Calabar Carnival: the Tragedy of Ben Ayade’s Last Days and the Burden of Leadership

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Carnival Calabar 2022 (credit: Philip Obin)
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…By Umezulike Desmond-cruz

Born in a culturally-rich igbo-speaking community in Cross River State, I had the rare privilege of witnessing the flamboyant display of culture and values while growing up. Amongst the many fun-filled experiences that lit up my childhood, the most memorable of them is the “Egwu Ijele” —the dance of the Ijele masquerade, which heralds the arrival of the biggest masquerade.

In the Igbo culture, masquerades are seen and revered as deities, their adornment, appearance and display mesmerize their spectators. But amongst all the masquerades, known and unknown in Igbo land, the IJELE is the most revered. Of course, the Ijele masquerade is rarely seen and when it eventually appears, its appearance scares away other masquerades, and places the spotlight only on itself. The arrival of an Ijele masquerade is always the climax of any sacred Igbo festival.

While the arrival of an Ijele masquerade marks the climax of every Igbo sacred festival, the Calabar Carnival hitherto marks the climax of the yuletide season in Africa, as the biggest street party in Africa, with people from all walks of life, States and Nations trooping into Calabar to watch the magnificent display of culture and heritage. But all that has changed in the past 48hours. Like most people of the State, I had expected Governor Ben Ayade to ultimately unveil his own Ijele Masquerade – the best carnival of all times – to mark his last carnival in office. But to say that I am painfully disappointed and incurably heartbroken would be an understatement. As the day goes by, it brings to bear the many tragedies of Ben Ayade’s last days in office.

Ironically, this year’s carnival would go down the annals as the worst of them all. All thanks to the Governor who, in his usual manner, preferred to do family business with the organization of the carnival. The last two days of the carnival have been disastrous and have shown how incompetent this administration can be. It is a shame that the State Government, after delaying the release of funds for the carnival, also decided to do family business with the funds released, leading to poor organization and management of the carnival. Two days into the carnival, the roads were still looking dusty and gloomy, with darkness enveloping the entire city of Calabar. In a bid to arrest the situation, Skolombo boys were hired in the middle of the night and empowered with few rubbers of paint to hurriedly rescue the situation. Others turned themselves into emergency carpenters, trying to construct makeshift stages at different adjudication points. It was, indeed, a crass display of ineptitude and marks the highest form of disrepute.

While we were yet to come to terms with this show of shame, the unexpected happened. Someone – maybe, one of the security officials – decided to follow suit and become unnecessarily complacent in his duty, leading to an unauthorized motorist gaining access into the Carnival route and turning the Bikers carnival into a festival of death, thus leaving our hearts shattered. As if that was not enough, the organizers still failed to learn from their mistake.

Two days ago, it was festival of death; yesterday, it was carnival of darkness. Who knows what would happen next! For a State Government that had all the time in the world to plan this carnival to have failed in its primary duty of lighting up the City, speaks of the sorry situation we are into as a State. This is obviously not the Carnival of Donald Duke’s vision. This definitely isn’t the type of Carnival that Liyel Imoke handed over to Ben Ayade.

While it is important to blame the organizers of this show of shame, it is more convenient to blame Governor Ben Ayade, who obviously failed in his primary responsibility as a leader, by first turning the carnival into a family business and allowing the organizers pilfer the funds made available for the carnival. The Governor must come down from his high horse and apologize to the people of the State for bringing unspeakable shame to us and for making the State an object of unquantifiable mockery before the world. We have never had it this bad. This is not the Calabar Carnival that the world knew. We must endeavor to bring back our yesterday and its glory by voting right in 2023.