• Gesture bizarre, shameful – Faleke
• No, it’s an act of love – Gov’s aide
From Emmanuel Adeyemi, Lokoja
Ekwuenchi masquerade festival among the Ebira-speaking people of Kogi State is perhaps the most colourful cultural event in Ebiraland. The festival, which is celebrated annually, draws the low and mighty from far and near to various communities in Ebiraland.
Ekwuenchi masquerade festival is normally celebrated during the dry season. This often falls in December, when indigenes of the area visit their ancestral home and exchange gifts with their loved ones during the Yuletide.
It was learned that some notable ceremonies such as marriage, house-warming, naming, club and association events are held during this festival, which is celebrated by every clan. It was also learned that, for more than 10 years now, the celebration of Ekwuenchi masquerade festival has been enmeshed in problems, leading to apprehension among residents. The festival had allegedly witnessed killing of innocent people, burning of houses, looting and destruction of property. It was also learnt that communities, clans and individuals now use the festival to settle old scores, while politicians in the area have hijacked it to terrorise their opponents. This, Daily Sun gathered, might have led to the state government, sometime ago, partially banning the festival. Back then, security personnel, including soldiers, were usually drafted to Ebiraland to forestall any break down of law and order.
However, during the last celebration, Governor Yahaya Bello, rather than enforcing the ban on the festival like his predecessors, rolled out the drums to celebrate it.
For more than four days, Governor Bello was said to have made a big show of the event by bringing his cabinet members along with all political appointees and all the 21 local government caretaker chairmen to Okene, his ancestral home, for the celebration of the festival. The governor, it was also learned, used the occasion to inaugurate his private palatial mansion and held a reception for all major stakeholders in the five local government areas that make up Ebiraland.
During the masquerade festival, the governor was alleged to have given out six new Toyota Venza SUV cars worth over N90 million and N2 million cash to each of the custodians of the masquerades.
Sementi masquerade from his Ihiebe clan, and Irehuohi masquerade from Eyire clan, that are described as major rivals were beneficiaries of the largesse.
This ‘strange gift’ to masquerades has generated so much fuss in the state, especially as the governor was said to be owing workers salaries for about 22 months.
Chief James Faleke, All Progressives Congress (APC) running mate to the party’s candidate in the 2015 governorship election in the state, the late Prince Abubakar Audu, described the masquerade gift as “shameful and the height of absurdity.”
Faleke said that the same governor who could not pay salaries of workers after collecting close to N20 billion in December alone as Kogi State’s allocation from the Paris Club refund was now doling out money and cars to masquerades.
However, a community leader in Obehira, Alhaji Yesufu Otaru, did not see anything wrong in what the governor has done, stressing that the outing of the two masquerades always generated crises so much so that their supporters clashed and engaged in maiming, killing and destroying each other’s properties.
“For us, the governor’s gift to the masquerades is a welcome development as we see it as dousing the superiority tension between the Sementi masquerade of the Ihiebe clan and the Irehuohi masquerade of the Eyire clan, which are archrivals.
“Don’t forget that Governor Bello has been a major sponsor of one of the masquerades even before he became the state governor. So, there is nothing wrong in somebody in a position of authority promoting his culture,” he said.
But Faleke, who felt grieved by the development, said: “I honestly don’t know what is happening in our state. We thought that the governor (Bello) would heed popular call to settle all outstanding salaries and pensions in the state last December as he promised after receiving the Paris Club refund, only for him to pay 40 per cent of two months’ salaries.
“So, where did the rest of the money go to? Next we heard the news of the six Venza cars he bought and presented to masquerades in Okene, through their minders, along with N2 million cash to each of them.
“How else can one be so insensitive to the welfare, yearnings and aspirations of his people?”
Faleke could not understand how the state government that had claimed all along that it had no outstanding salaries to pay just released a fresh list of “cleared staff.”
“What that means is that the staff so ‘cleared’ had been without pay for the past two years, when the screening exercise began. So who is fooling whom?”
The lawmaker bemoaned the situation where, as he put it, instead of providing succour for the citizenry, what now obtained was intimidation and harassment of hapless and harmless residents of the state.
“A case in point happened recently in Iyamoye community, where a group of youths, who were distributing end-of-year gifts to APC members were attacked by soldiers providing security for an appointed local government administrator.
“As an administrator, the state government provided him soldiers with which he harasses perceived political opponents in the state. And of course, the newsstands were awash few days ago with the news of how ‘unidentified’ thugs hijacked the first batch of rice consignment donated by some senators to alleviate the hunger ravaging the workers. That is the reality in our dear state at the moment.”
Faleke called on Bello to “turn a new leaf this year” by re-ordering his government’s priorities so as to ameliorate the current unacceptable level of pains being inflicted on the people of the state.
However, Governor Bello’s media aide, Kingsley Fanwo, on Wednesday, hit back at his principal’s critics saying: “Masquerades are extra-terrestrial beings that don’t drive cars.
“Yesterday, I received a call from a friend who resides in Lagos. After the New Year banter, my friend began clearing his throat so mischievously that I instantly knew he was up to something sinister. He said: ‘But, Kingsley, how come your masquerades in Kogi are so expensive?’ I asked him ‘Who told you that Kogi masquerades are expensive? My late grandfather was a leading Aworo (masquerades’ custodian), so I know a bit of the mystery of masquerades. ‘In Kogi, masquerades are not expensive,’ I replied.
“My friend slipped into laughter. He wouldn’t take any of my explanations. What was important to my Lagosian friend was that his representative in the House of Representatives, James, sorry, Chief James Abiodun Faleke, had told the world that the governor of Kogi State, his leader in the All Progressives Congress, donated posh cars and millions to masquerades!
“I was shocked. Even if Chief Faleke is a Lagosian, he was born and brought up in Kogi State. His community, Ekinrin Adde, parades some of masquerades that boast of cultural artistry and finesse.
“I was forced to harmlessly ask my friend if Eeyo masquerades drive posh cars on the streets of Lagos. Brother Faleke, masquerades are extra-terrestrial beings. They do not drive cars.
“The governor went to celebrate an important festival with his people. He loves his people. He has always been with his people. He is a proud Anebira, who would not trade his place of birth on the altar of political desperation.
“The administration of Alhaji Bello is poised to rebuild our state and consolidate on his gains of the last two years.
“We have serious business to do here. Kogi is our baby; we won’t allow any knife on it.
“You went to the Villa to report the governor that he was de-marketing the party in the state. But in the past few weeks, thousands came out to declare support for the governor.
“Your frustration is understood, but, please, stops sinking further. We love you. You are our brother. In the same spirit of comedy – to complete this friendly fire – I urge our Road Safety corps to ensure masquerades hold their licenses before driving!” he said.