In this report, AYODELE AJOGE writes on the very popular Argungu fishing and cultural festival which is gradually going into extinction, noting that unless it is quickly brought back to its glorious past a gold mine may continue to waste away.
At the height of its popularity it was probably the most popular fishing festival in the whole of the country and even Africa. So popular was it that at the time of the year that it held, (late march/erly April annually) all roads from different parts of the world led to Argungu, Kebbi State, the host town in north-west Nigeria.
However, over a period of time a downward trend in its fortune began to appear until it finally grounded to a halt in 2008, and that was 10 years ago. Since then even the facilities hosting the several events often slated for the festival are beginning to fall into ruins, making a rebound difficult to predict as it would cost millions of naira to kick-start the festival again.
What is today known as Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival started about eight and a half decades ago, precisely in 1931, during the visit of the then Sultan of Sokoto, Hassan Dan-Mua’zu to Argungu on the invitation of the then emir, Muhammadu Sama. It is on record that Sultan Dan-Mua’zu was the first Sultan of Sokoto to pass the night in Argungu in order to foster a stronger relationship between the Fulani and the Kabawa people.
To entertain him, the emir, Muhammadu Sama, gathered his people, the Kabawas, to enquire from them the best way to make the sultan’s visit a memorable one. At the meeting it was suggested that they should go to the river to catch fish for him. It was also reasoned that since he (the emir) was already familiar with traditional boxing, wrestling and other cultural entertainments, a fishing festival would make him happier.
History has it that on the day the festival was held to entertain the visiting Sultan many big fishes were caught from the river. Moved by the spirit of the fishing event, the sultan reportedly stood by the river bank and prayed to God that many people would come to know about Argungu and that the whole world would one day gather to witness more of the memorable event.
From that period, the emir and his council decided to make the festival an annual event. As years passed by it continued to grow, people heard about it from far and near and they began to troop into the Kabawas’ domain every year to witness the colourful annual fishing event.
Today, Argungu fishing festival has become an international event. Annually, visitors from Europe, America, Asia and different parts of Africa converge on the ancient town to witness it. However, because of its growing popularity and economic potentials it was taken over by the government of Sokoto State and much later Kebbi State government after it was created out of Sokoto State on August 27, 1991.
Soon a games village, Grand Fishing Hotel, pavilions and other structures were built close to the river to modernise the event and make it convenient for visitors to be well entertained. Thus Argungu fishing and cultural festival attained the status of a national event. The federal government and other corporate bodies have been making inputs into the organisation and hosting of the festival to boost the country’s tourism potentials.
Some of the events which used to feature prominently during the annual fishing and cultural festival include local boxing, wrestling, bow and arrow shooting, hunting, singing, dancing, agricultural show and animal racing. Others are the Kabanci display, (water sports), canoe racing, motorcycle racing, car racing, bicycle racing, camel racing and beauty pageantry.
Reversal of fortune
A member of the Argungu emirate council who spoke with Sunday Tribune under the condition of anonymity said the fishing event that was started in 1931 has today brought about strong ties and cordial relationship between the Kabawa and the Fulani people who used to be enemies and had fought many wars against each other before the visit of Sultan Hassan. “It has also resulted in inter marriages between the two tribes,” he added.
In an interview with Sunday Tribune, an indigene of Argungu, Jamilu Muhammed said it was common knowledge among the Kabawas that the river has some spiritual powers.
“That is why it cannot be left without a custodian known as Sarkin Ruwa. He is in charge of its day to day monitoring, control and maintenance. You can see children swimming in the river and playing around its banks but nothing can happen to them. There are reptiles like alligators, crocodiles and snakes in and outside it. Spirits are there but they cannot harm anybody because they have been taken care of by the custodian of the river.
“Sometimes things happen here but the Sarkin Ruwa always takes care and make sure whatever happen at the river are always within his control. His duty is also to make sure no one carries out fishing activities in it until people are permitted to fish in the river,” Muhammed explained.
Speaking to Sunday Tribune the custodian of river Matan Fada, Alhaji Hussani Makwashe (Sarkin Ruwa Kabbi), attested to the spiritual dimension to the river’s popularity adding that he is a descendant of a long line of custodians of the river.
“This is my eighth year as custodian of this river. My forefathers were its custodian, so I inherited it. Yes, it is true there are spiritual powers attached to the river. We have spirits in it and there are other dangerous reptiles but they are under our control; they cannot harm anybody. You can see children swimming and others are playing at the bank of the river; those animals and spirit cannot harm anybody because we have already taken care of them,” he said.
For reasons best known to those in authority, the festival has not held for years while efforts are being made to bring it back. Alhaji Makwashe is one of the people concerned over delays in the return of the festival. He wants government to have a rethink over the festival and hasten up preparations for its return.
“It is a long time now since the festival was held here. We are not happy about that. I want them to help us rehabilitate the place. Look at the whole place, it is not looking good. The place they gave me to stay as custodian of the river has collapsed. Look at the pavilions where visitors sit to watch the cultural events; they need to be rehabilitated. We cannot wait till the festival approaches before putting the place in shape. Despite the fact that the festival has not held for eight years now, people still come to take a look at the river, the game village, pavilions and some of the structures here,” Makwashe said.
A fisherman, Ahmad Yusuf also complained about the inability of stakeholders to hold the festival for quite some time now for whatever reasons and what common fishermen like him have been losing.
“It has been over eight years now since the festival was held. This is not helping our economy and that of the state. Each time the festival takes place, the entire town would be full of visitors from different parts of the country and even outside Nigeria. We benefitted a lot from that. Some of us would live throughout the year from what we made from the event and we would all be happy.
“Now we are going through some hardship because the festival has not held for some years now. I am not the only one that is not happy, majority of other fishermen who make a living through the festival are not happy as well. I don’t think we have any excuse not to hold it at the appropriate time because that is from where many of us earn our living. Some locals started their business from what they earned from the festival. It is from it that some of us got married and even made a breakthrough,” Yusuf lamented.
The Manager of the Grand Fishing Hotel, Oseni Mudi who said the hotel used to make profit during the fishing festival lamented the low patronage because the fishing festival has not held for years.
“The structure of the hotel is intact, we are doing everything to maintain it but our only problem now is low patronage. Government is even planning to renovate it to make it a more befitting hotel. The rooms are well taken care of; we have restaurants, and other sections that make it a standard hotel but we are not getting customers. Our major profit comes during the fishing festival. People used to converge here and we make more profits. We hope that will happen when the festival comes alive again,” Mudi stated.
Speaking on why the cultural fishing festival has not been held for some years now, the Director of Tourism in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Cooperative and Tourism, Alhaji Umar Bena said it has only been suspended because of the security challenges in the country.
”Argungu fishing festival is an international event. We always have people from different parts of the world who would assemble in Argungu and it would be risky to hold the event given the constant attacks by insurgents” he explained.
He however said that with the improvement in the country’s security situation, the event is likely to hold in the near future.
“A proposal has been sent to the state executive council for us to organize a mini fishing festival in preparation for the real Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival next year.
The present administration has demonstrated political will towards the event. We hope the council would approve our proposal,” Alhaji Bena said.
Going forward, whether the proposal would be approved and the festival resuscitated or not depends largely on several factors but more importantly the government of the state which had seen the events rising from its little beginning to the most sought-after fishing festival in this part of the world. The fact remains that bringing back the festival is in the best interest of all – the state and the federal governments of Nigeria including the common people of Argungu.