Massive crowd at the Aba festival in Igarra, Akoko-Edo LGA, Edo State...recently

Igarra, the administrative headquarters of Akoko-Edo Local Government Area of Edo State was agog recently when its residents rolled out the drums to celebrate the 228-year-old Aba festival. Adibe Emenyonu who witnessed the event, writes

Surrounded by gigantic rocks of the Kukuruku hills, seemingly in defiance of the laws of gravity is a site to behold. Amidst these rocks is the land of Igarra, the administrative headquarters of Akoko-Edo Local Government Area of Edo State. According to oral tradition which has been published by many among whom is Ajayi Avoveme Alabi, the people are the only tribe that speak Ethno, a dialect derived from Ebira that is spoken around Kogi State. Besides, “they are the only stock that speaks the language in the whole of Akoko-Edo Local Government Area and in the entire state,” said Avoveme.

Apart from the rocky sites in Igarra, the place is home for a lot of cultural festivals. Though there are many festivals in Igarra, the most significant and prominent of them all is the Aba festival which is celebrated every six years and every seven years going by the native calendar.

One of the things that make the Aba festival tick is because of its tie to the age grade system which according to the Otaru of Igarra, HRH Oba Emmanuel Adeke Saiki II, are seven in number.

Opa-Operewun (primary), who function as the youngest between the ages of 18-21 and seen during the new yam festival parading themselves to show fitness. The second group is Opa-Ajorupa (secondary) that takes the responsibilities of clearing public places like market, foot paths and digging of grave of the dead.

The next in line, the Otaru stated is the Opa-Enebete (Labour of Junior group) bestowed with the responsibilities of making arrangement for the interment of the dead. This is followed by Opa-Enetenioku (Foremen of Adult group) who dress the corpse for burial, carry the dead body to the graveyard.

Next in line is the Opa-Aturoga (Senior Group or Supervisors) who coordinate the activities of age group one to four which is below them in hierarchy, beside understudying and assisting the (Opoga) age grade number six in performing their legitimate duties and rights.

After that you have the Opa-Oga (Managers or Management team) saddled with the responsibilities to share what is to be shared in the community materially or devolution of functions. They also arrange sittings at any general meeting at family kindred and community levels, maintaining peace, law and order.

The last as gathered is the Opoze (Directors or Policy Makers group), they are the last age group in Igarra who take care of the day-to-day administrative duties. They enact and enforce laws in the community.

It is this last group (Opoze) that graduates into the Elders’ Council known as Azebani which necessitated the beating of the Aba Drum, making it the most prominent of all “Irepa festival”. It heralds the initiation or transmutation of the Opoze Age group to a higher class in the society.

This became the reason why the entire length and breadth of Igarra was agog as 650 members of the Opoze age group were initiated into the Azebani (Council of Elders. One of those elevated is Dan Ukana, a senior photo journalist with THISDAY newspapers).

Six years ago, as a member of the Opoze age group, Ukana, another veteran journalist with the Daily Times, Joe Obende; and Chris Adamhagbo, Registrar, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, were among the people that stood on a nearby rock, watching their elders elevated to the Elders’ Council. Today, these men together with others now enjoy the privilege of becoming elders of Igarra.

Apart from that, the ceremony is quite tasking as those who are initiated into Azebani (Elders Council) are required by custom and tradition to cook for members of their respective family. The food is usually pounded yam, with Ogbolo, Okro, Egusi soups as the case may be throughout the ceremony.

This is usually done for four days beginning from the eve of the festival, to the day of the festival proper and beyond. At every circle, families gather in groups to be entertained by the celebrant within their respective and immediate families. The delicacy is usually pounded yam served in big serving plates in conjunction with varieties of soup and meat as big as the human head.

One striking thing about the consumption is that the food is also shared among the different age groups in the family who will take their portion to one corner and begin to dip hands jointly into one bowl of pounded yam and soup to eat. Thereafter, the meat is shared amongst them with excitement and admiration.

“It signifies oneness and the bond that exists among members of that family,” Ukana enthused.

To further show the importance indigenes of the town ascribe to the Aba festival, a United States of America-based Igarra citizen, Nasiru Adekoye who is also a celebrant, said he moved his family members home to be part of the celebration. He told THISDAY that “I was here six years ago as a member of the Opoze age grade. Today, I am very grateful to God for getting to this age (Azebani). Besides, I grew up here and I am a native, and so there is no way I will not come.”

In furtherance of that oneness and happiness that pervades the land, family members file out to escort their relations to the venue of the ceremony where the initiates will be required to stay at a particular location waiting for the sound of the ‘Aba Drum’.

At the sound of the drum, they (the initiates) who all wore white materials, from their caps, dresses and shoes, symbolising purity file out singularly dancing and singing round a big rock (agigibobo), mounted by the drummers to the admiration of all which signified their initiation. As soon as this is done, they file out and are led back home by their relations to continue in the pounded yam merriment.

