In parts of Idomaland, specifically the south senatorial district of Benue State, there is the rather high attachment to traditional beliefs.
The most prominent is the belief in ‘Alekwu’- the spirit of the ancestors - which has remained a cultural practice among the people that is intended to uphold morals, respect and dignity for one another.
The practice of Alekwu is hallowed in the three districts of Orokam, Otukpa and Owukpa kingdoms, which make up Ogbadigbo Local Government Area of the state.
In the world of these Ogbadigbo communities, certain stiff penalties are still considered necessary to rid the domain of bad influences, and to remind those who may want to get involved in any act termed taboo by Alekwu, to desist.
To be precise, Alekwu is a traditional god of the Idoma, popularly believed amongst the people to have the power to protect, reward and punish sons and daughters of the land. The Idoma believe that it could punish anyone who goes contrary to the morals, norms, cultures or traditions already laid down.
For instance, a woman automatically comes under the oath of Alekwu when she marries a man of Idoma origin. The spirit oversees women and keeps a tab on their fidelity. Alekwu chastises unfaithful women, by causing unexplained circumstances to work against members of the offending family.
Also, a male of Idoma extraction who, for example, commits incest, would likewise incur the wrath of the god, except he confesses, and performs certain rites to pacify the spirits.
In all of Idoma land, the long history of Alekwu’s law as regards sex, communal disputes, man’s inhumanity to man, injustice and other forms of societal ills, is being preserved and handed down from one generation to another.
Particularly, a family under the spell of Alekwu risks untimely and sudden death of mostly, it’s male children, ill-luck, strange sicknesses which are likely to defy medical intervention, and in the event of delayed or prolonged consultation of the gods, the head of the family pays the supreme price with his life.
Oftentimes, relief for such offenders begins by way of confession of the crimes committed against the gods of the land, and then the repentance process is observed, to ensure that the spirit of the ancestors is appeased, by cleansing the offenders of accumulated guilt. Failure to do so, the offender dies mysteriously within a stipulated period of usually 7, 14 to 21 days or one year as the case maybe, depending on the degree of offence committed.
While the belief cuts across all Idoma speaking people in Benue, the penalty for an offender seems to vary from one axis of the tribe to the other. Just as in most cases, women seem to bear the brunt of the consequences, depending on the community they belong.
Undoubtedly, these penalties are seen as the community’s way of policing crimes based on conviction that no church can halt such punishment, which is usually meted out to offenders.
It is a notable fact that a married woman from any of these communities is not expected to expend her legitimate income on projects such as building for her biological family or spend on other gigantic purposes, without the knowledge of her husband. She is also not expected to take any decision about family planning without the knowledge of her husband, to avoid the wrath of the gods.
“As a matter of fact, the married woman either from or to an Orokam man must get the approval of her husband to use her own money to build a house for her parents, anything otherwise, the Alekwu would find her guilty and penalise her,” Mr. Mike Idoko a native of Orokam said.
Idoko explained that the church could not do anything to stop the tradition, because it had been in existence from time immemorial, especially for the simple reason that the tradition also meant well for the people in line with the belief of other faiths.
He said a man of Orokam descent cannot approve an abortion for his wife with his personal money in the event of a life threatening pregnancy, and that he must confront his wife with rumours of infidelity or risk his own death in both cases.
In the same vein, Chief Dennis Eje Onoja from Owukpa district, in his response on whether these penalties really work, nodded in the affirmative, warning that the potency of the Alekwu could not be contended with.
“Yes. Alekwu is still in existence even though some people think that it’s no longer in vogue. If it catches a woman, she must confess her atrocity. If she is lucky after the confession, Alekwu will leave her, but if she doesn’t Alekwu will continue to reduce her physically. She will shrink like an AIDS patient until she confesses and dies,” he said.
Onoja added that no church could stop the punishment because it was the custom, religion and tradition of the people, irrespective of who they were and where they lived; so long as their roots can be traced to the soil,or they were non-indigenes resident in the community.
He said that the men were not left out of the anger of the gods if they were found to commit any brutality such as killing another person, which was also not in line with God’s wish, stressing that, “Alekwu will arrest the offender.”
However, Chief Onoja noted that the punishment for the female folk usually came faster than that of the male folk, and that a man who committed adultery also came under the wrath of the gods, but that their case was not as rampant as that of the women.
He said if the secret of the offence was not revealed by the offender, so that the gods were appeased, the man or woman who incurred Alekwu’s wrath would be rendered useless and, like a mad person he or she would talk senselessly.
He explained further that if the offender agreed to cooperate within the period of grace, often three days to one-year, depending on the gravity of the offence, such a person would be taken to the village shrine with a goat or hen as may be demanded by the custodian of Alekwu, to appease the gods.
“Even if the offender is a born-again Christian, he would be dealt with. The parents of the offender may or may not be Christians, but Alekwu will still arrest the offender. Similarly, if a non-indigene resident in Owukpa offends, so long as he drinks from the soil of the land, he will be arrested by Alekwu,” Onoja added.
As for Elder Godwin Uja of Ugwu community in Owukpa district, the sins against Alekwu spirit could be described as “very grievous”, maintaining that the worship of Alekwu was respected by the elders of the land.
“The Alekwu can bring calamity upon its offender, even though the conflict in modern times is that the church people are against it,” Uja said.
Similarly, Elder Amuta Onoja Simon of Orokam district insisted that a married woman must steer clear of adultery or she would be killed by Alekwu, noting that the tradition could not be jettisoned because of the church.
It is a common awareness that most communities in Idoma land set aside a period of three days every year to celebrate the spirits for bountiful harvest in the outgoing year and the expectation for the beginning of the New Year’s planting season. This occasion is usually referred to as the ‘Eje Aleku’ festival. During the festival, the spirits of the ancestors usually manifest as masquerades known as the Alekwaafia,who runs through the genealogies of the descent in a poetic tune to the admiration of all.
An Idoma scholar, Amali, E. Odumu, described the Alekwaafia as the reincarnation of an Idoma ancestral father into a masquerade, based on the concept of life after death, so much that the importance they attach to the masquerade and its poetic tradition cannot be over-emphasised.
The rendition of the Alekwu poetry is viewed as a source agent that refers to sustenance of cultural values and identity during the festival, which attracts a large turnout of sons and daughters of the land at home and abroad.
However, worshippers of the Alekwu are quick nowadays to blame the decline of the Alekwu affinity on foreign culture, with particular reference to Christianity and Westernisation, which they claimed have taken the centrestage in today’s society.
Nevertheless, the potency of Alekwu is not in doubt in Idoma land. It is still highly revered and its virtue highly extolled. Indigenes resort to Alekwu’s shrine as the final arbiter to settle scores, when issues become very controversial.
“Despite Westernisation, the festival is still celebrated in Orokam every year between the months of July and August. In some parts of Idoma land, the festival is celebrated in early February or March. It is a continuation of our forefathers’ belief,” Idoko stated with pride.
In the eyes of Ameh John, a native of Otukpa kingdom, the Alekwu spirits still oversee the affairs of the people, irrespective of their religious affiliation or modern day life, whether they were at home or in the diaspora.
“It is a belief that has come to stay with us. The penalties are not different from what the practice of other religions also entails. Without the Alekwu, our society would become a lawless one,” he maintained.