Showcasing Equality in Diversity at Argungu Festival

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King Akan who covered the annual four-day Argungu Festival, an international fishing and cultural celebration in Kebbi State, writes that beyond this, it was a celebration of equality in diversity

“More Than Fishing” reads a sign post which greets you at the entrance of the Argungu Fishing Village and the 34 events on show at the 2020 Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival which took place from March 11 to 14, 2020, in Kebbi State, proved that the four-day event was truly more than fishing.

The Argungu Festival has often been associated with fishing, a poor impression of a festival which could be termed a buffet of events which includes: Polo Tournament, traditional boxing, wrestling, camel race, horse race, boat racing, wild duck catching, water relay, bare hand fishing and more. At this year’s event, quiz competition and essay writing were strong additions that further enhanced its scope and reputation.

Observed annually from 1934 to 2010 to mark end of hostility between the Jihadists and the Kabawa, Argungu Festival, regarded as one of the most popular festivals in Nigeria, returned from a 10-year hiatus caused by security challenges in the region. The revival of the festival was a collaborative effort of the federal government, the Ministry of Information and Culture and the Kebbi State Government-led Governor Atiku Bagudu.

The Argungu community of Kebbi State witnessed four days of musical, cultural, sports and artistic exhibitions. A motor rally across five states, covering 13 towns and cities between Abuja and Argungu, flagged off the festival. But it was an Agricultural Fair graced by President Muhammadu Buhari which marked the official launch of the 2020 Argungu International Fishing and Cultural festival.

Buhari was welcomed by a Durbar procession led by the Emir of Argungu, His Royal Highness, Alhaji Sama’ila Mohammadu Mera, consisting of over 40 horsemen and 3,000 men dressed in traditional regalia, carrying swords, whips and cultural elements.

In his speech, the president said the reinstatement of the festival was a proof of the restoration of security in the country. “Our presence here today is evidence of government’s commitment to restoring security and expanding domestic food production as core mandate of our programmes.

“We are not only celebrating the reinstatement of this important gathering, but we are also celebrating the remarkable progress made in restoring peace and security to this region and indeed, the country”.

There was also a colourful agricultural procession displaying the diverse farm produce from the state which Buhari described as “a testament of the agricultural revolution in the state”.

The March wind was fair to all, and it was not surprising to meet dusty participants or festival audiences irrespective of status, tribe or religion. Memorable sightings around the Agric Fair Ground were three rice pyramids standing at about 20 feet, each consisting of 15,000 bags. The pyramids served as decoration, also providing shade from the scorching sun and a sitting area to some festival guests who climbed atop to get a view of the performances from a vantage point.

At the ceremony, the best male and female rice farmers were rewarded with a tractor and cash prize of one million naira each. The agricultural component of the festival is “agric tourism”, enthused the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who commended the federal government for its efforts in diversifying the economy and promoting food security in the country.

During the wrestling and traditional boxing shows, the arena was filled not just with people but with loud chants and explosive noise, each time a boxer dished out a devastating blow or a contestant slammed the other’s back unto the red soil beneath them. This was followed with music, dance and cultural performances, adding more colour to the event.

The Kabanci display, one of the popular events at the festival, showcased some of the most captivating competitions of the festival especially the bare hand fishing and blind swimming. Over 10,000 festival audiences were scattered around the venue; Mala River, which sat at the centre like a stage allowing for views of all the activities taking place from several angles. A bridge over the river provided more viewing area for spectators, automatically transforming the space into a natural amphitheatre.

An interesting incident happened during the blind racing competition, where a contestant swam away from the finish line to the amusement of the crowd. Eventually taking off his blindfold, he realised he was in no man’s land, and joined in the laughter knowing he had made the joke of the day.

Technology met Argungu when the Kabanci display was interrupted briefly by an individual riding across the river on a water boat constructed from motorcycle parts and jerry cans. A sight met with euphoria and applause from the festival audience. Cash prizes, motorcycles, refrigerators and generators were won by the winners of the various competitions in the water games.

The main attraction of the festival; the grand fishing competition was equally interesting. It was a cool morning with a shy sun, hiding behind the clouds. Standing across the Mata Fadan river a kilometer away were over 20,000 fishermen like an army of ants, with their traditional nets and gourds waiting to dive into the river in search of the prized fish – the big catch. This was the moment they and everyone had been waiting for and in that excitement, the memorable happened.

It is a practice for the ‘Sarkin Ruwa’ which translates in English to ‘King of Water’ to perform some rituals at the river before the grand fishing exercise commences. He did, but what he did not do was tell the fishermen to jump into the river at the time they did.

As dignitaries and guests made their way to the pavilion to take their seats, the fishermen began to race towards the river in a moment of sweet chaos reminiscent of fight scenes in the movies; 300 and Gladiator, only this time it was not a battle.

In a matter of minutes, thousands of fishermen had jumped into the river. The arena erupted with a mix of anxiety and happiness. At this point, officials were torn between stopping them or continuing the contest. They made the right decision by allowing the contest to proceed because it would have been impossible to control the commotion to come thereafter. The fishermen had jumped the gun, an act the governor would later describe as “a show of excitement as a result of the 10 years long wait.” Sources say, some of the fishermen were at the venue as early as the night before.

At the end of the fishing exercise that lasted about two hours, Abubakar Yau of Kebbi State emerged winner with his 78kg catch. He went home with over 10 million naira in cash prize, two brand new cars and hajj seats. Bala Yahaya Bagaye and Maiwake Sani came second and third respectively, with their catches weighing at 75kg and 70kg respectively. They also went home with cash prizes, hajj seats and other prizes. Consolation prizes that ranged from N200,000 – N20,000 each were given to the 4th position to 100 positions. For the other fishermen who missed out but had catches, their families and pockets could still smile.

