November 7, 2020 was a big day at Enugwu Aguleri in Anambra East Local Government Area, Anambra State. It was the day the people celebrated an annual event popularly known as World Eri Festival. The festival is about the origin of Igbo.
This year, the event was sponsored by Aguleri World Forum (AWF), and as usual, food and drinks were not in short supply.
Regular witnesses of the festival, however, noted that the dancing, masquerade show and cultural displays were not like the previous ones because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the prayer session and merriment, chieftaincy titles were conferred on eight deserving personalities for their service to humanity. Eze Eri, while conferring the titles, said having a good heart as well as an impeccable character were prominent in the choice of the new chiefs.
The festival, as is the practice, commenced with the Eze Eri Kingdom embarking on many weeks of fasting and prayer with few contact with human beings. During the period, the monarch sought the face of Almighty God for the betterment of the human race.
On the day of the celebration, many people, who were dressed in white clothes, went on a long procession from the king’s palace known as Obu Gad as early as 5am, to the confluence of Rivers Ezu and Omambala. At the confluence, extensive prayers were offered, as the people beseeched God to intervene in humans affairs and meet the people at the point of their needs.
After the prayers and praise singing led by the Eze Eri, the worshippers fetched water from the river. The reporter was told that the water was very effective in ensuring success in different fields of human endeavour, including business and education. Those in need of children have also attested to the potency of the water.
Eze Chukwuemeka Eri, the king of Eri kingdom is called the Akaji Ovo Igbo. It was learnt that unlike most traditional rulers who were either elected or chosen by their people and given certification by the government, the position of the Eze Akaji Ovo is different. His ascension is said to be surrounded by many mysteries, which were neither confirmed nor denied by the people who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity. Part of the mysteries, the reporter learnt, is that God usually selects the king of Eri kingdom through mysterious signs. For instance, the person’s mother might have died few days or weeks after his birth.
Aside that, such a person must be taken away immediately on exile once it is divinely revealed that he should succeed the father; simply because he must not call any living human being, a father.
It was gathered that Eze Chukwuemeka Eri, when he was informed about being chosen, made several efforts to avoid being crowned. But his efforts at avoiding the throne yielded no fruit. It eventually dawned on him and his people that he was the chosen one.
The reporter learnt that Eri Festival was initiated by Eri himself to remember his arrival at Agbanagbo-Ezu-na-Omambala (confluence of Ezu and Omabala rivers). The original participants were his sons, wives and followers.
In order to ensure the propagation of the ideals and remembrance of Eri, his children continued the festival after his death, the reporter gathered. The festival served as a unifying factor for all the sons of Eri even after they had dispersed from Aguleri communities. The dispersal of Eri sons notwithstanding, the Ancient Iduu Cultural (Olili Obibia Eri) festival continued to be held at Obu Gad.
The festival was designed as a unifying force for the Igbo both at home and elsewhere. It featured religious ceremonies, agricultural trade fairs, dancing and musical entertainment. All these served to strengthen the bond of union that kept both Agulu Eri and his dispersed brothers together.
The festival somehow suffered a setback in 1892. It was said that an Aguleri man suddenly punctured a drum of palm oil belonging to a British merchant. The action, tagged ‘Onwurume Oil Spillage’ battle between the two sides, lasted four days, with British soldiers suffering many casualties. The war artistry displayed by the Aguleri people during the clash created the impression in the minds of the British that Aguleri drew their strength from the annual Olili Eri (Eri Festival) during which stamina and courage were tested among the youths. As a result, the British administration allegedly planned and sowed seeds of discord among the participants – the Eri sons – especially the dispersed sons of Eri who only came on pilgrimage to Aguleri during the festival. Nevertheless, Aguleri people continued to give the Olili Eri its annual recognition and due regards and so continued to hold the celebration.
Interestingly, the celebration from 1999 till last year showed that the festival had picked up with time, as a unifying factor of the descendants of Eri and that of the Obu Gad is recognized as the converging point for all Igbo people.
A lawyer and historian, Emeka Ozo Umeh, said the dynasty of Eri Kingdom negates the erroneous assumption that Igbo have no kings.
“The Eri dynasty has lasted for centuries in Igbo land and has produced kings ranging from Eze Anyiamigbo Ezeora I in 1038 to the present Eze A.E. Chukwuemeka Eri, Ezeora XXXIV. Eze Akajiofo Igbo is the present custodian of the Ofo Igbo, which empowers him to rule.
The Eze Eri, who does not grant interviews as a rule on the day of the celebration, urged the Igbo anywhere to only engage in dignifying enterprises and exhibit noble characters. He insisted that no Igbo will ever be killed in vain again in any part of the world without consequences except if the person deliberately did something illegal.