The Argungu Fishing Festival is the most widely known if not the most popular festival in Northern Nigeria. It originated in the area that includes today’s Kebbi state in about 16th century prior to the time of Surame Gungu of Kebbi kingdom and the conquest of Kanta of Kebbi. Presently, it is a four-day event that is marked by pomp and pageantry and draws national and international attention. Originally celebrated as a religious festival, it was transformed in the early 19th century by Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, the ruler of Sokoto, when he stormed the Kebbi empire during a jihad and took control; he subsequently founded a village that he renamed Argungu. The name rather, derogatory means, “those foolish people” in Hausa language. It was used in 1934 to mark the end of hostilities between Sokoto caliphate and the Kebbi kingdom. The region is made up of four fertile river areas (Matanfada, Mala, Gamji) with irrigation and orchards (Lambu in Hausa). The majority of the fishermen are the followers of Islam and also predominantly farmers. Kanta museum is the main historical centre in Argungu for visitors across the globe. People from around the world travel to Argungu just to witness the occasion. The main purpose of the Argungu Fishing Festival is for fishing and unity.
During the days of Kanta, there were four major rites that were performed by the people of Kabi, they were: Gyaran Ruwa, the Fashin Ruwa, the Gyaran Gari and the Shan Kabewa and Fura. The ‘Gyaran Ruwa’ is for the purification of rivers before the great fishing day, to placate the gods for a hitch free fishing festival. On the day set aside for the rites, the priests and Bori parishioners enter big canoes and traverse the length of Kabi Rivers pouring libations in the middle of the river to appease the queen spirit of the river (Doguwa).
The ‘Fashin Ruwa’ denotes the opening up of the waters for fishing. The village seeks the permission of the Emir of Kabi to pick a date for the fishing season. The Fashin Ruwa attracts a lot of tourist (non-villagers) for the event.
The ‘Gyaran Gari’ (purification of the town) and ‘Sham Kabewa’ (testing of the pumpkin porridge) were land rituals is to repel evil spirits from the land and solicit for a bountiful harvest.
With the invasion came the Muslim religion and gradually the traditional rites were eroded and what remains is only the ‘Fashin Ruwa’ which is actually the main fishing event as the modern day Argungu festival.
The festival usually takes place in Argungu, the capital city of Argungu emirate council. The geographical feature is characterized by rivers, irrigation, and orchards.
At the beginning of the major event, over 5000 fishermen and women gather close to the river and at the sound of a gunshot, they all dive into the river. The fishing equipment used are the traditional nets and gourds made of calabash. They are joined by canoes filled with drummers, plus men rattling huge seed-filled gourds to drive the fish to shallow waters. Vast nets are cast and shoals of fish are harvested from the giant Nile Perch to the Peculiar Balloon fish. The person who catches the largest fish is awarded a prize money 0f $7000 dollars (some say $8000).
In 2005, the winning fish weighed 75kg, and need four men to hoist it on top the scales. Furthermore, there is canoe racing, wild duck hunting, barehanded fishing, diving competitions and naturally, swimming. Afterwards, there is drinking, singing and dancing into the night.
The festival marks the end of the growing season and the harvest. A one mile (1.6 kilometre) stretch of the Argungu River is protected throughout the year so that the fish will be plentiful for this 45-minutes fishing frenzy.
In 2006, the festival banned fishing due to safety concerns relating to low water levels. The importance of the festival to the economy has led to government to conserve fish stock by prohibiting use of gill nets and cast nets. The Zanro Polder project, an irrigation scheme in the Rima River floodplain to the south of Argungu, has been criticized because the reservoir threatens to flood the traditional site of the festival.
Since then, the festival has grown into one of the most popular festivals in Nigeria and beyond. Conspicuously, it attracts a whole lot of non- Argungu dignities. Indeed, after the memorable visit of Sultan Dan Mu’azu, the festival began to attract a steady flow of similar followership from all over the country. Tourists and guests for the occasion trooped in large numbers from Europe, US, Britain, Russia, South East Asia and neighbouring African countries like Niger, Benin Republic, Cameroun, Ghana etc.