Fire down Igarra hills: One town, many `monarchs’

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  • The masquerade festival connection

By Simon  Ebegbulem, Benin-City

igarra-11Igarra is a sleepy community in Akoko Edo Local Government Council of Edo State, but the peace in the community was punctured, Wednesday, January 15, during an alleged attempt by some youths to celebrate the annual Ekuochi masquerade festival which, according to the Otaru of Igarra, Oba Adeche Saiki, was banned since 1989. Igarra lies at the foot of Igarra hills popularly known as Kukuruku Hills. About five persons received gunshot injuries during the attempt to stop the festival .

Apart from the controversy over the actual cause of the January 15 crisis, the Oshemdase, Oorenyi of Igarra, High Chief Gabriel Olorunfemi Ojo, who is one of the leaders of the opposing camp, said it was untrue that the youths were celebrating the Ekuochi, saying they only gathered to worship their deity called Erepa before they were attacked by some people. Besides, he insisted that the masquerade festival was not banned and that the Otaru is not the paramount ruler of Igarra people.

Nine persons were arrested by the police  over the crisis and  charged to court. But loyalists of the Otaru faulted the role played by the police in the crisis,insisting that innocent people were arrested while the real culprits are walking freely.  Governor Adams Oshiomhole waded into the matter last week and promised to investigate the alleged ban of the masquerade festival. The governor, however, clarified the status of the Otaru, saying  he remains the paramount ruler of Igarra people.

Sunday Vanguard visited the hilly city after the fracas and spoke with the key leaders.
Festival banned because we lose sons and daughters each time it is celebrated – Saiki
The Otaru of Igarra, Oba Emmanuel Adeche Saiki 11, speaks on the crisis in the town
I was born in 1942.  I am about 72 years now but I ascended the throne of the Otaru  in 1997. The crisis in  town is about a masquerade where I understand there were fracas and some people were shot and arrests  made. This masquerade was banned long before I ascended the throne. The masquerade festival, we popularly call it  Ekuochi,  was banned in 1989 by my predecessor after the Igarra Traditional Council advised that the masquerade should be banned because of the violence that goes with it anytime it is celebrated.

Each  time it is celebrated, people have been killed, some  maimed and even  religious people like  Christians were always complaining about it. They wrote petitions against it and I remember I met one of such petitions written by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). I think based on  the complaints from the community, my predecessor was forced to approach government asking that the masquerade be banned for good and it was banned. At that moment, nobody was staging it and there was peace in the town.

They normally hold it around December and January. Soon  I ascended the throne, once it is that period, they always try to stage, but  as soon as I hear the news, I will write to the Commissioner of Police that  they should help us to stop it. I will also ask the DPO and the Area Commander to do the same. So every year they will try but as soon as they know that police are involved, they will stop.

Who are these people that always trying to stage it even when it has been banned?
This is a group of people, they call themselves Eziobe group of families who are equating their status to that of the Otaru, that the Otaru is for the royal family while they too are for their various families as heads and kings, they refer to themselves as monarchs. This has been on for sometimes and, recently, one of them said he celebrated 40 years anniversary as a monarch and tagged himself  the longest serving monarch in Igarra. And this was reported to the police.

It is the  very people  saying  the ban on Ekuochi is not for the entire Igarra  and that  the Otaru banned Ekuochi for his family, that he has no power to ban their own Ekuochi. Then they forgot that even the oldest masquerade in the town is from the Otaru’s palace and ever since they were banned, we didn’t exclude anyone. But they don’t want to listen and, every year, they will instigate some boys to go and stage the masquerade. So what happened on the 15th of this month was the same issue.

I  attending the Armed Forces Remembrance Day when I got  information from the Councillor representing Ward 2 that these people  were again trying to stage this festival and he added that he had informed the DPO and the council chairman. On my way back to the palace after the ceremony, I stopped over at the police station  and met the DPO and told him of the information  which he confirmed. I  earlier mentioned two people to him  strongly behind the move to stage the masquerade.

