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Top most Popular Traditional festivals in Nigeria

Updated on July 29, 2015
Decorated men at one of the Nigerian Festivals
Decorated men at one of the Nigerian Festivals

Nigeria is a densely populated country, rich in culture with so many festivals whose continuous existence was once threatened by the advent of colonial masters and Christianity but yet survived. In fact most of these festivals later became predominant and increased in popularity in late 19th century.

It is an already established fact that Nigeria is the most populated and popular indigenous black nation in the world with an estimated 170 million people as at the last census count. With three major recognized languages (Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba), the country is also home to well over 250 different minor tribes and distinct languages which of course translate into different ways of life. In a country with vast cultural heritage just like Nigeria one would definitely expect a whole lot festivals going on every year. So in this article, I shall focus and discuss with keen interest the most famous, popular and oldest cultural festivals in Nigeria. These festivals are often characterized by artistic presentations, musical performances, singing and dancing with huge, and attracts the home-coming of large number of Nigerians in the Diaspora.

Argungu Fishing Festival
Argungu Fishing Festival

Argungu Festival

This is widely regarded as a fish festival and one of the most popular festivals recently in Nigeria. It is an annual four-day festival which usually takes place in Argungu town located in Kebbi State, about 64 miles from Sokoto State, North-western Nigeria. The origin of this festival dated back in 1934 when the late Sultan Dan Mu’azu of Sokoto made an historic visit to Kebbi to mark the end of the centuries old hostility between the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kebbi Kingdom.

The festival is held on the Sokoto River in between February and March of every year where thousands of fishermen of local men and boys enter the water, armed with large fishnet scoops equipped only with nets compete to catch the largest fish. The festival have undergone tremendous re-branding in recent years most notably is that the winner goes home with a grand prize of a new bus and N1million.

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Masquerades at Eyo FestivalEyo Iga Jump performed by a masquerade
Masquerades at Eyo Festival
Masquerades at Eyo Festival
Eyo Iga Jump performed by a masquerade
Eyo Iga Jump performed by a masquerade | Source

Eyo Festival

This festival is predominant with the people of Yoruba living in Lagos Island located in Lagos State, western Nigeria. It is also popularly known as the Adamu Orisha Play, a Yoruba festival that attracts thousands of tourists from around the world who come to see costumed dancers or masquerades called ‘Eyo’ who perform during the festival. It is widely believed that Eyo is the forerunner of the modern day and world biggest carnival in the world, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in Brazil. During the festivity, no one is to wear hats during the festival except for the masquerades who appear in stunning whites and process the main highway in the heart of the city (from the end of Carter Bridge to Tinubu Square) to Igaldungaran palace.

The first of such processions was held on the 20th of February 1854, to commemorate the life of Oba Akintoye and participants pay homage to the reigning Oba of Lagos.

An Ibo traditional ruler performing a New Yam Festival rites
An Ibo traditional ruler performing a New Yam Festival rites

New Yam Festival

This festival is common and is widely celebrated among the people of Ibo ethnic group found in the south-eastern states of Nigeria which includes Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu. The name of this festival varies from the ‘Leboku’ in Ugep, Cross River State to the ‘Iriji-Mmanwu’ festival in Enugu State. It is also known as Iri ji ohu, Iwa ji or Ike ji which literally means “eating new yam”. The festival is celebrated every month of August to commemorate the good harvesting season at the end of every farming season and to mark the beginning of a new one. This festival attracts prominent Igbo sons and daughters from all over the world, as well as guests who grace the occasion.

On the eve of the festival after some ritual sacrifice are made to the gods, all old yams from the previous year’s harvest are either discarded or eaten to give way for new ones. The traditional ruler or the oldest man in each community is required to offer yam (cooked or roasted), usually mixed with palm oil, to the recognized deities of the land and to the ancestors.

