Annually celebrated in pomp and fanfare, the Ikeji (literally meaning strength or power of the yam) festival which dates over a century remains one of the biggest and oldest cultural celebrations in the south east geopolitical zones and specifically among the Igbo in Nigeria. Just as it also occupies a prominent position in the national tourism calendar drawn up by the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC). This of course is going by the sheer size of the visitors who swarm the event’s revolving locations from far and near.
These facts also buttress reason for the corporate sponsorship which the festival has enjoyed in the past that had also served to validate as well as boost its draw and appeal to the indigenes in the Diaspora, who constitute a sizeable population of attendance at the celebrations.
The Aro are not new to the history books. The pre-colonial and colonial Nigerian history singles them as one indivisible ethnic clan which the imperialists could not subdue until an early 1901-1902 military invasion by the British colonialists. Such is the history of the Ikeji festival which had thrived on the soul of the clan from inception, hence making it one of the oldest festivals in Igboland.
Today, spread in two states in the south east; the Arondizuogu predominantly in Imo State, and the parent Arochukwu in present-day Abia State, the Aro have consistently marked the Ikeji in revelry without of course toning down on any of the traditional rites and norms that characterize the festival; with each state choosing its own Ikeji separate from the other’s.
Mazi Chris Robins Okoro (Okeoha Izuogu), the President General, Arondizuogu Patriotic Union who spoke to Daily Champion shortly after the Arondizuogu in Imo State celebrated their own Ikeji recently likens the Ikeji Cultural Festival of the Aro to any other thanksgiving celebrations around the world.
“Same way as the Jews keep their culture, we keep ours. Ikeji festival is all about maintaining the culture of a people. The Ikeji is a long held festival well over 300 years old. In America they say Thanksgiving Day, Martin Luther King Day and so on. In Brazil, they also have their festivals…Ours is a period when we access our roots. We pay homage to whom you owe homage. We have 12-13 autonomous communities in the whole village. It is a clan. Everyone should trace his own roots.
“Ikeji Festival Day is a day when we say “thank you” papa or grandfather, remembering them as they lived. For instance, I am the sixth head in the linage, so we have to call the names of our predecessors and pray to God for the repose of their souls. We believe that if we do not do that (pay homage) and it is the beginning of the planting session the season may not go well. We believe that it is the strength of these our ancestors that makes our farming profitable. If they curse the land, then we are in trouble. Most times, we do Ikeji immediately after Easter.
“After the sacrifice, the next day is afor fun fare, masquerading and we have centres for the masquerades to perform. For example, Okigwe people enjoy their own on Afo, Ideato Nkwo and Onuimo, Eke. At the schools and market place you see different masquerades in attendance with our people enjoying themselves and different social clubs entertaining their guests,” Mazi Okoro said.
“Since I became the President General, I have tried to let people know that Ikeji is not about serving the deities and has nothing to do with religion. Some people are of the opinion that calling upon the names of your fore fathers is against religion, but there is a part of the bible that says: “you should respect the ordinance of man, be it to the kings or of the elders”. Some think it is idol worshiping, but that is not true. With Ikeji, our message to the world is that “any groups of people that forget their origin do not have the need to exist”. Like for me when we are calling all our lineages, our children got to know those that belong to our kindred so they will not marry from there, that much importance we attach to Ikeji.”
Waving away allegations that the festival is fetish and not in harmony with the orthodox religions, Mazi Okoro said: “We respect the Easter period when the Ikeji usually falls in. The relationship is that Easter is for the religious beliefs but this is traditional. Knowing that tradition does not have any quarrel with religion or Christianity, we have to do the Ikeji. Arondizuogu are predominantly Christians but everybody performs this ritual.
“If you do not know where you are coming from, you are likely not to know where you are going to. Our forefathers have sustained the event as the Jews sustain theirs. There is no where an Aro man settles that he will not remember his fatherland, even in Yoruba land. We have 36 settlements so wherever we are; our culture remains our culture, so we do not allow it to have any interface with Christianity.”
Arochukwu remains the headquarters of the Aro and it is based in Imo State. The largest Aro settlement is in Arondizuogu.
“Izogu is the man who founded that settlement that is why we call it Arondizuogu. If you go to some other areas, you find other Aro settlements, but they are minor settlements. Izuogu has the largest settlement of about 22 towns and so many villages. We are in three different local government areas: Okigwe, Ideato North and Onuimo Local Government Areas of Imo State. We attend that of Arochukwu because we migrated from a place called Amankwu in Arochukwu. So we attend theirs and they attend ours,” Mazi Okoro cleared the air on history.
