The Arochukwu corporate leadership and the intelligentsia have undertaken a hard appraisal of the Ekpo masquerade, and passed a damning verdict on the way it is currently celebrated.
They frowned at the way Ekpo masquerade – a cultural play, which ought to be celebrated and enjoyed – has become a menace and source of embarrassment for Arochukwu Kingdom, hence the urgency to rein it in.
This was part of the decisions taken at the just concluded Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting of Nzuko Aro held in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State.
Indeed deliberations at the meeting were far-reaching, covering such areas as social amenities, security, infrastructure, peace and harmony in Arochukwu, regulated burial arrangements, and so on and so forth.
And when the issue of Ekpo Aro came up – which fell under security agenda – it tweaked the interest of all and sundry.
In fact, the reaction in the hall left no one in doubt that the issue had for long been giving everyone grave concern.
Introducing the matter, the President-General (P-G) of Nzuko Aro Worldwide, Mazi George Ezuma, observed that Ekpo masquerade had since become a problem that needs to be addressed, hence he invited the Secretary-General (S-G), Mazi Anicho Okoro, to open discussion on the matter.
Mazi Anicho reported that Ekpo masquerades now parade with bonfire, cutlass and other dangerous weapons harassing motorists and destroying windscreens of cars. He implored the President-General of villages and parents to caution their wards to conduct themselves in accordance with acceptable standard behaviour.
He warned that Nzuko Aro would no longer condone irresponsible behaviour on the part of Ekpo.
Ndi Eze Ogo, he reiterated, must be made to take responsibility for the conduct of all Ekpo masquerades originating from their respective villages.
He cautioned that any further breach of institutionalized laws will attract severe sanctions for Ekpo masquerade.
In his own contribution, Prof Okoro Ijoma said Aro must insist on orderly conduct by Ekpo masquerade and their supporters.
On that note, Mazi Emma Kanu Ivi proposed that, henceforth, Ekpo masquerade must be made to obtain the approval of the respective Eze Ogo and PG of the village Union, adding that no road should be blocked during Ekpo performance, and that, they be forbidden from carrying either cutlasses or indeed any item that is capable of causing harm.
Subsequently, Mazi Ivi’s proposal was tinkered with, to the effect that Eze Ekpo would be held responsible for the conduct of Ekpo masquerades from his domain.
It should be noted that Ekpo Aro, from historical anthology, derives its origin from Akwa Ibom State, precisely the Anang and Ibibio stocks.
There, it is a close-knit culture, which prescribes a formal initiation process for prospective members, to qualify them to participate in its activities.
But having been adopted and assimilated into Arochukwu culture, Ekpo, as long as memory can figure out, had been one of the flagship masquerades that made Aro culture thick.
It has, without doubt, been the rallying point for Aro youths – both male and females – yet clearly distinguishing the respective genders as adherents and mere observers.
However, the Ekpo Aro variant has not been known to be as restrictive as its Akwa Ibom forebear, which is why some misguided youths exploited the loophole to infiltrate its ranks, and turn it into a monster.
In the good old days, Ekpo masquerade attracted Aro youths home at festivals, to savour the culture of their homeland.
For the young girls, it used to be moments to look forward to, when they would have the opportunity to “gbaa oso Ekpo”.
Ekpo would naturally chase the girls ostensibly in a show of gender superiority, but more for the fun of it. They did that without bearing arms; without causing harm to anyone. The mere fact that they had their faces covered was enough scare for the female folks, and that made the boys happy.
How was Ekpo masquerade conducted in the past?
Mazi Nwagbara Nnanna told Aro News that in those good old days, Eze Ekpo had full control of the proceedings.
He said: “In those days, a young man who desired to don Ekpo mask was subjected to some sort of screening, chief of which was to run a background check on his character. Subsequently, he was tested on performance capability. If he scaled those tests, he was given the approval in principle to participate in the ceremonial performance. Nothing was however sacrosanct, because he could be disqualified at any time thereafter, if the Eze Ekpo found good reasons to do so.”
On the outing day, Mazi Nnanna continued, the team would assemble early in the morning at the designated ‘Ovia Ekpo’ for costuming, and receive briefing from Eze Ekpo.
When all was set, the sound of the drum already stationed at the village square would signal readiness for the day’s engagement.
The Ekpo masquerades will then take their single turns to appear at the village square to perform. Each Ekpo that finished dancing was led into ‘Ulo Nta’, or the home of ‘Eze Ekpo’ (as the case may be), to rest.
The last to perform would be the ‘Ekpe Edem’, usually held in the highest regard.
When all were gathered, Eze Ekpo would give a pep talk, and admonish them to be of good behavior.
Depending on the Eze Ekpo’s ability and disposition, he might serve snacks, and a little quantity of palm wine. He would give further pep talk on conduct, and then reel out the day’s itinerary.
If anyone from another village had extended invitation to the team, it was given priority, as that was considered far-flung. Thus, led by Eze Ekpo, the team would proceed in an orderly file, enlivened with a peculiar drum beat akin to R&B music genre.
Excited young girls would watch and wave hands from respectable distances on both sides of the road, while the orderly Ekpo team danced along. None dared leave the queue to chase anyone.
Occasionally, however, one Ekpo might make a threatening gesture (usually at the booing segment of the crowd), which would send the girls scampering. It was all for fun, described in local parlance as ‘ebube Ekpo’
Back from their out-of-village engagement, the Ekpo team would visit and perform for personalities within their home village, who might have also invited them.
At the approach of dusk, Eze Ekpo would signal that it was time to return to base, take off the masks, and take their bath.
Instructively, Ekpo masquerades of those days were guided, regulated and regimented; none was allowed to stray, go solo or decide when to end the day’s performance. And all would comply with the directive.
But over the years, something obviously went wrong, and Ekpo performers went berserk. They would go all out to intimidate people, even harm with dangerous objects; some with firearms.
Specifically in the last 10 to 15 years, Ekpo Aro had, in conduct, become a nightmare, having been hijacked by youths of all shades and unverifiable backgrounds. The latter have been fingered as the source of the poison to the chalice.
Often times acting as though under the influence of prohibited substances, Ekpo, in the guise of soliciting money, would stand in the middle of the road, blocking fast moving vehicles in a manner that suggests that the fellow behind the mask was out of his mind.
There are tales of Ekpo climbing on peoples’ vehicles and walking on the roof – from the bonnet to the rear – with chances of causing damage.
Also, tales abound of boys who do everything possible to don the Ekpo mask, behind which they perpetrate evil while hoping for identity cover. In fact, much more ills have been going on within the Ekpo circle.
Aro News recalls that Ekpo Aro was once banned in 2010, in attenuating reaction to the fracas they caused, which resulted in avoidable loss of life.
It was later unbanned, a gesture that was predicated on its adherents complying with prescribed rules of engagement.
With the benefit of hindsight, therefore, the Abakaliki meeting resolved to revisit those terms, and adopt them as fresh prescriptions for Ekpo masquerade performance.
The terms are as follows:
- Eze Ogo, village PGs to screen, approve performers
- Eze Ogo, PGs to guarantee civilized conduct; to be held responsible for any breach
- Wielding of cutlass, cudgels, bonfires outlawed
- No blocking of access roads during performances
- Ekpo must end all performances, and give way before dusk