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Written By: Adie Vanessa Offiong

Just as Christians celebrate Christmas, Muslims the Ramadan, Jews Hanukkah, African-Americans Kwanzaa so the Binis celebrate Igue Festival.

For the Binis, the Igue Festival which emphasises ‘the ritual of Head worship’, ushers in the New Year. It is a week-long event which takes place in Benin City featuring traditional dancing and parades with thousands of colourfully-costumed participants. It celebrates the end of the Benin year which is calculated using the moon and not the Gregorian calendar. It also offers prayers for peace and prosperity in the coming New Year.

In his write up - Igue Festival, Ademola Iyi-eweka explains that, “Igue Festival is also the time the Oba and some chiefs are involved in AGWE (fasting). The Oba goes into seclusion, not to be seen by visitors. When the Oba and his chiefs break the fast, they are ready to perform UGIE ERHA OBA- a ceremony honouring the Oba’s ancestors. The Edos believe in ancestral worship and everybody joins the Oba in Ugie Erha Oba. The Edo man’s belief is in no way different from that of the Jews, when they call on the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. The ceremony of the worship of the head-the real IGUE, of the reigning Oba takes place openly at this festival. This is followed by that of the princes and princesses. This is rounded with up Ugie Edohia and Ugie Ewere three days later.”

Ugie is a word which means ‘Festival’. Before these the Ugie Iron which is a celebration reenacting the conflicts between the Oba of Benin and the seven hereditary chiefs - the Uzamas. Ugie Iron –is celebrated after a 4 to 14 days interval of the other festivals.

“The Binis have a long lineage of Obas, and Igue is also an occasion to celebrate Ugie-Evhoba among other occasions. During this period, the anniversary of their deaths is celebrated by the Binis, and for seven days propitiations are made to the spirits of the departed Obas. This is done to invoke their blessings on the reigning monarch, his family and subjects as sacrifices are offered to some shrines in the palace.” Nowa Omigui, author of History of Igue Festival in Benin City, on edofolks.com, explains. “During this period, chieftaincy title holders display their Eben emblem in the Ugie dance as they appear in their traditional attire, according to the type of dress the Oba bestows on individual chiefs during the conferment of title, while the Oba seats majestically in the royal chamber (Ogiukpo).” Ancestral gods are worshipped for protection and propitiation is done in the various palace societies. The shrines are considered holy and therefore defied traditionally. The Oba pays homage at the shrines and he is accompanied by some of his chiefs. Indeed, it is a period of merriment, rituals and dancing.”

After it is publicly announced by the town criers, the festival kicks off with Otue (greetings). Members of the Ihogbe (a palace society) together with important Edo chiefs pay tribute to the Oba, who presents a bowl of kola nuts. With the kola nuts, the chiefs bless the Oba and his family.

After this, there is a social gathering in the palace, during which members of the various palace societies and the public entertain the Oba with different dances. The Oba himself takes part in the dance. In other words, he entertains his guests lavishly.

Day two is a day for rituals. The Oba, dressed in ceremonial attire with all his wives and young children assemble in the royal chamber. He is sanctified by the Efas (priests of blessings). After this, the Oba offers prayers before handing the sacrificial items to the Isekhure, who offers the last benediction before the Ehondor slaughters the animals.

During the seven days of elaborate traditional and cultural activities, Bini chiefs are seen in their enviable traditional regalia, including the Iloi (Queens) in their Okuku (hairdo). It is a rare occasion of their public appearance, where the Oba’s stalwarts (Ifietes) are seen in active service. Traditional dances like Esakpaide, Ohogho and above all the display of Eben by the chiefs while dancing and paying homage to the Oba in Ogiukpe at Ugha Oba or the Oba’s chamber are a delight to behold.

During the festival, Ugie dance is performed by all important chiefs, including the Iyase, leader of Eghaevbonore. When Chief Esoghan dances with the Eben, the Iyase follows with the Eben. After homage to the Oba as leader of his subjects or Eghaevbonore, nobody else dances with the Eben as homage to the Oba on that particular day.

The Ugie dance as typified is a ceremonial palace dance performed during the annual festival in honour of the Oba. It is also an ancestral dance by chiefs who perform sacrificial and priestly functions in the shrines at the end of a successful year while soliciting for a happy new year.

As the chiefs dance with the decorative Eben symbol of authority, they chorus incantations, and using Edo proverbs they communicate wisdom, pay homage and answer questions through gesticulations during the Ugie dance at the palace.

It is difficult for anyone who does not belong to any of the palace societies to understand.

The symbolic moments go into great conflicting details about the ritual dialogue between the dancing chief at the ceremony and the Oba. The monarch is seated majestically at Ugha Ozolua and arrayed in ceremonial robes amidst his retinue of chiefs in Ughozolua, as he receives homage from his chiefs in the dance, which reassures him of their loyalty.

No matter how old or grand in size each chief puts up a regal display ensuring that the Eben does not fall regardless of the nimbleness of their dance steps. If it falls, there is a heavy penalty involving sacrifices to some shrines at the palace for profanity.

Chief Isekhure anoints the Oba in the presence of Chief Ihama, other chiefs and members of the various palace societies. After the sacrifice, the chiefs dance to the Oba and his family with the Eben.

Every chief scheduled for Ugie dance leaves his home dancing with his followers. He dresses in his traditional regalia permitted by the Oba or granted him on the day of conferment of his title. No chief is allowed to dress in a manner or attire not permitted him by the Oba. As a chief moves from home to the palace, he dances with two men beside him among others holding his hand to and from the palace.

On the last day of the festival, that is, the seventh day, Chief Osuma of Benin collects the Ewere and then hands it over to the Ihogbe, who in turn hands Ebewere to the Oba in a dance procession and melodious traditional songs about Ewere.

The Igue festival has however endured and continues to retain its main features despite modernisation in all aspects of political, economic, sociological and technological development. The Bini Kingdom still pays so much attention to traditional matters because, according to the Iyase of Benin, tradition is supreme.

It is after the Oba has rounded off all his ceremonies that other traditional rulers in the kingdom like the Enogies fix a time to celebrate theirs.

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