The Imo Awka Festival has come and gone and as always, left a bloody trail, with some lives allegedly lost. While a report had it that four people were shot dead by suspected cultists who were believed to have cashed in on the usual commotion accompanying the festival; another report had it that two people were killed; also by suspected cultists. But the common denominator was that people were killed. During last year's celebration, suspected cultists were also on the rampage, hijacking the festival at some point. With what happened last year and what has happened this year, the argument as to whether the festival should be modified to protect the people, or to be outrightly scrapped, has come up once again.
This annual festival is one that the people of Awka attach a lot of importance to. Festivities like Christmas, Easter, or even the New Yam Festivals, are important generally to Awka Indigenes; but the Imo Awka is one that they hold really supreme, perhaps because of the cultural ties that hold them together as a people. So, every year, Awka Indigenes travel from far and near to be a part of the celebration.
Imo Awka is traditional and richly cultural. However, the problem has always been the spate of violence associated with it. The rise in cultism has not helped matters as most of the cultists leverage on the chaotic nature of the festival to slug it out with their rivals. They therefore contribute to the violence and confusion experienced during this festival.
It is not in doubt however, that this festival can be handled better. Each year, owing to the violence accompanying it, ordinary folks who have no business with the festival are harassed, beaten and often injured by some of the dare-devil youths taking part in the festival
They often wield big sticks, bottles and other dangerous weapons, as they take over the streets with their masquerades. For those who see this as part of their culture, one wonders what manner of culture breeds violence.
Indeed, many have also advocated a shift from its violent nature to one that will turn it into a money spinner for the state in the manner of the popular Calabar Carnival. The Calabar version is devoid of violence and focuses only on positively exposing their rich traditions.
It is today one festival in Nigeria which has been tagged 'Africa's Biggest Street Party'. It was created as part of the vision to make Cross River state the number one tourist destination for Nigerians and tourists all over the world.
Thus for the past fifteen years since it was kick started by former Cross River State governor, Donald Duke, Calabar has indeed been a hub for hospitality and tourism in Nigeria and Africa. The Calabar Carnival also has a greater population of participants than that of Imo Awka and yet, violence has never been associated with it.
It therefore pertinent that the Imo Awka Festival be tailored along similar lines, such that rather than being a nightmare to people, it becomes something that everyone looks forward to attending.
And the first group who should mastermind this are the town's elders. They should rally their youths and educate them on the need to be civil and responsible. When the town has come together to parley, they can also come out with ways avoiding infiltration of the festival by non-indigenes who are readily blamed for hijacking the festival and fomenting trouble.
Security should also be beefed up during the festival, both by the police and the village vigilante who know their people and can thus easily detect stranger elements who may want to infiltrate the rank and file of the indigenous population celebrating the festival.
Once sanity is restored in the manner the festival is celebrated, the sky will be its limit and the idea of taking it beyond its present mode can easily be realized.