The Ofala festival is one of the most popular festivals held in communities of Anambra state, particularly popular in Onitsha town. The festival serves as a rite to coronation of an Igwe or Eze (king), chieftaincy installation, or to mark an anniversary. This festival is similar to Igue festival in Benin city and the Osi or Ogbanigbe festival in many mid-west Igboland communities of Nigeria. The term Ofala is derived from two Igbo words, “Ofo” which in English means “Authority” and “ala” which in English means “Land”. The festival holds precisely in the month of October every year.
The origin of Ofala festival can be traced back to 700 years ago, when the first monarch Eze Chima, who had migrated from Benin city to the eastern banks of the River Niger presently known as city of Onitsha, and brought with them some customs and tradition picked up from the monarchy i.e. the Igue festival which is celebrated annually by the Oba of Benin kingdom.
The Ofala festival holds much significance to the Onitsha people which includes;
- It is a means by which the Onitsha indigenes strive to keep their culture alive while representing Nigerian heritage. The festivity serves as an avenue which the king socializes with his subject and other well-wishers who come from far and wide, for instance the 2011 celebration attracted international dignitaries included mayor of Inkster, members of Jackson five musical family including Marlon, Tito and Fred, historian Bruce Bridge, amongst others. Such attention gives room for community development, stock taking, and setting milestones for the future.
- The festival also holds a religious significance to the Onitsha people. It is a season of thanksgiving to the ancestors for sparing the lives of the people and granting them a successful and fruitful planting season.
- The social significance brings in loved ones from far and near as well as foreigners which could open doors to investment opportunities in Nigeria.
- The festival also brings Financial significance as hotels in Onitsha gets booked out, vendors makes massive sales on their goods as a result of large crowd presence in the town.
As the Onitsha people begins preparation for the festival, the Eze(King) retreats into seclusion for four days to commune with his ancestors and thank them for protecting him and his subjects for the past year and to also pray for peace, prosperity and fruitful harvest in the year to come. During his retreat, the responsibilities of administering the community were assigned to the elders known as Ndi-Ichie and other rank and files of the community.
On the day of the festival, the Eze makes three appearances. He makes the first appearance after the early morning ritual. The trumpets announce his entry before he shows up, fully dressed in his royal regalia and the royal crown (okpu ododo), acknowledging the crowd gathered for the festivity, he waves in all directions at them before returning inside.
During the second outing the trumpets are blown again and the Eze comes out and seats on his throne. The red-capped chiefs (Ndi-Ichie) come out next in batches dressed in their traditional attires. They come out in accordance to their village music and in order of seniority, proceed to pay homage to the Eze by kneeling down to bow to the king and sing his praises. The Eze then proceeds to perform the celebration of the first yam called “Iwa-ji” to mark the official declaration of the harvest season. After this the Eze returns to the inner chambers before he finally comes out for the third outing.
At the third entry, the royal singers and instrumentalists plays and sets a rhythm for the Eze dancing (egwu ota)as he steps out into the arena, amid cheers and praises from the crowd, he dances to the tune of the drummers. The Eze dances in turn with his first wife, first son and first daughter and returns to his throne giving way to a parade of dances by different groups such as the Otu Odu association, titled men, well-wishers etc. all dressed in colorful traditional apparel.
The Ofala festival has survived decades among the Onitsha people, in spite of the impact of westernization. The festival attracts sponsorship deals from corporate organizations that also use that avenue to market their products. It also attracts potential foreign investors interested in Nigeria and business entrepreneurs home and abroad, i.e. telecommunication companies such as Globacom and MTN and other individuals who wish to use the opportunity to give back to the community