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Friday, 18 May 2018

Annual Imo Awka Festivities and the Hooliganism that Follows – by Tobenna Obiano

Imo Awka is an annual home coming event of the people of Awka kingdom. Infact, it’s an annual celebration which brings home and reunites Awka people from all works of life. Many indigenes of Awka would always prefer to return home for their annual Imo Awka festival, even against returning for their usual Christmas celebrations.

In Igboland, Christmas is best known as a period of mass return for virtually all Igbos globally, where we leave our base, either where we study, do business or reside to return and be reunited with our families and loved ones. As the saying goes amongst the people of Eastern Nigeria, “Christmas Day, a great day in Igboland”. Christmas is not only a period to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, it’s specifically a day to celebrate the ingenuity of ndi-Igbo. This is why we often take it as a Great day.

People of Awka kingdom take even more seriously, their Imo Awka festivities than the Christmas mass-return and family reunion that follows. Last week, Awka town was literally shut down as the people had their weeklong celebrations and festivities to mark their annual Imo Awka. Most businesses, establishments, schools and even some churches were under lock and keys to give way for the celebration as against a possible attack that may follow.

In what has really become very disturbing, especially for persons like myself who hold the tradition, norms and core values of ndi-Igbo so high. Also, as someone who places the interest, respect and sanctity of our traditional institutions and it’s occupants with great regards and honor, there has been an ongoing feud, as to the Kingship of Awka Kingdom. Theirs is now a seemingly kingdom of two Kings, where it seems the elitists support one, while the people, maybe commoners support another.

This Kingship tussle is not only disturbing, but bringing to the public, a sense of pity, sentiment, pettiness and somewhat of ridicule to that revered traditional institution of “Igweship and Ezeuzuship”. There also exists by the Awka populace and friends of the community, an outcry that things be done aright. I would simply let the destiny of what becomes of Awka Kingdom in the hands and choices of Awka people, and pray that the forefathers of Awka Kingdom and those who have transcended to the world beyond may peacefully reunite Awka and settle from the spirit world, the tussle of Kingship and have justice done.

The last egwu Imo Awka was nothing short of what it used to be. Infact, even as a primary school pupil back in the 90’s, our then school, the missionary owned Infant Jesus Nursery and Primary school, which is located right inside the compound of the St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Awka, would have schools often close earlier than normal back in those days, then followed by compulsory two days holidays, to give way for the celebration and to avoid the dangers from the hooliganism that follows same.

The very bad news is that even non Awka indigenes, would always speak up that one is sure that during the annual Imo Awka celebrations, that someone or some persons must die. This is a sad norm. This is not to say that it’s a ritual of Awka Kingdom to waste innocent lives of her people or non indigenes that come around for the celebrations, but the arson attack, destructions, maiming, fights and in extreme cases, deaths that often followed are wholly brought about by thuggery and hooliganism, nothing else.

As an undergraduate, I know that together with a few close friends back in those days, I just remember my friend Arthur Tobenna Onyedibe who’s maternal home is Awka Kingdom, then Nwosu Felix and Ikolo Awka were those who hosted us to an amazing time out. We gather at a bar, from where we watched with pleasant admiration the annual festivities.

At those times, we watch the masquerades walk the streets with their long flexible canes, the different “Ogene” music groups, the band groups settled at different bars or joints and the huge population jubilating in an unmatched joy while either returning from Umuokpu axis back to Amaenyi quarters and vice versa. We also saw individuals who willfully joined in flogging competitions.

There’s a sad part to the annual Imo Awka celebration and it’s squarely based on the issue of thugs and hooligans overtaking the entire outing. The intention of the locals would by far never be to cause mayhem or untold hardship on fellow indigenes or visitors, but then also, it happens that once these petty criminals and hooligans overtake the entire celebration and outing, something ridiculous begins to happen.

At Imo Awka celebrations, ask Awka people, they would pridefully tell you that Awka indigenes do not cause mayhem in their community. They would be quick to point accusing fingers to other quarters, they would always say, “those people who perpetuate evil are not Awka people, they are Abakiliki okada riders and keke drivers”. And this is exactly where the problem starts, exonerating your people in mischief-making while pointing accusing fingers elsewhere.

This is exactly the same problems that Onitsha people also in Anambra State always have. Once anyone talks or writes about hooligans and crime rate in be it Onitsha, Nkpor, Obosi or Ogidi, the people of these communities are always quick to exonerate their people, while accusing Abakiliki indigenes. It’s actually laughable, that real owners of a community would permit their guests or visitors to their communities to carry out nefarious and criminal activities within their domain. It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous!

