The Eyo festival is a colourful festival that expresses and exhibits the culture and traditions of the city of Lagos. It is widely anticipated and attended by Lagos indigenes and also by visitors both from across Nigeria and internationally. Its splendid and expansive theatrical displays and pageantry highlight and showcase the aboriginal history of the denizens of Lagos, and through a picturesque array of regalia and costumes, forms parades on the island of Lagos. This is largely regarded as a day of joyous splendour and gaiety. The festival has evolved over three centuries, and is usually held to celebrate the life and times of, or in commemoration of the passage of or ascension to the throne of an Oba (King) of Lagos. Equally, the Eyo festival is staged in the memory of a deceased worthy and illustrious individual, such as a White Cap Chief, who has contributed immensely to the progress and development of Lagos. It is deemed as constituting the highest honour that Lagos can make to repay a citizen for eminence and public service. Despite its origins mainly having a ritualistic purpose, there have also been incidents when the Eyo Play has been performed to coincide with the honouring of foreign or state dignitaries.
Generally, there is no customarily defined time for the staging of the Eyo Festival. So the anticipation and excitement across Lagos and beyond, once dates for its performance have been selected and announced are immense. The festival encompasses a week-long series of activities, and culminates in a striking procession of thousands of men clothed in white and wearing a variety of coloured hats, called Aga. The procession which dances and celebrates on the streets of Lagos moves through various crucial locations and landmarks in the city, including the Oba’s Palace. The Eyo are considered to be related to the spirits of the dead who have returned to cleanse Lagos of evil and to pray for its continued prosperity and peaceful existence. The festival starts from dusk to dawn, and has been held on Saturdays from time immemorial.
The Eyo masquerade essentially admits tall people, which is why it is described as Agogoro Eyo (literally meaning the tall Eyo masquerade). In the manner of a spirit being visiting the earth on a purpose, the Eyo masquerade speaks in a ventriloquial voice, suggestive of its otherworldliness; and when greeted, it replies: “Mo yo fun e, moyo fun’ra mi” (“I rejoice for you, and I rejoice for myself). This response connotes the masquerades as rejoicing with the person greeting it for the witnessing of the day, and its own joy at taking the hallowed responsibility of cleansing.
The Eyo has strict codes which forbid transgression, so other performances of the play are not permitted outside its designed objective. For an Eyo play to be initiated, it is said that permission is traditionally sought from the Oba of Lagos, by a person who believes that his departed ancestor deserves to be honoured for his contribution to Lagos. Subsequently, the Oba will, with his staff of office, direct one of his messengers to invite the Akinsiku of Lagos (the head of all the Eyos) to the palace for consultation. It is the Akinsiku who lays out and specifies the Ikaro — the offerings and presents required from the applicant family before the play can be staged. As such, the Oba is the source of authority that is passed to the Akinsiku, who then distributes the gifts to the deity families in Lagos, after which a divination process will be carried out at the Awe Adimu (the sacred sanctuary of the Eyo Orisas) to choose a day that is propitious for the holding of the Eyo festival.
However, it can also be said that for the Eyo play to be staged, permission is requested from the Awe Adimu, the home base of the senior Eyo group, and then the Akinsiku informs the Oba and the respective council of elders, then arrangements for the festival begins once permission is granted.
Whilst the Eyo festival, also known as the Adamu Orisa play, is the foremost cultural event in Lagos, its history and origins have been articulated in a series of fairly divergent versions, but which speak to its passionate acceptance by the people of Lagos. One prominent source of the story of the Eyo festival is from the Isokun Onilegbale Chieftaincy Family, claiming that the festival is from lbefun, and concerns the story of Olori Olugbale, wife of King Ado of Lagos, whose two brothers (or male cousins), Ejilu and Malaki, came to visit her in Lagos, but discovered her dead upon their arrival. Thereafter, they returned to lbefun to bring the Eyo Masquerade to Lagos to celebrate her death.