Explaining the rituals that accompanied the ceremony, the custodian of the Aba drums, the oldest from Aziakuta Opoporiku family, said before an Igarra man celebrates the Irepa festival which elevates him to Azebani (Council of Elders), he must have served his community successfully in various capacities for at least 35 years.

He said the Opoze age group is more unique because it is the centre of attraction in all the Irepa festivals for making the laws and enforcing them years later which he said called for celebration.

Explaining further, he said on the day of the festival, no other persons is allowed to go out on white attire irrespective of status in the society except the Opoze celebrants who will climb the sacred Opoporiku hills (community cultural headquarters).

According to him, this special day is preceded in the evening of the previous day the shooting of ceremonial dance guns and cannons, first in the compound the Odovidi (leader of the age group) who must be the oldest celebrant from Aziakuta Opoporiku family by 2p.m. and followed by other celebrants by 4p.m.

Confirming this, Ajayi Avovome Alabi in her narration stated: “The morning of the festival is usually heralded with tremendous entertainment of food and drinks, usually prepared by the major celebrants, the graduating Opoze age group to Azebani, Council of Elders. The major delicacy is usually pounded yam, which every celebrant prepares for members of his family and kindred. Assorted drinks and bush meat go with the eating. After this, each family member will escort the celebrant, Ofumamo.”

Continuing, she said the celebrants and their family members clad in immaculate white ‘agbada’, shoes and caps to match will assemble at designated places to dance to Ofumamo. For instance, Alabi pointed out that celebrants from Uffa will gather at Uneh, enroute to Ofumamo who will be joined there by Utua colleagues before moving in the same convoy to meet their counterparts from Ugbogbo at Somorika junction at Ugbogbo for the great trek to Ofumamo, venue of the initiation.

“It is mandatory that celebrants usually dress in immaculate white agbada attire with bells/white horsetail, caps and shoes to match as a matter of honour. At Ofumamo, the Aba drums which must have been set at the ready at Iretuba – a cultural stone at the centre of the area by the custodians (Eziakuta Opoporiku family), are beaten for the celebrants to dance from where they are specially gathered,” she narrated.

In his contribution, the festival as told by Ozioruva Aliu, a journalist with The Guardian Newspaper and an indigene of the town, is as old as 228 years. According to him, the festival started as a celebration of victory by hunters over the initial settlers of the land who were dwarfs in nature in the land known today as Etuno (Igarra).

He said the age grade system was a derivation of the administrative system from the aborigines (midget) size settlers who were over powered by the warriors that founded (Etuno) Igarra.

“The Aba festival is the most spectacular singular event in the celebration of the Irepa festival. It is the highest crowd pulling of all Irepa festival events. It marks the climax of activities as it indicates the end of a seven-year traditional administrative tenure and the beginning of the new one.”

To emphasise the significance of the festival to the people and Government of Edo State, Governor Godwin Obaseki who declared the festival open on August 25, 2017, said his administration would take advantage of the appeal of cultural events such as Aba festival to strengthen the existing unity among Igarra people and the state in general.

Obaseki who was represented by his deputy, Hon. Philip Shaibu, further said that the festival would receive more attention from his administration so that it can boost the economy of the state.

“This is a beautiful culture that needs to be celebrated by the people of lgarra as well as all Edo people and should be a rallying point for all of us so that we can collectively woo more tourists to come and invest in the state and enjoy our rich cultural heritage,” Obaseki said.

In his remarks, the Chief of Staff to the Edo State governor, who is an indigene of Igarra, Mr. Taiwo Akerele, said the event was significant to the people of lgarra especially those graduating from one age group to another.
He explained that the festival was a unifying event for the people of lgarra, adding that the grand finale is the beating of the Aba drum.

Akerele’s statement is an eloquent testimony that beyond the pavilion where the dignitaries such as legislators, state commissioners, traditional rulers, community leaders elders and other invited guests sat, one could see youths, women, children in different colourful costumes, singing, dancing, merry making, exchanging goodwill, expressing pride of those transiting from one age group to another at the sound of the Aba drums.

Speaking on the festival also, Chairman Central Organising Committee, Obed Alli, explained that the festival was rated by energy giant, Total E&P in 2006, as the sixth most indigenous cultural festival in West Africa.
According to him, ‘The uniqueness and distinct appeal of Aba festival have earned it a prestigious place on the country’s festival league table, as corporate bodies, governments and individuals jostle to be a part of it and this year’s is no different.”

Little wonder the corporate world was not left out in the celebration as some of them like Guinness Nigeria Plc and Nigeria Brewery Plc, mounted musical stands and other variety of shows, ostensibly to sell their products. Other vendors from within and outside the state were not also left out as they cashed in on the celebration to make brisk business.

For instance, all the hotels in and outside Igarra; from Auchi to Ibillo, Enwan, Ojirami Dam up to Dangbala and Ossoso ,were not only fully booked, but one way or the other, joined visitors to the rhythmic dance steps of Igarra people, their songs which the age-long sounds of the Aba drums symbolises.