It does not also go without saying that the Ikeji itself has been going through its own patch or fair share of tough economic times, in efforts by the Arondizuogu to sustain the annual celebrations, which Mazi Okoro noted has not been easy for the community in the face of changing economic times.
He said while previous editions which had been sponsored by the corporate sector had been successful, sponsorship began to witness hiccups from the 2007/2008 festivals.
“Since I became the president general of the union, the people have not told me what happened from the 2007/2008 editions. They did not tell us exactly what happened between the committee and previous sponsors, also telecommunications firm and then the community itself. We did not want to infringe on anybody’s right. However, by the time we realized, it was too late for us to look for corporate sponsors.
Remarkably, despite the prominence and corporate presence which the Arondizuogu communities have enjoyed via the Ikeji cultural festival for decades, it is another story entirely for the level of infrastructure in the area, which, aptly put, under-represents the economic potential the festival itself boasts of and the capacity of the Aro in Arondizuogu.
For Mazi Okoro, it is a fact that the cultural and tourism event based on its attraction alone has the capacity to boost tourism revenue for the state if well explored by both the state and the federal government, even as he further explained that it stood to benefit the people as well as the government.
“Attendance at Ikeji celebrations in the past has been on the increase and it keeps on increasing, All the hotels are occupied during the Ikeji. Unfortunately, prior to now, the picture people paint about Ikeji is that it is a time people go to worship deities, and humans are being slaughtered; but those are not true. Attendance at Ikeji festival has been pleasantly surprising to us because every year, the attendance keeps on increasing. Our people from far and near, abroad, come for the event.
“For instance, if you have a hotel that is about 50 rooms and all rooms are occupied during Ikeji for 1 week, you have gained. But what is sustainable is for the government to come and build our roads such as the one linking Onitsha to Okigwe built during the regime of Shehu Shagari. Unfortunately, the road is now bad and has been abandoned which forms part of the problem,” he explained.
Prejudice, is the choice of words Mazi Okoro picks to describe the perennial negligence of the Arondizuogu at the hands of successive political administrations in the state, which therefore becomes all the more worrying when placed against the backdrop of the huge economic potential which the Ikeji Fetival portends.
“In terms of development, it has been disappointing. We became the early life of the area producing great people like Mbonu Ojike, Ike Nwenu, Mbadiwe and others. We had about 11 industries in Arondizuogu in the years past. But subsequent governments did not see us as a people they should extend their patronage. There is no physical presence of government in our area.
“I think we are suffering from some long held prejudices. Quoting one of the past leaders, he said, ‘your fore fathers sold my great grand fathers to slavery so I cannot be your friend’. Truth is that the Aros were engaged in slave trade in the past, but that was in the past. Despite this past, we are the most hospitable people in Nigeria today. If you visit the Ikeji festival, there is all possibility that you will meet someone you may know. When it comes to government presence, we have nothing to show for it. Any development work such as electricity is done by the community. In fact we have scheduled to visit the government of Imo State to inquire why no attention is paid to our community as if we are not part of Imo State.
“In the past we had industries that employed as much as 3,000 people. Unfortunately, these industries are dead now because there are no roads and electricity. To improve the socio-economic impact of Ikeji, we are looking for corporate sponsors and investors in our land. Fortunately, we have a vast land for rice plantation. So, if these investors come, we hope to tell them about our potentials which they can tap into. However, for now economically, I can say the gains are personal because generally there has been no gain,” Mazi Okoro stressed.
In an age where governments at all levels are evolving mechanisms and policy frameworks geared towards exploiting every viable avenue to boost internally generated revenues (IGRs), and even in the face of the immense economic potential presented by the tourism sector as validated by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), whether through the cultural, Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events (MICE), medical, sports, heritage, Diaspora, and many other platforms, it is pertinent for the relevant authorities and organs of government to reposition the Ikeji Cultural Festival with a view to empowering the local communities and by extension boost earnings by the state.
Ikeji has till date been sustained by the sheer will power of the Aro to protect their heritage. At over a hundred years old, however, age is just a number for this cultural spectacle, just going by the numerical size of the Diaspora Aro who annually pay their way to the hosting community to witness the event.
This is an investment opportunity waiting to be tapped except that government needs to provide that atmosphere for it to thrive.
By Victor Nze