Nigeria’s festival season is almost here – these are 11 of the most captivating ones

By Pelu Awofeso

Nigeria’s festivals season opens in August with Osun Osogbo Festival (Osun State), Leboku festival (Cross River State), Badagry Heritage Festival (Lagos State) and a host of others nationwide less well known.

And there is no contesting the fact that Nigeria is a cultural destination with some of the most fascinating indigenous ceremonies in Africa. Festivals make up a great part of that heritage and communities across the country host hundreds of them throughout the year.

While some share dates with Christian and Muslim celebrations (like Easter and Eid el Fitri), most of the very well-known ones take place in the second half of the year – from August, to be specific.

Here’s a shortlist of some of the most spectacular ones:

Osun-Osogbo Festival (Osun State): This is one of the festivals well known outside Nigeria and one of the most attended by international visitors. Hosted in the artistically-rich Osogbo town, the festival is in honour of the mythical river goddess, Osun. It begins with a town-cleansing ritual that clears the path for a wide range of other activities that last a fortnight, climaxing in the crowded procession to the famed Osun Grove, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Plant yourself in or near the palace of the Ataoja of Osogbo’s very early in the morning to witness the festival’s key moments. And if you wish to get into the spirit of the occasion, wear white.

Argungu Festival (Argungu, Kebbi State): The breathtaking Argungu Fishing Festival usually holds in March. The festival honours the centuries-long fishing tradition of the state and it is a spectacle that involves hundreds of fishermen competing in the Rima River to make the biggest catch with either a calabash or their bare hands, in the presence of thousands of spectators.

Participating fishermen come from Nigeria and neighbouring African countries.

Procession at Leboku New Yam Festival (Cross River State)

Leboku Festival (Cross River State): One of many Agro-related festivals in Nigeria, Leboku New Yam Festival is celebrated in Ugep town by the Yakurr people, who use the opportunity to thank the creator for a rich harvest. It’s a bustling three-week party that signposts the end of one farming season and the beginning of another; the grand finale is a glowing assortment of parade—by maidens, women groups and community elders (with cigar-like chewing-sticks clasped between their lips).

The pageant and wrestling contests are two of the must-see displays. What’s more: you can have a taste of the harvested tubers on the spot.

Durbar festival (Kano State): This is both an equestrian and faith-based traditional event, popular in Northern Nigeria and staged mainly during the Eid-el-Fitri and Eid-el-Kabir celebrations. Imagine some 500 decorated ponies galloping back and forth a dusty field with riders in majestic costumes and bearing swords: The Durbar parades will fill you with excitement that is better experienced than described. As one European tourist puts it, the festival dazzles with “fascinating colours, fascinating sounds and the combination of horsemen and acrobats”.

A series of gunshots announce the stately arrival of the paramount ruler (the Emir) and his entourage, and several shots more hours later signify the end of the programme. Kaduna, Katsina, Ilorin and Bida are some of the other historical cities to experience the Durbar.

Royal dance: Obi of Onitsha performing a time-honoured tradition at the Ofala Festival, in Onitsha.

Ofala Festival (Anambra State): The Ofala Festival is one of the most colouful (literally and figuratively) of Nigeria’s festivals and one of many celebrated in Igbo-land to mark the end of a fruitful farming season. It is the peak of the traditional cycles in Onitsha (the commercial heart of south-eastern Nigeria), coming in-between a series of yam festivals across the villages that make up the town.

The two-day celebration is hosted inside the expansive palace courtyard of the Obi (king) of Onitsha, whose highly anticipated public performance is the height of the occasion.

The stands are packed with titled men and women and brightly dressed indigenes. It is said that this is the only time in the year when the Onitsha people get to see their king at close quarters. From the palace grounds, they head back home to continue with the partying.

Olojo Festival:  Hosted in Ile-Ife (Osun State), Olojo festival is several festivals all rolled into one and it can last anywhere between eight and 14 days. Its primary aim is to mark the creation of the world, based on Yoruba traditional beliefs.

Ile-ife is regarded as the spiritual home of all Yoruba-speaking peoples; the festival kicks off with a moderate but culturally rich ceremony called Gbajure.. That’s followed in subsequent days by a roster of mini-festivals honouring  several revered deities, including oranmiyan, Oduduwa, Osun and Yemoja, the latter two goddesses.

One of the high points of Olojo festival takes place seven days before the grand finale, when the Ooni of Ife goes into seclusion, escorted by his subjects – men and women, old and young. It’s a much anticipated time for the town, so the procession is accompanied by ecstatic drumming, singing and dancing.

Igue Festival (Edo State; December):  Igue festival is the height of ecstasy for the indigenes of the historic and culturally rich Bini Kingdom, South-South Nigeria. It is more or less a season of thanksgiving and offering sacrifices to the gods of the land and seeking blessings from them for the king and his subjects, the locals as well as resident families. Lasting a week, the festival is marked by bright traditional costumes in shades of white and red, worn by the Oba and his chiefs. The traditional Ugie dance is a thrill to watch.

A spiritual performance at Badagry Festival

Badagry Festival (Lagos State): It is a festival of festivals (literally), encompassing half a dozen festivals from the various ethnic groups that make up the serene yet lively town of Badagry (Eastern tip of Lagos). It is also a period to draw attention to Badagry’s slave history.

The programmes incorporate the UN International Day for the Remembrance of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. (Tourists can visit some of relics of the period as well as experience the sombre 5km walk on the slavery route). 

Puusdung Festival (Plateau State): As Christians the world over celebrate Easter, the Angas people of Plateau State one of the practices that have been passed down for generations through the annual Puusdung Festival (Day of Great Harvest), which holds on Easter Sunday.

Barely an hour after the community has assembled at the Nefur Arena, the atmosphere is charged with drumming and dancing. Another festival at Easter worth seeing in Plateau State includes Puuskat (hosted by the Mwaghavuls).

In the capital Jos, the Berom people celebrate Nzem Berom in the first week of April. Collectively, the commemorate harvest, a spirit of friendship and togetherness while also appeasing ancestral spirits.

Nigerian Festivals: the Famous and not so Famous (By Pelu Awofeso), available from the Travu bookstore

Ojude Oba Festival (Ogun State): Hosted in Ijebu Odeand described as “the most glamorous and spiritual festival in Ijebuland”, the Ojude Oba festival holds always on the third day of Eid el Kabir, continuing a tradition that’s two centuries old. On this day, the pavilion is packed with colourfully and grandly dressed age-grade groups who have come to honour the paramount rule, the Awujale of Ijebu kingdom, Oba Sikiru Adetona (Ogbagba II).

A key aspect of the ceremony is the procession of the Baloguns (warriors) on their horses, heralded by drumming, jubilation and gunshots. Horse riding has been a part of the tradition in Ijebuland, and Ojude Oba presents an opportunity to put it on display.

Oranyan Festival (Oyo State): This festival is hosted inside the palace of one of the highly regarded royals in Yorubaland, the Alaafin of Oyo. It is in honour first individual to sit on that legendary throne. Beyond being a unifying celebration among the yorubas, Oranyan is also believed to be a blessing to the community. It is believed that when it holds, the barren will conceive. Side attractions include: a beauty pageant, football competition and gbegiri festival, which is a feast of assorted local soups.

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