Battling over Osogbo UNESCO Culture Centre

By Gbenga Faturoti, Daily Independent Correspondent, Osogbo

The last may not have been heard on the recent appointment of Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate as Chairman, Governing Board of Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). The appointment, which came via amended law by the Osun State Government, has thrown up controversies between the former governor of the state, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, and the current government.

UNESCO may also not be left out in the unfolding developments. In fact, Nigeria’s Permanent Delegate in the world body, Mrs. Maryam Katagum, has faulted the re-composition of the governing board of the centre. The state government had last Friday, announced Soyinka as chairman of the centre, established on January 7, 2009, as category 11 facility under the auspices of the world culture body. Oyinlola had been chairman before Soyinka’s appointment.

Katagum, according to media reports, has however insisted that the government cannot alter the composition without discussing with UNESCO, stressing that the centre was a product of tripartite agreements involving UNESCO, Nigeria (as represented by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) and Ulli Beier family. According to her, the parties do not only have equal stake in the centre but must be carried along in any matters that concern the centre.

On his own, Oyinlola who is currently the National Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is said to have petitioned the Presidency accusing Osun State Government under Rauf Aregbesola of attempting to appropriate the centre against local and international agreements surrounding it.

In appointing Soyinka, the State House of Assembly, now on recess, had amended the law governing the constitution of the Governing Board of the centre – The law had been assented to by Aregbesola.

Osun State Government and Federal Government are co-promoters of the project.

Oyinlola, while in office, was named the Chairman, Governing Board of the Centre, for his pioneering roles in its establishment. But with the turn of events, the former governor has argued in his petition that the action of Osun State Government under Aregbesola could create a breach of the peace because the spaces and offices within the centre had been taken over and occupied by agents and servants of the government.

Oyinlola also faulted the alteration of the composition of the Board of Trustees of CBCIU claiming that Aregbesola and his government lacked the power to alter the composition of the Board of Trustees of CBCIU, citing malice, disdain, and negative disposition to him and all matters pertaining to former President Olusegun Obasanjo as the reason for the action, which he insisted, cannot stand. He described the action as illegal and null and void.

In the petition forwarded to President Goodluck Jonathan on the matter, Oyinlola accused the state government of “willful disrespect for international conventions and regulations, thereby jeopardising the continued existence of CBCIU whose establishment was promoted by the Federal Government of Nigeria under a cooperative arrangement with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The Osun State Government under my leadership supported this bold move as part of our avowed commitment to developing the tourism and culture subsector of the economy.”

Apparently for purposes of emphasis, Oyinlola stated that “the agreements signed stated clearly that the Government of Osun State shall provide parcels of land on which the project would be sited free of charge and all encumbrances. It is for this reason that the land on which structures of CBCIU was constructed and donated free of charge by Osun State government headed by me to UNESCO.

“The Government of Osun State at the time the agreement was signed committed itself to fully supporting the CBCIU project by making available free of charge and a dedicated building and has committed to meeting the estimated operational costs.

“It is to be noted that since the inception of the current administration in Osun State, CBCIU has never received any financial grant/assistance from it for its activities in spite of the fact that its leaders, including the state governor, use the facilities at the premises of the CBCIU illegally and at will without paying charges/rents for use of space for public functions in line with extant regulations.

“It is to be noted that CBCIU maintains the facilities at enormous costs. As at now, virtually all the space in the buildings located on the premises of CBCIU have been hijacked and occupied by agents and servants of the current Osun State Government. The Board of Trustees refrained from taking the State Government up on this matter in the interest of peace; believing that its officials would retrace their steps and conduct themselves with decorum.”

Explaining further, he said “the Osun State Government served as a co-promoter of the project in conjunction with the Federal Government of Nigeria which also gave CBCIU a take-off grant, apart from other enormous support which cannot be easily quantified. Indeed, the Federal Government support may, if quantifiable surpass the investment by the Government of Osun State in the CBCIU project. That being so, one is tempted to ask what would happen should the Federal Government also flex muscles and lay claim to ownership of CBCIU on account of playing the dominant role in the establishment of CBCIU, funding and supporting the organisation which is an NGO legally registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.”

Oyinlola insisted that members of the Board of Trustees of CBCIU were chosen in accordance with stipulated guidelines, which provide that CBCIU shall have an independent Board of Trustees assuring the respectability of the Centre. “My appointment as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of CBCIU was made in my personal meritorious capacity and this was conveyed to me through the then Hon. Minister of Culture and Tourism, acting on the instructions of the then President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo,” he noted.

According to him, one of the categorical declarations of UNESCO before granting Nigeria (not Osun State Government) the hosting rights was that CBCIU would be free from governmental control and interference. He explained further that the tripartite agreement signed for the establishment of CBCIU stated that CBCIU is an integral element of the national master plan for the safeguarding of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and was established in accordance with the Guidelines on the creation of institutes and centres under the auspices of UNESCO (category 11), as promulgated by the General Conference at its 33rd session.

But in a swift reaction, Osun State Government in a statement signed by the Director, Bureau of Communications and Strategy to Governor Aregbesola, Semiu Okanlawon, denied any political consideration in the government’s action, arguing that the choice of Soyinka as the Chairman, Board of Trustees of the CBCIU was informed by his global reach as culture icon and promoter.

The statement said that the appointment of Soyinka was sequel to the amendment in the law on composition of the Board of Trustees, adding that under the new and amended law, the governor or any other appointee would head the centre.