During Imo Awka festivities, sadly, while it might be true that outsiders may flood into Awka kingdom, and may join in carrying out series of criminal acts, it’s also right to state quite clearly that as it is often said in Igboland, “it’s the rat that is at home, that informs the rat in the bush that there is something inside the home”.

Outsiders are more like bystanders, they would never come into an alien domain and perpetuate evil for no just cause, someone from the inside would always take or play the lead role in bringing them in, and directing them on ways to perpetuate their evil. If crime rate, thuggery and hooliganism is high during the annual Imo Awka celebrations, it might be fair to agree that it’s due to the making of the people of Awka kingdom, not merely ndi-Abakiliki or their other visitors.

Again, during this last Imo Awka, many of my Awka friends invited me over to come and celebrate with them, I strived to excuse myself, until Ikolo Awka himself who has hosted me before also called in, even offering to come and meet me where I was, so that we go together. I gave in. He drove to where I was, in the company of a few other friends of mine, we left for the Imo Awka.

At the event however, we sat from a corner of the bar, drinking and looking out, watching events as they unfold. It was an amazing experience again, safe for the hooligans that at a point overtook the streets. At about 6pm, after spending nearly two hours watching them, convinced that we have had enough, and to avoid the foreseeable factors and bad trends that happen under the cover of darkness, we left the area back to for our various homes.

The inspiration to write about the Imo Awka festivities and the hooliganism that follows came from a chat I had with a dear friend, a medical Doctor friend of mine who I had sat out for lunch, then to share drinks with after the Imo Awka activities. She told me of what followed during and after the Imo Awka festival. She’s a practicing Medical Doctor in Awka town.

During the festival proper, cult boys used same medium to overtake the celebration, they decided to go hunting in a quest to settle past scores. She told me of a particular incident that was alleged to have happened around her neighborhood. Cult boys in a counter attack had trailed, traced and tracked down a certain young man, they beat him to pump, maimed him and actually brutalized him.

It was said by an eye witness, who alleged that these crazy cult boys got a six inches nail and with stones, from upper part of the head, pinned it deep through and into the boy’s skull, areas surrounding the parietal lobe region of the head. The boy was then left to die with excruciating pain, where he stood to run but fell, tried again and fell yet again, tried the third time, and simply slumped to the ground and died. It was a terrifying discussion, to say the least.

It was later gathered that the young boy who had been murdered had during the peak of the Imo Awka festivities used dangerous weapons, including knives or matchetes to stab an opposition cult group member to death, therefore what befell him was a resultant counter return of what he has committed. This is only one of the possible many other experiences that played our during the Imo Awka festival and one can bet that the rival cult groups and boys would not give up in their attacks and counter attacks.

One thing many have failed to learn is that cultism has somehow left the shores of the Nigerian higher institutions, or atleast the rate of violent attacks amongst cult members who are undergraduates of various Nigerian institutions has been greatly reduced, but in what should become even more worrisome, is that while it has reduced or left our tertiary institutions, it never ended.

These days, High school and secondary school boys, jointly with young illiterate traders, okada riders, keke napep or tricycle riders and commercial bus drivers have overtaken wholly those cult activities. These ones are mostly illiterates, so, they actually act with reckless abandon, torturing, maiming, attacking, looting, raping where they can and murdering without qualms. Those are the ones who stole the show especially under the cover of darkness to penetrate Awka to perpetuate evil during the Imo Awka festivities.

In what sounds rather ridiculous, many, including Awka indigenes and particularly, outsiders or their visitors do not know what the annual Imo Awka festivities represents to Awka people. They do not understand what the celebration means. They can’t understand what actually brought about the annual ritual and of utmost importance, the role of monkies and the sanctity to its privilege, love and the honor it receives within the Awka kingdom.

It’s a heinous crime to kill a monkey in, around or within Awka kingdom, while it might be permissible to be kill it as a wild animal and can be used as bush meat once it’s not within, but outside the neighborhood of Awka, but never inside the town itself, and never would an Awka man agree to kill one even outside the town.

The tale are in two forms, I would discuss as I’ve learnt over the years, ofcourse no one else would tell the Awka tale better than Awka people, where only in case mine isn’t entirely true, then an Awka indigene should do better.

The tales, first monkies and the reverence that follows them. Awka people were once said to been pursued from behind by enemies who were desperate to attack and murder them, as the story of old was told. While they neared Ugwuoba and towards Amansea axis, from nowhere, in what appeared to be seemingly miraculous, monkies came out in their numbers from the bushes and began to follow them, covering up their footpaths to mislead and confuse the enemies that were hunting Awka people.

