Taraba State is situated in the North Eastern geographical zone of Nigeria. It was carved out of the former Gongola State by the General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) regime in 1991.
The name, Taraba, was derived from the Taraba River, which traverses the southern part of the State. Other main rivers in the State are Ibi, Donga and Benue, which all rise from the Cameroon Mountains, stretching almost the entire length of the state in the Northern and the Southern direction to link up with the River Niger.
Communities living around these rivers engage in fishing activities all year round. It is in recognition of this, that the State Government made efforts to bring to limelight the Nwonyo Fishing and Cultural Festival in Ibi Local Government Area, as one out of the potentials discovered in the state for the development of tourism. The festival usually holds in April every year.
Nwonyo Fishing and Cultural Festival is said to be one of the oldest of its kind in Africa. The festival started about 96 years ago and is usually held at the Nwonyo Lake, located some five kilometres north of Ibi town.
The name “Nwonyo” literally means “a hideout” for monstrous aquatic animals such as crocodiles and hippopotamus. This meaning was derived from the fact that the Nwonyo creek contains a variety of these aquatic animals.
However, there are two myths surrounding the actual meaning of the word Nwonyo. The first version says it means, “under the locust bean tree;” while the second version says, “abode of the snake,” in Jukun language.
The Nwonyo Lake is said to be the largest in West Africa, running a stretch of about 15 kilometres tributary to the River Benue. According to oral tradition, the lake was discovered by Bula (in Wuroboh language) a great descendant of the Jibu dynasty who was sent to Ibi to look after activities carried out by traders around the river.
Bula discovered that the lake was more than a source of fish supply; he then transformed the large scale fishing activity into a fishing festival by members of Ibi Community. This transformation began in 1826. During his reign, communities living around Nwonyo Lake were invited to the lake to catch fish once in every year. The catch made was then divided into three portions; and because of his liberal nature, Bulah would take one portion only and give the remaining two portions to the fishermen.
Features of the Festival
It could be said that over the years, the Nwonyo Fishing Festival has assumed a different dimension, incorporating various activities. Some of these include:
*The Fish-Catch Competition (main event)
The fish-catch competition is the main event of the festival. Masquerading, traditional dances, horse riding/racing, boat racing, swimming, and boat regatta are the recreational/entertainment activities that take place during the festival.
The Chief of Ibi is the custodian of the festival; while the “Sarkin Ruwa” (spiritual head of the Nwonyo Lake) is the overseer of the lake. He patrols the lake with his guards on regular basis because nobody is allowed to fish in the lake for a period of one year before the event and one week after the event. The lake is closed to fishermen to allow the fish in it grow and mature for the next festival season.
The Sarkin Ruwa also performs certain traditional rites along with the custodian at the river before the commencement of every fishing competition. The fishermen (competitors) can only go into the river when it has been declared open by him.
Wide and big fishing nets are used for the fishing competition and most of the fishing efforts are in groups. The biggest catch is said to be known as the “Giwan Ruwa.” At the end of the festival, prizes are given to the first three persons with the biggest catch. The catches are in turn auctioned while others are sold to dignitaries, spectators, and participants at the event.
As stated earlier, the Nwonyo Fishing and Cultural Festival, according to oral tradition, became traditionally recognized during the reign of Bula in 1826, by members of Ibi community. In the course of time, the desire to raise money for the community was said to have influenced some of his successors into hiring out the lake instead of continuing with the festival.
In 1954, the festival became a divisional affair with spectators coming from all over the defunct Wukari Division with the Aku Uka of Wukari, Mallam Adi Byewi, the Ukwe of Takum, Alhaji Ali Ibrahim, the Gara of Donga, Mallam Sambo Garbosa, and the Officer-in-charge of the Wukari federation, Mallam I. D. Muhammed, in attendance.
In 1973, the festival was officially organized by the defunct Wukari federation through the efforts of the then Governor of Benue/Plateau State, Mr. J. D. Gomwalk. It was organized in an elaborate manner complete with water and traditional sports and this exposed and brought the festival to limelight. In attendance were the then Governor of Benue/Plateau, Mr. Gomwalk and the then Col. T.Y. Danjuma.
The festival at this point started to record some significant progress and performance such as the biggest catch, “Giwan Ruwa”. In 1970, it weighed 60 pounds; the 1971 “giwan ruwa” weighed 175 pounds; while in 1973, the biggest catch weighed 124 pounds.
Other Governors who witnessed the festival in the late 70’s were the then Col. M. D. Jega (1978), Brigadier A.R.A. Mahmud (1979) and the Governor of the defunct Gongola State Alhaji Abubakar Barde, who later re-introduced it as an Annual Fishing Festival during the Second Republic (1979-83).
Incidentally, the festival was not given any significant attention thereafter until it was repackaged by the Governor Jolly Nyame Administration (2005-2006). But it was still relatively known as an Annual Fishing Festival. This was said to have marked the turning point in the history of the festival as it acquired an even greater significance when the state government took over its organization and funding. It also received a massive boost by way of increased funding, prestige, and attention.
By 2008, the festival was re-introduced as an International Fishing and Cultural Festival by Governor Danbaba Danfulani Suntai. In November the same year, the governor established the Taraba State Tourism Development Board (TSTDB), and the responsibility of staging and organizing the festival was automatically transferred to the Board.
The Board supervised the organization and staging of the 2009 edition of the festival which it claimed was a successful outing that attracted dignitaries and tourists from far and near; and the event was capped with the biggest catch weighing 230kg. In attendance were the Senate President, Sen. David Mark (GCON), Governor Danbaba D. Suntai and two of his colleagues: Admiral Murtala H. Nyako (rtd) of Adamawa State and Alhaji Aliyu Akwe Doma of Nasarawa State. Corporate Organizations like MTN and Zenith Bank supported the festival to make the events more colourful.
The 2010 edition was also organized and supervised by the State Tourism Board. Apart from the fish-catch event, the festival was herald by various cultural attractions such as the mini-durbar, boat regatta, masquerades, swimming and traditional dances. Important dignitaries at the festival included the wife of the then Acting President, Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan, as well as three Governors: Alhaji Danbaba Danfulani Suntai of Taraba State, Admiral Murtala H. Nyako of Adamawa State and Dr. Muazu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State respectively. The biggest catch at the event weighed 318kg.
The Nwonyo Cultural and Fishing Festival signifies, not only the cultural identity of the people of Ibi, but also their socio-economic identity. The festival has placed the state on the tourism map with great potentials for attracting both local and foreign investors. There is no gainsaying the fact that if these potentials are properly harnessed and organized by the state and federal government, Nwonyo will boost the state economy and enhance national development.