Ogani: The Festival of Buffalo

Ogani Cultural Fishing Festival is an annual event that holds in the ancient town of Umaisha, situated at the eastern part of Toto Local Government Area of Nasarawa State. Its history is rooted in the socio-political and cultural evolution of the Egbura people who are the founder of the town.
For a proper perspective on the origin and significance of Ogani, which is the focus of this writer-up, it is pertinent to briefly highlight the historical antecedents that birthed the festival.

Umaisha was the seat of power that ran the ancient Opanda Kingdom, which dates back to the 14th Century. According to historical documents, the Egbura people belong to the Kwararafa ethnic groups; the Jukun, the Igarra, the Agatu, the Alago, the Idoma and others. These ethnic groups are said to have lived together in the old Kwararafa Kingdom (situated around Wukari in the present Taraba State) under one king before the Kingdom declined and eventually fell. The collapse resulted in the mass migration of the various groups to different places especially around the areas known as the Middle Belt region or North-Central zone today.

In the course of their migration, each of the groups founded a new kingdom. And even though the political powers of such domains had long been displaced by the colonial masters and subsequently transformed into the modern political system, the cultural entities still exist with the traditional leaders as the custodians of their cultures and traditions. These leaders are still seen as central authorities in their areas. For instance, the Ohimegye Opanda in Umaisha, the Ohimegye Igu in Koton-karfi, the Attah of Igala, the Aku Uka of Wukari, the Och-Idoma, etc, are still held in high esteem and greeted Agaba Idu (The Wolf and the Lion). The existence of Ogani festival till date is a veritable testimony to the resilience of the people’s heritage.

HRH, Ohimegye Opanda, Umaisha, Alhaji Usman Abdullahi
HRH, Ohimegye Opanda, Umaisha, Alhaji Usman Abdullahi

Due to the shared history and the resultant cultural similarities among the Kwararafa people, the Ogani festival is not exclusive to the Egbura of Umaisha. The Igala people in Kogi State also celebrate the festival under the same name though in a different fashion. So also do other ethnic groups like the Alago, the Ebira and the Jukun.

Festivals are mainly offshoots of the community’s predominant occupations. The people of Kwararafa origin have common occupations such as fishing, farming and hunting. They also engage in the production of handcrafts of similar kinds, like weaving, dyeing and blacksmithing. Some Ogani festivals are fashioned after these occupations, celebrating harvest seasons, marking some specific fishing periods and so on. The Ogani Cultural Fishing Festival of Umaisha is no exception. What makes the festival unique, however, is the fact that it is not just a celebration of the people’s occupation of fishing and hunting, but a celebration of the independence and sovereignty of the Opanda Kingdom.

Interestingly, apart from it being a celebration of independence from the former Kwararafa kingdom and the founding of a new domain exclusive to the Egbura people, it marks the freedom from buffalos. According to accounts based on oral tradition, before the coming of the Egbura people and the establishment of the Opanda Kingdom, Umaisha and the surrounding areas used to be full of wild animals, especially buffalos. It was, therefore, a dangerous terrain that must be avoided by humans.
However, due to the fertile nature of the land and its nearness to the River Benue, which make it suitable for agro-economic activities like farming, fishing and hunting, the people could not resist the urge to settle there. And settling there meant contending with the buffalos. So, an all-out war was waged against the beasts. They were hunted down in large numbers and the remaining ones were forced to migrate elsewhere.


According to Alhaji Labaran Mohammed, a historian who has been part of the organisers of the festival since 1972, ‘the event is also in commemoration of getting rid of buffalos by our ancestors’. This fact of history is demonstrated through a masquerade called Eyah (buffalo) during the festival. The masquerade is dressed like a buffalo, with a leash tied to his waist and held by someone. The Eyah then moves round the town on the leash accompanied by drummers and singers. As he moves about buffalo-like, he is being taunted by young men dressed like warriors and bearing long whips. The masquerade, who carries a buffalo horn in his hand, chases the warriors and any one in his way, including the person holding his leash. Whoever he touches with the horn (especially among the warriors) falls prey to merciless lashings by the warriors.

It is usually an exercise full of suspense and intense excitement as the buffalo constantly tries to break the leash out of a fiery, savage temper characteristic of an angry buffalo. The scenario portrays the familiar scene of children at play, but the symbolism is deep. The buffalo’s trek, which begins from the Ohimegye’s palace and terminates there some hours later, describes man’s triumph over the obstacles to his desires.
It is interesting to note that only a stranger plays the role of Eyah masquerade. In the time of slavery, slaves played the character. These days, a stranger is paid to perform the part.

The festival holds yearly between the end of January and early February. Originally, the event was steeped in traditional practices, featuring fetish rituals. But with the coming of Islam, some of the idol aspects have been expunged over time. And some modern sports activities have been added to the programme of events. Today, Ogani Cultural and Fishing Festival is not just about Eyah and other masquerades, but activities like fishing, swimming, wrestling, boating competitions, etc. Cultural displays in music and dance also feature not only the Egbura but other ethnic groups like Bassa, Gbagyi, Hausa and others, living within the domain.

Apart from celebrating political independence and the conquering of the wildlife thereby taming the area for human habitation, Ogani Cultural and Fishing Festival is also a means of fostering peace among the people. Every year, sons and daughters of the land converge at the event to revive and consolidate the communal spirit. This promotes both intra- and inter-ethnic cooperation and peace among the people.
The festival is quite an important occasion. It is so significant that any child born during the month of the event is automatically named Ogani.

In fact, due to the importance attached to it, it has become a government-sponsored event. According to the current Ohimegye Opanda, Alhaji Usman Abdullahi, the sponsorship of the festival was taken over by the government of Plateau State in 1981. After the creation of Nasarawa State in 1996, the responsibility was transferred to the state’s Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, which diligently sees to the organisation of the event every year.

Sumaila Umaisha

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