Argungu fishing festival in troubled waters for 10 years

The custodian of river Matan Fada, Alhaji Hussani Makwashe, standing by the popular fishing festival river.
The custodian of river Matan Fada, Alhaji Hussani Makwashe, standing by the popular fishing festival river.

The famous Argungu fishing festival, which started in 1931, hasn’t held since 2009. Our correspondent reports on the reason why and the losses locals have suffered as a result.

The Argungu International Fishing Festival was last held in 2009. Ten years after, the river venue of the festival, the huts built for tourists at the Fishing Game Village, the pavilions from where people gathered to watch the fishing event, the open theatre, guesthouses, recreation ground, VIP lodges at the Grand Fishing Hotel built for the festival have all fallen into ruins.

Successive governments in the state have given reasons for not hosting the famous international fishing festival.  Towards the tail end of its tenure in 2014/2015, the Dakingari-led government engaged consultants to organize the hosting of the festival.

Midway into the preparations, his administration backed out and cancelled it before it became public knowledge. When the present administration came on board, it tried to put measures in place to host the festival but still, it could not hold as expected. Another attempt was made two years ago but again this fell through.

During a public engagement, Governor Abubakar Atiku Bagudu said the previous government had to cancel the festival for several years because of the security situation created by the insurgency in the North-East.

He eexplained that even though it was the wish of his administration to host the fishing festival because of its importance to the state, the country and the world but it had to be suspended because many things needed to be put in place before Kebbi could host the international fishing festival.

The festival is historic, having started nearly a century ago. The first Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival held in 1931 during Sultan Hassan Dan-Mu’azu’s visit to Argungu on the invitation of Emir Muhammadu Sama. Dan-Mu’azu was the first Sultan of Sokoto to spend the night in Argungu to foster strong relationship between the Fulani and Kabawa people. To entertain him, the emir of Argungu gathered his people, the Kabawa, to ask them the best way to make the sultan’s visit a memorable one. At the meeting, it was suggested that they should go to River Matan Fada to fish for him. It was reasoned that since he already knew about traditional boxing, wrestling and other cultural entertainments, a fishing festival would make him happy.

According to historical accounts, on the day the festival was held to entertain the sultan big fishes were caught from the river. Moved by the spirit of the fishing event, it was said that the sultan stood by the riverbank and prayed that the whole world would hear about the place and its fishing event.

 A section of the Grand Fishing Hotel razed by fire several years ago yet to be renovated
A section of the Grand Fishing Hotel razed by fire several years ago yet to be renovated

From that period, the Emir of Argungu at that time and his council decided to make the festival an annual event. As years passed, it continued to grow. People heard about it from far and near and they began to troupe into Argungu every year to witness the annual fishing event.

Before it was suspended, people from Europe, America, Asia and different parts of Africa would converge on the ancient town of Argungu to witness it every year.

Because of its growing popularity and economic potential, it was taken over by the State Government and a games village, Grand Fishing Hotel, pavilions and other structures were built close to the river to modernize the event and make it convenient for visitors.

For its importance, the federal government and other corporate organizations every year make inputs into it to boost the country’s tourism potentials.

Some of the events, which use to feature prominently during the yearly fishing and cultural festival include local boxing, wrestling, archery, hunting, songs, dancing, agricultural show and animal racing. Others are the Kabanci display, (water sports), canoe racing, motorcycle racing, car racing, bicycle racing and beauty pageantry.

There have been growing concerns in different quarters about the failure to organize the famous cultural fishing event. Many stakeholders and those who relied on the annual event to survive and boost their income have over the years suffered loses as their businesses and services have stagnated.

 One of the pavilions beside the river taken over by weed
One of the pavilions beside the river taken over by weed

A fisherman, Ahmad Yusuf said, “It has been 10 years now since the festival was last held in Argungu. This is not helping our economy and that of the state. Each time the festival takes place, the entire town used to be full of people from different parts of the country and even outside Nigeria. We benefitted a lot from that. Some of us would live throughout the year from what we made from the event and we would all be happy.  Now we are going through some hardship because the festival did not hold for some years. I am not the only one that is not happy. Majority of other fishermen who make a living through the festival are not happy as well. I don’t think we have any excuse not to hold it at the appropriate time.”

Manager of the Grand Fishing Hotel, Oseni  Mudi, who said the hotel used to make profit during the fishing festival lamented over low patronage because the fishing festival did not hold.

“The structure of the hotel is intact, we are doing everything to maintain it but our only problem now is low patronage. Government is even planning to renovate it to make it a more befitting hotel. The rooms are well taken care of. We have a restaurant, and other sections that make it a standard hotel, but we are not getting customers. Our major profit comes during the fishing festival. People used to converge here and we made more profits. We hope that will happen when the festival comes alive again”.

Sometime ago, the Director of Tourism in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Cooperative and Tourism, Alhaji Umar Bena explained to journalists why the festival has not held.

