Dr Peter Olikenyi, popularly known as Ide Omenife, is a native of Umuodochi Abor Lilu in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State. He is a successful businessman in Lagos, notable for his pioneering role in stabilizing the famous Alaba International Market in Ojo area of Lagos. Aside his iconic achievements in the world of business, he is the traditional head of Ebonesie Ihiala Local Government Masquerade Council, a prominent member of his native town traditional leadership elite council and an altruistic vice-chairperson of Ndi-Eze in diaspora. In this interview with LAWRENCE ENYOGHASU, he speaks on the Igbo age-long new yam festival traditional practice and other issues of concern.
Can you share with us a little about the history of new yam festival?
Thank you for this question. New Yam festival is one of the most, if not the most important and glamorous, festivals in the entire Igboland, southeast of Nigeria. It is celebrated between August and October to thank God for a good harvest. It also heralds the harvest season and provides an opportunity for a social gathering of the tribes. From history, it is culturally rooted in ancient agrarian Igbo society, where wealth is measured by yam, just like those in the north measure with livestock like cows. Yam was the king crop. It’s importance spread to ownership, anyone with a large barn or barns of yam then was definitely an indication of great wealth and commerce, likewise a big yam trader. Yam fufu instead of cassava or any other kind of fufu was a sure sign that the visitor was considered important to the host, rich. To a large extent, this association lingers till today in lifestyle. A prestigious party or occasion will have pounded yam fufu on its menu. I need not spell out other benefits or products from yam. It’s still very important to our economy till tomorrow if we carefully tap into its provision because it’s a good commodity for export or can be processed to gain other byproducts.
The new yam is harvested earlier than August, but anyone who considers himself a true son or daughter of Igbo land will not eat it before the festival which is the cultural approval or signal to mark the commencement of its consumption as a sign of respect to our culture.
The festival usually begins with a public ceremonial harvesting and roasting of whole yam tuber by the Eze, chief or titled elders of the community, after the yams have been first offered to ‘Ohajoku’ or the yam or earth gods; Christians like myself, offer thanks to Chikwu-Okike or God Almighty after which the rest are shared and the community can then feel free to consume new yam without incurring the wrath of the gods. In modern times, this festival provides an opportunity to call home sons and daughters abroad to renew and reaffirm brotherhood and a sense of belonging and to plan for community development.
It is characterized by elaborate personal and communal preparations and competitions; new masquerades, dances and performances vie to outdo the other; new clothes and designs on parade vie to outshine the last one, though the duration and grandeur differ from one community to the other.
In recent times it has begun to attract national and international attention. The Ofala of the Obi of Onitsha and Iriji of Arondizuogu are two of the notable ones that I can easily mention to you because of its popularity. It is a great occasion to meet up with relatives and friends and perhaps a future partner as one young person confided. You don’t get to see such a rich and diverse crowd every day, you know, so we make the most of it. For me, this year, we have different groups of Igbos living within Oto-Awori LCDA, Ojo, Lagos, coming together to compete in various old games like Draught (or draft), Whot (or cards) and Ludo with mouthwatering prizes to be worn.
As a king with vast wealth of knowledge of the rich African culture, what is your take on the deplorable state of our cultural value chain in relation to the corruption rocking the nation today?
I do not know your reason for asking, but truth be told, we lost it long ago. But I feel that it’s a question we, as members of the Nigeria state, must answer traditionally or ethnically because we all contributed in one way or the other. For the Igbo ethnicity, our culture forbids evil, more so ill-gotten wealth. In those good old days, if found wanting, the entire community will be united against not just the person that committed the offence, but his entire household would be looked down at, while the person in particular would be dealt with in accordance with the Omenala (tradition or laws of the land) and for such, there was nothing attractive in crime or corruption as you call it because even when you are bold enough to want to venture into it, the rest of your family would turn around against you to say no to it because they knew that it will eventually rub off on them as well and should such individual be hell-bent on threading the wrong way, they will report him to a higher authority for caution and to spare the rest of them of any future punishment that might be meted out to such offender. Today, we have made corruption far more attractive than hard work and diligence less attractive, then tell me, why the youth will not dwell in corruption? In those days, when you want to take up any title in the community, you will be carefully investigated to know the true source of your income and certain positions like Nze were allocated on merit to the right person and not as we have today where money has become everything. A young man with no history of hard work suddenly shows off unprecedented wealth and the next thing you will hear is that he is been honoured. A vulcanizer by the roadside sweating out profusely for his money would be carelessly abused by a man in a tinted-glass luxury car and he cries out, but no one cares to ensure justice for him, even the police around will instruct him to respect men of such class regardless of any wrong they do and this is where I praise the Buhari-led federal government. How can corruption not grow in a system where some animals are more equal than the others as captured in Animal Farm? How many commoners are there in our government? Check from the list of ministers down. Only once we had a President that once had no shoes and that was a great sign of hope to members of the lower class. We must learn to shift attention to the main thing and stop siding mediocrity and support meritocracy. It’s not a government matter alone; we ourselves do create room for mediocrity ourselves. When hiring, we do not seek the best hand, we rather focus all our attention on certificate and for this, people keep buying certificates day in day out. When you meet someone who might have done the job excellently, the first question you ask is, are you a graduate and next is what institution? When he is not a graduate, you try not to place him well because of certificate even when he understands the job well enough. Education I must affirm is good but emphasis should be on competence. If it is possible assign the job to them all and put them to practical test to know the best. A return to our original cultural values will do us a lot good; don’t forget that good moral is everything, but it pains me that our elites are not thinking this way. They are rather looking for more money to take abroad to further strengthen the indirect colonization of the Western world.
What is your take on Igbo presidency in 2023?
I know you may be disappointed with my response. For me, good governance doesn’t really care about ethnicity; rather, it’s because we have selfish looters who care about themselves and not the good of the people and as such we need to pass it turn by turn and even in that, the Igbo are grossly marginalized, but the truth remains, like Professor Charles Soludo suggested, we must have good crop of leaders that will plan our tomorrow. If you provide Nigerians with the needed basic social amenities and bring crime to a minimal level and then good food and shelter, nobody will question your ethnicity. The dichotomy was created due to repeated failures of past leaders. Don’t forget the new and better Nigeria task is not only on the government’s side, but also on the electorate. It must be collectively pursued. We are very smart and quick to trade blames in this part of the world. The electorate will quickly tell you that the leadership is corrupt and will fail to tell you that they requested and received some monies to vote for them. When you place huge financial demand on them at the point of seeking your vote and you make them give you what many will call stipends of maybe N500 or N1000 and some even get far more than that to pull their followers for you and at the vote seeker’s end he spends hundreds of millions to buy his way through you need to multiply the N500 by a million people) and know how much you get) then after victory you want him not to recoup his monies, you must be the greatest thief, not the politician. We must collectively correct these errors and not point at others.
Can you tell us about the new yam festival in Oto-Awori LCDA?
Yes, we are holding it here just to ensure that our rich culture is protected from going into extinction as we sojourn in search for greener pasture. Like I explained before, the new yam festival are usually observed in October and the previous month, but due to other pressing traditional engagements (I had to observe it first in my home town of Lilu in Ihiala Local Government of Anambra State where I am the Ezemuo, King of Spirits, September 5 and then here in Oto-Awori where I am the Eze Ndi-Igbo) this one holds today Saturday, November 2.