Onyeka Onwenu is an accomplished Singer/Songwriter, Journalist and
Actress. She is a graduate of Wellesley College,
Wellesley Massachusetts and the New School for Social Research in New York,
where she obtained a B.A in International Relations and Communications and a Masters Degree in Media Studies respectively.
Onwenu recently veered into politics when she contested the Local Government Chairmanship for Ideato North in Imo
State in 2002.Though
unsuccessful in her bid, Ms. Onwenu plans to seek further opportunities to serve her people at the local government
a giant of 20th century Nigerian politics, and a pioneer activist of women’s rights,
is an icon. She was born in 1914 in Creek Town – in present day Cross River State -
to Okoroafor Obiasulor, a native of Agulu-Uzo-Igbo
near Awka in Anambra State,
and Inyang Eyo Aniemewue from the Royal stock of King Eyo Honesty II of Creek Town.
of this tall and slender woman of uncommon beauty, at the height of her political career, captured the imagination
of an entire nation and captivated f etivatingerian politics,every
young girl throughout Nigeria, including the writer, who wanted to grow up to be just like Margaret Ekpo.
When I was growing up in the late 1950s in Port Harcourt, the capital
of Rivers State -- back then, the hub of political activities in Eastern Nigeria -- the predominant political party
at the time was the NCNC (National Council of Nigerian Citizens, formerly the National Council of Nigeria and the
Cameroons), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Nigeria’s
Independence was fast becoming a wondrous possibility, and Margaret Ekpo had
become a household name.
Margaret Ekpo and her contemporaries – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo,
Mazi Mbonu Ojike, M.I Okpara, Janet Mokelu, Jaja Nwachukwu, MT Mbu, Malam Aminu Kano, Alhaja Gambo Sawaba, S.L Imoke and many others -- were at the forefront
of relentless agitation for the nation’s highly desired Independence
from Great Britain. With the much respected Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Margaret Ekpo
routinely toured the country, mobilizing women to become politically conscious and participate in the emerging
political affiliations in order to protect their interest and ensure the advancement of the Nation.
A fierce defender of women’s rights, Margaret Ekpo never apologized
for being a woman and that, it can be argued, was her greatest strength. With grace of carriage, she stood her
ground as an equal of men, representing women resolutely and with great dignity in multiple capacities.
Margaret Ekpo was one of three women appointed to the House of Chiefs,
1950s. The others were Chief (Mrs) Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti (appointed into the Western Nigeria House of Chiefs);
and Janet Mokelu (appointed along with Margaret Ekpo into the Eastern Nigeria House of Chiefs). She went on to serve her nation in several other capacities; as Nigerian Representative - Inter-Paliamentary Union Conference (1964); Nigerian Representative
- World Women's International Domestic Federation Conference (1963); Member of Parliament Government of Nigeria
(1960 - 1966); Women's Interest Representative - Nigerian Constitutional Conference (1960); Delegate - Nigerian
Constitutional Conference (1959); Delegate - Nigerian Constitutional Conference (1957); Delegate - Nigerian Constitutional
Conference (1953); Women's Interest Representative - Eastern House of Chiefs, Nigeria (1954 - 1958) and Member
- Eastern House of Chiefs, Nigeria (1948 - 1966).
Today, her distinguished name graces the Calabar International Airport,
Ekpo Refectory at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and multiple buildings and structures through out the nation;
a testament to her indelible and monumental contribution to Nigeria’s development.
MARGARET EKPO looks back on a truly
remarkable career as one of Nigeria’s pioneer female political activists…
The opportunity to interview Mrs. Margaret Ekpo
was a rare one, and I jumped at it. But whilst I was excited on the one hand, I was also apprehensive. Margaret
Ekpo is 90 years old, almost blind, and hard of hearing, I was not sure how much detail, if anything, she would
remember of her political activities. I was wrong.
Margaret Ekpo and Onyeka Onwenu at the Interview
From my first contact with Margaret Ekpo on the phone, it was quite
evident that her intellect and fecundity was far from waning. She recognized me instantly, surprising and moving
me by singing one of my songs, her favourite, she said -- a duet I had performed with King Sunny Ade, titled Wait for Me. “If
you love me,” she sang, and I responded: “…you go wait for me…” This became our mode of greeting each time we made
Margaret Ekpo readily recalled Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart, as soon as I informed her that the interview was at the instance
of the Chinua
Achebe Foundation. It turned out that she
had, in her autobiography -- Breaking Barriers -- described
her father’s prowess at wrestling as comparable to Okonkwo’s talents (in Things Fall Apart). I knew
from our first contact, that I was in for a very interesting encounter with perhaps, Nigeria’s most recognizable female politician.
may very well have ended at the School Leaving Certificate (standard six) level with her father’s death in 1934,
her hopes of attending a Teachers Training College dashed. She subsequently settled for a “Pupil teaching job,” teaching at various elementary schools
until she got married, in 1938, to a Yaba Higher School trained Medical Practitioner, Dr. John Udo Ekpo. Margaret Ekpo’s
determination to advance her education motivated her to obtain a diploma in Domestic Economics in 1948 at the Rathmine
School of Domestic Economics in Dublin Ireland,
during the period her husband was taken there for medical attention. When the couple returned to Nigeria, Margaret Ekpo established a Domestic Science Institute where she trained young girls in dressmaking
and home economics.
