…As Awka Youths set to Defy Order
This year’s Imo Awka Festival will not hold. This follows the decision of the Anambra State Government and the Awka Development Union (ADUN) to have the festival suspended as part of measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, write Mercy Hill, Alexander Johnson Adejoh and Precious Ukeje, with additioal reports from Jude Atupulazi.
Imo Awka is a festival done to signify the outset of the farming season. In ancient times, the festival was held to inform the god of harvest that the people were ready for the farming season, as well as to pray for a bountiful harvest.
This year’s Imo Awka is supposed to commence on Monday, May 25, with a short journey to Umuokpu. Women wearing white apparels are expected to take part, with the climax of the celebration coming on the 29th of May.
But over the years, this supposedly harmless festival had slowly evolved into one of violence and often death, given the wanton way it was being celebrated. This had drawn much criticism and condemnation from a large section of society, especially the non-indigenous elements.
Often times, schools had been shut, markets closed and business and commercial activities grounded, as a result of the violent manner the festival was celebrated. It was also discovered that many times, stranger elements tended to infiltrate the ranks of those celebrating the festival, a development that often made it difficult to control.
To stem this, the leadership of Awka Town set up a group called Awka Amaka Age Grade. They were saddled with the task of ensuring that the celebration was not given a violent bent. But whether this group has been able to achieve the desired result remains a matter of conjecture.
It is on record that fears and anxiety often herald the celebration of this festival because of the negative way it has been celebrated. But those harbouring such fears may well heave a sigh of relief following the decision of the Anambra State Government and Awka Town leadership to suspend this year’s festival.
The announcement was made known to newsmen in a statement, tagged, “Egwu-Imo Awka 2020, Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic”, signed by Engr. Tony Okechukwu, the President-General, Awka Development Union of Nigeria (ADUN) and HRM Dr Obi Gibson Nwosu, Eze Uzu Awka II.
It read, ”Though sad, we must concede that the COVID-19 pandemic is real and constitutes a great threat to our communal activities and life; hence such unusual decision.
”While acknowledging the great significance of this cultural activity, prevailing circumstances call for unusual sacrifices if we must remain alive.
It is important to recall that for the first time in our history (save for the years of the civil war), we have had to stay away from our daily economic activities on account of this novel disease. No sacrifice therefore can be greater than this; hence we call on you to once again exhibit the Awka man’s deep sense of understanding for which he is held in awe, by harkening to this directive.”
In the statement, the Union noted that the coronavirus might succeed in getting their masquerades, Opu-Eke Women, Osonogba Umuokpu, among others off the streets this year, as well as denying them the colour associated with the Imo Awka festivity. It described the Imo Awka Festival as a culture which lived in their hearts.
”As the world battles the menacing scourge of COVID-19 which continues to wreak untold havoc on human life and livelihoods, we wish to appreciate the painstaking commitments of the Anambra State Government, the Federal Government of Nigeria, the NCDC, the WHO and the good people of Awka, to overcome this challenge,” the statement further read.
It lauded the remarkable efforts of the state government, which, it said, had ensured that Anambra was one of the few states which remained coronavirus free (at that point), just as it equally commended the ‘law abiding’ people of Awka, for remaining obedient in adhering to all safety measures in the fight to roll back the pandemic, despite the imposing inconveniences.
ADUN thus enjoined Awka indigenes and residents to comply with the directives of the Anambra State Government on Egwu Imoka 2020, noting that it was in line with the Federal Government’s, WHO’s and NCDC’s safety protocols.
Fides learnt however, that the Eze-Imoka (chief priest of the Imo Awka deity) where necessary, may carry out essential spiritual aspects of the festival at the Imo Awka Shrine alone, following all laid down safety measures as directed by the NCDC, WHO, and the Government.
Also, all celebrants of the Egwu-Imo Awka Festival, it was further gathered, were invited to make merry in the confines of their individual homes.
Meanwhile information coming to Fides reveals that some Awka youths are adamant in celebrating the festival. According to them, the best the government could do was to arrest them, even as they have vowed to go ahead with the celebration, even if it meant filling the prison cells.
As the date for the celebration of the festival draws near, the public waits with bated breath to see if the suspension of the festival will be observed or if the youthful elements in the town will successfully dare the government and the town union leadership.
The suspension of this year’s Imo Awka celebration by the Anambra State Government has got indigenes, as well as residents of Awka talking.
Among them are the holder of the highest title in Awka land, Ozo Ejike Nwude; Chairman, Awka South Local Government Area, Mr. Leo Nwuba; as well as his Secretary, Prince Chinedu Okafor, all share different opinions on the suspension.
Fides, on a mission to ascertain the opinion of people in Awka with regard to the suspension of the celebration announced by the state government, took to the streets, homes and offices of some community leaders, as well as members of the planning committee for the celebration.
It will be recalled that Egwu Imo Awka is an age old annual event to celebrate the coming of the new farming season and to implore the god of harvest for a bountiful yield.
The festival usually comes up anytime between the months of May and June, pending instructions from the Imo Awka Deity. However, this year’s celebration scheduled to hold between May 29 and 30, 2020, was suspended by the state government owing to the prevalence of the ravenous coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking to Fides at his Obu, the Chairman, Imo Awka Planning Committee, 2018, Ozo Nwude, said the government had taken a measure which he described as a wise decision, noting that the government would not have done otherwise.
He noted that the coronavirus had halted a lot of activities across the globe and things were not as they used to be, adding that the government did not do it to spite the people of Awka.
