Ekpo Niboro Atan Abam: Reviving Cultural Symbol of Wealth

Ahamefula Ogbu

Atan Abam is a bubbly village in Abam clan known for their bravery and never say die spirit. It is one of the 27 villages that make up Abam clan in Arochukwu Local Government Area of Abia State. Being one of the biggest and most populous, it has always pulled its weight in bravery and commerce, making a name for itself during the wars and also boasts of rich cultural heritage. Apparently, the quest to conquer and dominate its environment which is mostly thick forests foisted fearlessness on its natives…they always dare.

Of all approaches to Atan Abam, you must pass a river or stream which naturally tuned their mind to exploiting what is in the waters in fishing and use of the alluvial deposits of severely rivers and it’s tributaries for extensive farming having been bestowed with flat arable lands. They produce rice, garri, yam, vegetables, pepper, cocoyam, rice and too many cash crops.

One of its natural gifts is the Igwu River, said to have its source at Ugwueke Alayi coursing through other Abam villages like Ndi Ebe, Ozu, Idima, Ndi Agwu, Atan, Ahuma, Ndi Oji through Ndi Okereke before exiting Abam to Akwa Ibom State while snaking its way to Calabar and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. How among all the villages it passes through, only Atan saw it as trade route to Calabar speaks to their resourcefulness.Men were said to have been using wooden boats to load goods as happens presently in loading containers for export and import today and paddled wares from Atan Abam to Calabar and other popular trade posts in Akwa Ibom like Ikot Essien, Ikot Obioko, Mbiakong, Ntundang, Etim Ekpo and Ikot Offiong among others. Ikpe, Onanamong, Mkpu were considered home markets as Atan borders present day Ikono local Government of Akwa Ibom, so the kick was farther markets which boasted of higher profits.

There is no gain saying that embarking on such expeditions required physical and mental grits and only those strong and wealthy men took a shot at the opportunities. To ensure they suffered less loses through underwater obstacles capsizing their boats which two categories were the epepe, a wooden version of flying boats and okoboro, the big wares carrying type that houses everything such journey required, they had to clear the river of obstacles in what present day technology would call dredging.

Merchants from Atan and other traders especially from Abiriba in present day Ohafia Local Government  and some Edda men from Ebonyi who had opened trading posts in the village like Onuasu Abiriba and Quarter Edda combined efforts with Atan merchants  and physically cleared the obstacles, mostly with underwater explosives with which they blew off big trees and rocks on the route.

People had to be great paddlers using adam as akpara ogugu becomes useless in bigger water depths. Younger men learning the route and trade often were assigned menial jobs like bailing water from the boats and running other errands. The trade brought enormous wealth to Atan Abam.

After their yearly expeditions when they choose times to rest and celebrate their successes, they birthed the Ekpo Niboro also called Ugbo Mmirima. It is a masquerade with three faces, a man and two ladies which the masquerade constantly boasts it acquired (married) in his trading expeditions.

At inception, only the brave merchants participated and used the opportunity to demonstrate the frills and thrills of the journey. Whereas the rich merchants and owners of the business like present day apprenticeship, deck themselves opulently; their workers or boys strain to paddle and take the boats to shore. In the process, they mimic the hazards, eating habits which has to be fast and furious, moulding big balls and swallowing easily with rich fisherman’s soup. This was the practice before and shortly after the war till late 70s.

Drums doling out certain beats announced that the masquerade which usually came out to celebrate a dead member or seasonally was on its way. On the third round, the masquerade now armed with a sword out of its scabbard to demonstrate its readiness for battle would appear. It often challenges any man that crosses its path to a wrestling bout which it always prevailed after which in a gutteral voice boasts of its exploits on several expeditions.

Ete Oru, Chief Ojukwu was synonymous with Ekpo Niboro, a calm semi bald headed man, soft spoken but tough. Stories had it that he once slapped a trouble maker and he ate grass. He also used to give herbs and roots which cured a range of ailments and infections. Long before he died, the masquerade stopped coming out and the Calabar route through the river also was no longer in use, moreoso with better and shorter roads. Another thing is that the wealth through the Igwu River brought its own tragedies to the village. When the Biafran war broke out, merchants from Atan ran back home leaving their wares but information came that the Biafrans had cleared their trading areas and that they should come and carry their goods they left behind when federal troops landed. Unknown to them, it was a decoy and everyone who went on that journey except one were killed. The village lost all its millionaires in one fell swope and after the war, the river route closed.

After many years, Chief Chijioke James, Ike Abam Onyerubi, the Ikike of Etiti Abam, like his progenitors worked his way assiduously to wealth and remembered the symbol of wealth which had died and was forgotten. He chose and decided to revive the Ekponiboro or Ugbo Mmirima which signified the wealth of the community. He muted the idea and in his characteristic style, did the underground work, formed committees, publicised it in the airwaves and fixed a time for it. The response was overwhelming and that dying cultural heritage was revived just like he has personally and at great cost, resuscitated many dead projects in the village.

It is not only Atan Abam that has had its developmental face changed, the cultural revival also benefitted.

The 2024 version which took place on March 30, 2024 recorded unprecedented attendance and like the masquerade use to attract dignitaries and merchants from far and wide, it once more attained and surpassed the toga of its real self.

First, Ike Abam went down to the Igwu River at Ihu egede down from Asa Road across the bailey bridge, paddling like his ancestors before coming to the Community Primary School field, Atan Abam where canopies had been set and public address system readied for the occasion.

With the sounding of the drum announcing the masquerade was ready to come out to the enthusiastic crowd and fleet of expensive vehicles dropping guests from far and wide, blending with the fleet of Ike Abam made the village look like where latest automobiles were on display. Dignitaries apparently had been hinted that Ugbo Mmirima is a celebration of success and opulence and were so decked. The masquerade itself was not left out as it looked new and costlier in apparels. It vene donned a new head with the two wives looking more elegant.

The spirit of Ete Oru Anyim (Akpafrikang) would from his grave, give his usual wry smile in approval of the sustainance of his trade and culture. The usual steps of the masquerade were regal, its appearance opulent and malevolent powers unmistakably oscillating from entertainment to trepidation.

Guests led by Governor Alex Otti, flanked by his deputy, Ikechukwu Emetu, Secretary to the State Government, Abia State, Prof. Kenneth Kalu, Speaker of Abia State Assembly, Hon Emmanuel Emeruwa, Leader of the House or Assembly, Hon Uchenna Okoro, Minister of State for Labour, Hon. Nkeirika Onyejeocha, Hon. Ibe Okwara Osonwa and Dr. Agbai Eke Agbai among others were on hand to soak it’s entertainment. Chairman of the occasion was the Executive Secretary Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) Dr. Orji Ogbonnaya Orji who attested to the rich culture and commended its rebirth.

Ndi Eze in Abam and beyond and various age grades were on display all dressed to the occasion while demonstration of how our ancestors use to go through thorn and toil to make wealth were displayed. However, Chief Dan Okere Arunsi who as a child followed one of the trade expeditions and was assigned the duty of bailing water from the boat also graced the occasion. A retired Director in Ministry of Finance, he recounted how torturous and exhilarating the journey used to be and expressed gratitude that Ike Abam did not allow the memory to die.

Apart from cultural entertainment, people had the best of food and drinks while various media houses conspicuously registered their presence as testament that Ekpo Niboro has transited from a masquerade to a festival and is well on its way to becoming a carnival.  

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