Ekpo masquerade is a cultural society art form with high economic, social and entertainment value to performers and admirers. Its awesomeness derives from its unique appearance, coded language and signs designed to confuse non initiates and excite admirers. Originating from the Efik and Ibibio, Ekpo performance has grown deep root in Arochukwu. It is such that festivities without Ekpo dance are seen, especially by the youth, as losing vibrancy.
However, as entertaining as the Ekpo display is, it is also high in nuisance value. Practitioners hardly get enough sleep the night before they perform. In the bid to scare watchers, they carry all sorts of dangerous weapons while many of them operate under the influence of alcohol. As a result, outings which were designed to create entertainment often end up leaving a sore taste. Masquerades block the roads, jump on vehicles, at times smashing windscreens, inflicting machete cuts on bye standers, among other destructive acts. It often end in crisis.
The control of the activities of Ekpo masquerades in Aro has often been a nightmare to local authorities. Just before Ikeji 2020, the local government issued what it called ‘code of conduct for ekpo dance’. The document required the Eze Ogo and Eze Ekpo of the village to sign undertaking that the Ekpo dance in their village would be crisis free. The organizers are required to take adequate measures to ensure that the roads are not blocked. They must limit the number of performers for proper coordination.
There are also conditions for the ‘spirit’ behind the masquerade to fulfil before masking. Each must submit a passport photograph with a surety, must be a member of the confraternity and must reside a home with identifiable household. Masquerades are banned from the use of harmful or injurious instruments such as guns, knives or bonfires. They must avoid chasing people, especially girls to the point of causing injury. Masquerade performances must end by 7 p.m.
That was not the first time that efforts were made to control the excesses of masquerades in Aro. It can be recalled that 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 in jeopardy. Aro streets, usually a beehive of activities with carnival-like atmosphere to usher in the new year, were completely deserted. Infact, instead of relaxing to enjoy the numerous parties that normally defined the new year, many people hurriedly left the town.
That was because an Ekpo masquerade had killed somebody. To make matters worse it was not an ordinary person. The elite of Arochukwu and their friends went into an overdrive on damage control. In spite of their best efforts, some persons including an Eze Ogo spent nearly a month in custody. It was by God’s mercy that uncommon understanding was laid in the hearts 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 pressures were 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. The 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. Regrettably, these measures have not yielded the desired result.
Organizers of Ekpo masquerade in Aro will do well to internalize and operationalize the code of conduct to minimize if not eliminate the chances for mishaps. The numerous complaints that trail every Ekpo outing is a serious source of concern and is affecting its potential to attract tourists. We keep revisiting this Ekpo issue because of its capacity for causing crisis some of which could be very costly. The organizers must show responsibility by taking urgent steps to educate their members on the reform measures necessary. We must refine Ekpo practices. Only then will the full potential of Ekpo as an art form with limitless opportunities for social recreation and entertainment be realized.