Ekpo was thrust
into politics by chance. In 1945, her late husband, Dr. Ekpo, had taken great exception to the discriminatory practices
of the Colonial Administrators of Aba General Hospital. But he was a civil servant, and so, Dr. Ekpo could not
attend the meetings organized by Nigerians to protest against these policies. He sent his wife instead; Margaret
Ekpo, who had been listening to her husband’s complaints with quiet indignation, was only too happy to be her husband’s
ears and eyes at these meetings.
Margaret Ekpo and other Politicians
members of a nascent Political Party, the National Council of Nigerian and Cameroon (NCNC) would address a political
rally in Aba, with Margaret Ekpo in attendance. It was at this rally, after listening
to fiery speeches by Herbert Macaulay, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mazi Mbonu Ojike (of the boycott the boycottables
fame) urging Nigerians to claim their Independence from Great Britain, that the fire of political activism was
ignited in Margaret Ekpo.
Ekpo recalls, she was the only woman at the rally and not a few wondered what a woman was doing there when she
should be at home, attending to her family. Margaret Ekpo was undeterred however. Besides, she had the full support
of her husband.
ABA MARKET WOMEN ASSOCIATION
Ekpo was not content with being the only woman who could attend political meetings. She therefore devised ingenious
ways of encouraging the participation of the women folk in Aba, her
base, during the early years of her political career in 1945. After the Second World War, there was a general scarcity
of essential commodities such as salt; an item no household could be without. Margaret Ekpo went round the shops
and deposited money for all available bags of salt. She was therefore able to control its sale to solely members
of her Aba Market Women Association. Any woman who was not registered as a member was denied access to salt. Margaret
When their husbands could no longer eat without salt, they released their wives to register. The
Aba Market Women’s Association became a veritable platform through which I conveyed to them all the
information I heard in the political meetings.
Only a shrewd
housewife could have come up with such an ingenious scheme!
women are often described as hostile towards one another. This is one reason why it is generally assumed that women
are unable to unite and fight for a common cause. I asked Margaret Ekpo how she was able to organize women into
a formidable campaign team for the NCNC.
There were difficulties, no doubt. You will always have trouble makers who are out for their own
self-interests; however, if the women know that you are truly working on their behalf, they will support you; they
will cooperate with you.
to her relationship with Mrs. Flora Azikiwe with whom she formed the woman’s wing of the NCNC, and often campaigned
with – for and on behalf of the party candidates in various parts of the country – sometimes under hostile circumstances.
After reading about the fiery Mrs. Fumilayo Ransome Kuti, an intrigued Margaret Ekpo traveled from Aba to Abeokuta to hold discussions with her about the need to encourage Nigerian
women to participate in the political process. As a result of this gesture, Mrs. Ransome Kuti accepted Margaret
Ekpo invitation to tour the South Eastern Region. They spent one month meeting with various women’s groups to awaken
their political consciousness, and later that year, 1954, Margaret Ekpo was nominated as a special member of the
Eastern House of Chiefs in Enugu to represent the women.
It was indeed
a controversial, but spectacular appointment, initiated by Sir Louis Ojukwu who was impressed with Margaret Ekpo
attendance at proceedings at the House. She could often be seen
in the public gallery with members of her Aba Market Women’s Association. I asked Margaret Ekpo how being a special
member of the Eastern House of Chiefs helped the women’s cause.
It opened the way for other women in many other areas, as well; many people initially objected to
the idea of a woman being made a member of the House of Chiefs; but they got used to it when they saw the contributions
I was able to make...
was in the House of Chiefs as a nominated member, she was selected as
one of the delegates to the Constitutional Conference held in Lancaster House in London in 1958. There, she discovered that the Special Membership of the
legislature was going to be abolished in the new Nigerian Constitution. The significance of this lay in the fact
that women in Nigeria, at that time, did not have the vote. The only way their voices
could be heard, therefore, was through women such as Margaret Ekpo attending the conference as a Special Member.
