It is another season of masquerade festivals in the Nsukka Cultural Zone, Enugu State. But while it may be a season of festivals, it isn’t exactly a season of festivities. Because this season has, these days, become frequently punctuated by violence, mayhem and terror often resulting in the maiming, sometimes even killing, of people by what are supposed to be benevolent beings from the land of the spirits. Our Correspondent, PAT NNADI who went round these communities to know why these masquerades are allowed to perpetrate these evils, reports…
Like the proverbial dog that eats the bone put under his care, masquerades in Nsukka have become a nightmare and a source of trepidation to the people for whom they were, hitherto, wise, benevolent, peace-making, even entertaining, beings from the land of the spirits.
Indeed, from time immemorial, masquerades were seen as the major source of peace-keeping in many Igbo communities. Before the advent of colonialism, many masquerades were instituted to police their respective communities while others were for entertainment. They come in different colours, shapes and sizes and appear at various times of the year depending on communities.
In some communities in the Cultural Zone, especially in Aku, Igbo-Etiti Local Government Area, they are called Odo. In Nsukka Urban, they are called Oriokpa, the dreaded, sometimes extremely violent masquerades. Others are Ogede of Orba, and Akatakpa of Obollo Afor in Udenu Local Government Area of the Enugu and Ovoko and Ibagwa- Aka in Udenu Igbo-Eze South Local Government Area.
Unfortunately, this beautiful aspect of the Igbo culture has become a nightmare to the people of Nsukka zone as today, traditional rulers, church leaders, leaders of thought and indeed security agencies in the area are now faced with the gargantuan challenge of controlling the atrocities of masquerades.
Litany of wanton brutalities by masquerades in the zone
The wanton barbarism and brutality associated with masquerades in some communities have become a big source of concern, as they molest visitors and natives alike at will, including girls and women, particularly during masquerade festivals. In fact, certain persons have lost their lives in the hands of masquerades in the area.
Recently, two catholic priests were waylaid and beaten to stupor by daredevil masquerades in Ogbodu-Aba, Udenu Local Government Area. The two priests, Rev. Fathers Peter Chikwado Udaya and Daniel Tochukwu Akubue, our reporter gathered, were attacked on their way to their respective duty posts.
AbeyaNews investigation revealed that the priests were dragged out of their car by a group of masquerades and beaten like condemned criminals.
“They were beaten like common criminals, and the crowd that gathered as the show of shame continued couldn’t even help matters, instead they encouraged and hailed the masquerades to go on with the abominable and mischievous act. The two priests were eventually rescued by one Stephen Eze and his wife,” a source told AbeyaNews.
It was learnt that Fr. Udaya sustained serious injuries which affected his sight and had to be referred to a specialist hospital in Lagos, while Fr. Akubue had since been treated and discharged from hospital.
Following this development, the community has banned masquerades in Ogbodu-Aba. When AbeyaNews visited the palace of the traditional ruler, HRH Igwe Peter Ejeh, recently, and sought to know why he took such ‘harsh’ decision; Igwe Ejeh who is also the Chairman of Udenu traditional rulers’ council, declared that it was the best option for peace to reign in the area.
He pointed out that all the relevant stakeholders were consulted and carried along before the decision was made with approval of the state government.
“The ban is an offshoot of an unfortunate incident in which the Akatakpa masquerades were going about molesting and beating people mercilessly. One of such incidents was the case of beating of two Catholic priests, Rev. Fr. Peter Udaya and Rev. Fr. Daniel Akubue. The man at whose command these masquerades were molesting people called himself Igwe, which he is not, and it is my name and that of my community that were now being tainted,” Igwe Ejeh lamented. explaining: “This is because people said that it was the Igwe that instigated the beating while they didn’t know it wasn’t my own Igwe. We had no other option than to proscribe these murderous masquerade`s from even coming out in our community. You could recall how they beat Catholic priests mercilessly in our community. Who wants to condone such murderous act in his community? He even dragged me, Bishop Onah and Stephen Eze who rescued the priests from the beating these masquerades to court.”
Asked why he did not explore other options like regulating their activities instead of placing outright ban on them, Ejeh said the ugly incident had lasted for about five years, adding that the community at some point even tried registering and giving the masquerades numbers, but all to no avail.
