55 years after Proscription, ancient Ocho Festival holds in Idah

Atah Igala

The Ocho Festival of Igala people, tagged Igala Unity Festival, is an ancient hunting festival that announces the beginning of a new hunting and farming season for the people of Igala kingdom.

The Kingdom, which has it capital in Idah in present-day Kogi State, was founded by Igala people, mostly found in six states across Nigeria— Enugu and Ebonyi States, Bini, some parts of Yoruba land and Jukun.

The Igala’s first Atah-Ebulejonu was a female ruler and daughter of Abutu Ejeh, who said to have migrated from Kwararfa, began the dynasty that has endured for many centuries.

From Atah-Ebulejonu to the reigning Atah of Igala, Idakwo Michael Ameh Oboni II, who ascended the throne in 2013, 27 Atahs have reigned in Igala Kingdom.

The Ocho Festival, an annual event, has been associated with Igala people right from inception.

It was banned in 1963 during the reign of the immediate past Atah of Igala, Aliyu Obaje, who ascended the throne in 1956 and reigned for 57 years before joining his ancestors in 2013.

Immediately after ascending the throne, the reigning Atah of Igala, Idakwo Michael Ameh Oboni II, who is also the chairman of Kogi State Council of Traditional Rulers, made efforts to unban the festival, which he said, “is very dear to the average Igala man and woman, as his people cherish the festival so much”.

On March 13, 2018, the Atah led a delegation of Igala chiefs to see Governor Bello in Lokoja. This was after he made several unsuccessful efforts through Kogi State House of Assembly to get the proscription lifted.

After consultations, Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello, used his executive powers to unban the festival.

On Saturday, May 19, 2018, Idah and its surrounding environs were agog, as the natives rolled out drums and masquerades to mark the festival, which last held 55 years ago. Igala home and abroad trooped to the civic centre in the Palace in Idah.

Palace Watch asked Alhaji Adamah Sule, Secretary to the Igala Traditional Council what brought about the ban in the first place.

He said: “The festival was banned due to the handiwork of some mischief-makers. It wasn’t that there was any act(s) of violence then that any person could point at.

At that time, those same people didn’t want the festival that acted as the rallying point for all Igala people to continue. So, they did all within their powers to stop it.

“When the present Atah ascended the throne, the pressure was much on him to do all within his powers to unban the festival.

After a lot of efforts within five years of his reign, he was able to persuade His Excellency Yahaya Bello to lift the ban. That is why we are all here today.

“The Atah is not just the physical and spiritual leader of all Igala people home and abroad, he is also regarded as the chief hunter.

This is part of the reason(s) he bears among other titles (Igaba-Idu) the lioness and the lion. On Friday, May 18, 2018, at about 1 a.m., His Royal Majesty left the comfort of his palace to a place known as ‘Ocho Ground’ in the thick forest, where this ceremony commenced.

He was in that place till dawn and at about 12 noon on Saturday, he emerged from the forest with an antelope he had shot with an arrow. This act symbolises the commencement of the hunting and farming season for all Igala sons and daughters.

“While the Atah was far away in the bush, here at the venue of the festival drumming, dancing, masquerades and all other forms of merriment were going on and on full display.

This continued all through the night, and would continue late into the evening before everybody leaves to continue with the merriment in their homes.

The antelope shot by the Atah will be eaten by a certain class of persons in Igala.

“In a deliberate effort to ensure things are done well and people properly entertained, especially invited guests, special committees were set up.

We had committees on accommodation, feeding and entertainment, publicity and security.

Expectedly, these committees play the roles assigned to them to the best of their ability and take care of all complaints.

“The chairman of the occasion is His Royal Highness Prof. Steven I. Ocheni, who is the Omachi Attah Igala. He is also the current Minister of State for Labour and Employment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Sadly, he could not attend this event because of the APC congresses that held across the country.

This same reason was why Governor Yahaya Bello, who was supposed to be the Special Guest of Honour at the occasion, could not make an appearance at the event.

This notwithstanding, we still ensured the festival is as grand as possible, as people from all the local government councils, especially Kogi East Senatorial districts, were all here.

“The Chairman of the Central Planning Committee of the festival is no other person than former Chairman of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Senator Ahmadu Ali.

During the carnival-like event, royal cultural troupes and incarnate beings were all on display, entertaining guests and the teeming crowd that trooped to venue of the festival.

The Atah Igala seized the opportunity to pray for the progress of Igala land, stressing that this festival is a celebration of the unity of Igala people, their development. He asked for God’s blessing and productivity.

“According to him, this is going to be the beginning of an era, when the Igala nation would come together as one big family known for its hard work, peace and determination.

The Ocho is a festival that shows Igalas of old as great hunters.

He said any part of the festival that does not unite the people would be expunged. He concluded by appealing to all Igalas to continue to turn out en mass for the event that will henceforth be organised yearly.

“About the large turnout of women at this occasion, as the saying goes, there is no successful man without a woman.

There is, therefore, no occasion we organise without active participation of women. They are our wives and mothers.

Their role is vital to the survival of our society. So, we have no other option than to cherish and revere our women as much as we can.

Some of the women here have special praise songs for the Atah, composed especially for him. They are his musicians, and they make him happy all the time. Wherever the Atah is, the praise singers must be there.

“The Atah of Igala never dances to Reggae or Pop music. The women you see here are the only musicians, whose music he enjoys.

What has continued to make the reign Atah of Igala popular among his people is his humility and generosity.”

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