Ekpo kicked up a storm, drawing the attention of her party leader, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, to the implications of terminating
Membership. However, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe explained
that the decision had been taken to checkmate any negative votes likely to be cast by Colonial Government Officials
representing the interest of Colonial Industries and Companies, and who might want to maintain the status quo.
But he promised Margaret Ekpo that as soon as the elections were held if the NCNC was victorious, the party would
amend the Constitution and introduce Universal Adult Suffrage.
Every woman would be entitled to vote and be voted for!
emboldened and encouraged Margaret Ekpo and the NCNC women to campaign vigorously for the party candidates who
were all men. The party won the elections in 1959, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe kept his promise. Margaret Ekpo triumphantly
I was 43 years old when I attended the Constitutional Conference; I was still young and beautiful.
If I had done what most young women would do at my age, I would have left the Conference and gone shopping to buy
fine dresses, shoes and bags, and I would have lost the opportunity to make such an impact by extracting the promise
of Universal Adult Suffrage from my party Leader.
Ekpo’s interests have always run deeper than the vanities of a beautiful woman who finds herself in the midst of
high powered company. Her primary goal was the projection of the interest of the Nigerian woman, and for this,
she made many sacrifices.
Campaigning around the country as a woman was not easy. Sometimes, our opponents would send thugs
to throw stones, bottles and sticks at us. Some of us ended up in hospitals, severely traumatized, and with injuries.
Sometimes, we were inconvenienced by having to sleep on floors or in the open air. It was not at all easy, but
we had to do it…so that women could begin to enjoy some of their entitlements today.
Ekpo scored many firsts. She was a door opener; sometimes, she was forced to kick the door open, whether
the men liked it or not. In 1962, Margaret Ekpo was rewarded for her loyalty to her party, NCNC, with a nomination
to contest the election into the Eastern House of Assembly, representing the Aba Urban North Constituency.
faced seven men in that election, including late Barrister Anyiam Osigwe. I won the election, thus becoming the
first woman to be so elected in Aba. I held that post until 1967 when
the war (Nigerian civil war) broke out. I tabled many motions, argued, and got some of them passed into laws. My
accomplishments paved the way for women who were interested in pursuing political careers, and motivated them to
do so with greater confidence.
Ekpo took risks that female politicians, even today, might not take. As a
result, her activism recorded major moral victories on two significant occasions. In 1949, a shooting incident
occurred in Enugu when coal miners requested a wage increase. Their ring leaders were
shot by the Colonial Administrators for daring to ask for what was their right. Margaret Ekpo got in touch with
other women groups around the country and they declared a day of national mourning for the Colliery shooting victims.
This helped draw attention to the incident, not only in Nigeria,
but all across the world.
Margaret Ekpo as a Young Woman
demonstrations, Margaret Ekpo made a fiery speech. She declared: “If a woman had been among those killed, the British
women in Aba would have all been killed.” She was immediately arrested for making
such an inflammable speech; others arrested along with her were Barrister Jaja Nwachukwu, Mr. Samuel Mazi and Mr.
Nwachukwu Abengowe. They were harassed and faced with deportation from the country of their birth! The famous Aba women, in retaliation, threatened to set the town ablaze should the Colonial Masters make good
their threat. That was the end of the matter; Margaret Ekpo and the others were promptly set free.
In the early
1950s, a Prisons Officer, Mrs. Onyia was murdered by a colleague, ostensibly for rejecting his love advances. The
murder was covered up by the authorities to avoid controversy, but Margaret Ekpo and the Aba women stormed the Enugu Prisons Department demanding to see where Mrs. Onyia was buried. When they
were rebuffed by the White Superintendent of Prisons, the women send word to him to the effect that, if in 10 minutes
they were not allowed in, they would break the prison gates and enter forcibly. The threat worked. They were not
only allowed in, their request that the body be exhumed and an autopsy done was also acceded to. The murderer was
immediately arrested, and the case taken to the High Court, where the woman’s skull, a 6 inch nail lodged in it,
was presented as evidence. The case was later decided, and the warder executed.
aloud if women in pre-independent Nigeria
had been more daring than their contemporaries today. Margaret Ekpo convinced me that they were, indeed. Without
their help, the men could not have as effectively executed the fight for Independence. Sadly, in most liberation struggles, women are welcomed in the front line along side the men,
until the struggle is won; but then it is back to the kitchen for them.