Durbar Festival in Kano State Nigeria
Durbar Festival in Kano State Nigeria | Source
Durbar by Bida Emirate
Durbar by Bida Emirate

Durbar Festival

This is also one of the oldest festivals which is common among the largest ethnic group in Nigeria, the Hausas. The festival is celebrated at the culmination of Eid al-Fitr (the end of the holy month of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (Prophet Ibrahim sacrificing a ram instead of his son) which is also popularly known as ‘Sallah’, in all the northern states of Nigeria. The most popular and prominent ones are the Kano Durbar performed by the Kano Emirate in Kano State, Katsina Durbar in Katsina State, and Minna Durbar by the Bida Emirate (pictured inset) in Niger State. Katsina Durbar is the most magnificent and spectacular and is being developed as important tourist attractions.

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Women at Osun festival
Women at Osun festival
Women being purified at the sacred river
Women being purified at the sacred river

Osun Festival

This festival can also be called ‘Osun-Oshogbo’ festival and is very popular among the people of Yoruba land located in Osun State, western Nigeria. This is usually a week-long festival held in August of every year at the popular thick and sacred Oshogbo forest to commemorate river goddess Oshun, an important Yoruba deity which was believed to be one of the wives of Sango, the god of Thunder and former king of Oyo. It generally believed by the Yoruba people that the river Oshun is said to have powers to make barren women fertile again perhaps the reason why people of Osun believe firmly in this goddess and therefore, where thousands converge to attend the event annually from other parts of Africa and beyond, as it also attracts Osun people in the Diaspora. I must say that Yoruba ladies don’t joke with this festival at all.

Ofala Festival
Ofala Festival

Ofala Festival

This is also another unique and popular festival in Igbo land, south-eastern Nigeria. “Ofala” is an Igbo word which literally means “the authority of the land” and is by various prominent traditional rulers in Igbo land. Historically, Ofala was celebrated for a king twice – a day after his coronation and after his death, but nowadays because of the socio-political and economic issues affecting the lives of the people, it is now celebrated by traditional rulers as an annual event. During the celebration a lot dance is performed like the Ijele masquerade and especially the famous Atilogwu dance which a vigorous and energetic dance where elements of gymnastics are combined with foot-stomping rhythms and brilliant colors by the dancers. The most famous and prominent Ofala festival celebration is one done by Obi of Onitsha Dr Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, (which widely regarded by the Ibos as the head of all traditional rulers of Igbo land) in Anambra State.

A man being flogged at the Sharo festival
A man being flogged at the Sharo festival

Sharo Festival

Interestingly, this is a flogging competition festival and it is very popular and common among the Jafun Fulani in the north-eastern part of Nigeria. It is also called ‘Shadi’ Festival. The festival which normally lasts for a week is held in the marketplace at the time of the dry-season guinea corn harvest, and again during the festival of Id El-kabir. During the festival, the young men who will participate in the competition are led into the ring of spectators bare chested and armed with whips. As the noise of singing, drumming and cheering rises to a crescendo, each young man must endure a painful moment of flogging to demonstrate his manhood. Those who do endure to the end are certified mature and free to choose a beautiful maiden to marry.

Dancers at the Sango festival
Dancers at the Sango festival

Sango Festival

This age long festival is in the honour of Sango the all powerful god of thunder in Yoruba land from whom the present day Alaafin of Oyo Oba derives the title. Sango according to a popular Yoruba myth story was the second son of Oranyan, the first Alaafin and the seventh grandchild of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife. Upon the death of Oduduwa, the grandchildren dispersed from Ile-Ife, forming different Yoruba kingdoms in the western part of Nigeria. Sango was so powerful that he amassed a formidable empire in Africa and transported Oyo culture beyond the Oyo Empire. This festival has facilitated an annual home-coming avenue for Yoruba descents and the devotees in the Diaspora as a form of pilgrimage.

Omo N' Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin
Omo N' Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin

Igue Festival

This is common among the people of Benin in the ancient city of Benin Kingdom, Edo State located in the south-south region of Nigeria. This festival which is usually held in December the last month of the year has facilitated an annual home-coming avenue for Benin descents in the Diaspora.

Video from Igue Festival in Benin, Edo State

Chiefs at the Igue festival
Chiefs at the Igue festival

During the Igue festival, the traditional ruler of Benin Kingdom popularly known Omo N' Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin will perform a traditional rite to appease their ancestors who have guarded them through out the year in his Palace at Benin City, Edo State.

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