Masquerade from Bayelsa State

By Pelu Awofeso

Left to me I would never walk 18km to anywhere, not as a fitness regime or as a hobby. But if you cared to catch the charm that the Abuja Carnival displays every year (in November), that’s just what you have to do.

But In 2005, when the carnival made its appearance on Nigeria’s calendar of tourist events, I knew no better. Straight from the airport I rushed over to the Eagle Square, where the 36-State procession of dancers and masquerades climaxed; each of the participating states staged well practised performances for thousands of already seated guests, while the VIPs looked on cheerily from the State Box. Like everyone else with a camera, I clicked away not realising that part of the fun of a carnival is in walking the carnival route with the participants.

I was keen to correct that misstep in 2010: so this time around I take a taxi to Area 1, where the state contingents are to begin the five-hour walk to the Eagle Square.

“A carnival is a street party,” says Professor Rasaq Ojo-Bakare, Artistic Director of the Abuja Carnival for two years running. When I met him in 2009 at the Carnival Secretariat on Aminu Kano Crescent (Wuse 2), he was cleanly shaven and was dressed in a perfectly starched white Buba and Sokoto, fresh from the laundry. Just a couple of weeks to the carnival, the private sector had not responded with regards to sponsorships as he’d expected and that had hindered the organising committee’s plans to deliver the much promised grand outing. Nonetheless, Bakare was in high spirits. The show had to go on, money or no money.

This year’s carnival has been no different. The much sought sponsorship didn’t materialise. A telecoms brand which had been discussing with the carnival organising committee to be the title sponsor changed its mind four days to the opening ceremony. The two or three others, which branded the different venues with all sorts of banners, according to the organisers, did so without paying a kobo but committing to doing so much more come 2011. And the only company that gladly committed a couple of millions preferred to bankroll the children’s event, engaging the necessary hands and paying for their services rather than hand the money to the committee.

So Bakare and his team have had to plan and execute the 2010 Carnival largely with the undisclosed amount budgeted by the federal government for the carnival as take-off grant for the committee inaugurated in July, four months to the carnival.

“We had to be creative about money,” a flustered Bakare told a room full of journalists after the carnival’s closing ceremony, “otherwise, the carnival would have been cancelled.” In another breath, he argued that the Rio and Notting Hill carnivals didn’t have big money at the onset but were built over the years by the sweat and sacrifice of some people who believed so much in the cause and enjoyed the patronage of stakeholders.

But anyone who has ever seen the Abuja Carnival would agree that it represents the very best of Nigeria’s cultural expressions, a unifying platform that brings the hundreds of unique tribes from all corners of the country under one roof. “In terms of content and depth, not even the Notting Hill or Calabar Carnivals can match the Abuja Carnival,” Bakare says, adding that the local media has been responsible largely for the Abuja Carnival being ‘a hard sell’. “A carnival is a very sensitive brand, more so a carnival at its infancy. Any negative publicity built around it will be too damaging. We should build the brand instead of kill it.”

This year the organisers promised a Durbar, which has been a constant fare and one event most foreign tourists secure vantage positions for. But rather than the Durbar, what the already seated (and arriving) guests were treated to was a game of polo. The truth is polo is nowhere near the spectacle a Durbar is known for; Durbars, by their nature, are a major tourist magnet where Nigeria is concerned. Of course, the tourists were disappointed and many of the photographers, who were hoping to frame the always wondrous and brilliantly costumed stallions and their riders in their lenses, packed their bags and left.

“They are giving us our regular Sundays,” says one expatriate who is used to watching the polo matches week after week and was looking forward to a change of menu. Many commentators accused the organising committee of deceit, wondering why Durbar was listed on the schedule of activities for the Carnival when it was clear it wouldn’t hold. “Both the Durbar and Polo are equestrian events,” says Bakare, who carried the burden of explaining the lapse to the press, “We believe that just as tourists have begun to appreciate the Durbar, we thought to offer them an alternative we hoped that they would enjoy over time.”

But whatever the Carnival lost by way of the unrealised Durbar, it more than made up for in the Regatta, a splendid water sport where five states participated. Though in terms of attendance, it couldn’t match the Durbar crowd and the foreign tourists were nowhere in sight, it proved to be one of the Carnival’s high points. From the onset the guests got up from their seats and moved nearer to the Jabi Lake, where beautiful decorated boats and canoes performed well received manouvers.

“I think the Abuja Carnival was a success,” says Bakare. “For the first time it was indeed a carnival and not a Festival of Arts and Culture. Now we are encouraging extreme creativity, and you can see that in the motifs of the participating states.”