The grand finale of the Awka cultural festival, Egwu Imoka, took place amid an unfolding coronavirus surge in Nigeria. The finale closed out a three-day cultural splurge that kindled a month of fitful festivities enacted as Awka community mulled how to manage its celebrated annual festival in a pandemic year. Under the watchful eyes of a state government that initially prohibited the event but later recanted, Awka managed to navigate the compulsions of two invisible movers, the virus and the deity, and orchestrated an end-game befitting its name and cultural fame.
By Chudi Okoye with field reporting from Stella Nzekwe
It had started out a most improbable proposition. Through the threatful manifestation of the coronavirus pandemic and the fretful – if well-meaning – proclamations of the state government, it had not seemed possible that Egwu Imoka carnival, the cardinal cultural festival in Awka, the capital of Anambra State, would take place at all in 2020, let alone reach a successful denouement. And yet, through what seemed at times like a fitful enactment of the festival, Awka town managed to pull off a pulsating celebration without any untoward incident, or an indecent compromising of its cultural mores. Fear of the virus did cause some collateral damage; but it seemed this was only epiphenomenal, a little loss of sheen for the usually lustrous event. The essential rituals were faithfully performed, Awka Times gathered, and the event turned out an unmitigated success.
By the reckoning of some Egwu Imoka participants, this year’s event turned out, despite the odds, to be the best ever. A rested chief priest of the Imoka deity, Mr. Mmaduabuchi Ikegbunem, told Awka Times the morning after the final event that “the 2020 Egwu Imoka was successful and peaceful; in short it is the best Egwu Imoka so far.”
The exhilarated chief priest who inherited the role from his father also declared:
“No one has power to stop Egwu Imoka, for it is a thing of the spirit which is beyond humans.”
The chief priest and Imoka adherents generally are probably entitled to that sentiment. They had defied a pesky virus that has held the world spellbound, resisted a state government order that sought to suspend their annual religious festival for fear of spreading the virus, and went ahead to hold an event broadly accounted a success.
As he had done in an earlier interview with Awka Times, Mr. Ikegbunem again decried the Anambra State government’s attempt to suspend the 2020 Egwu Imoka event. He said that although its motivation was understandable, the way the government went about it – imposing a suspension order without consultation – was insensitive and inappropriate. The chief priest noted that Egwu Imoka was the flagship festival in Awka traditional pageantry, and that a suspension of the event after a date had been chosen by the deity was never going to be enforceable.
“Awka people will prefer for government to kill them than to stop the festival,” the chief priest insisted.
With the 2020 Egwu Imoka festival now concluded, it remains to be seen if Awka has got away with its apparent defiance of the government’s commandment, or if it will suffer a surge in coronavirus infection given the untrammelled social mingling that took place during the festival. As Awka Times has reported, Nigeria as a whole has recently seen a spike in coronavirus cases following decisions forced on the federal and state governments to relax some of their social restriction policies.
Policing the Pageant
Egwu Imoka is a weeks-long cultural and religious festival with three specially designated days. There is the Osonogba Umuokpu day when a procession of men and masquerades is sent to the outlying village of Umuokpu to deliver notice of the main Egwu Imoka events. This emissary was sent this year on May 25th. It was followed four days later by the second major event, Opu Eke, when the Imoka deity emerged from its shrine for its annual dance, to be venerated especially by its female worshippers.
The final major event of Egwu Imoka Festival 2020 took place on May 30. It was the Masquerade Day, set aside for a free mingling of masquerades and humans, visits to the Imoka shrine, cultural displays and generalized merry-making.
▲ Musician Osuma Malaika performing a coda to Egwu Imoka 2020
The grand finale of Egwu Imoka is usually the most boisterous and unpredictable. Arrangements are usually made by the community to maintain order, and there is often a legion of law enforcement personnel hovering in the background. This year, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the Anambra State government’s order suspending Egwu Imoka, the security and ancillary agencies were out in force. Awka Times noticed a phalanx of marked vehicles from the Nigerian police, including the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and Special Anti-Cultism Squad (SACS); the paramilitary unit, Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC); and, rather curiously, a contingent from the Nigerian Navy. There were also some officers from the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and the immigration services.