Those monkies followed directly behind Awka people who were running to avoid the attacks and that choice of those monkies to follow and cover their footpath brought about confusion on the enemies who eventually lost track of them. Awka people later settled in Awka town, where in appreciation and reverence for the role those monkies played towards their safety back in those days, it’s a big crime to attack or kill monkies in Awka.

The second tale, the story surrounding the annual Imo Awka festivities. Awka people used to worship a god named “Okanube” with the elephant tusk called “Okike” as its symbol, which back in the years was very popular and powerful. Every family had theirs, and in the beginning of every farming year, it’s brought out from the “Obu”, it’s sacred sanctuary where it’s venerated and asked for provision for a successful farming year. It was said that anyone who saw it before those periods could run mad. When this deity somewhat declined in reverence that followed it, another supposed even more powerful god arose. This new even more powerful god is what is today referred to as the Imo Oka.

According to records available and from verbal history, a young girl named Nomeh fell ill, and Doctors were brought from the neighborhood, town next to Oka, Umuezeukwu to treat her. Sadly, Nomeh didn’t survive; and at her demise, in war, Oka wiped out that neighboring community, Umuezeukwu which doesn’t exists even till this day. Nomeh was buried where today the deity of the popular Imo Oka stands.

It was said that after a while, the dead began to terrify the people, where children died prematurely. The people decided that she was reacting and hunting them because she never got married nor had her own children as her life was cut short quite early. They then decided that it’s gonna be best to bring powerful medicine men in a desperate bid to appease the gods and calm her spirit.

Powerful Dibia(s) were said to be brought from Idoma or were they Igala Medicine men. When they arrived, they prepared a powerful charm which was then known as Akwali omumu umu Oka, charm for the procreation of Awka children, a charm which was said to be buried at her graveside.

In what became incredulous, as time and tide passed on, the charm became very active that Awka people returned to it and worshiped it as a deity and god, they named the god “Akwali omumu umu Oka” or simply put “Imo Oka”. The powerful medicine men who prepared that charm that brought about the god were not allowed to return to their homes, for fear of a possibility of them producing same charm for other people, maybe Awka rivals in future or in times of war. They were given a place to settle, and that place is today known as Okpuno Awka.

Imo Oka is a powerful deity which commands respect atleast amongst Awka traditional idol worshippers, even the people of the younger generation take the deity seriously because of the enormous power it is claimed that it controls. Imo Oka, best known as egwu Imo Awka heralds or kicks-off the beginning of Awka native year. Incredibly, it remains the only pegan celebration that has survived ages and generations to this day.

Those are takes which often sounds fictitious, but has been retold by many, including Awka indigenes, themselves. And I’ve had deliberations about histories regarding my community of Nibo, Awka town and some other towns in Igboland.

I’ve sojourned through some of the world major cities and celebrations like this would herald a major outcome. There’re annual Caribbean Carnivals, there’s also London Carnival, some parts of America have their annual carnivals too.

In Nigeria, the Calabar carnival alone, a replica of what’s obtainable in the Caribbean island, this Calabar festivities draws home many Nigerians, tourists from international communities and by higher margin boosts the economy of Cross River State, by the amount of money made even only by sales of carnival costumes, with many guests that would lodge in hotels and many eateries that would have good sales.

If the people of Awka kingdom liaise with the State Government and intelligently plan on how best to make the weeklong celebrations worthwhile, it would be far better than merely hooliganism that has somehow overtaken the entire event.

Imo Awka is actually a medium for mass return of Awka indigenes; which may in the future be a source of growing wealth for Awka people and a means of generating revenue for the Government yet remaining a reason for tourists to choose Awka as tourist and investment destination, but for this to be made possible, the criminal tendencies, the incessant cult activities, the thuggery, fighting, maiming and hooliganism that follows must firstly have to stop. The Government, her agencies and Awka people have the capacity to stop all those.

Imo Awka may turn to a carnival that we all can always trust, eagerly look forward to, wish to attend, then Government and the locals can still make money from it with reduced crime rate and other inadequacies that follow.

I’ve shared this tale and history surrounding Imo Awka and Enwe Awka or its monkies and the sacredness of those with the sole aim to educate and inform, because for me, one of the major role of the social media is to inform, educate, teach and learn from. Where there might be inconsistencies or inadequacies in my tales, I take responsibilities please. But where they’re true, we share the glory.

If Imo Awka has to get better, hooliganism must be curtailed, if not stopped in its entirety. It brings forth a dangerous spot on the rich annual cultural celebrations.

Awka na aso enwe, Imo Awka is a great celebration not for criminal activities or criminals.

Tobenna Obiano.

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