The Big Masquerade In Nigeria’s Cultural Arena

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Eagle Square was brought alive on the closing day November 25 by the creativity and seriousness of the Rivers State contingent. The state’s float had taken a new touch that left others looking stale. In a show of superior artistry, the float came on stage with a fish in the massive jaws of the moving crocodile. The audience could not hold back their applause.

Three years of Abuja Carnival have revealed a new fact about Rivers State. It is that the  state is Nigeria’s big masquerade on the cultural arena. It has a lot to offer the nation and other visitors who care about cultural assets, eco-resources and family entertainment. The carnival is a national cultural festival sponsored by the Federal Government every year in the Federal Capital. Since 2005 the results from the competition each year have brought the state to the front row, out of 36 competing states. Nigeria is gradually acknowledging that Rivers State is emerging as the leader in certain aspects of the cultural life of the nation.

The state’s contingent each time had presented itself as a strong contender for top honours in several events. The float, costumes,  carnival King and Queen, masquerades, Food Fest dishes, arts and crafts as well as regatta events at the carnival, continue to catch the nation’s attention. They have become mirrors to project the creative depth of the cultural symbols of the state, their variety and what have made them to stand out. For instance, in 2006, the state won the top prize for the carnival’s King and Queen contest as well as the float. It secured the second position in the regatta competition. In 2007, the carnival’s King and Queen category was suddenly reduced to a no­ contest event. But Rivers State was not to be shaken. The state went ahead to capture the spotlight  nonetheless. It took the first prize in both the float and costume events. It also claimed the first prize in the regatta event, a prize that eluded it last year. This time, it was even more competitive. Nine states fought for honours in the regatta event at the Jabi Lake venue in Abuja. We had five more, than the four states that vied last year in that category. At the end of the carnival, Rivers State came home as the overall best.

The support of the Governor, His Excellency, Chief Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, made it possible for the contingent to participate in the carnival at all. It was an indication that the administration is more likely to redefine the culture and leisure sector of the state in a qualitative manner. This will unlock the huge tourism potential of Rivers State which has been begging to be developed.

Backed by careful planning, the state Ministry of Culture and Tourism set to work for Abuja Carnival 2007. Good coordination of several committees set up earlier, saw to it that the state had a sound plan for the carnival. It made it relatively easy for the ministry to deal with the challenges of fund and logistics. Members of the committees included top professionals in relevant areas. As the countdown began to the carnival, the ministry pulled together all the inputs from the committees. From there it quickly mobilised a contingent around one focus: Go make Rivers State proud. The contingent leader,  Dr Tobias S. T. Toby and top officials of the ministry became cheer leaders to prompt participants in each event to go the extra mile for their state.

The opening day on November 22, was a warning shot from Rivers State. As each state filed past with its float and contingent in colourful costumes, the audience at the Eagles Square seemed to watch in amazement. Would it choose the tortoise float, the one with a man on horse back or the float built like a white bull among other eye- catching contingents? Then the Rivers State float entered the arena. It was heralded by the shout of an audience that found a crocodile in the parade, a big work of art as a float. Unlike most floats, there was creative discipline in making the crocodile’s body work cover every trace of the platform that carried it. It was indeed a big masquerade in its own right, the “opu owu” of the arena, followed by a contingent that was relatively well organized. The float became a fitting cultural statement of the swamp land, creeks and river environment which define the 23 local governments of Rivers State. The same level of applause greeted the state’s contingent during the art and crafts exhibition or the carnival Food Fest.” It was pure drama as dishes from Rivers State were cleaned out by an excited audience. Yet the best was ahead.

The masquerade display (November 23), was a rich treat. But the regatta event (November 24) won a different level of attention .. It left no one in doubt that the state’s contingent had come prepared to do battle and to win clean. While others entered one· regatta boat in the competition, Rivers State had the ceremonial regatta (alali aru or gig) and the war canoe (omu aru). Both were fitted out in appropriate costume and decorations. Then the dancers (Abara troupe) and masquerades took the arena by storm. It was the ogwein and Peri-Angala’s inspired performance that forced the crowd to rush to the edge of the lake in disbelief. In every sense, the state’s regatta artistes, showed they were the true masters of the river. An impressed then Vice president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, His Excellency, Dr Goodluck Jonathan led the applause for Rivers State.

Eagle Square was brought alive on the closing day November 25 by the creativity and seriousness of the Rivers State contingent. The state’s float had taken a new touch that left others looking stale. In a show of superior artistry, the float came on stage with a fish in the massive jaws of the moving crocodile. The audience could not hold back their applause.

But it was nothing compared to the joy of realizing the dream which came with the announcement of results on November 25. Rivers State flew high at the Eagle Square Abuja. The contingent found themselves enjoying a media attention that was the first of its kind. Their star performance at the carnival was brought home to the public in the state as the carnival was in progress through coordinated television and newspaper stories. On the contingents return, a back page photo splash and news feature greeted them in the November 30 edition of  the Hard Truth, a Port Harcourt based weekly publication.

The state government then took the stage. On December 10 in Port Harcourt, the Governor of Rivers State, His Excellency, Chief Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi was presented with the laurels won by the contingent. The Governor was represented by  the Deputy Governor, His Excellency, Engineer Tele Ikuru, who received the trophies from the leader of the delegation and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Culture and Tourism,  Dr Tobias S. T. Toby. The Deputy Governor expressed government’s appreciation that the contingent had won respect for the state as the nation’s premier theatre of culture. He then announced the Governor’s welcome package for the contingent. It was the first time the state was showing gratitude this fast to its contingent to the Abuja carnival. It is yet another indication that the state government will consolidate Rivers State’s position as the big masquerade on the nation’s cultural arena.