Mr. Liyel Imoke is one of the most decorated politicos in Cross River State. The soft-spoken gentleman who is married to sweet and svelte Obioma has been a commissioner, a senator and a minister. Currently the governor of his state, YES INTERNATIONAL! Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE spent nearly an hour with him at the Government House where he took out time to explain some issues to him, particularly the Calabar Carnival and the things he doesn’t like about being a governor…
The carnival starts at 2pm. That’s the official time. Unfortunately, a lot of people are already sitting by 12. So, there’s absolutely nothing any one can do about that. The enthusiasm and excitement; when I am driving around at 11.30, people would have already taken their positions. The official start time of the Calabar Carnival is 2pm, but without the bands, we can’t have a carnival. Once the carnival starts, managing the crowd is a great challenge. The reason the carnival starts at 2pm is that the people trek for 12 kilometres. When they start in the hot sun, by the time they get to the end of the carnival, they are exhausted. They trek, and the performances are intense. So, the bands themselves prefer the evening carnival because it is less stressful on the human body. That’s one. Two – a night event, especially at the stadium, showcases much better than the day event. The colours, the light and so on present a much more beautiful picture to the audience. The audience is not just local, it’s international. Everybody is watching it live, so there’s enough for the children. If they start at 2’Oclock, that means the children can watch it. You don’t need to watch everything right up to the stadium. So, most people pick and reach the adjudication point they are going to watch the carnival from. And when they do that, they can say I’m watching it at the first adjudication point and they have the kids there.
Selling the carnival outside our shores
Some of the expatriates I run into say the same thing to me. The carnival has gotten to a point and that will be very positive for us. We like doing things one step at a time. We had a product which we thought was very good, but we hadn’t gotten it to the stage where we thought it was internationally competitive then. But we’ve gotten it there now. We also had a product which was being produced in a particular part of Nigeria that we call the Niger Delta; so trying to sell that product beyond our shores was the extra audience. But for us, as a policy, we believe that we should focus first and foremost on the 150 million Nigerians. That if you focus on 150 million Nigerians and you can bring one percent of them to Calabar for the carnival; that will be 1.5 million people. Why do you need another foreign audience? They can watch it on TV. So, that concept of it just being for expatriates is not true. This is a show for us and to show that we can do it and do it as good as anyone else. So, it’s our show for us. We see a huge expatriate audience and they will come. The better the carnival gets, the more popular it gets, that audience will come. In terms of the media, we always have Channel O; we always have a few of them here. As we improve on the quality of the product, more of them will come and I believe that gradually we will get to where we want to with this carnival. I think we are making good progress with that.
Good attributes of Calabar Carnival
It’s a good place to come to with the family. You have some of the dignitaries who have their children come here because the children don’t want to hear anything else about where they are going to spend Christmas. I always tell people that this just speaks so much about the potential for our country. The Calabar Carnival was first a Christmas festival, then it got bigger and I said let’s just call it a festival. There are things that are Christmas-related; there are things that are not Christmas-related. But it is great fun for everybody. So, the Calabar Festival just has everybody coming from all parts of the country. The children are all over the place, they have euphoria of sort riding horses at the durbar. Someone even told me that when he said to his children, let’s go to American for a change, since they came last year, they said no way (stresses it amidst laughter). We want to go to Calabar.
We have started to realize the benefits from the carnival. One of the things that is extremely beneficial is the fact that because we have a product that has got some value, we are now getting sponsors who are paying big money. So, we have First Bank and several other sponsors who have paid big money to have their brands on our product. And that is very good. And right now, we are even negotiating for title sponsors, people who want to rename the carnival as title sponsors and that is very positive from our own side. But I think the most important thing is the value it creates in the economy and we’ve seen that improve and the people are able to now understand the value. In the first few years of the carnival, nobody would bring out a canopy and set up some chairs and bring some pepper soup and know that today is my day to make N100,000 or N200,000. That’s happening now and for us as a government, the benefit that we derive is in the taxes that those who make the money pay. So, we need to be more efficient in our tax collection and that’s what we are trying to do. We’ve introduced a tourism levy which is a tax on the consumer, not on the hotel owner or the restaurant owner. So, if you are a visitor to Cross River, you pay a tourism levy of five percent on whatever it is that you consume. So, your hotel room, if it is N12,000; five percent of that goes to tourism development and what we’ve done is that with the tourism development levy, we now put aside all the revenue we generate and use it purely for tourism in the state. Also, of course, we hired a team of consultants who are doing an economic impact assessment for us.
Likes and dislikes about being a governor
This is the toughest job in the world (General laughter). I’m the poorest governor, so it’s very difficult managing and trying to develop a state like Cross River with the limited resources that we have at our disposal. So, you have to be extremely creative in designing everything. If you take for instance the carnival, we had to work so hard to get it to a point where we can get sponsors. Because the state could not continuously carry the burden. But because of the challenges we face with our resource limitations, we’ve become much more creative, we are generating additional revenues, we are creating more opportunities for our people and we are coming up with public private partnerships to deliver services to our people. So, that really is the challenge of governance. It’s a lot of hard work. You will have sleepless nights and plenty of it. But in terms of what’s good about it, there’s no better satisfaction, there’s no better privilege than the privilege of being able to serve people and make a difference in their lives. You do a road and the people who have been in the most remote part of the country, they have never had access to roads are happy; you do a health facility that works, that’s functioning, you are doing free health care and people are able to get served. So, the greatest satisfaction that I get is from being able to see the faces of those people and see the lives of those people changed. And I think that’s the essence of governance and the essence of being in politics, if at all you must be in politics.
You know there’s a saying that imitation is the best form of flattering (Laughs). So, we must be doing something that is extremely good for everybody to want to copy. And that is why I keep saying that there is only one carnival, and then only one original carnival and that is the Calabar Carnival. Everything else, you will agree with me, is either China or Taiwan (General laughter). But what we like is the fact that it provides entertainment for the people in those areas and it speaks volumes for us here. And the products they are producing, with all due respect, are almost copies of the Calabar products. So, that’s why I say in terms of originality, we still have it. But the secrets of our carnival are not yet revealed. So, when you come out and you see an enormous event that is so successful, so well managed, so well choreographed, so articulated, so competitive, it’s not about government. It goes much beyond that. There are individuals that are working nights and days; they are planning, they are strategizing and so on. We did Notting Hill people many years back, we did Trinidad and Tobago many years back, but what we’ve managed to develop is a carnival you can’t refer to as oh, these people copied Notting Hill, these people copied Trinidad and Tobago, or these people copied Brazil. We have produced a product that is our own product. It is a product that has a blend. There’s no band that you don’t see our culture exhibit. One of the great beautiful things about our carnival is that it showcases Nigeria beautifully, it showcases our culture, it showcases our history and that’s why I am particular about the theme for every carnival. So, the carnival itself is fun on the streets. We call it the biggest street party. But beyond that, it is just a product that I think markets our country, like no other product. So, it’s difficult for us to think that, that can be replicated in its entirety. And even if you reproduce that product, it’s not in Calabar. So, it just can’t be the same. But it’s also good for the competition. It will take some time for anybody to really catch up with us. But if you are only producing a product for people to catch fun, I have no objection.
NB: First published February 2014
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