Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: Argungu - Three Years Without Fishing Festival

Abuja —  Fishermen, traders groan

 Kebbi govt loses N400m sponsorship funds

Annually, thousands of fishermen and tourists flocked to Argungu in Kebbi state for the international fishing and cultural festival.

The festival began in 1934, to mark the end of the centuries old hostilities between the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kebbi Kingdom. The two empires had fought for centuries, and the conflicts only ceased with the arrival of the British.

The Argungu fishing festival is the culmination of a four-day cultural event. It annually attracts Heads of States and Governments in West Africa, first class traditional rulers from neighbouring Niger, Benin Republic, and Chad as well as Emirs and Chiefs from across the country; members of the diplomatic corps; captains of industries; top government functionaries; tourism aficionados and enthusiasts to the Land of Kanta.

Fishermen line up like an ancient army, carrying their traditional fishing nets and guoards. At the sound of a gun, they pound towards the narrow river and leap into the water. They have just one hour to catch the biggest fish.

The fiesta is an annual event of traditional sports such as wrestling, boxing, archery, catapulting, archery goat-skinning, camel and donkey durbar on horses racing and various water-based sports. Its climax is the Grand Fishing which involves thousands of fishermen in a breath-taking spectacle as they race to get the biggest catch inside the Matan Fada River.

During the fishing festival, competitors are only allowed to use traditional fishing tools and many prefer to catch fish entirely by hand, to demonstrate their prowess. The traditional fishing tools are hand nets and guoards.

Matan Fada River is small, but it is well stocked with fish. It is prohibited for anyone to fish after the festival till the following year. However, three years after the last event, the festival has not been staged.

When Sunday Trust visited the Matan Fada River, the level of rot at the site was overwhelming. The structures were dilapidated.

Speaking to Sunday Trust, the Custodian of the Matan Fada River, (Sarkin Ruwa) Alhaji Hussaini Makwashe said structures at the venue of the festival have rotten away, adding that flood has destroyed many buildings at the venue.

"We are not happy that up till now they have not organised the festival. They said the state government cancelled it this year because of the insecurity but we are hoping that next year the festival will hold and we have since commenced preparations for it. Whenever, it is staged it will be successful.

"Fishermen are not happy because we don't allow them to fish here. The Matan Fada River, is just for the festival and as such nobody fishes there except during festival. Fishermen come from all parts of the country to participate in the competition. We have many crocodiles, snakes and other reptiles in the river but they don't harm during festival. We talk to them with our spiritual powers not to harm participants and they will not," he said.

The Sarkin Ruwa said any fisherman who enters the river without his consent would not catch any fish. Adding that, "If you enter the river without my consent, you will not catch any fish. It is a secret. We communicate with the spirits of the river and they listen to us".

He said since 2009 when the festival was staged, they have been mounting 24 hours surveillance on the river to ensure that nobody fishes there. According to him, fishermen come from as far as Chad, Benin, Ghana and Niger Republic to participate in the competition.

"Over 30,000 fishermen come for the festival. It is an international event because we had tourists from America who come here to witness it. The fisherman who sneaked into the river with a dead fish had since been banned for life from competing in the festival and the prize he won was seized from him. The person who emerged runner-up was since declared winner," he added.

An hotelier in Birnin Kebbi, the Kebbi state capital, Mike Ike said they make brisk businesses during the festival.

"Throughout the period of the festival we don't have dull moments. Last March, when a date was fixed for the festival, the proprietor of our hotel brought out a new price list. He increases the charges by 100 percent but when it was cancelled he reversed. The hotel business booms for weeks even though the event is just for four days," he said.

Chairman of the Hotel Owners Association of Nigeria, Kebbi state chapter, Chief Joseph Ehimem urged the state government to make the festival a regular one and that a date should be fixed for the event annually.

"It's not only us hoteliers in Kebbi state that are benefiting from the festival. Traders and transporters make brisk business during the festival. All our hotels are filled up at that time but we jerk up our charges by 50 percent in order benefit more from the event. We are urging the state government to make it a regular one for the stimulation of business in the state," he said.

Speaking in the same tone, vice chairman of National Union of Roads and Transport Workers (NURTW), Mainasara Ambursa also lamented the failure of the state government to hold the event for the years.

"In 2010, it was because of flood and last year the festival was not staged because of the election. We are praying that the festival be organised this year. For 24 hours during the festival, our vehicles will be operating in all parts of the state. Argungu to Birnin Kebbi and Argungu to Sokoto are busiest routes during the festival," he added.

According to the festival's Chief Consultant, Mr. Abel Akinosi, the Kebbi State Government is losing over N400million in sponsorship funds and expected revenue accruable from corporate bodies and many economic opportunities as a result of the multiple postponements of the cultural fiesta.

Mr. Akinosi, who said he came in sometime in 2004 when the festival was rejuvenated by the then administration of Alhaji Adamu Aliero, told Sunday Trust that his consulting firm had basically tried to promote the festival in terms of partnership participation and social economic development of Kebbi state.

He observed that when he brought in corporate bodies the objective was to bring in investments for the state. For instance, he said there was a time when Maltina tried to grow some raw materials to produce its beverage drink in Kebbi state but no concrete efforts were made to follow it up.

He lamented that before this year's festival was cancelled corporate bodies like Maltina, MTN, Access Bank, First Bank, UBA, COCA-COLA, Seven Up and others from different sectors of the economy had shown interest to participate and sponsor it.

He argued that their participation in previous years had translated into economic prosperity for Kebbi state and its people.

He said, "In two or three ways, when the corporate bodies came in they brought in money for the organizers. Because this kind of festival should be private partnership driven so they brought in their monies for sponsorship. The state government no longer needs to use its money for the sponsorship of the festival, what this means is that it can now divert it's resources to other sectors of the state's economy.

When these corporate bodies came in during the festival they came in with many of their products. When we first brought in Maltina in 2005 it came in a very big way. They appointed their products distributors in Argungu and in other parts of the state. Today, there are major distributors of Maltina in the state, particularly in Argungu and of course you can imagine the impact of this in the socio-economic life of the state.

Look at MTN, they will come with lots of their cards, their phones. The last time the festival was held MTN ran its consumers promotion, people within and outside the state were predicting and wining prizes.

Secondly, when these corporate bodies came they donated lots of fabulous prizes like cars, motor cycles and others to the fishermen and participants in all other events during the festival. These gestures had imparted positively in the lives of people of the state. The money the government was expected to expend on the festival can be diverted to other areas of the state's economy."

Other reporters, Birnin Kebbi; Sanusi Babagoro and Ismail Adebayo.

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