by Tayo Adelaja?

About a year ago, many people were happy when the Kebbi State government promised to revive the internationally acclaimed Argungu Fishing Festival. It was last held in 2009, and, eventually, was rescheduled for February, 2014 with people having high expectations, but, that hope was dashed!

In 2010, the event could not hold, the official reason was that, due to President Umar Yar?Adua?s ill-health and subsequent death, on May 5, the state could not hold such a major event.

Likewise, in 2011, the festival date clashed with that of the elections.

In 2012, the festival could not hold because the state was preparing for the re-run of the governorship election, following the Supreme Court cancellation.

The festival started, initially, as religious rites preceding the reign of Surame Gungu of Kebbi Kingdom, since the 16th Century, the festival, as we know it today, has become more elaborate and stylish.

Active government participation, however, came with the establishment of a Northern Regional Government when, for the first time, a substantial grant of ?500 was made to the Argungu Native Authority.

In 1969, the then North Western State government decided to involve itself directly with the general development and restructuring of the festival. The Federal Military Government supported it with a substantial donation of ?10, 000w each in 1970 and 1977.

In fact, in February 1977, the Argungu Fishing Festival was organised, specifically, as a major side event of immense cultural value.

In recognition of the value of the festival in reviving the state heritage and enhancing the development of tourism, subsequent administrations in Sokoto State drew up a multi-million naira master-plan for the festival village.

In terms of attendance, before 1934, the attendance to the earlier rites remained a local affair. However, after 1934, the festival became, not only a community affair, but, essentially, a national event being witnessed by the international community.

Indeed, after the memorable visit of Sultan Dan Mu?azu, the festival began attracting such a growing followership from all over the country. Tourists and guests for the occasion trooped in large numbers from Europe, Britain, United States, Russia, South East Asia and neighbouring African countries like Niger, Benin Republic, Cameroon, etc.

By 1970, the attendance figure to the festival had exceeded 100,000. The first visit by a Nigerian Head of State was also recorded in 1970, with the visit of Gen. Yakubu Gowon and his counterpart from the Republic of Niger, Alhaji Diori Hammani.

In the same year, fishermen from Rivers State and cultural troupes from the South, Western and Eastern States of Nigeria began participating.

In fact, by 1979, Rivers State had established a permanent camp for its fishermen and cultural troupes in the Fishing Village. The festival was used by the Federal Government, during the period, to heal the wounds of the Civil War and build confidence and mutual respect among Nigerian people.

In contrast, 1977 marked the beginning of the attendance of high-profile international guests to the festival. Notable amongst the visitors were American Secretary of State, Andrew Young, Russian Ambassador to Nigeria and the Consul-General of the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

Cultural troupes and Heads of Missions of most nations that attended the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977 also witnessed the festival.

All Nigerian Heads of State and presidents had witnessed the festival, with the exception of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar and Chief Ernest Shonekan.

Former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, has a record attendance of four visits to the festival. To date, more than 200 traditional rulers have witnessed the festival from all over Nigeria and neighbouring African countries, with the sultan and many others making it a duty to attend annually, until the end of their individual reigns.

Aside fishing with hand-held nets on the river, other events during the week-long festival, are agricultural shows, exhibition of crafts, traditional wrestling, boxing and cultural entertainment. Others are traditional symphonies, wild duck catching, diving, canoe race, motor rally, durbar and Kabanchi traditional display.

The festival celebrates life. It is a precursor to modern day fishery management programmes and a way of conserving natural resources and preserving traditional ways of living. It is valuable to the life of the community because it draws on historic local knowledge.

It is time for the relevant authorities, especially, the Federal Ministry of Tourism, headed by Chief Edem Duke, to ensure that this internationally acclaimed festival is resuscitated to earn some foreign exchange for the country.

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