Colonized by the British in the late 19th century, the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Hausa: Jamhuriyar Taraiyar Nijeriya; Igbo: Ọ̀hàńjíkọ̀ Ọ̀hànézè Naìjíríyà; Yoruba: Orílẹ̀-èdè Olómìnira Àpapọ̀ Nàìjíríà), located in West Africa, gained independence in 1960. With a population of Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, along with animists, especially among some Igbo and Yoruba groups, this country of 500 ethnic groups, the seventh largest population in the world, includes great diversity.  

Puppet theatre exists in various forms in Nigeria. The figures are the works of experienced sculptors and artists and are normally used in theatrical performances that are confined to the ethnic group concerned.  

The Dabo-dabo of the Kanuri

The Kanuri people in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria, have resisted political and religious change in their theatre in contrast to the Hausa of northern Nigeria, whose performance has virtually disappeared since Islam became predominant. Among the Hausa, puppeteers were persecuted by the mallam, Muslim priests, who prohibited the creation of objects in human form.

The puppet theatre among the Kanuri people, however, has remained very much alive and dabo-dabowa (also dabo daboma, puppeteers of dabo-dabo) continue to practise. These dabo-dabo (also dogo dogo) masters go from village to village with an assistant and their musician drummers. They use cloth glove puppets. Their performances take place in the middle of a circle drawn in the sand where the puppeteer uses his stick to demarcate the boundary between himself and the audience. He sits under a small tent formed by the cloth of his extensive costume, playing the puppets above his head. The repertoire consists of scenes, generally eight per show, each of which lasts three to four minutes. The stories are comical, inspired by events of daily life and can, for example, recount the unhappiness of a thief who has received a just beating at the hands of the householder he has attempted to rob. Ostrich egg shell is used to make a kind of swazzle to modify the voice.

The Kwagh-hir

This puppet theatre is widely practised among the Tiv people who live at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers, in central Nigeria. Puppetry is distinguished by its importance and the complexity of its organization. In 1990, ninety-nine companies participated in competitions organized either by the Benue State or by local administrations. Currently, there are approximately two hundred active troupes, each with sixty to one hundred artists, on the model of Ijirgba Adasu, originally from the village of Tse-Mker Ute. These theatres operate year round, but the number of performances is higher during the dry season, a time of abundance and festivities.

The Kwagh-hir occupies an important place in the social organization of the Tiv. When a village decides to create its own troupe, it hires a sculptor who may have to reside on site for several months or even many years. His fees include money, a new house, a field, and farm labour. Puppetry has different uses. The first is a magico-religious use of puppets with figurines known as akomboa, a word which refers both to the ancestors and their rituals. The Kwagh-hir association of the village of Ibiamegh uses life-sized puppets for the initiation of its members. These akombo represent men, women and leopards.

The other uses are more modern, dating from the early 1950s; this Kwagh-hir is a synthesis of both traditional and new forms and is political or social. It became both a means of resistance and a model of behaviour for people. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the political unrest that followed, the performances have mainly been focused on the birth of a “national” consciousness and social satire.

The theatre of the Tiv uses puppets such as Igedde, who is a man afflicted with elephantiasis of the scrotum and whose leaps and dances provoke laughter from the audience (the ethnic group Igedde lives south-west of the Tiv; the issue of land has caused tension between the two groups who ridicule each other). The character Kunya is the wrestler and Abogon Kya is the baboon-diviner. There are recurring characters/themes: Ioravaa is a kneeling woman grinding grain while her husband watches with pride; Swem Karagbe is the earthly paradise, where a large variety of animals are at man’s disposal. More satirical characters are Alosho, young persons working on behalf of a political party, lazy seducers of married women; Ta Itiuogh Kwar Tar are violent and irresponsible youths causing fights and disturbing the peace on market days; Anum Ior are two soldiers who behead a thief. The current repertoire of the Tiv totals more than four hundred plays. Festivals are held with multiple groups presented. Women singers and male drummers accompany the performers of body puppets, multi-person figures, and others that dance.   

Ekong (Ekon) and Ofiong

Among the Ibibio people of south-eastern Nigeria, two theatrical associations that use puppets belong to an ancient tradition. Ekong is a sacred order. It is of a higher rank than Ofiong. Troupes of Ofiong puppeteers are smaller, more informal, have a repertoire that is satirical and more entertaining. These puppeteers are invited to all kinds of events: engagements, marriages, rites of passage, reunions of members of the same age group, etc.

The Ekong are very similar to the Kwagh-hir of the Tiv, in particular because of their importance in village life and their manner of organization. There is only one Ekong association in a village and there is only one reason to join it: puppetry. An association can only exist for seven years; after this period a new group is created with new members who are trained by the elders of the dissolved company. The Ekong society shows are presented only once every seven years; the rehearsals last for six years at the rate of one afternoon per week. All members pay a fee to buy equipment and hire both a good sculptor and a traditional healer who will attend to the protection of artists from the dangers of witchcraft and, sometimes, prevent rainfall.

The repertoire of the Ekong is based on social satire. It mocks the Catholic missionaries, Hausa merchants, colonial administrators, criminals, and neighbouring ethnic groups. It primarily uses marottes and costume puppets[/lier] or body puppets. The performances are preceded by lengthy dances performed by masked men accompanied by songs of a satirical nature.  


For the Ogoni, close relatives of the Ibibio, the puppet theatre is performed by adult men and elders, all members of the Aminikpo secret society. Acting as a social regulator and mocking those who transgress the moral laws, this association is well respected and is responsible for administering justice. Even today, some traditional leaders prefer to call on aminikpo, rather than on government institutions. It is therefore a figure of judicial control traditionally and was in the past a powerful one. According to oral tradition, a human sacrifice was formerly required before each session of the Aminikpo theatre. Currently, the cost of the various animals and beverages required by members of the troupe is so high that these performances are becoming increasingly rare, and are essentially held only for the funerals of important and wealthy people.

