An Awka flagship cultural event, Egwu Imoka, is suspended by the Anambra State government amid renewed fears of coronavirus contagion. Official representatives of the town applaud the suspension, advocating only the merest spiritual observances. But worshippers of the Imoka deity want a more expansive celebration within physical distancing rules, wondering why Christian worship is tolerated while government circumscribes a traditional religious ceremony. Festival organizers are striving to navigate the commands of a jealous deity and an insistent government.
By Chudi Okoye, with field reporting from Stella Nzekwe
A spectacle of contending powers looms in Awka, the capital of Anambra State, involving a veritable test of wills between the revered local deity and the state government. The tension turns on two conflicting edicts emanating separately from the spiritual and the secular powers concerning whether the annual traditional event in Awka, called Egwu Imoka, would hold this year. The temporal power, Anambra State government, has spoken. It issued a statement on 10th May proscribing the 2020 edition of Egwu Imoka. The government says this event, like all cultural events in the state, must be suspended in light of the coronavirus pandemic gripping the land which necessitates physical distancing measures. But the Awka local deity, Imoka, appears to have spoken as well, insisting that the festival must proceed, according to an oracle seemingly obtained by the Imoka chief priest. It is now left to the wisdom of all concerned to navigate the numinous and the secular edicts handed down to Awka by its governing powers.
Government Grounds Egwu Imoka 2020
Egwu Imoka is the most colourful and most famous traditional festival celebrated by Awka people. It is the first feast observed in traditional Awka calendar, ushering in the New Year and planting season. It is a medium through which the community pays homage to the Imoka god beseeching it for a prosperous new planting season. It has deep spiritual connotations but it also embodies unique cultural aesthetics including mock battles, theatrical displays, dance, costumery, masquerade cult initiations, masquerade display, other social activities and ubiquitary conviviality.
Egwu Imoka is typically celebrated in the fifth week of the Awka lunar month. It subsists for one native week (lasting four market days) and is usually orchestrated every year to great pomp and pageantry, following detailed preparations by an advance planning committee. But events are turning out to be quite different this year. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Anambra State government had begun to introduce physical distancing rules to minimize contagion. A gradual escalation of the restrictive guidelines indicated that social gathering events, especially ones like Egwu Imoka involving expansive social interaction and revelry, might become improbable.
The likelihood of such events receded as Anambra State, long holding a record as the only tested state with no active case of coronavirus, suddenly began to report new cases. The state had been forced by social restiveness and public pressure from the likes of Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, former governor of the Nigerian Central Bank and likely gubernatorial candidate, to relax its lockdown rule and other social restriction measures. But the government got tougher as new cases began to be reported in the state.
On 10th May, not surprisingly, the Anambra State government issued a statement announcing that it had suspended the 2020 edition of Egwu Imoka, along with other cultural events in the state. According to the statement, signed by the Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Prof. Solo Chukwulobelu,
“the Government of Anambra State, taking cognisance of [the] prevailing federal government curfew order, state government order on public gatherings, World Health Organisation (WHO), and Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) guidelines on preventing the spread of Covid-19, hereby suspends 2020 Egwu Imo Awka (sic) cultural festival. The suspension also extends to other cultural festivals in Anambra State.”
▲ Anambra State SSG, Prof Solo Chukwulobelu
The government advised members of the public “not to attend such festivals, and to stay at home, or go about their business observing Covid-19 guidelines previously issued by the federal and state governments.”
It noted that traditional rulers, presidents-general of town development unions and organisers of such festivals were being put on notice that they would be “held responsible should the festivals go ahead.”
It also indicated that security agencies had been mandated to “strictly enforce the suspension order.”
Shortly after the government’s announcement, the Anambra State Police Command also released a statement saying that it was “determined to enforce the [state government’s] order to the letter and will therefore not hesitate to arrest and prosecute any individual or group of persons found violating this Government order which was made in the overall interest of ‘Ndi Anambra’ and other residents alike.”
Awka Times spoke with the Anambra State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mohammed Haruna, inquiring about the proposed enforcement arrangements. He insisted that government position proscribing the 2020 feast was the official position, noting that any contravention would attract sanctions. But he would not be drawn on whether the police was planning to put boots on the ground to monitor compliance.