“Argungu fishing festival is an international event. We always have people from different parts of the world coming to Argungu and it would be risky to hold the event given the insurgency.”

He said with the improved security situation, the festival might just hold in the near future.

“A proposal was sent to the State Executive Council for us to organize a mini fishing festival in preparation for the Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival next year,” he said, adding that in view of the government’s political will towards the event and he is waiting for their approval to the proposal.

Last year, the state government in preparation for hosting the festival, decided to boost the water resources of Matan Fada River for the Argungu fishing festival to hold the following year, yet it did not hold.

Matan Fada is the famous river in which the international famous fishing event takes place every year. The importance of the river is enormous. It serves different purposes to people of Argungu, Kebbi, Nigeria and the rest of the world. To the people of Argungu it is their source of pride, irrigation farming and fishing activities. To Kebbi, Nigeria and the world it is a venue for the famous annual international fishing festival.

Two years ago, the river got the name of Kebbi State and Nigeria written in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. That same year, the river was on the verge of drying up with its fish species dying out but for the intervention of the state government.

Worried by the situation of the river, Kebbi State Government had declared what it called emergency measures to restore it and its resources.

Governor Bagudu directed the state Ministry for Works and other relevant agencies to mobilize competent construction companies with immediate effect to the river site to ensure that the water of the river and its fish species are made to flow and flourish again.

When Governor Bagudu and members of his cabinet visited Matan Fada in Argungu for on-the-spot assessment of the situation, Emir of Argungu, Alhaji Samaila Muhammadu Meira, told the governor that at no time in the life of Matan Fada has the community ever witnessed what was happening to the ancient river.

He added that the people of his Emirate were worried and sad about the new phenomenon. He pointed at a black stone at the centre of the river, which he said was its source of water.

The emir said, “The fishes that were usually caught during the annual fishing festival in Argungu were either gone or had died because of the drying of the river. We need to employ appropriate strategy to restore the river and its fish species.”

A member of the emirate council in Argungu said the fishing event has brought about strong ties and cordial relationship between the Kabawa and Fulani, who were once enemies and had fought many wars against each other before the visit of Sultan Dan-Mu’azu. It has also resulted in inter-marriages between the two tribes.

A community leader in Argungu, Alhaji Jamilu Muhammed, said it was common knowledge among the Kabawa that the river has some ritual powers.

“That is why it cannot be left without a custodian known as Sarkin Ruwa. He is in charge of its day-to-day monitoring, control and maintenance. You can see children swimming in the river and playing around its banks but nothing can happen to them. There are reptiles like alligators, crocodiles and snakes in and outside it. Spirits are there but they cannot harm anybody because they have been taking care of by the custodian of the river. Sometimes things happen here but the Sarkin Ruwa always takes care and makes sure whatever happens at the river are always within his control. His duty is also to make sure no one carries out fishing activities in it until people are permitted to fish in the river.”

Custodian of the river, Alhaji Hussani Makwashe (Sarkin Ruwan Kebbi), said, “This is my 11th year now as custodian of the river. My family is its custodian so I inherited it. It is true there are spiritual powers attached to the river. We have spirits in it and there are other dangerous reptiles but they are under our control they cannot harm anyone. You can see children swimming and others are playing at the bank of the river those animals and spirit cannot harm anybody because we have already taken care of them.”

He appealed to government to look into the issue of the festival and hasten preparation for its hosting.

“It is a long time since the festival was held here. We are not happy about that. I want them to help us rehabilitate the place. The place they gave me to stay as custodian of the river has collapsed. Look at the pavilions where visitors sit to watch the cultural event, they need to be rehabilitated. We cannot wait till the festival is approaching before we put the place in shape,” he said.

Dr Ali Bakari at the Department of Geology, Federal University, Birnin Kebbi said based on hydrological perspective, the receding water of River Matan Fada could be attributed to  three major factors, rainfall, temperature and infiltration due to nature of the river bed sediments.

He explained that the first two factors are the most important when considering the reduction of the water level on river system.

“The amount and timing of rainfall are strongly attributed to increase or decrease of volume of water in a river,” he said. “The higher the amount of rainfall results in high volume of water while the lower the amount of rainfall reduces the volume of water. Also, temperature directly affects aquatic environment due to evaporation. The longer the dry season, the higher the amount of evaporation, hence the reduction in volume of water in a river system.”

He stated that a deep infiltration could reduce the volume of water in a river.

“All these factors are attributed to the global climate change conditions of the anthropocene,” he said.

A farmer on the bank of the river, Garba Muhammed Argungu, said, “This is the festival that is giving the community joy and pride. We are not happy over the development. The fish are dying because of the failure to hold the annual fishing festival for the past 10 years. Every member of this community has strong attachment to River Matan Fada and as Argungu people, we see the river as our joy and pride. It has brought us fame and popularity throughout the country. Because of the festival people from different parts of the world used to come here every year to witness the fishing event. The authorities should find ways to see that the river and its fish are restored to normal situation and fix date for the fishing festival.”

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