Ekpo was responsible for the formation of the NCNC Women’s Wing, along with the wife of the leader of the party,
Mrs. Flora Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became its first president while Margaret Ekpo was the vice president. When Flora
Azikiwe became the first Lady in 1960, M.E assumed the presidential post of the women’s wing. As president, she
continued to lead the women in campaigns for party candidates across the country, making for quite a formidable
Ekpo’s activities were not limited to the Women’s Wing, however. She would sometimes be called upon to resolve
intra – party disagreements. Margaret Ekpo recalls one particular occasion when she had to travel to Ogoja, in
present day Cross River State, to intervene in a crisis involving Chief MT Mbu and Chief Michael Ogon, both of whom were vying
for the NCNC ticket for the Ogoja legislative seat. If the conflict had been allowed to fester, it would have affected
the fortunes of the party at the polls, since loyalties would be divided. Margaret Ekpo requested and got the inclusion
of Mrs. Flora Azikiwe in the high powered women reconciliation team.
met with the two candidates from at night
until the following morning, and resolved that Chief MT Mbu would be the
party’s candidate while Chief Ogon would be given a Board appointment. It all worked out as Chief MT Mbu went on
to win the election, and the party kept its word to Chief Ogon. Such was the clout of these women that they could
settle high level disputes between men, commit the party to the decisions, and have those decisions respected and
carried out. That, Margaret Ekpo and I agreed, is no longer the preserve of women in Nigerian Politics today.
to my question about sexual harassment, and the generally held observation that women in politics prostituted themselves,
Margaret Ekpo dismissed this view in its entirety.
It depends on the way one chooses to carry one’s self. If you are committed to your career and serious
about what you are doing, just face it and do not listen to idle talk that is meant to discourage you.
ON CURRENT ISSUES
Ekpo, like most Nigerian women, is offended by the fact that out of 400 delegates to the Political Reforms Conference
instituted by President Olusegun Obasanjo, only 30 are women. She however added:
But the women
are not united, and without that there is not
much they can do….
blatant discrimination taken place during Margaret Ekpo’s time, I suspect she would have stormed the Conference
Venue with a large troupe of women’s groups, and harassed the men until the situation was redressed. At this suggestion,
she burst into laughter. The presidency should be zoned to the South/South, Margaret Ekpo believes.
It is long over due – but then again, without a united front, nobody is just going to give it to
MARGARET EKPO TODAY
political career ended with the commencement of the Nigerian civil war. During the war, she was detained by Biafran
authorities for three years. In spite of the long detention, under conditions which could best be described as
deprived – at a point she became quite ill for lack of adequate feeding – Margaret Ekpo remained unbowed, and never
bitter. I asked her the reason for her detention. She shrugs as she replies:
Margaret Ekpo and Onyeka Onwenu
They never told me, but I guessed it had to do with our agitation for Calabar and Ogoja States to be carved out of the Eastern Nigerian Region. It was a trying time for me; however I accepted
it as a sacrifice I had to make for the unity of Nigeria.
Ekpo lives a quiet life in Calabar, Cross River State. At 90, she is no longer very active, but she stays abreast of current
affairs courtesy of her radio, and continues to attend political meetings whenever she can. She is a Life Patron
of the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS), and has garnered 37 other local, national and international
awards. In 2001, the Calabar International Airport was renamed the Margaret Ekpo International
Ekpo lives on a meager pension provided by the State Government. It is hardly adequate and this is very obvious.
She is not one to complain, but carries herself with much grace and fortitude. She is grateful to President Olusegun
and Stella Obasanjo, former Nigerian Leaders and other concerned Nigerians for honouring her and taking care of
some of her material needs. More needs to be done for this great woman, however – while she is still with us.
her advancing age and disabilities, Margaret Ekpo possesses a great sense of humour and is such wonderful company
with her many stories and anecdotes that I found it difficult to end the interview. Yet, what I have here is but
a chapter in a truly extraordinary life. On reflection, she has this to say:
If I said everything I knew or talked about every difficulty I encountered, it might discourage
some women from going into politics.
Margaret Ekpo are, indeed, a rare find. Listening to her intriguing story made such an impact on me – I was truly
impressed with her fearless approach to pertinent issues and her dignified carriage that I was determined to stay
in touch with her. And I have done so, inspiring a grandmother – granddaughter relationship where every week,
I look forward to picking up the phone to demand: If you love me… With a chuckle,
Margaret Ekpo will reply: You go wait for me...
Margaret Ekpo if she would have gone ahead with her political career without her husband, Dr. Ekpo’s support and
permission. I was astonished when she responded with an emphatic no.
women and the country in general owe much then to this enlightened and broad minded man who never felt threatened
by his wife’s success, but instead, gave her every support and encouragement. Margaret Ekpo, in return, remained
a dotting and dutiful wife and mother, never forgetting nor failing to appreciate her husband and friend, for his
love and total commitment to her happiness and fulfillment as a person.
I do suspect,
however, that given the strength of character that Margaret Ekpo exhibited in her political career, her determination
to succeed in life and impact her society would have found expression in some other way. Male or female, Chief
Mrs. Margaret Ekpo is simply a great soul.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe
Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every
Nigerian to express their opinion.