It  was these  people I mentioned to the DPO that now came down and mentioned to him  that they were the owner of the masquerade and that they were assuring the DPO that nothing will happen as they were  going to do it uphill. Then  the DPO said they should follow him to the police station and while they were going there, the DPO evacuated all the policemen and the soldiers  back to the police station. But as  soon as they vacated the place, this masquerade  came down and when they were coming, they were shooting all over.

But that is their stock in trade because each time they celebrate such, they do all sorts of violent activities, they can even be beating themselves, shooting guns  to scare people who they perceive  could challenge them. It  was during  this period that I heard that some people were shot. After the fracas, these  perpetrators were directing the DPO to the houses of those they perceived as their enemies. The  DPO was now entering into houses that were pointed to him. In  a house, nobody was there because this thing happened between 4 pm and 6.30 pm.

He even removed portraits of some landlords after he forced their homes opened. He  also seized motorcycles and took them to the police station. The nine people  arrested were the perceived enemies of the masquerade and they felt once they get them arrested, then they are actually doing the thing against the Otaru.  I took my time to see the SSG (Secretary to the State Government) and briefed him and  Governor  Adams Oshiomhole on the issues.

So what is your view on the crisis?
I strongly believe the police did not handle the issue properly and that  is why this  thing happened because if they were there, the masquerade  would have not dared  to come down to where the police were. But because they left, the incident happened; so I blame the police because they did not properly manage it.

Talking about the kingship, why the dispute over your kingship?
It is very unfortunate that after so many commissions of enquiry in the chieftaincy dispute in Igarra, some people are still trying to bring more problems.  From the then Midwest Region, Bendel State and now Edo, several commissions of enquiry have been set  up to look into the chieftaincy dispute in Igarra and all of them  came to the same answer that the Otaru of Igarra is the paramount ruler of Igarra. As if this was not enough, these people went to court; the  judgment was against them, the court ruled that the Otaru is the traditional ruler.

They went to the Appeal Court around 1985 and the Appeal Court also dismissed their case and they never went further. But  they continued to cause crisis all the time. This question of the masquerade is  to spite the Otaru of Igarra in the eyes of the public,  to deceive the public  that there  more than one traditional ruler in Igarra. In the first enquiry, they agreed that the Otaru is the paramount ruler but they should be made second in command. The  royal family refused because the second in command in the palace is also from the royal family.

Message to my people
My advice is that government should affirm that decision that the Ekuochi masquerade  stands banned because it is not helping the community. So many people have died as a result of that festival.

Our people only went to serve their deity –  High Chief Ojo
High Chief Gabriel Olorunfemi Ojo, the Oshemdase,Oorenyi of Igarra, presents his own story on the crisis. Excerpts:

What happened on the 15th of January?
It  is not correct to say there was celebration of Ekuochi festival. What really happened was  that the group that used to have the masquerade in Igarra was trying to serve their deity which was not a festival, but  a religion. But the Otaru of Igarra cashed  in  on that because in recent years, what he has been doing is  to harass the youths of the community who are opposed to his general leadership of the Igarra community. People only tried to worship their juju, the name of the deity is called Erepa.

Why are you questioning the leadership of the Otaru?
There have been questions about the leadership of Igarra for many years. But the recent one  started when  Edict 16 of 1979 came in relation to traditional rulers and chiefs. Our people rose up to challenge what was contained in the edict that it was not correct and since then this crisis has been on. At the time the crisis started, the Otaru who was on the throne then,  Opolose 11,  made every effort to protect that gazette against the will of  most Igarra people.

This has been the chieftaincy title in Igarra. And unfortunately, the current Otaru either by his own error or lack of understanding, tried to use force to gain the power which he does not have. Although the gazette gives him authority, you cannot  acquire power from paper or from government. You can only get authority. It is the youths, it is the people of the community that have the powers.

