For the first time in history, the Ji-Mbaise is to be held on a day other than August 15. Today, Monday, August 15, would have been the day of pomp and pageantry in celebration of the popular New Yam Festival of Mbaise people of Imo State, the kind of festival that Senator Ike Ekweremadu had gone to celebrate in Nuremburg, Germany, but got ruffled by members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

What began as a traditional thanksgiving to Njoku, the god of bountiful harvest, is today known as Ji-Mbaise. Its metamorphosis from a considered fetish pagan festival to a Christianised thanksgiving was the innovation of some Irish Catholic priests who brought the church to the area known today as Mbaise.

Most likely, the name “Njoku” is from a combination of the words nji oku (holder of the wealth of the land) or a corruption of the term uju oku (fullness of wealth), right or wrong.  The belief among the people was that to assure another bountiful harvest in the future, it was pertinent to applaud the god of wealth, in this case yam, often regarded as the king of crops, who made the harvest possible at a given season, so that the next season would also be better – a kind of feast of the first fruit.

Why it was considered fetish by the church was that cocks were slaughtered and their blood sprinkled at the shrine of a deity.To the Irish priests who understand, it was not different from the usual thanksgiving offered in church, except that this was being done in worship of a deity instead of reverence to God Almighty. 

Upon that assumption, they convinced the people to drop the name “Ahiajoku” and urged them to do their thanksgiving in the church every August 15, a day the Catholics observe the feast of Assumption. So has it been that every August 15, Mbaise people must go to church and do the merriment with yam and chicken pepper soup.       

 As usual, a programme had been drawn for the all important festival this year and various dignitaries were being expected, before it was observed that the day was a Monday, a day IPOB had decreed as sit-at-home day in protest against the continued incarceration of their leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. Ndieze Mbaise called it off on the basis of uncertainties surrounding security in the state and asked the indigenes to celebrate in their respective homes instead of gathering at Itu, headquarters of the Ezinihitte-Mbaise Local Government where the lot fell on as venue for this year’s celebration.

Another announcement, signed by a royal father and one among Ndieze-ji was to be made later that the ceremony would hold tomorrow, August 16.

Yes, Monday had become a cursed day in Igbo land since IPOB marked it for their sit-at-home and actually enforced it.  Those who violated it initially had sordid tales to tell about the kind of violence that was visited upon them, some even lethal.

Outcries from notable persons persuaded the organisation to officially rescind the sit-at-home on Mondays, but, because some hotheads among them refused to give in, the entire Igbo land is still apprehensive of that day.  And so, every Monday, movement is sparsely in the South east.

Regrettably, the hitherto peaceful South East suddenly turned into a theatre of disturbances since the incarceration of Nnamdi Kanu to the extent that the sanctity of life was almost lost on the people. Businesses get stalled and the economy of the region stands still, to the detriment of no other than the people of the region.

IPOB, however, has consistently denied ever visiting violence upon the so-called Biafrans they seek to liberate, leading one to believe that the cause had been hijacked by some hoodlums committing atrocities under the cover of the Biafran struggle.   Beyond that though, what appears to have compounded the Ji-Mbaise this year, and in some other previous years, is the volatile Imo politics that crept into the harmless exercise since the exit of former Governor Achike Udenwa.

Gradually, Ji-Mbaise transformed into a political ground where unscrupulous politicians, especially among the gubernatorial aspirants, put up appearance and haul brickbats at each other. In the end, the Mbaise nation gets polarised in this vote hunt.  The obvious feeling is that whoever finds favour with Mbaise, an area noted for its dense population, coasts far into victory when votes count.

Things came to a head in August 2018 when outgoing Gov. Rochas Okorocha, desperate to hand over to his son-in-law, Ugwumba Uche Nwosu, tried to shove him down the throat of Mbaise people. His strategy was to snatch as many chieftaincy titles as possible from communities for Nwosu to create the impression that he was widely accepted across the state.  Ndieze Mbaise were coaxed into giving him the title of Ugwumba Oha Nile, a move that did not find acceptance among many Mbaise groups that opposed the politicisation of the festival. 

There arose a rift that led to the boycott of the ceremony by a few prominent individuals, particularly those who have political leanings different from that of the former governor.  Before then, a second-term seeking Okorocha had clashed with his then challenger, Rt.Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, on one of the Ji-Mbaise occasions preceding the 2015 elections.

 This year’s celebration, from indications, appear to be taking the political hue of previous ones as there are moves and proposals to honour some prominent politicians in the state. Such sacrosanct cultural festivals, for all we care, should be divested of politics.  If the royal fathers insist on giving titles, let the recipients of such titles be those who have served in the past and are probably retired. They must not be active politicians who end up tearing apart the cherished oneness of Mbaise. Their candidates for traditional titles should span beyond politics to other notable fields of endeavour such as science, academics, philanthropy, or those who have served meritoriously in the civil service, the Judiciary and other agencies.

The royal fathers in Mbaise should act above board and not to allow themselves to be swayed by their subjects occupying ephemeral positions such as governor, senator, and other political offices.  To do that is to sell themselves cheap. Should any feel like conferring a chieftaincy title on politicians, the royal father should use his personal occasion, not a gathering of respected people.Culture, they say, is dynamic.  The forefathers of Mbaise had their methods of celebrating the Ahiajoku.  Today, it is different and ought to continue to be made different every year.  Ndi Ezeji and the traditional rulers should proceed beyond dipping sliced pieces of yam in red oil and pushing them into their mouths to building into the programme of the day lectures that engender growth, especially in the field of agriculture and food production.

Displays and exhibitions of food items by notable farmers and prizes for those with outstanding produce are innovations that have the capability to add pep to the festival.By all means, politics should be deemphasised in Ji-Mbaise. It has its way of ruining the Day. And South easterners should do their agitations in a manner that it doesn’t amount to cutting the nose to spite the face.


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