Apart from the Chairman of the Board, the Board, according to the amended law, will comprise two representatives of the academia, four representatives of Arts and Culture, a representative of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and Nigeria’s Permanent Delegate to the UNESCO.

It said further that the new Board will have concurrent responsibility to develop the Yoruba World Heritage Centre to be called New Ife, Ile-Ife, Osun State, adding that the new Yoruba World Heritage, which the board will also have the concurrent responsibility to develop, is a massive project of the Aregbesola administration to revive the Yoruba culture as part of the tourism package of the state.

The statement faulted the claim of Oyinlola, wanting to be permanent Chairman of the centre, maintaining that it is an attempt to arrogate public property to self. It further described the protest against the appointment of Soyinka as mere distraction.

Okanlawon in the statement added that Oyinlola’s claim that the Centre for Black and Culture and International Understanding, Osogbo, does not belong to Osun is the most despicable comment to have emanated from him.

The statement queried how the law that set up the institute was passed and how it had been funded if it does not belong to Osun.

“Just in case Oyinlola has forgotten, he delivered a speech on Wednesday, January 7, 2009, at the commissioning ceremony of the centre where he stated as follows:

“As you all may be aware, we have taken delivery of the archival materials, which is (sic) forming the nucleus of this centre. The collections procured from Ulli and Georgina Beire at a cost of $680 million was provided by the Government of Osun State.”

It added that for Oyinlola to have personalised the centre by making himself the chairman either in or out of office through the law setting it up was another height of impunity for which his administration was notorious.

“This was a major odium that was yanked off the law passed under Oyinlola through an amendment signed by Governor Rauf Aregbesola in July, this year, now called “State of Osun Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (Amendment) Law 2012.

“Do we need to remind Oyinlola that the edifice housing the centre was built with the state’s money too? What could therefore have prompted a decent man to want to appropriate a public property if not avarice?

“Oyinlola should note that the choice of Soyinka was a well-thought out one which shows the genuine commitment and determination of the current administration to the promotion of our people’s heritage.”

The choice, the statement added, was already generating unprecedented commendations as one that would enhance the profile of the centre and assist it realise its full potential.

In his reaction, Osun State chapter of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) remarked that politicians are in government to serve the people, but not to perpetuate their personal interest on the public property.

The party, in a statement signed by its Director of Publicity, Research and Strategy, Kunle Oyatomi, noted that a lot of such happened during the Oyinlola era, stressing that the case of the CBCIU is just one of the several abuses of political power by former government, which it maintained, are aimed to perpetuate his personal interest.

According to the party, “Osun citizens own the financial interest of $680 million in that complex. No single individual has the authority, moral or legal to manipulate the law to serve his or her personal interest. That is what Oyinlola did. And it is evidently the result of his military mentality that personalises government.

“Our democracy must be rid of such stupidity. That is what Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola’s ACN government is doing. Osun is not Oyinlola’s property. Therefore, he cannot make laws that enable him to perpetuate himself in any office whatsoever here. It is politically improper and morally untenable.

“What the ACN government has done is to correct the errors of the PDP administration under Oyinlola and re-establish a sense of collective ownership of institutions and properties established and acquired with Osun State funds.

We have now re-established that reality and the governor in his wisdom had appointed Professor Wole Soyinka as Chairman of the Cultural Institution. To us, that makes a lot of sense.”

Osun State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Sunday Akere, while commenting on the issue, declared that there was no controversy in the state especially pertaining to the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU) whatsoever, claiming that the centre belongs to the government and people of the state.

According to him, “when the centre was established in 2009, it was established through an enactment of law duly passed by the State House of Assembly, which said that there shall be establishment of the centre in Osogbo. It is not a non-governmental organisation as being claimed by Olagunsoye Oyinlola.

“If it is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as claimed by Oyinlola, there will not be reason for the enactment of law before it was established. From the records available and vouchers used to raise money for the construction of the centre, the government of Osun State committed about N700 million to the centre, and if it is an NGO as claimed by Oyinlola, why the use of public funds to build it?

Akere therefore maintained that Aregbesola has not tampered with anything on the centre aside the fact that “we have amended the law establishing it from which it is intended from the onset by Oyinlola to manipulate and appropriate government property to himself just like he did in respect of Women and Children Development Initiative Foundation (WOCDIF) Centre, also in Osogbo.

In the amended law, Akere declared further, “Where Oyinlola is saying we are arrogating the centre, we only amended the law to reflect that any state governor or his appointee will be the Chairman of the centre and that was why we have appointed Professor Wole Soyinka, the man of international repute to chair the centre.

“Another thing which we have succeeded in doing was that we removed the clause which claimed that OBJ Centre in Abeokuta will have two representatives on the Board of CBCIU. Every other body of the organisation is still recognised as member of the centre which includes the Federal Ministry of Culture, representatives of academia, UNESCO and Nigeria’s Permanent Delegate to the UNESCO.”

The Commissioner for Information and Strategy, however, advised Oyinlola to take legal action against the state government and governor if he sees anything untoward in the action taken so far rather than crying foul where there is no reason to do so.

Akere said, “what we have succeeded in doing is disallowing Oyinlola from turning public property to his personal fiefdom. This is not military regime. Oyinlola should stop intimidating us with a petition to the Presidency. If he has his fact and reason to personally acquire public property, he should proceed to court and we shall meet him there.”