The Onitsha Ofala Festival is an annual ceremony practised by the people of Onitsha. Its geographical location at the bridge between Eastern Nigeria and Western Nigeria, and between the densely settled Igbo hinterland and the oil-rich creeks of the Niger Delta, makes Onitsha strategically positioned as a regional hub for trade and logistics in Eastern Nigeria
Traditional Onitsha consists of nine villages, otherwise known as Ebo Itenani. These are descendants of the progenitor Umuezechima comprising Isiokwe, Olosi, Umuezearoli, Okebunabo, Obikporo and Ogbeotu which claim origin from Igala in Kogi state, Awada (Ogbeozoma), Obamkpa comprising Umuasele, Iyiawu and Odoje Ndugbe and Odumegwu Gbuagu, Ubulu na Ikem, Ulutu, Ubene, Ogboli Eke, Obior and Ogbeotu. Within these groupings there are six administrative wards namely Okebunabo, Umuezearoli, Ogbeolu, Isiokwe na Ogboli Olosi, Obamkpa and Eke na Ubene.
Onitsha operates a traditional government headed by the Obi, the titular head of the town who is assisted by Ndi Ichie, titled red cap elders or chiefs. Among these are Ndi Ichie Ume, who are the First Class Chiefs. The Ndi Ichie is classified into six, namely: Onowu Iyasele, Ajie Ukadiugwu, Odu Osodi, Onya Ozoma, Ogene Onira and Owelle Osowa, with Onowu Iyasele as the traditional Prime Minister. There are also other Ndi Ichie, who are ranked second class, known as Ndi Okwa and third class, known as Ndi Ichie Okwareze. The Ndi Ichie serve as Council of Advisers to the Obi who solicits their advice in major decisions he takes in the Kingdom.
When the ruling Obi joins his ancestors, the Onowu Iyasele takes charge until a new Obi is enthroned.
Once a year in October the kingdom of Onitsha holds the Ofala Festival which coincides with the traditional New Yam festival held in many parts of Igboland. It is a way for the people of Onitsha to keep their culture alive and it has become a major event that draws visitors from far and wide to the city.
The kingship institution is hereditary, to the extent that only those who belong to the royal lineage of Umuezechima, made up of mainly Okebunabo and Umuezearoli, are privileged to ascend the throne.
The Obi of Onitsha is the custodian of Onitsha customs and traditions with the power of intercession and mediation between the living, the ancestors and the gods. The Customary/Political Constitution of Onitsha confers on the Obi such supreme religious and social powers that are only moderated by the Council of Ministers (Nd’ichie).
Until recently, the Obi was not expected to go beyond his palace and would not receive or discuss with visitors directly but through a royal spokesman.
History has it that the Ofala Festival dates back to the 16th Century when Onitsha people emigrated from Benin to the eastern banks of the River Niger presently known as the city of Onitsha and brought with them among other customs, the tradition of monarchy.
The festival marks the end of a period of retreat sometimes called Inye Ukwu na Nlo when the Obi remains incommunicado and undergoes spiritual purification for the good of the community. At the end of the week long retreat, the Igwe emerges during the Ofala to bless his subjects and say prayers for the community.
This is celebrated by large crowd with different villages, age-grades, youth clubs, improvement unions and even visitors displaying masquerades accompanied with dance and drums.
The festival usually starts with a traditional twenty-one gun salute followed by an all night Ufie (royal gong) drumming, dancing and other cultural activities. In the afternoon, the Obi’s cabinet of chiefs, guests from other communities, age groups, women and youth of the community usually throng the palace grounds or Ime Obi dressed in traditional or ceremonial attires befitting the festival occasion.
The royal music or Egwu Ota is played during the entrance of the Ndichie or red cap chiefs who arrive after the gathering of the crowd and bringing along a few of their friends and family members their procession to the palace.
The highlight of the festival is the emergence of the Obi in his royal regalia to the cheer of the crowd, cannon shot announces the entrance of the Obi who is usually dressed in ceremonial robe and carries a bronze sword on his hand, as he walks majestically to both sides of the arena acknowledging cheers from the spectators.