The performances are given outdoors at night. They include twelve to sixteen puppets playing over masking, measuring 3.50 metres or more, made of several body cloths suspended on a stick placed between two trees or in front of a house. To protect themselves from possible repercussions, the performers remain hidden and anonymous. To increase success with viewers, dancing, music, singing, and wrestling enhance the performance. The audience is seated, sipping palm wine while admiring the puppets. Each figure is made of wood and has arms and lower jaw moved by a rod that passes through the trunk. Puppets can dance, copulate, decapitate one another, and shoot a gun. With mouths that open and close, these puppets mimic singing and talking. Before each performance their heads are feathered, some with tufts of black or white feathers for a dazzling stage effect.

The entry of characters on stage is made in a predetermined order. First is Kasi, with a soprano voice. Taugere, a counter-tenor, follows him. The third, Akee, is a tenor. The fourth, Kadume, speaks in a beautiful bass register. Next follow other typical roles, such as the beautiful Ebobo (a young girl becoming full figure), an old man or woman, a server of palm-wine, a python, etc. There is also Awolo, king of the masquerade, accompanied by his wife. He has a head topped with feathers, big white teeth, black mouth and ears. His wife is a more conventional figure, although she holds a knife in one hand and a mirror in the other. To highlight the importance of a character, the Ogoni give it a colonial helmet, a military cap, an ivory bracelet, a harmonica, or sitting in an armchair, a sign that this character belongs to the elite.  


The gelede is masquerade, performed day and/or night, meant to appease the negative feelings of the “mothers” whose magic powers which could turn to sorcery need to be appeased (see also Benin). These figures known as the age are believed to be placated by the performance and thereby persuaded to use their power for good. Known among the Yoruba of south-western Nigeria and Benin, the gelede relates to old theatrical practices that related to female mystical power of Iya Nla (Great Mother). Originally, according to legend, Yewajobi, the mother of all orisa (divinities) and all living things, could not have children after marrying Oluwei (a water divinity) so she made offerings and danced with wooden masks on her head and the ankle bells on her feet. When her children Efe and Gelede experienced childlessness they sought the same remedy. Now men emulate their actions using wooden masks, puppets, and superb costumes, which attempt to restore social equilibrium and promote happiness, fertility, and abundance.

Babatunde Lawal gives other stories. One traces the practice to a mid-17th century man with the name Gbarada (the one who stole the show) who danced with two masks, sang, joked and was so entertaining that others emulated him. Another story says a hunter saw gorillas covering their faces with tree branches, dancing and clapping, and the hunter imitated them at the next festival. A final story tells of two 18th century brothers fighting for to be Alaketu (king) of Ketu. One set up a tree trunk with a carved human head on top in the middle of the road and rattled snail shells, scaring the other contender. This became gelede. Finally, some trace it to an old fertility rite danced by women.

Each performance of the gelede, especially those taking place in the evening, is preceded by a consultation with the Ifa, divination oracle, and accompanied by ritual offerings. An old woman is honoured as chief priestess (iylase) of the cult/society. A male priest and his attendant assist. A quick-witted male is the efe who can criticize anyone with impunity. He usually presents at night and the masks appear during the day accompanied by drummers and a chorus made up of female or male singers. Men who are ajogi (he who dances with a wooden image) order their personal mask from the carvers who use great ingenuity in making the figures. The performance begins with the appearance of the mask worn by a dancer. In some places the first mask is Ogabaga as a young boy, representing a divine messenger and begins a series that precede the Great Mother herself.

Men dance all masks and puppets but often represent women, sometimes with carved breasts and rounded belly of a pregnant woman. They are covered with cloth scarves and elaborate costumes, which move dynamically in the dance. The figures often stand on a small disk above the helmet mask. The subjects are varied: sacred, traditional, and modern life. Among those who appear are ridiculous colonists (sometimes accompanied by their dogs), historical and political figures, comic characters, not to mention animals (mythical or real), particularly birds that are ever present in African theatre of this area. Such figures may sit atop the helmet mask or be large body puppets inhabited by one or two men. Drummers drumming, represented by small, carved figures, aeroplanes flying, cars or other figures may be the theme. Manipulation strings are not seen on the exterior and are pulled by the masked wearer.

Duga from the town of Meko, Nigeria is a sought after carver. Alaiye Adeisa Etuobe, a Ketu master, and his son Adegbola Alaiye were noted masters from the 1980s. A number of exhibits of outstanding carvings have been shown in international settings.

Gelede was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2001 in a joint proposal by Benin that was supported by Nigeria and Togo, where other Yoruba groups live. Since that time safeguarding efforts have included promotion on the radio, a partnership between the Association Groupe Gèlèdè de Savè and the University of Ifè in Nigeria. Workshops for masters and apprentices have also been carried out in Kétou.

Whether in the community or in magical-religious ceremonies, these gelede masks and puppet performances are used on all occasions, from simple housewarmings, to funeral ceremonies, and to birthdays or the enthronement/crowning of a king. At the same time, they occur in situations of ritual practices intending to remove the miseries of an epidemic and healing a chronic illness.

Modern Puppetry

Puppetry is found in development projects, HIV/AIDS education, or used by missionaries working with children. In 2010, a Nigerian version of Sesame Street, called Sesame Square, was begun. The HIV-positive Kammi, who first was introduced in South African versions of the show, was part of the cast.

Beyond its rich traditions, the puppet theatre of Nigeria is able to innovate and adapt itself, giving it a great vitality and turning it into a modern art form in perpetual motion.

(See also Iyorwuese Hagher.)


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