▲ Anambra State PPRO, Mohammed Haruna
Official Leadership in Awka Backs ANSG
Reaction to the proscription has been mixed in Awka community, ranging from applause and acceptance to disgust with the manner of announcement, all the way to protests and threats of defiance. The government-recognized traditional ruler of Awka, Eze Uzu II Obi Gibson Nwosu, who is away for annual medical check-up in the United States, told Awka Times when contacted by telephone that he fully supported the government’s decision to suspend Egwu Imoka 2020. The octogenarian, a devout Catholic who by his position is a key custodian of Awka culture, has rarely participated in the pagan rites of Egwu Imoka although he lends it his formal blessing. When asked if his counsel was sought before the government made the announcement, the monarch told Awka Times:
“I do not expect that government will seek my permission to rule the state the way it sees fit. But they have done what they should do by informing me. I consider the suspension reasonable to save our population.”
▲ Govt-certified Awka monarch, Eze Uzu II Obi Gibson Nwosu
The long-tenured monarch advised worshippers of the Imoka deity to hold the Egwu Imoka feast in their homes in the days of the event. He suggested that the deity’s chief priest, known as Eze Imoka, alone with a handful of his assistants, could go to the Imoka shrine on the day of the event to perform the sacramental rites whilst maintaining the government’s physical distancing guidelines. But he cautioned that the social aspects of the festival – including masquerading, parades, dance presentations and the convivial revelries – should be curtailed to comply with government directives.
“The deity can still be worshipped in individual homes,” Obi Gibson Nwosu told Awka Times. “We [the leaders of Awka town] have not said that we want to cancel Egwu Imoka. It is the decision of the state government. And we must obey the government.”
The Awka traditional ruler subsequently released a joint statement with the government-recognized president-general of Awka Development Union Nigeria (ADUN), Engr. Tony Okechukwu – himself also a devoted Catholic and also out of town – expressing support for the government’s decision.
The statement noted that although it was “sad” that “our revered and age long (sic) Imoka festival” was being suspended, “we have to concede that the COVID-19 pandemic is REAL and constitutes a GREAT threat to our communal activities and life, hence such unusual (sic) decision.”
The monarch and the president-general again suggested that “the Eze Imoka, where necessary, may carry out essential spiritual aspects of the festival at the Imoka Shrine alone,” but advised “all celebrants of the Egwu Imoka festival… to make merry in the confines of their individual homes.”
A political science lecturer at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof. Frank-Collins Okafor, expressed his support for the suspension in an interview with Awka Times.
“The suspension of Imoka festival is a welcome development bearing in mind the menace of the raging COVID-19 pandemic and the number of people that do participate yearly in the Imoka festival. The fear is that based on the thick clustering of people during the festival, the possibility of spreading the virus is very high… I believe the action is to save lives because life is greater than festivals. Only the living celebrates.”
Restive Adherents Want More Festive Latitude
Beyond the unstinting assent from Awka officialdom, there seems to be more mixed reaction from the cross-section of Awka society. Most opinion sampled by Awka Times recognized the necessity of the injunction but some indigenes were miffed that government took such a decisive action on a sensitive cultural issue without due consultation. Others wondered why a government that has allowed Christian churches to reopen amid the coronavirus crisis should seek to circumscribe a traditional religious feast. Yet others who are devout worshippers of Imoka insisted that the festival must be held, expressing fears about possible retribution from an aggrieved deity if critical rituals were not performed.
Soon after the announcement of the suspension of Egwu Imoka 2020, Awka Times contacted the chief priest of Imoka, Mr Mmaduabuchi Ikegbunem, to ascertain if he had prior notice of the suspension. “I was not informed or consulted by anyone,” he lamented, “not by any government official or any head of the Awka community.” He said that he only heard of the suspension through the community stentor, Mr Iza Nwosu, who announced the suspension in the night of 12th May.
Mr Ikegbunem claimed that it was unheard of in Awka that a secular government would be the authority to tell Awka community whether or not to celebrate its ancient sacred feast. He said that it was up to the spirits to provide guidance, since they were also aware of the health crisis in the land. He warned that if the situation was not carefully handled there could be grave consequences, including deaths. In his first interview with Awka Times conducted just days after the suspension, Mr Ikegbunem said he had not had a formal consultation with the Imoka deity regarding the event and that it was after such consultation that he could confirm if the event would proceed and on what dates.
