The Argungu Fishing and Cultural Festival which started 86 years ago is one of the most fascinating fishing festivals in Nigeria, having been witnessed by almost all presidents and Heads of State in the country.
The festival which started in 1934 came into being following a historic peace visit by the 16th Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Hassan Dan Mu’azu.
Dan Mu’azu was treated to a fishing festival by the then Emir of Argungu, Muhammadu Sama, after the emir and his council reasoned that other common cultural displays would not be enough to celebrate the historic visit by the sultan and they then suggested a state treatment of grand fishing festival.
The sultan, who was said to have been overwhelmed by the treatment, prayed for the people of Kanta as the people of Argungu were then addressed, as well as for bountiful blessings for Matan Fada River, where he was treated to the grand fishing reception.
Sources from Argungu said the river is today blessed with a lot of fish due to the sultan’s prayer during that visit.
The festival was celebrated to mark the end of hostilities between the sokoto caliphate and the people of Kanta.
The display by thousands of fishermen who trooped to Argungu from across the country, other parts of Africa and beyond adds glamour to the pomp and pageantry at the festival.
By the 1950s, the fishing festival began to record some degree of modification as women and children that were hitherto prohibited from attending, were not only allowed but also given some roles.
Prior to the creation of regional governments in the country, the festival was financed by individuals, families and communal contributions but following the introduction of government’s participation in the organization of the festival, the then regional government donated £500 to the Argungu native authority and from then till 1960, the regional government and native authority continued to invest in the festival with a view to making it grandiose.
It was also reported that in 1969, the defunct North Western government carried out some general development and restructuring of the festival.
Prior to the changes the festival went through, one may not be wrong to describe the annual gathering as a community affair but now it has assumed international status as it is attended by notable dignitaries not only from across the country but globally.
It was reported that in 1970, the festival began to record visits by over 100,000 people, among them high profile personalities that included former Head of State Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon and his counterpart from Niger Republic, Hammani Diori.
In the same year, fishermen from Rivers State and cultural troupes from the South-west and South-eastern states started participating in the festival, and by 1979, Rivers State had fully established its permanent camp in Argungu Fishing Village for the state’s contingent comprising fishermen and cultural troupes.
As the festival maintained fast growth, 1977 became its year of breakthrough as it hosted high profile international guests, notable amongst them, the American Secretary of State, Andrew Young, Russian Ambassador to Nigeria and Saudi Arabian Consular General to Nigeria.
The festival is held in four venues within Argungu, the grand fishing takes place in the Matan Fada River, the agric show at the township stadium, the Kabanci (water display) at the river side by the bridge, archery and camel race at the fishing village.
Since some side activities were added to the festival, it usually lasts for three to four days but it is worthy of note that the grand fishing festival always takes place on Saturday with except when a change becomes necessary.
The custodian of the Matan Fada River, Hussaini Makwashe otherwise referred to as Dangalidaman Makwashe, told Daily Trust on Sunday that nobody would be able to catch a single fish from the river until he okays the commencement of the festival.
According to him, the fishes would remain invisible even to the greatest fishermen, and they are only invited to the festival in the same manner human beings are invited to the occasion.
He said Matan Fadan is a small river with bountiful blessings, being only about 50 meters wide and about 50 feet deep, adding that the river has been made to be without fishes since the festival was suspended in 2009.
Dangaladiman Makwashe noted that within the decade that the festival was suspended, no fish was seen, talk less of catching one, adding that if any fisherman had tried to fish there. it would only be a fruitless mission.
He stressed that a month ahead of the festival, invitations would be extended to fishes in other rivers that are connected to Matan Fada River, and if any fish arrives late it would not be allowed to participate in the competition but only allowed to watch the activities from afar.
On the crocodiles that are always visible in the river, Dangalaidan Makwashe explained that he is in covenant with them because a day to the grand fishing festival, the crocodiles would all be directed to go into hiding until the festival is over.
The wisdom behind forcing about 30 crocodiles into hiding is to allow all participating fishermen to have safe water that would give room for concentration and a thrilling competition.
“All the fishes in rivers that connect with Matan Fada will be in Matan Fada River before the commencement of the fishing festival. By Saturday all varieties of fishes of different sizes would be in the river for the festival.