“We have also sought the option of making the Akatakpa masquerades come out only three times during the one month period of their outing, yet this couldn’t work. So, for this reason, we had to take the bull by the horn and ban the masquerades indefinitely,” he said.
According to him, the decision by members of his cabinet with the Ogbodu-Aba elders’ council, was heart-warming, adding that the Omabe festival would now replace the Akatakpa festival in the community.
“Any culture that is harmful to the people of the community is no good culture. Some years ago, Akatakpa masquerades were for fun and entertainment; but now that they have turned it into an instrument for brutalising innocent persons; we can’t hesitate to proscribe it,” he declared.
Further investigation showed that masquerades have had very ugly encounters with church leaders, especially, clerics of the Catholic faith, in recent time.
In 2016, a seminarian on one-year apostolic work at one of the parishes at Orba, in Udenu Local Government Area was attacked by a group of masquerades along Orba/Nsukka road. The seminarian was left with broken leg by his attackers; he sustained injuries and was hospitalised for more than six months.
Similarly, in April 2017, another seminarian, Ezugwu Lawrence escaped death by whiskers when some masquerades attacked him at the Ugwuoye axis of Nsukka town. Our reporter gathered that Ezugwu who was on a six-week apostolic work programme in one parish in Nsukka was on his way to pay electricity bill at the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC), Nsukka District, when he was rounded up by the masquerades and beaten to coma. He also had his head severely injured.
When there was upsurge in robbery in the Nsukka zone in September 2019, masquerades were fingered in the snatching of people’s handsets, laptops and even motorbikes in broad daylight. One of such incidents which took place in Ovoko, Igbo-Eze South Local Government Area involved a pregnant woman.
The attack which claimed the woman’s life attracted wide condemnation, but was not followed by any punitive measures on the perpetrators.
In fact, their activities ceased momentarily when the woman died but few weeks later, they continued unleashing terror on innocent citizens.
A witness at the period said the woman was on her way to a maternity home when the masquerades stopped her and beat her mercilessly, resulting in excess bleeding and her eventual death
As the public was yet to come to terms with this ugly development, the police in Nsukka two years ago arrested two men who wore masquerade costume in Ovoko community in Nsukka LGA for allegedly beating up a passenger on commercial motorcycle and robbing him of N57,000.The incident happened on the Nsukka /Oballo-Afor highway.
A police source said policemen moved to the scene when the victim, Mr Chinonso Ezewaji, reported the matter to Nsukka Police Area command and the two men were arrested.
“The escorts of the masquerades, however, ran away. There were eight masquerades; they blocked the Nsukka /Obollo-Afor road and harassed people. The two masquerades arrested however denied collecting the N57,000 from Ezewaji, but claimed they knew the person who collected the money from the victim. When we searched one of the arrested masquerades, we saw Indian hemp in his pocket,” the police source said.
When contacted, Mr Ebere Amarizu, the then Public Relations Officer, Enugu State Police Command, confirmed the incident saying investigation had commenced on the matter.
He urged communities to regulate and monitor those who wear masquerade costumes, adding that some of them use the opportunity to harass, intimidate and rob innocent members of the public.
“The Police are not against the people practicing their tradition and culture, but community leaders must know the character of people they allow to wear costume of masquerade in the name of culture. A masquerade has no right to mount road block on busy highways where motorists, motorcyclists and other road users move on daily basis. The police have commenced investigation and will get to the root of this matter as issues of masquerade disturbing people have become a recurring decimal,’’ Amarizu said.
The victim, Ezewaji, a trader, who deals in clothing materials, told journalists then he was on his way from Nsukka to Obollo-Afor to see his mother, when the masquerades stopped the motorcycle he was riding on.
“They beat me, searched me and collected N57,000. When they left, I ran into the bush and when I discovered they had gone some distance, I came out and went to the police to report,” he narrated.
The two men wearing masquerade costume who were arrested, identified themselves as Kenchukwu Eze, a carpenter and Ejiofor Eze, a brick-layer. They, however, denied the allegation that they stole money from Ezewaji.