These groups were seen slowly patrolling along the main thoroughfare in Awka, known as Zik Avenue, sirens occasionally blaring, the operatives glaring back at staring revelers and bystanders. At moments along this axis, armed and fierce-looking security operatives would hop out from the vehicles, marching alongside their vehicles, scanning the audience.
Notwithstanding the menacing presence of the security agents, it seemed they were there to maintain order and not necessarily to enforce the government’s suspension order. The security personnel made no noticeable attempt to throttle the unfolding events, except on occasion intervening to regulate the proceedings. For instance Awka Times observed some SARS officers posted at the Eke Awka market roundabout stepping in to break up a particular flogging contest (a feature of Egwu Imoka rituals to test manful endurance) which appeared to be becoming over-excited.
The security agencies did not even make any effort to enforce state government’s physical distancing rules or its new Covid-19 Law, signed just two days earlier on May 28th, which made it an offence to appear in public without a face mask. All of these rules were were disregarded by the thronged masses (except the masquerades already wearing masks!).
This was a surprising disposition considering that the Anambra State Police Command had released a statement after the announcement of the state government’s suspension order saying that it was “determined to enforce the order to the letter and will therefore not hesitate to arrest and prosecute any individual or group of persons found violating this Government order.”
It is not clear if the enforcement approach adopted by the security agencies was always intended (Awka Times sought a comment from the Police), or if the agencies adapted themselves to the vicissitudes of the cultural event. The Imoka worshippers in Awka were determined to carry out a version of the Egwu Imoka event since the deity had insisted on it, although they said they would strive to accommodate to the government’s guidelines. The believers feared potential reprisals from the deity or a defilement of Awka land if the ceremony was not performed. It is possible that sensitivity to such cultural concern prevented the state government and the security agencies, in the end, from disrupting the 2020 Egwu Imoka event.
A Successful Event
The presence of the security forces, especially on the final day of Egwu Imoka, may have helped to ensure the event was peaceful, shorn of the occasional misadventures seen in some previous editions of the festival. Although the Covid-19 pandemic muted the moment somewhat, robbing the cultural shindig of some sheen, the event was nevertheless upbeat and successful, according to participants who spoke to Awka Times.
Dr. Aneze Chinwuba, a cabinet chief and factional ‘traditional prime minister’ of Awka, told Awka Times that Awka pulled off a remarkable event.
“The 2020 Egwu Imoka festival was peacefully celebrated by indigenes and non-indigenes,” Dr. Chinwuba said. “There was joy in Awka. There was peace in Awka. Everybody was happy.”
Awka Times learned from the organizers that most of the essential Egwu Imoka rituals and practices were observed. On the climactic day of the festival, the Imoka shrine was opened up for the faithful to visit, to present their sacrifices or supplications or simply to honor the deity. There was a mass of people trooping in and out of the shrine. There were clusters of people all around the Nkwo market square which had been shut down for the event and relocated to Ifite Road, as was the practice. The congregants set up sitting stalls and indulged their own entertainment. There weren’t as many stalls as in previous years, a consequence of Covid-19 precautions, but those present did not seem too perturbed by the viral pandemic.
There were masquerades everywhere, different incarnations, emanating from different parts of Awka town onto the main road leading to the central arena of Egwu Imoka. Some of the masquerades were accompanied by a battery of ebullient youths, wielding the totemic whipping canes (anyachu), stopping occasionally to perform for the pockets of crowds gathered all along the thoroughfare to Nkwo market arena. Some other masquerades were accompanied by a handful of youths, austere in their entourage but no less fervent in their performance.
In previous years, the festival always featured a great variety and artistic imagination in the masquerading rituals and displays. It was the same this year, though here again there was slight temperance in masquerading exhibitions.
Again, in previous years the entire length of Zik Avenue would be littered with convivial canopies set up by different groups for public celebration of Egwu Imoka, as they observed the masquerades and troupes on their way to the main arena. There were still such convivial stalls this year; however, following the insistent advisory from the event organizers and community leaders, many celebrants performed the pilgrimage to the Imoka shrine but afterward repaired to their private settings for the follow-on convivialities.
