As an adjudicator, you were not allowed to wave , wink or tap
your feet to the non-stop music. You were not even allowed to smile or
do thumbs-up to a dancer or acrobat. If you were happy with a band, it
must remain private happiness and if you felt like giving a reveller a
knock on the head, it must still be your private pain. You were not
supposed to giraffe what the judge sitting beside you had in his or her
score sheet and you could not whisper your doubts in his ear.
Adjudicators were not allowed to get up to stretch their stiff legs or
take a pee while the bands were performing. Yeah, no illegal peeing.
What was worse? It was a street, open air affair, so female
adjudicators were at a disadvantage, in the peeing performance, that
is. And the cheeky, totally mischievous Chief Judge, His Lordship,
Arnold Udoka, told us we must be careful but the men could ‘shoot
anywhere except at the transformer.’
Welcome to the Calabar Carnival where I was an adjudicator this year.
Welcome to Africa’s largest street party and the most serious party I
have heard or been part of. This unadulterated fun is handled with so
much seriousness, laced with so much passion that only those behind the
scene could understand the hard work that goes into all that display of
colour and costume.
For starters, when I stepped into the coven of the adjudicators, it
was full of professors! Seriously, a street party being judged by
professors, egg heads who determine who gets PhDs? Lawyers, lecturers
and little me and wait for it, we were more than 40. We discussed our
issues, the veterans brought up the challenges of the past and Lopez
and Wendell, from Trinidad and Tobago took us through the rules, the
scoring guide. That was followed the following day by a meeting with
the leaders of the five competing bands: Passion 4, Seagulls, Freedom,
Masta Blasta and Bayside. Another surprise. If you thought the leaders
of the bands were unemployed graduates who are just keeping busy, you
are wrong. An actor I’d been in ‘love’ with since the days of the DSTV
celebrated ‘Bachelors’ series, a former commissioner of Works, Finance
and serving Attorney General of the state, a former local government
chairman, successful men…
Within 24 hours of joining this throng, I knew I was in Calabar for
serious business. And to think Gabe Onah, Chairman of the Calabar
Carnival Commission, told me it was going to be one week of fun and
partying, ah? Okay, I can’t deny that I had fun, but he didn’t warn me I
would not be able to dance ‘Shoki’, ‘Shekini’ and ‘Dorobucci’ along
with the bands. And ‘shoki’ is now the dance of the moment, have you
noticed, even in church? Anyway, let’s go back to Calabar.
The night of the Kings and Queen went into the wee hours with the
adjudicators sitting like Supreme Court judges, watching, taking notes
and scoring. I think I got back to my hotel at 2am. My son opened the
door of our suite with a frown, ‘ Mummy, don’t you break down after
this…’ See, I thought I was the parent and there was my boy all grown
scolding me like I was some teenager sneaking in from an illegal party. I
chuckled and fell into bed knowing call time was 8am, just six hours
away. And you know what, the adjudicators were there on time, cheerful,
throwing banters, in spite of the fact that they got only two or three
On the day of the grand finale, the adult carnival, yours sincerely
was assigned the first adjudicating point with seven other experienced
judges, all with Ph.ds tucked under their carnival T-shirts. It was an
awesome experience. The carnival route was a 12-kilometre stretch and
the five bands and the happy revellers danced the whole hog. As I sat
there, poker-faced, not allowed to wink at the handsome guys or do
thumbs up to the bands whose dance steps and costumes appealed to me
most, I wondered how those people were going to make it to the finishing
line at the UJ Esuene stadium. But they did. They travelled all day,
arriving the following morning still dancing, still upbeat, still doing
magic, somersaulting and ‘shoki-ing’. It was incredible, absolutely
incredible the swift feet of the young men and the jiggling tantalising
waists of the carnival maidens at 1.am. after travelling 12 kilometers.
Though I’m still smarting from not being able to get up and dance
when P-Square suddenly appeared on the scene with Masta Blasta band,
though I could not wave at Kate Henshaw, Jim Iyke, Mo Abudu, Grace
Egbagbe and other celebrities when they got to our adjudication point, I
still came away from the Calabar Carnival with plenty of lessons.
Is Calabar not part of Nigeria? Are the thousands of band members not
Nigerians? Are the organizers not from among us? So, why do we not run
Nigeria with the same passion with which the Calabar Carnival is
Let’s start with the discipline and devotion of the adjudicators.
Have you tried to imagine sitting through six hours of great music, six
hours of watching the most colourfully-costumed dancers, choreographed
impeccably and not even allowed to nod or clap? Imagine our leaders, our
rulers not being distracted by the perks and distractions of office.
Imagine if they are all disciplined for the four or eight years they are
in office. If only they all will keep their eyes on the ball. Focus on
the jobs they were ‘employed’ to do, endure a few inconveniences.
Because you see, at the end of the long day, the adjudicators were
rewarded by the satisfaction of the bands and the success of the
carnival. The legacies a governor or president leaves behind live
decades after them and those are the true reward of service to one’s
fatherland. Not the few minutes of doing what’s in vogue, a passing
fancy, momentary orgasmic pleasure.
Did I tell you that in the coven of the adjudicators, the focus was
the job, , not where we came from . I generally, at first, assumed that i
was the only adjudicator from the south west until I heard judges with
south south names greet me in Yoruba. And what did that teach me? That
to put this country back in its deserved place, we cannot continue to
use tongue and tribal marks as means of measurement. If we don’t all
work together, we cannot get to the finish line.
I found out that each of the bands had its own Mas Camp where masks
and costumes were designed and made. All those colourful costumes were
made in Calabar. I learnt that the Seagull Band, under the guide and
passion of Senator Florence Ita-Giwa employed 30 tailors to put
together the delightful designs, I know the wedges worn by most females
in the band were from Calabar. Hundreds of shoemakers put to work,
honing their skills day in day out. I also learnt that during this
period, crime in Calabar is at an all time low. Everybody is busy
having fun and adding value. Even criminals take time off to enjoy this
It’s no rocket science, no voodoo economics needed to show that when
you keep able bodied young Nigerians busy, crime is kept at bay. Every
state just needs to be creative to create employment and we’ll all be on
our way to fulfil that prediction that Nigeria is one of the MINT
countries, the emerging economic power nations.
Passion is what has sustained the Calabar Carnival. Determination to
stand out and do something different is the eagles wings on which this
annual phenomenon has flown on these past 10 years. And from the little I
saw, the Calabar carnival is no longer an event, it is now an industry,
a sector of the economy of that state that has come to stay, ready for
private investors even as you read this. The youth have taken ownership
and they drive the process even when funds arrived late.
Let me end with this scenario: the barricades that were put in place
to keep the spectators from surging into the carnival route
occasionally fell but instead of trampling over falling barricades,
spilling into the streets and causing commotion , the carnival crowd
only pick the barricades, put them back in place and stay away from the
arena. It’s their show, their thing, their fun, their party and they
hold the barricades with their hands. I did not see policemen with
whips or guns pushing the crowd or threatening anybody.
We are a good people. We are a passionate people. We know what we
want and once our leaders do what is right, we take ownership and
protect the arena with the barricades. Thank you Donald Duke for the
vision of the Calabar Carnival. Thank you Liyel Imoke for running with
it. Cross River is one lucky state. One can only hope other governors
whose only means of livelihood is the begging bowl they take to Abuja
every month will learn something from this and look inwards.