Prizes were also given to winners of different competitive events that took place in the course of the four days festival.

Governor Abubakar Sanni Bello of Niger State; Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State; Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State; the First Lady of Kebbi State, Dr. Zainab Bagudu; Nigerian Shippers’ Council were among the donors at the grand finale. The festival itself was sponsored by Wacot Rice Limited, Maltina, Gino, Rice Farmers Association Of Nigeria (RIFAN), Terra, Kaduna Electric among others.

Among the eight companies who donated vehicles for the motor rally which lasted three days, the three present; Peugeot Nigeria Limited, Honda, and Stallion Motors, received trophies for their participation and support, presented by Jelani Aliyu, Director General of National Automotive Design and Development Council.

Speaking at the grand finale, the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, who was guest of honour, applauded the various private sector sponsors and prize donors for their “act of social responsibility.” He also expressed the need for the abundant resources in the country to be exploited for the good of the nation.

“This is one function, one celebration, one festival that tells a lot about Nigeria now and today,” he said. “When I look at the fishes caught, what runs through my mind is that we are blessed. We are blessed as a country, as a people. God has endowed our country with natural resources and what we need is to harness the resources God has endowed us with.”

Governor Bagudu also speaking, added, that the festival was a celebration of historic heritage, equitable competition and diversity in respect to the participation of people from other states including Kano, Sokoto, and Zamfara.

“It shows that what unites the people is stronger than what divides them. This is an opportunity to interact, celebrate our diversity,” he said.

The Argungu Festival is still a big draw to tourists and culture enthusiasts. The 60th edition was nothing short of a spectacle and a celebration of Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage and natural resources. There was a lot of fun and the festival did not lack the audience for it in spite of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite 10 years of inactivity, thousands of people including guests from overseas and neighboring African countries like Niger, Benin Republic and Cameroun attended. There was improved economic activity in Kebbi State, with food, transport and hospitality businesses the big gainers. Another positive to take from the festival.

The four-day cultural festival was a success especially considering the absence of security threats barring the incident concerning an individual by the name Mohammed Gunddare, who attempted to touch the president – and who later turned out to be an ardent Buharist – security was impressive.

However, proper planning and organisation at the event venues can improve the experience. An incessant clash between security operatives and the media was rampant throughout the event. When the security personnel were not clashing with the media, they were mostly spectators – periodically abandoning their duties – carried away by the grand spectacle before them. Not that you would blame them much. That speaks more about the elegance of the Argungu Festival. Generally, measures need also be taken in future to ensure better safety of festival audiences, who were sometimes humiliated by the security personnel.

Designed with the festival audience and hot climate in mind, the festival venues were mainly open arenas but they were unable to accommodate the large crowds at the events. Also, due to the absence of gate taking at the venues, attendance figures are difficult to ascertain. Clearly, the festival suffered from challenges including crowd control, limited infrastructures and poor organisation.

During a media parley, Alhaji Lai Mohammed acknowledged some of these challenges stating that, “we have a product that is already popular, we have content, and we have the audience. So, all we need to do now is to build infrastructure around those contents; this is exactly what we are trying to encourage, this is what we are trying to do.

“Hopefully, by next month we should be in Cairo, Egypt, to make a strong case for investment in tourism infrastructure such as arena, amphitheater, multi-purpose-built house and conference hall.

“You can imagine what a 50,000-capacity arena would have done to Argungu today, because you could see that we had over 50,000 people around wanting to come into the venue. So, because there is a market, now we can make a strong case for investments”.

He called on investors to “not be too shy” because the country’s population, creative contents and improved infrastructures would ensure considerable revenue is generated from the festival.

Alhaji Tanko Ayuba, a winning participant representing Wacot Rice Limited in the President’s Cup at the Argungu Polo Tournament which took place at NSK Polo Ground, believes that with improved transportation, infrastructures and accommodation, the festival can be better.

“I plead with the state government to ensure more flights to the state from other parts of the country especially during the festival period,” he said. “They also need to improve the facilities at the festival, for example the arena for the fishing competition was not conducive. The dignitaries could not witness what was happening in the river because of the crowd. There is need to reconstruct the pavilion so that guests can be at a higher level.

Adding, “more hotels should be built in Argungu to cater for festival guests. As you saw, most people stayed at Birnin Kebbi, from where they were attending the event daily.”

“You cannot boost tourism without providing adequate accommodation.” Abubakar Usman, a staff of National Commission for Museums and Monument, Abuja, concurred. On the challenges at the venue, he said: “local vigilante and security personnel should be trained extensively on crowd control. The more this festival is advertised the more people want to attend, and if the crowd cannot be maintained, there is bound to be disorganisation.”

“Also for this festival to be more successful, there has to be at least six months of publicity for it, to enable tourists who intend to attend plan better. It is clear that it has the potential to generate massive revenue especially if adequate infrastructure is put in place,” he added.

The event was attended by various traditional rulers, political office holders, representatives of multinational companies as well as local and international tourists. Among those present were, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar; the Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Adewusi Ogunwusi; the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami; and the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo, among other dignitaries.

Truly, the Argungu Festival is much more than fishing. It has evolved from its foundation on religion and conflict into a modern festival, embracing technology, education and agriculture. It is a celebration of cultural heritage, food security, innovation and our life as a nation. The Argungu community and all who attended witnessed a grand occasion and the memories will surely linger, even after the dust settles.