Thursday, 8 June 2017

NIGERIA: Agiri Festival

IT was a rapturous affair at Bille Kingdom, Degema Local Government Area, Rivers State, recently, as citizens adorning stunning cultural regalia trooped out en masse to mark this year’s multi-million naira Agiri festival, their most revered convention.

As tradition demands, visitors and security escorts were given George wrapper and other traditional attires to robe themselves at the festival that abolishes diseases, promotes peace and unity.

NDV gathered that Agiri festival was earlier celebrated annually, but in recent times, the community unanimously agreed to be marking the event every four years due to the huge financial outlay.

We inherited it from our forefathers— Minapakama Vice Chairman of Bille Kingdom Chiefs Council, Chief Ibitamuno Minapakama, told NDV that the community ensures that it celebrates Agiri festival because after it, several people are healed of strange ailments.

He asserted,What you are seeing today is a testimony of what we inherited from our forefathers. This is an ancient culture in Rivers State; there is no festival like this, we celebrate this every four years. Any community that does not have this kind of culture, they are bound to have problems.

It is for unity and togetherness. It makes us come together to reason together for development and peace. We have not experienced communal war; we are working in line with the Rivers State government and Governor Nyesom Wike, who is preaching that there should be peace in Rivers communities.

It is the entire kingdom that is here; even the Christians are also participating. I am a Christian. If you celebrate Agiri, you will see diseases are eliminated, culturally, we are united.

Oath of adherence similarly, Secretary of Bille Chiefs’ Council and Opu-towi II of Bille kingdom, Ibiba Kombonimi, remarked, When our forefathers migrated from Benin Kingdom and settled down here, based on what was handed down to us, they met people celebrating, they later came to their understanding that for them to live harmoniously in this land, they need to keep this festival.

Originally it was yearly, but because of the cost, we decided to make it four years interval. From the first masquerade till today, we have spent over N50 million, over 15 masquerades have performed and each of them is important to us.

We keep the oath our fathers kept; this is the oath we kept with the people our fathers met here. They took oath that this festival will be the object of their unity.

To keep faith in the covenant we had with the people that our forefathers met here, we need to maintain this cultural heritage.

I see great tourism potential — Chigbara A native of Nkoro Kingdom, Opobo/Nkoro local government, Chief Philip Chigbara, who visited Bille for the Agiri celebration, said: This is part of my people, I also want to advise the community to make the government to be part of this festival and to be one of the state cultural displays to also attract tourism to this place.

Let it not be for only Bille people. It should be made a state culture. When the government sees this kind of culture, they will support it, it can bring development. The celebration makes the community united.

If it happens at the state level, it is also for unity because even enemies come together to celebrate culture. Govt hails peaceful disposition Secretary, Caretaker Committee Secretary, Degema local government, Mrs. Okorite Adiele, who represented the Deputy Governor of the state, Dr. Ipalibo Banigo, commended the people of Bille for keeping to their culture.

She said: “Agiri festival is a rich cultural heritage of the people of Bille Kingdom. The hospitality of Bille people is what is exhibited in the festival. Today is a great day for the Bille people wherever they are.

There is a demarcation; the women have a degree of participation, so also men. I encourage other communities to embrace their cultural heritage so that the youths will learn to be peaceful.”

The Bille Tribe of the Ijaw people lives in central Rivers State, Nigeria. The small clan is sometimes classified as a Kalabari clan rather than as its own tribe. The tribal seat is the town of Bille

There are numerous settlements in the Bille territory, which combine with the Bille town to form the Bille kingdom. These are situated in various locations around the area that used to be under the control of the Bille people in the pre-colonial days. The Bille town is the major settlement in the kingdom, which served as the headquarters of the ancient Bille Empire.

Bille town, like other coastal towns, is a low-lying land in the vast mangrove forest region of the Niger Delta and is only a few feet above the sea level. It is situated in the south-eastern part of the present Degema Local Government Area of the Rivers State. It is an island on the bank of the Bille Creek, a tributary of the Sombrero River (Akuku Toru).

As an island, it was surrounded by water with a channel dividing it into two; hence, kala anga and opu anga, and thus one can drive round the town until in the late seventies when the southern axis - the Angula and Osia sections - was sand filled for expansion. The main land is now joined with the sand-filled area and extends into the mangrove forest, which is still being reclaimed.

Someone coming from Degema will sail along the Sombrero River southwards into the Opu Bille kubu creek and further southwards into the Kala Bille kubu opposite the Ibi Iriawo Anga now extinct after the Bille-Kalabari war of 2000 settlement. After about 4 turns from the entrance of the Kala Bille kubu, the town is immediately sighted, welcoming you into its warm embrace.

A visitor from Port Harcourt can board a speedboat or any sea vessel at the various jetties but usually at the Bille waterside along the Creek Road, Port Harcourt. From there, the boat will sail southwards along numerous routes and later cross the New Calabar River or Kalabari Toru within fifteen minutes from take-off and pass through the Awun Toru unto the Touma creek before entering the Oro kubu that runs to the shore of Bille.

The new site (Iwo-ama) - a newly reclaimed mass of land - adjacent the town with school structures and playing fields is the first port of call. Thereafter, the boat will sail past the Green poku, Asuka poku, Abekereme poku and finally berth at the Siran poku where the first jetty is sited.

The Bille town has five basic entry points; the Kala Bille kubu, the Besi kubu, which terminates at the Teinma (besi) boko or meinma anga opposite the Ibilan poku, the Oliyama anga, the Oro kubu and the Oruama boko. The Oliyama anga is the lower stream that starts from the Bille creek and leads to such southern places and towns as the Bille 1 Flow Station, Ke, Kula, Abissa, etc.

