By Pelu Awofeso

The Calabar Carnival, after five years, has reached a defining high point: there is a lineup of companies seeking to sponsor what has been repeatedly described as ‘Africa’s biggest street party’. “In the early years nobody would put their money on the carnival,” says Liyel Imoke, governor of Cross River State, which hosts the event every December. “We have started to realize the benefits of hosting the carnival because of the value it has; we now have a significant number of the private sector who want to pay big money to have their brand associated with the show.”

And it is not just the corporate world that is buying into the carnival. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists, mainly Nigerians, travel to Calabar for the month-long celebration, which includes a series of concerts, fashion shows and a food fair spread out over 32 days.

“The carnival happens once in a blue moon and it is worth seeing for that reason alone,” says Kunle Adesina, an Engineer with the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), who’s flown in from Lagos. “With all the good stories I have heard about it, I thought it was time to be a part of it and I’m glad I came. It’s been worth the investment.”

Adesina is not alone. Dressed in a smart brown t-shirt and fitting pair of jeans, he is perched on the Eleven-Eleven roundabout, one of the best positions to watch the carnival procession from, with hundreds of other expectant spectators. Partly out of excitement and enthusiasm for the parade, most have come out from as early as 10am (official starting time in 2pm) to line up the carnival route; and even though the carnival is broadcast to a global audience, residents would rather be on the streets waiting for or watching the bands dance and file past than be seated in front of their television sets.

“I had wanted to stay in the house but my husband would not hear of it,” says Ndifreke, 60, who’s had to stand on Calabar Road for nearly five hours hoping that the carnival would begin on the dot of two. “However, I must say that it’s a thrill to see all the band members in the flesh, all of them so beautifully costumed and under the natural daylight.”

As has been the tradition, the carnival flags off at the Millenium Park and terminate at the U.J. Esuene stadium, a distance of 12km. This year, the five participating bands—Bayside, Seagull, Masta Blasta, Passion 4 and Freedom—had to interpret the theme: “Our strength and resilience, the bedrock of our future” in costume and float designs, and dance routines.

The Calabar carnival, though is a very colourful parade, there is seriousness to it that many visitors don’t realize: it’s an ‘intellectual theatre on the road’, a blend of creativity and deep analytical thinking. For one, it is one thing to have a general theme to work with but it is another to interpret those same themes and express them in tangible symbols and representations. Even more than that, “we want to show Nigeria as a country rich in culture and heritage,” says the compeer at the opening ceremony, which took place two hours behind schedule.

Much as the Calabar carnival parades participants across a wide age spectrum—from grandparents to the kindergartens– it is the youth population, who make up more than 80 percent of the bands, that gives it verve and street credibility, especially because of their splendid mastery of the dance routines. Without them, the carnival would not be as fascinating to watch.

“I feel the carnival spirit. I feel Calabar itself—in fact, I feel very special,” says Josephine Ikp-Itam, 19, a first year student of the University of Calabar and member of the Freedom band. “Looking at the whole assemblage, it’s so colourful. Once in a while, it’s good to come outdoors and have fun.”

And there is fun every inch of the way, something the organizers make sure of. “We have been able to develop a carnival that is our own product and not an imitation of any of the already established ones in the Americas or elsewhere,” says Imoke, speaking to the media a day after the Carnival. “We try to make the city very conducive for our visitors, we try to make sure that the event has no match anywhere in the country and we try to make it relatively inexpensive fun.”

Over the years Calabar has evolved to be a must-see tourist destination and the people have become a critical part of everything the government does so much so that there never seems to be any security problems. And from inception, the carnival has been focused on attracting domestic tourists mainly, building it up to a point where it will become internationally competitive.

And its overall success has spawned imitation-carnivals in both Lagos and Rivers States, with news that Anambra State is already in the process of introducing its own version. Having come this far, many observers hnow think that the Calabar carnival is ripe to be marketed to a larger international audience. It is a suggestion the state government is taking seriously.

Tourist info: Carnival Calabar (Dec 17 2011)