The festival originated in 1934 and it kicked off as a celebration of peace between Sokoto and Kebbi kingdoms when Sultan Dan Mu’azu of Sokoto made a visit to the region. When he became the Sultan, he decided to visit the town of Argungu, in order to resolve the centuries old hostilities between the Sokoto Caliphate and Kebbi Kingdoms. As a result of his irenic stance, the people of Argungu organized a grand fishing festival in his honor on the Argungu River. Hundreds of boys and men dived into the water and the biggest fish caught was presented to Sultan Dan Mu’azu.
Since then, the Argungu Fishing Festival has metamorphosed from a community event to an international, headline grabbing spectacle. Events include art and craft exhibitions, automobile rally, cultural dances and music, traditional sports, donkey and camel races, archery, swimming, catapulting and animal-skinning. On the river itself are canoe and swimming races, bare hand fishing and wild-duck hunting.
The festival’s most anticipated event is the bare hand fishing which takes place on the final day. A competition is held in which thousands of men (armed with a net and a calabash floater) line up along the banks of the river. The competition originally allowed female participation but that has now been stopped with Kebbi State strengthening Sharia (Islamic Law) in recent years. The competition – including the audience – is now all male. At the sound of a gunshot, the competitors jump into the river and have an hour to catch the largest fish. The competitors are joined by canoes filled with drummers, plus men clattering enormous seed-filled gourds to drive the fish to shallow waters.
During the hour-long competition, they fight for the fish in the river and a wealth of fish is harvested, including the popular giant Nile perch (also known as the Giwan Ruwa) reaching weights of over 60 kg (132 lbs.) The competitor who catches the biggest fish goes home with the prize surrounded by drumming, song and dance. In 2004, the winning fish weighed in at an astonishing 82 kg (180 lbs.). No fishing is allowed in certain stretches of the Argungu River to allow for active growth of the fish species but also to ensure that the fish will be sufficient for the festival.
Over the years, the Argungu Fishing Festival has drawn thousands of crowds including 2009 when 250,000 spectators were reported to have attended the event. Even though the festival is a yearly event, there have been some years it did not hold because the waters were too low or because of some other non-river related issue. For instance, in 2010, the festival was postponed because of the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, who at the time of his death was an in-law to Governor Usman Saidu Nasamu Dakingari of Kebbi State.