The Estate Management graduate and retired civil servant from the Anambra Broadcasting Service, ABS, also said that despite the mandatory nature of the celebration, he believed that the Imo Awka deity was aware of the people’s plight and would oblige not to punish them when appeased by the persons who were involved in its rituals.
He noted also that if the festival was not celebrated this year, it could be celebrated next year as long as life remained. He added that nothing would go amiss if the celebration did not hold this year. According to him, Imo Awka had the duty of protecting the Awka person, being that it would not go down well with the deity if its people ran into problems celebrating it.
Ozo Nwude stressed that if the government could obstruct movement across state boundaries, close churches and mosques, they could put a hold to every other activity in a bid to contain the pandemic.
The Ozo title holder, who described Egwu Imo Awka as a youthful thing, and who said the youths might have a different perception of the suspension from older people, however, recalled that Imo Awka was not celebrated during the war and nothing happened.
‘During the war when the soldiers from the Nigerian Army came here, everybody ran away and that time, we spent two years or three years outside Awka; nobody celebrated Imo Awka. So, we can still oblige this without qualms,’ Ozo Nwude observed.
He thus urged Awka people to obey government directives and not violate them.
But Anayo Obiakor, Chairman, Imo Awka 2020 Planning Committee, who described his feelings as mixed, vehemently condemned the act and use of the word ‘suspension’, saying it was a wrong thing to do.
He said every community had a deity in charge of it, as well as their culture, and added that there was need for the government to consult the community on its decision over what would happen in the community.
‘It is not fair that a community will hear of events concerning it in the media without having a say in whatever decision was taken over it,’ Obiakor emphasized.
While he said the situation of the world, arising from the prevalence of coronavirus pandemic, could be an act of the deities of the land, he observed that Kano State was facing a challenge which the government had not found a cure for, yet churches and other places of worship were allowed to operate, as long as they complied with WHO guidelines on coronavirus. He insisted that the suspension of Imo Awka 2020 was not a proper thing to do.
The Planning Committee Chairman also said there should have been a more encompassing resolution on what measures to take if the government had invited stakeholders of the community to a discussion, and noted that Imo Awka did not require a multitude to be celebrated, reiterating that there were guidelines stipulating gatherings of not more than thirty persons who would compulsorily wear face masks.
He said there would have been trouble arising from the suspension had Awka people not been educated.
Responding to how they intended to repress agitations from youths of the community, he said it was part of the agenda of their meeting.
He observed that they would accept making arrangements to control the number of persons that would be in participation, but maintained that collaboration with a community in making decisions that would affect it was necessary.
Describing the measure taken by the state government as autocratic, he said due process was not followed.
In a similar development, the Transition Committee Chairman, Awka South Local Government Area, Mr. Leo Nwuba and the Secretary, Awka South Local Government Area, Prince Chinedu Okafor, lent their voices on the controversy over the suspension.
Nwuba noted that it was the obligation of the government to secure life and property, adding that Governor Willie Obiano knew the importance of citizens’ security, and had performed excellently in that aspect.
He said the Governor was rated first by the World Health Organization in the fight against coronavirus.
Thanking God for giving Anambra State what he described as an intelligent Governor, he also said state remained among states with the least number of recorded cases.
On the measures put in place to contain young people who could defy the suspension, the local government boss warned that the long arms of the law would catch up with people who breached the law.
‘Sometimes, when I sit down and reflect on how some of our people reason, I feel like crying. Most of the positive things the government put in place in order to favour our people are criticized,’ he regretted.
Nwuba stressed that the suspension of the cultural festival was not only in Awka, but also in all 181 communities across Anambra State. Recalling that the police apprehended some individuals caught holding a party recently, he added that even churches had abided by the directives and desisted from holding crusades.
Reiterating that the guideline stipulated gatherings of not more than thirty persons who must have their face masks on, which would last for some time, Nwuba said no one would be restrained if they individually went to pray to Imo Awka.
Prince Okafor, the Awka Local Government Secretary, for his part, said he believed everyone knew what was going on and it was important that the Egwu Imo Awka, as well as other festivals celebrated across the state, be suspended by the government because they could bring a gathering of too many persons which was not advisable.
Observing that in similar situations, misinformed youths tended to resort to violence, he advised that the order given by the state government which was for the benefit of everyone, be carried out.
He said the cases of coronavirus was growing daily and the government’s measure was a way of curbing it, adding that they did not want to record cases in thousands after the Egwu Imo Awka Festival celebration.
He added that it was only a suspension and not a cancellation, noting that it would be celebrated in subsequent years.
Okafor also said that the youths should know that the directives of the government and other guidelines should strictly be complied with, adding that nobody would talk about Imo Awka if the Governor did not ease the lock down based on the advice offered him. He thus further that it should not be abused.
Noting that he and the local government chairman would not be able to engage in a door-to-door explanation to the youths, he said the enlightenment of community members on such matters was the duty of community leaders who, he said, must have been duly involved by the governor in taking such decision.
He said further that there was need for sensitization among the youths for them to understand the necessity of suspending the festival this year.
Similarly, an indigene of Amansea, Awka North Local Government Area resident in Awka, Mrs Amuche Okafor, expressed deep pleasure over the steps taken by the state government and said that it was a step in the right direction.
Okafor who sells her wares at the Nkwo Amenyi Market, maintained that there was no civility in the way the celebration was carried out, adding that the aftermath was usually unwarranted deaths and maiming of individuals by fellow individuals.
She however noted that most of the trouble encountered during the celebration of Imo Awka was caused by non-indigenes who came from neighbouring communities and to such extent, the suspension was proper.
‘At least, there will be calm and people will not lose their lives in the name of any celebration,’ Okafor said.