“By the way, the Emir of Argungu and the governor of Kebbi State invite people of varying personalities, so it is in our own case. We invite fishes from far and near from all the rivers that are connected with Matan Fada River.
“The crocodiles walk under our instructions. The over 30 big crocodiles living in the water would be directed to go into their dens and remain there for the period the festival lasts. Such directives are usually issued on Friday which is the day for the Kabanci (water display) through Saturday for the grand fishing,” he said.
When President Muhammadu Buhari visited Argungu on the day of the agric fair, he described the pyramids of rice displayed in Kebbi State as a clear testimony to the progress made by Nigeria as a nation in feeding itself, saying six years ago nobody could believe that rice production could attain such volume of production.
He added that his government would continue to support agro-entrepreneurs with a view to promoting their competitiveness.
The president expressed delight over the return of the fishing festival that was suspended for the last 10 to 11 years as a result of insecurity, saying its return this year is also a clear testimony that peace and security had been restored to that part of the country.
“The way many products were displayed here is proof of progress that we have made as a nation in feeding ourselves. The farming, fishing and pastoral communities have truly embraced our programmes and it is proven that we can produce what we need.
“Just six years ago, no one expected to see paddy pyramids or multi-million naira rice mills in any part of rural Nigeria, today Argungu and many other agrarian towns have such mills and I am told many more are coming up.
“Our presence here is evidence of government’s commitment to restore security and expand food production as a core mandate of our programme.
“We are all aware that this important cultural gathering was suspended for 11 years as a result of insecurity. Today, by the grace of God, this festival is back for good. We are not only cerebrating the reinstatement of this important festival but also celebrating the remarkable progress made in restoring peace and security to this region and deed our country.
“Many international festivals such this are celebrated across the country. For us in Nigeria, they bring us closer together by improving our collective appreciation of our diverse nation. We must therefore continue to encourage, support and promote such festivals.”
In his speech while declaring the polo and camel race open in Argungu, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said the Argungu festival had the potential of fostering unity and brotherhood in Nigeria.
He said the competitors were drawn from neighboring countries of Niger and Benin republics to give the festival an international status.
“What is significant is that these competitions are not just among the emirates of Kebbi State but there are competitors from Niger and other neighbouring countries which gives the festival an international status. This gives the festival the potential of a unifying factor between Nigeria, other West African countries and the globe at large,” he said.
The minister noted that the festival was packed with interesting events, saying it was back with a big bang, adding, “When you have people competing from other parts of Africa, it fosters unity and brotherhood.
“With the enthusiasm of the people of Argungu and Nigeria as a whole, I can assure you that the festival has come back to stay. I congratulate the government and the people of Kebbi for the efforts they put in organising the events.
“With the return of the festival, we can assure that peace has returned to Nigeria because over 10 years ago, the festival could not hold because of security concerns. The festival is linked to agriculture, creative industry and cultural heritage which are key sectors to diversifying our economy.”
In his remarks, the Emir of Argungu, Samaila Muhammad Mera, said over 30,000 fishermen from across Nigeria, Niger Republic and other West African countries participated in this year’s festival.
The emir, who regretted the attitude exhibited by the fishermen by rushing into the river before the gunshot to signal the formal commencement of the fishing competition, apologized on their behalf, attributing their action to over anxiety.
“I must therefore register my sincere regret from the side of the participating fishermen for going into the river for fishing before the arrival of dignitaries at the venue of the occasion.
“The festival is a symbol of diverse cultures, aspirations and capacity to reconcile for the purpose of fostering unity,” he said.
Kebbi State governor, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, noted that over anxiety must have made the fishermen to rush into the river before the formal signal.
Abubakar Ya’u won the first position in the fishing competition with a fish weighing 78 kilogrammes, Bala Yahaya was second with a catch weighing 75 kilogrammes. Both are from Kebbi State while Maiwake Sani from Sokoto State won the third position.
The first position got N6million, three cars and hajj seats, the second position, got two cars, a tricycle, N3.75 million and one hajj seat while the third position won a car, a motorcycle and N2.5 million.
The prizes were donated by the Nigerian Shippers Council, Wacot Nigeria Ltd, the Governors’ Forum and Sokoto State Governor, Aminu Tambuwal.