But why is your group always playing up the masquerade issue when it has been banned because that was what led to the violence?
On the day in question, I was not at the venue but, as a ruler of the people, I was briefed. The people  worshipping that deity, that deity is not even inside  town but on top of the rock, but people have to gather in a place to go and serve it and come back to entertain themselves. It is not a ceremony  done in town. What happened that day was that the Otaru invited the police that people were going to celebrate the masquerade festival.

The police went to the venue and confronted the leader of the group but they explained to the police that  they were not celebrating Ekuochi festival, that what they were doing was to serve their juju. That they will only gather there and entertain the people. Police now said they should come to the police station to write an  undertaking that nothing will go wrong, but, while they were still at the police station, shooting started. The youths came to the police station crying that people had been shot.

The spot  where people were shot was different from the venue where they were supposed to carry out the ceremony and that alone told us that there was a premeditated action. It is not the first time the Otaru of Igarra will do that. Precisely some time in 2007, he did a similar thing, December 28, he arrested some youths alleging that they were performing Ekuochi. These people went to court and in 2008 the Appeal Court discharged and acquitted these people, saying that they did  nothing wrong.

In 2011, during the Erepa festival, a ceremony that the whole Igarra celebrates every six years, coincidentally the Comrade Governor witnessed that one, the programme which the youths used to perform, they come out to dance round the town to show that they are mature men, Otaru’s people shot at the crowd and it was the intervention of the police that saved the day.

Then in 2013, a chief who is supposed to be very prominent in the Otaru’s palace just because of disagreement disappeared from the community; he is yet to be found. I am aware that the police are  investigating the matter. The only excuse he is trying to give is that the youths are celebrating Ekuochi festival which is not correct.
I am not aware that the festival has been banned.

In 2004, when we were trying to meet with the Otaru  to find solution to this problem, five of us signed a memo together to say that the violent activities during this festival is becoming too much let us find solution to it, we banned the festival. When he was consulted, he turned around to write another letter to say he could not be party to our decision because he is the king. So he now went and unbanned Ekuochi, that was to tell you that there was nothing like government ban, if government  banned the festival that would not have happened in 2004. So there was no record that Ekuochi was banned and there was no reason to even ban it because it is the culture of the people and it is a harmless festival.

How can you say it is harmless when each time the masquerade ceremony is celebrated people end up killing themselves?
I am happy that I made references and I quoted dates, let him quote the name of people that were killed in the course of the festival, you will find out that he does not have an answer. This allegation is not correct.

But why are you questioning his leadership as the Otaru?
What we are saying is that he is the Otaru of Igarra but he is not the paramount ruler of Igarra.

Who is the paramount ruler then?
Igarra has no paramount ruler as at today. We have clan heads and everybody is ruling his own people right from the origin of Igarra. Before this current Otaru, was his father ruling only his own clan?
Between 1926-1952, the Otaru that was reigning then, Aido,  was ruling at Ugbogbo quarters. In 1934-1966, another Otaru, Danagie 11, ruled, if you look at it properly, between 1934-1952 they were two Otarus, could it be said that one of them was the paramount ruler or that  both were  ruling the whole of Igarra?

So there has not been no such central authority, everybody was ruling his own people. As at the time the gazette was promulgated, a member of the family who was Commissioner of Chieftain Affairs then, allegedly  manipulated the system to give the impression that the Otaru is the paramount ruler of our people. But our people rejected that move; unfortunately, government has not given us ears to listen to us.

Way forward
For peace to reign in Igarra, government should get the facts correctly and invite the warring parties to a round table talk, it is only when we sit to talk that we all will state our case. If government says we are not qualified to say our problem, so be it but I know that from the constitution that we are operating in Nigeria, we cannot be discriminated against  and the power of the community lies with the people. And it is not government who appoints traditional rulers; they only recognize the person the communities choose and give him staff of office. Government should listen to us.


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