▲ Imoka Chief Priest, Ikegbunem; Imoka Shrine entrance
The Imoka chief priest argued that since Christian churches were allowed to worship it made no sense to debar traditional religious worship. He urged the government to allow the festival to proceed if the deity willed it.
“We will pay heed to the state government’s announcement but only after consulting the Oracle. We will do whatever she instructs us to do. If she accepts the suspension, so be it. If she asks us to go ahead and celebrate the festival, so be it. The only thing [government] can do will be to arrest me. In that case, I will carry the deity along to the [police] station.”
Awka Times also sought out the chairman of Egwu Imoka 2020 organizing committee, Mr Anayo Obiakor, asking for his perspective on the government’s decision. He said that the planners were cognizant of the Covid-19 exigency but were disappointed that the “government of Anambra State did not consult any of us before making such public suspension on Imoka festival 2020,” adding that “we only heard about it on the air.” He said that the stakeholders were not happy with the government’s approach, arguing that it should have consulted the community to find workarounds. He wondered why government “did not suspend churches and markets,” and insisted that the suspension of Imoka festival was unworkable. He promised that the event would still hold although the government’s guidelines pertaining to coronavirus containment would be followed.
▲ Egwu Imoka Planning Cttee Chair, Anayo Obiakor
An Awka traditional title holder, High Chief Ikechukwu Ozoemene, told Awka Times that the Anambra State government was negligent by not consulting Awka cultural custodians before taking the decision. He said that the unilateral decision was a big blow to Awka traditional institution.
A retired public servant and head of Igu-Aro in Awka, Chief Patrick Nweke, also complained about the government’s slight of Awka leaders, telling Awka Times that he believed the government should have acted more wisely. Nonetheless, Chief Nweke said that he supported the decision and called on Awka indigenes to be patient until the pandemic is brought under control.
A youth leader in Awka, Mr Kenechukwu Nnacheta, also condemned the lack of consultation in this case, noting that government had consulted with other interest groups like market associations before taking decisions that impacted them. Mr Nnacheta stated that Egwu Imoka is an event in which adherents worship their god just as the Christians do their God. He told Awka Times that the government should have liaised with the organizers to work out a compromise rather than impose a total suspension of the annual event.
Dr. Uche Ebeze, an associate Professor of Mass Communication at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University said in a chat with Awka Times that the government should have been aware that Egwu Imoka celebration had a fixed rotation in Awka traditional calendar and could not be shuffled around or postponed like a birthday party. He noted that government had allowed churches and major markets like Eke Awka and Onitsha main markets with minimal physical distancing compliance to reopen and wondered why government would not extend the courtesy to Awka traditional worshippers. He urged the government to reconsider and allow Egwu Imoka to be held, saying he was certain “that all protective measures will be observed” during the event.
An aspect of the suspension that bothers the Egwu Imoka practitioners is potential reprisals from an angry Imoka deity should it be given short shrift. The chief priestess of the deity, Ezenwanyi Uchenna Okafor, explained to Awka Times that there could be problems if the community fails to appease the Imoka god.
Another Awka indigene, Mr Kenneth Kenechukwu Okoli, spoke in a similar vein of potential reprisals in an interview with Awka Times. Mr Okoli noted that it was all very well for the state governor and the commissioner of police to proclaim their injunction against the god but said they would return to their home towns at the end of the day, leaving “Awka indigenes… to bear the consequences.” He said that “we don’t want to die because of Imoka,” insisting that “we must perform the rituals so that when it will be judged in the Spirit land, it will be good.” He noted that practitioners could celebrate the event in their own homes while avoiding the larger social conventions of the festival to comply with the government’s goal of controlling the spread of coronavirus infection.
Honourable Ugochukwu Nwimo, a special adviser to the Anambra State governor on community liaison, speaking both as a government functionary and an Awka indigene, pleaded with the government “to allow Awka community to celebrate the festival” if adjustments could be made to the event programme to comply with physical distancing guidelines. He assured that “community leaders will help in making sure that no one breaks the laws and that [official guidelines] are observed.”