They claimed that their colleague, Chima Mamah stole the money. Eze, however, admitted that the police saw Indian hemp in his pocket, saying it was the leftover of what they smoked before coming out.
“If the police will release me, I will not wear masquerade costume, nor smoke Indian hemp again,” he pleaded.
By and large, the advice of ASP Amarizu would appear to have fallen on deaf ears as these masquerades have continued to brutalize innocent citizens and visitors.
On August 28, 2021, seven masquerades, popularly called Oriokpa, were arrested at Ikpa junction, along Enugu road, Nsukka, for allegedly manhandling a passerby and causing a breach of the peace.
The masquerades, while observing their rites, allegedly caught the passerby, whose name was not known at the time of writing this report, and beat him up. The commotion caused gridlock along the expressway.
An okada rider, Chiemelie Ugwu, told AbeyaNews: “The masquerades were moving around and entertaining people, even though they had canes. However, the mild celebration turned violent when they started beating a man who was going his own way. Maybe the man refused to give them money.
“They pushed him to the gutter, making him sustain injuries. However, luck ran out on them when operatives of the Police Anti-Kidnap Squad were alerted. They came and arrested them, while some others ran away. The arrested masquerades were actually begging and crying.”
AbeyaNews gathered that they were arraigned at an Nsukka Magistrates’ Court and remanded at the Nsukka Correctional Centre till October 7th 2021 when their matter would be heard.
According to an eyewitness, Enemona Innocent Usman, “immediately the Oriokpa masquerades heard the judgement, they all started crying inside the court premises.”
Nevertheless, the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. Prof. Godfrey Onah has condemned constant attacks on priests by masquerades, describing it as the height of barbarism.
He warned all masquerades in the zone to steer clear of his church members to avoid his unpleasant reaction and the wrath of God.
At a funeral in Ogbodu-Aba, Bishop Onah said: “This is the height of barbarism and wickedness. How can you mask yourself and come out to extort people and beat innocent citizens on the road? This is pure wickedness. If the traditional rulers of these communities don’t know what to do with masquerades, I will not allow masquerades to continue molesting and wreaking havoc on my fellow worshippers more especially my priests.”
In the same vein, the traditional ruler of Ihe/Owerre autonomous community in Nsukka Local Government, the hot bed of masquerade attacks, Igwe George Asadu condemned them in very strong terms, describing such attacks as negating the aim of instituting masquerades in the communities.
He explained that his community has put in place workable control measures to checkmate the activities of masquerades, saying: “You know as much as I do that Ihe/Owerre community is the hub of Nsukka town. We have put in place workable control measures to checkmate the excesses of these masquerades. For instance, our masquerades which usually come out every Sunday now come out every two weeks. When the time of their last outing approaches, they will come out just two times. We have barred them from extorting money and anyone found violating this rule will be handed over to the security operatives who will be monitoring them on those days.
“We don’t want them to turn Nsukka to violence prone area because of masquerade. We want our community to remain as peaceful as ever.”
Chairman of Nsukka branch of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Francis Nwodo provided insight into the legal implications of brutality from masquerade.
Said he: “The 1999 Constitution as amended provided in Chapter four fundamental human rights and in that chapter; there is a provision for right to dignity of human person.
“In the first provision, it stated that nobody should be subjected to torture. But these masquerades don’t know anything about your right, your liberty or your freedom of anything. They can abuse you; torture you contrary to the provisions of the constitution.
“We have freedom of expression, freedom of movement, they don’t allow you to move about, they have so much abused it that at times they use the opportunity to steal, which is completely against the express provision of fundamental human rights, and I don’t think that is culture. A culture does not mean violation of another person’s right.”
A senior police officer in the Nsukka Area Command, who wished not to be named, said the police were on top of the situation disclosing that the trend would have been worse but for police crackdown on the masquerades and masqueraders.
Many people are unhappy that masquerades that should be a source of unification and cultural development have become a threat to the freedom, dignity and wellbeing of the people of the area and have, therefore, called for their outright ban or at best, limiting of their days of outing in different communities
However, until this happens, masquerades have continued to be an instrument of rape, brutality and maiming of innocent citizens in Nsukka zone even as stakeholders seem to be enjoying the ugly trend.