 

The FCT Police Command, Public Relations Officer, DSP Anjuguri Manza said the raid carried out in February was based on intelligence report after they had complaints of handbag snatching in different places close to the village, such as the National Mosque.  

“A number of persons were arrested and a fire arm and substance suspected to be Indian hemp was recovered at the Arts and Craft Village. Those who were later found not to be of questionable character were released while others were prosecuted. We sanitised the place,” Manza said. “We have played our part in protecting lives and property. We have done a raid and wouldn’t want hoodlums to come back and take over the place.” 

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