Whilst various stakeholders and concerned persons pleaded with the government to reconsider its position, a number of Awka indigenes gathered in front of the Anambra State government house days after the suspension of Egwu Imoka was announced intent on protesting the decision. It was a peaceful but a seemingly insistent protest meant to convey a message to both the government and the organizers of the Egwu Imoka that the adherents expected their sacred feast to be accommodated.
Event Organizers Calibrate Options
Amidst the swirling uncertainty concerning Egwu Imoka 2020, Awka Times returned to the Imoka chief priest, Mr Mmaduabuchi Ikegbunem, to assess the position. This time, Ikegbunem confirmed that the deity had given its edict. He said the order was that the feast must be held. This meant, he said, that Awka could not abide by the cancellation of the event as pronounced by the secular government. He said, however, that although the deity insisted on the performance, it offered scope for human modulation of the events. Through human agency, he said, the event could be conducted in a “balanced” way that satisfied sacred obligations but also accorded with the government’s guidelines for Covid-19 prevention. He said that all the major elements of the sacred ceremony must be observed but calibrated in a manner that would be sensitive to the contemporary health exigencies.
Egwu Imoka typically involves three key events held on different days: a contingent comprising a mixture of humans and masquerades despatched to the non-contiguous Awka village of Umuokpu to announce the commencement of the event; a tumultuous and highly ritualistic Opu-Eke Day heralding the opening events when adherents troop to Imoka shrine to pay homage and tender their offerings, a day usually begun with a procession of mystically decorated women led by the Eze Nwanyi going to pay homage to the deity in its shrine; and a day for the grand finale, known as the Masquerade Day, usually marked by mass masquerade outings, entertainment, merriment and varied pageantry.
The chief priest told Awka Times at the follow-up interview that he could now confirm the dates for the Egwu Imoka 2020 event. He declared that the formal kick-off event, being the emissary to Umuokpu, had been set for 25th May. This would be followed by Opu-Eke Day on 29th May, and the finale on 30th May.
The Imoka chief priest described to Awka Times the arrangements being made to reconcile the festival to the exigent guidelines from the government. For instance instead of a tumultuous procession of masquerades and humans marching to Umuokpu, he said that a small contingent of around 15 key persons could travel in a bus to deliver the commencement message to Umuokpu. The village too would be advised to send a delegation no more than 20-person strong. He said on the critical Opu-Eke Day only a selected and highly coordinated number of persons would accompany the chief priest to the shrine to perform the rituals, while on the Masquerade Day individuals would be encouraged to perform the ceremony in their homes. He said the usual mass of celebrants and revelers congregating at the market square would not be allowed this year.
The chief priest informed Awka Times that he had been working with Chief Austin Ndigwe, a claimant to the contested Awka kingship stool recognized by sections of Awka community as Eze Uzu III, to arrange for security contingents to superintend the event. He said that security personal would be placed at strategic locations around the Nkwo market square which constitutes the epicenter of Egwu Imoka celebrations. Chief Ndigwe himself had earlier availed Awka Times with a statement that he had released advocating for low-key Egwu Imoka celebrations this year. He would not be drawn, on further inquiry, to confirm any arrangements that he might be making for police mobilization.
▲ Ndigwe, acclaimed as Eze Uzu III, at Egwu Imoka 2019
In the febrile contestation for the Awka monarchy stool, the Anambra State government has resolutely denied official recognition of Chief Ndigwe’s claim. However, Ndigwe has been a staunch advocate of the Egwu Imoka festival, once sharing with Awka Times his dream of giving it global visibility.
The Nigerian police force is enshrined in the exclusive list of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, meaning that it is under federal jurisdiction throughout the nation. Chief Austin Ndigwe is known to be closely allied with Dr. Celestine Okoye, a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the police and an Awka indigene. It is likely that Ndigwe, as he had done in past events, is leveraging his contact with DIG Okoye to arrange for police coverage of the event.
It remains to be seen if the compromise plan for Egwu Imoka 2020 can be pulled off, allowing Awka community to perform some version of its hallowed festival to appease the local deity whilst constraining social enthusiasms that might contravene guidelines laid down by an overstrung state government struggling to manage a menacing pandemic.♦
- Awka Times guest reporters, Pamela Henry-Igwe and Mini Chalas, contributed to the field reporting for this story.