This pattern, plus perhaps the presence of security patrols, resulted in what most adjudged to be a zestful but peaceful celebration of Egwu Imoka in 2020.
Mrs. Nkechi Nwoye, a spectator who said that she had lived in Awka for over 20 years, told Awka Times that she had never seen such a peaceful ceremony. She said there were no gun shots, snatching of ladies’ purses or violent cult fights that had been seen in the past.
Another spectator, Mr. Anayo Ibeabuchi, sounded more triumphal. He too noted how peaceful the 2020 event was. But he gave credit for this to Awka people who, according to him, defied an attempt to shut down an emblematic cultural event but managed to conduct it in a way that showed maturity and self-control.
“Awka people defended their tradition by not allowing its total lockdown,” Mr. Ibeabuchi said, “and in this way performed all the rituals needed to avoid a defilement of the land.”
Mr. Ibeabuchi concluded: “So we win. Government is people, not spirit; we are the government, we know what we want and what we believe in.”
Physical vs. Cultural Distancing
The events surrounding Egwu Imoka 2020 again indicated what might be deep philosophical differences between the contending leadership factions in Awka. The political differences between these factions seem to be related to deeper confessional differences, and it showed in their handling of Egwu Imoka 2020. The official establishment in the town – a coalition formed around the certified traditional ruler of Awka town, Eze Uzu II Gibson Nwosu, and the government-backed president-general of Awka town union, Engr. Tony Okechukwu – had earlier issued a statement supporting the state government’s suspension of Egwu Imoka this year. This coalition, deeply connected to the Catholic episcopate in Awka, had urged Imoka adherents to respect the government’s coronavirus regulations and mark the event in their homes. As would be expected, members of this faction stayed away from the Egwu Imoka arena.
The opposing faction, coalesced around Chief Austin Ndigwe who is acknowledged by segments of Awka society as Eze Uzu III (though he is not certified by the state government), also urged precautions against Covid-19. However, this faction seemed to be more acutely aware of an impression of cultural distancing that might result from a rigid implementation of the state government’s physical distancing order. Chief Ndigwe himself had issued repeated warnings about Covid-19 and even took out a billboard advert to announce the menace of the virus. And yet, on the day of Egwu Imoka grand finale, the chief turned up at the Imoka shrine with members of his alternative cabinet. He was welcomed to the shrine by the youthful Imoka chief priest. He had travelled in a slow motorcade along the crowded Zik Avenue into the arena, in a symbolic show of cultural fraternity with Egwu Imoka celebrants.
▲ Chief Austin Ndigwe, “Eze Uzu III”, on the grounds of Imoka shrine
There were in fact sounds of cannon shots fired at the time of Chief Ndigwe’s arrival at the arena, as if to herald his presence at the occasion. However, the cannon shots were purely coincidental, as Awka Times gathered from the Imoka chief priest, and were not meant to mark Ndigwe’s arrival. The chief priest nevertheless noted that the government-recognized monarch and devout Catholic, Gibson Nwosu, had never entered the Imoka sanctorium.
Awka Times learned that Ndigwe had held celebratory events at his residence on the other days of Egwu Imoka 2020, as he did in previous years. On the day of this year’s grand finale, after visiting the Imoka shrine, he apparently continued the off-arena celebrations.
The divergent actions of the leadership factions reflect the broader tendencies in Awka with regard to the 2020 Imoka festival. There were those who supported the state government’s suspension of the event, concerned with personal health and a potential surge in coronavirus infections. But there were those worried about the health of the community at large, concerned about a potential scourge in the land if the Imoka deity’s apparent wish for the ritual fête was scorned.
In the end, Awka had to navigate these divergent impulses. It carried out the oracular wish of its deity and held the Egwu Imoka event whilst attempting, not always successfully, to follow the state government’s guidelines for Covid-19 containment.
What happens next as a result of the choices made by Egwu Imoka celebrants is up to an invisible virus and a seemingly irrepressible deity.■
♦ Adumonye Nwiyi, Ella Okonkwo, Nedu Offodile and Mini Chalas, Awka Times contributor, provided additional photos, videos and reporting for this story