Among the other major settlements in the Bille kingdom where Bille people as well as fishermen and traders of various tribes reside include; Jikeama, Touma, Krikama, Ekema, Oruama, Oboma, etc. although there are also numerous smaller settlements used for plantations.

Some of these include: Makiridikianga, Sekiyabo-kurowa, Ele, Emannuel-kiri, Enesirama, Imopeleye ama, Ikpabiraba-daba, Dikama, Duroko, Ninama, Owu poku-obu, Feni-paan, Borma, Ibi-iriawo anga, Nonjuama, Madu-kiri, Amabiofiyema, Kari-ama, Epeka, Singi-kiri, etc. All these locations surround the Bille town, which is at the centre of the Bille kingdom.

In the 1935 Intelligent Report on the Kalabari Clan in the Degema Division of the Owerri Province, Captain Kelsey, the District Officer at the time said, “the inhabitants of Bille share rights of the rivers boundaries with Bonny only, commencing from the left side of Anwokiri-toru now known as Kalabari toru which has its start (sic) from Anya creek near Bakana to the Bar.”

In the same Report, Bille's fishing ports along the Anwokiri-toru and Bille Obu-toru were recorded to include Tunduro bokobe kiri, Emmanuel kiri, Greenkiri or Feni-paan, Wosaba, Touma, Ekulekule-tombi and Dabira.

Others were “Ibi iriawo angabe kiri, Kala-Bille bokobe kiri, Minji du kiri all in the Bille Kubu creek while along the Opu Bille boko there are the Opu Bille bokobe kiri and the Oruama bokobe kiri, Oruama kiri, Imopeleye bokobe kiri, Imopeleye, Eli kiri, Dokubo kiri, Dikama, Ogbodo piri, Ekema kiri, Balo bokobe kiri, and Torusira bokobe kiri.”

The Report further identified rivers owned and controlled by Bille as Akuku Toru (Sombrero River) up to Ndele Toru, Obu Toru and the river stretching from Anwu Toru to the Anya creek.

The limit of the boundaries of the old kingdoms of Kalabari and Bille is described in paragraphs 117 and 118 of the 1949/50 Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the Okrika - Kalabari Dispute by Mr. Justice G. G. Robinson. The case for Bille is however very plain as in paragraph 118 where the Robinson Report described the boundaries of New Calabar (Kalabari) by adopting the Supreme Court of Nigeria decision on the issue. The facts are reproduced below:

118 So it is interesting to see what territory was given to the Kalabaris by the judgement (of the Supreme Court). It is as follows:

‘I regard therefore all that territory from the Old Shipping extending to Bakana, Buguma and Abonnema (including Degema) and as far west as the Kula country occupied by the New Calabar people over which they have exercised ownership for at least forty (40) years and which is now the territorial property of the chiefs and people of New Calabar as representing the people of New Calabar and this property includes all lands, banks of rivers, ponds and creeks and swamps and includes the New Calabar River and the Ekwe River and all its tributaries in the territory of which Old Shipping, Bakana, Buguma, Abonnema, Degema and Kula may be regarded as boundaries but excluding the country of the Billes who appear to have never lost their independence’ (Emphasis mine)

This much was repeated in a memorandum submitted to the Rivers State Sub-Committee on Boundary Changes by Chief (Dr.) Harold J. Dappa-Biriye on October 10, 1997. In the memo, he further asserted that,

The Billes who released Old Shipping to the Kalabari know that the middle of the New Calabar River is our (Bonny/Bille) boundary. This is evident in the map of Bille boundary tendered to the Mbanefo Inquiry Panel and forwarded here as well.

The people of Bille have maintained these locations and boundaries even in the colonial period in spite of the expansionist threats from her immediate neighbours and benefactors. The Bille territory is the area that has more oil and mineral deposits in the present Degema Local Government Area.

Queen Ikpakiaba founded ancient Bille many centuries ago with several colleagues who fled their original settlement because of an internal conflict amongst the inhabitants. The people of Bille were said to have emigrated from the old Benin Empire. It is difficult to ascertain the accurate date from Oral tradition even as dates cannot be easily proven because of the difficulty in arriving at accurate data due to the level of knowledge about the calendar in those days.

We were told that they left the old Benin Empire and moved southwards to the Niger Delta region and first settled around the Tarakiri clan in Central Ijaw before finally settling at a place called Okolo Bille in the present Abua territory situated on the north of Degema on the bank of the Sombrero River.

It was at this point that a severe dispute occurred amongst the inhabitants. Oral Tradition relates it to a dispute over the sharing of the head of a special fish called tilapia (atabila) by the rulers during a festival. This resulted in a civil war that caused most of them to emigrate to the south where they founded various towns and settlements.

Originally settled at Elem Kalabari by the Bille people when they came from Duke Town in the present Akwa Ibom state, the Kalabari people have moved totally from there to found great cities, towns and villages with Buguma as the seat of their king.

The old single towns have greatly evolved to become clans. Oral tradition and recorded history has it that one Mfon Manuel and a group of his people left Duke’s Town and sailed down to Bonny where they met the king of Bonny. On hearing that they had fled from their former domain and are in search of a new settlement the Bonny monarch took them to his brother king at Bille and requested him to give him a portion of his vast territory for his guests.

His exact words as recorded for posterity were, “kele pa imbari” literally meaning, ‘please, give them some land’ to settle. It is this initial expression that the Bille people later used in identifying their Duke Town strangers that had metamorphosed, over time, to become the name ‘kalabari’.

The Bille people present were Amanyanabo Igolima Dappa, Chiefs Abel Uriah, Efrenbo Nangi, Irionu, Joel Siala, Bruce Mgbe, Charles Sibi, Edward Bibi, Walter Bibi, Isaiah, etc.