Among the Ekoi (Ejagham), Efik, Ibibio, and Bahumo people of Cross River State, the Ekpe, a freemason-like society with the leopard as totem, has long been regarded with respect. Members are initiated in puberty and bound to secrecy by oath. While exclusive to men, members who are chieftains could secure honorary initiation for their daughters. The society was notable for its use of Nsibidi, the pictographic script developed by Ekoi people.
The Ekpe society began in 18th century Calabar, reportedly from around 1720, with Ekoi people, who also know it as the Mgbe, a word for the leopard. It arose out of belief in a forest spirit called Ekpe, who is said to have chosen people to act as messengers of the ancestors, the ikan. The spirit is visible only to its initiates but has a roar heard by all.
The Ekpe-house is an oblong clay building in the middle of every village where the society exists. The walls are painted and ornamented with clay figures. It contains wooden images. In times of festivity, members dance in public, wearing masks with horns and filed teeth.
Through their lifetimes, members rise in rank through seven or eleven levels—depending on the community they belonged to—paying fees and undertaking fresh initiation. The stages include initiation, introduction to the Ekpe voice, mastery of communication and secret rituals, penetration of the secret forest, and becoming an Ekpe chief. Each level of membership has its own rituals, dance, and dress, and marks a festival day.
The highest-ranked Ekpe-men are known as the Amama, and they control wealth in their communities. The feasts the Amama throw in the town are considered to help in wealth redistribution.
The society was often led by the king. Its members were accorded regard even in the hinterland where the society did not exist. At its peak in the 19th century, it had European members, who joined as a way to ensure recovery of debts.
The society also functioned as a political institution, one that enforces laws. When wronged, an Ekpe-man is required to either go to the Ekpe-house and beat the drum or visit the offender’s home and sound the horn, and the society would fall into action with its masked men.
Due to its trajectory, historians have suggested that, without colonialism, the Ekpe society would have succeeded in nation-building in the Cross River region. Politically, it was supreme in the community, with unquestionable power and unappealable judgement. Socially, it maintained order, protecting the poor and requiring initiates to keep clean records.
The Ekpe society also exists in ethnicities outside Cross River State, including the Uruan and the Oron of Akwa-Ibom State and the Arochukwu Igbo people of Abia State, and is practiced in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, and Cuba, where it is known as the Abakua.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.