His Royal Majesty, Alfred Achebe, (Agbogidi) the
Obi of Onitsha pose with his subjects during the last Ofala festival
However, Onitsha ceremonial life involves a series of festivals, with each festival forming part of a continuum that helps to symbolically relate each aspect of social life to the wider reality.
Six main festivals are celebrated in one Onitsha year. The basic sacred divisions of the year are set by the phases of the moon. The Obi proclaims each of the 28-day lunar months ONWA and defines the ceremonial sequences in terms of the seven four-day weeks OGE ISA that comprise each month.
This is usually celebrated in January and is essentially homage to the yam spirit with a view to establishing the presence of this guardian spirit of yams in each strip of farmland to be cleared and cultivated.
Normally celebrated in June, it is a sacrifice to the Almighty and involves beseeching God to guide every adult in his labour and help his/her crops prosper.
This is the first harvest festival celebrated in June at the time of the maize harvest. Umato is a 16-day festival beginning with the exclusive celebration by the Obi for a four-day period, after which the celebration of the populace takes place. Umato entails a redistribution of new consumable wealth by the nobility to lesser mortals.
This is the new yam festival. It is normally celebrated in September and commences 24 days after the Umato, lasting for another 24 days. The Obi performs the ritual of eating the new yam after the various sections of Onitsha must have performed the ritual. The Obi must also during this period retire into a trance-like state for four days. This is known as INYEPU UKWU NA NLO EZE.
This is the Obi’s annual emergence from seclusion, having assessed his relationship with God and the spirits, after which his body is washed to signify the end of his mourning. It is usually celebrated in October.
It comes nine days after the Ofala. This is the ceremony of cooking in the pot and signifies the end of the harvest cycle.
Expectations this year
Based on current projections, the Coronavirus is unlikely to be brought under control, and the country fully opened up, before the end of September. The presence of coronavirus also observes the adverse consequences for the economic and social lives of the country which will naturally have a serious impact on major community life in Onitsha”.
A major outcome of this development is that the Ofala Festival remains the highpoint of Onitsha ceremonial cycle, which is scheduled to run from Oct. 11 to Oct. 12. It tends to herald the homecoming of Onitsha indigenes; display of royal dances, tributes, parades, and music in addition to the associated events which have come to characterise the festival.
According to Hon Ikechukwu Mortune, an Indigene of Onitsha, “the low-key approach this year was very evident in the celebration of Ajachi on June 29, the first on the ceremonial cycle. “Ajachi occurs at the peak of the famine (Ugani) period when every householder/family head makes offerings and prayers to his guiding spirit to intercede with the Almighty God to grant him a bumper harvest in the months ahead”.
Igwe Achebe marked the Ajachi in strict compliance with COVID-19 safety and hygiene protocols. In a letter made available by the Igwe in council, It adds: “Ndichie (Redcap Chiefs), Ndi Diokpa (spiritual heads of kindred groups), Agbalanze (titled men), and all householders/family heads will also celebrate the Ajachi in adherence to the COVID-19 safety and hygiene protocols”.
The other festivals are Umatu that entails thanksgiving to God on the first harvest of the year, namely maize which is scheduled for August 1; Owuwa Ji, the celebration of the New Yam harvest, which will run from Sept 29 to Oct. 26. Another festival is `Ifejioku’, which will be held in January 2021 and signals the end of the harvest period and the beginning of the preparation for the next farming season.
It said that all the festivals would be marked in the constrained manner arising as stipulated in the guidelines for the prevention of COVID-19.“The Onitsha traditional Council hopes that the situation will return to normal and that the festivals will be celebrated in the usual manner.” In furtherance to Covid-19 guidelines, Onitsha Traditional Council has announced that it will scale down on celebration of its traditional festivals this year, in line with outlined measures by the state Government to contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
“We will ensure that members of the community will not take any action in contravention of extant laws and regulations during these festivals.” This is contained in a proclamation by the Traditional Ruler of the kingdom, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, which provided the rationale for the decision.