The human memory is rather short. On the 31st of December, 2009, Arochukwu was thrown into turmoil. All the preparations for the crossover into the new year which Umu Aro relish, were put into jeopardy. Aro streets, usually a beehive of activities and enjoying a carnival-like atmosphere to usher in the new year, were completely deserted. Rather than relaxing to enjoy the numerous parties that normally heralded the new year, many people hurriedly left the town.
What was wrong? An Ekpo masquerade had killed somebody. To make matters worse, it was no ordinary person. The elite of Arochukwu and their friends went into overdrive on damage control. In spite of their best efforts, some persons including an Eze Ogo spent nearly a month in police custody. Promising careers were damaged. It was by God’s mercy that uncommon understanding was laid in the heart of the aggrieved institution and Aro was not reduced to rubbles.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Eze Aro in conjunction with Nzuko Arochukwu, banned Ekpo masquerade in Arochukwu. For more than three years, Ekpo remained banned. During the period of ban, all kinds of pressure was brought to bear on the Monarchy and Nzuko Aro. Many claimed that it had robbed our festivities of the vitality and excitement associated with Ekpo. They alleged that the churches have captured the Aro institutions and were using them to destroy Aro culture. Ekpo exponents promised to be of good behavior and to avoid any form of trouble if the ban was lifted.
Before the ban was lifted, a Code of Conduct was signed on 31st December, 2012 between Nzuko Aro, Eze Ekpo and Ndi Eze Ogo to avoid misconduct by Ekpo masquerades.
The Ekpo Code of Conduct provides that:
1. Eze Ogo shall approve before any Ekpo can perform.
2. Each village shall have Eze Ekpo, assisted by 1st and 2nd Vice who shall act in his capacity in his absence or incapacitation.
3. Eze Ekpo shall maintain a register of all members initiated into Ekpo.
4. Eze Ekpo shall submit the list of all performers and their details to Eze Ogo before any outing.
5. Eze Ekpo shall ensure the following:
• That roads are not barricaded during any Ekpo performance.
• That the performers do not carry any weapon before, during and after any performance.
• That the performers do not take drugs or alcohol or any substance that is capable of influencing their actions.
• That Ekpo performance shall start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m.
Regrettably, in the recent past, Ekpo performers now obey the code of conduct in breach. The ugly practices that resulted in serious problems in the past are again in full display. During the 2019 festivities most Ekpo masquerades and their followers were kitted like they were going to war. They were armed with well sharpened machetes, clubs, broken and virgin bottles of assorted hot drinks as well as fire balls. One did not require any ‘special eye’ to know that the masquerades and their troupes were under heavy influence of intoxicants.
It became common for Ekpo to barricade the roads and climb exotic cars. Not less than six cars had their windscreens smashed by masquerades or their followers. The police and soldiers had to be invited to settle some of the fights that had ensued as a result. Masquerade displays continued deep into the night with attendant risks to public safety. The situation was so bad that the leadership of Nzuko Aro had to move from one village to another to get the Eze Ogos to call the masquerades to order.
The apprehension of the average Aro man or woman is so high that the issue dominated discussion at the meeting of the Central Executive Committee of Nzuko Aro held in Abakiliki on the 13th of March this year. The meeting resolved that from Easter 2020, any village that wished to embark on masquerade displays must first obtain the permission of the Eze Ogo and the president general of the village. The Eze Ekpo of the village, the Eze Ogo and president general of such village would be held responsible for any infractions committed by the Ekpo masquerade. In other words, the Eze Ekpo, Eze Ogo and president general of each village must ensure that the masquerades obey the code of conduct. They must not block the roads, jump on vehicles, carry dangerous weapons, consume dangerous substances or operate after 5 p.m. The meeting mandated Nzuko Arochukwu and the monarchy to ban Ekpo if the infractions continued.
Ekpo masquerade is one of the defining cultural practices of the Aro. Whether it is the rugged carvings of the face of the masquerade, the muscular bodies covered with charcoal or the assumptions that masquerades come from the spirit world, Ekpo is a major attraction for the young and old.
Nzuko Aro is therefore committed to sustaining the social, entertainment and commercial values of Ekpo masquerade displays but on the condition that they are peaceful. People travel to Cross River and other states in the country; and as far as Brazil to watch carnivals and other cultural displays with no threat to personal safety. We must not forget how close we came to self destroying our beloved Arochukwu because of Ekpo in 2009.
We hope that the organizers of Ekpo masquerades in Aro would heed these warnings otherwise the ban of Ekpo is loading!