Margaret Ekpo, a pioneer female politician, a women’s rights activist and a social mobiliser; that’s an introduction to the woman, more so, at its basest. Born on the 27th July 27, 1914, Ekpo was born in Creek Town, Cross River State, to the family of Okoroafor Obiasulor.
Early life and Education
Margaret was a leading member of a class of traditional Nigerian women activists, as well as a leading figure in the politics of the First Republic of Nigeria. But these didn’t come as easy as this writing is; the path was not smooth, to say the least. At about 20years of age, Ekpo lost her Father, just when she was at standard six of the school leaving certificate training. This put her desire to further schooling on hold, taking a job as a teacher in elementary school and subsequently, marrying at age 24. But a will always create a way! Margaret’s desire for education motivated her to obtain a degree in domestic economics at the Rathmines School of Domestic Economics in Dublin, Ireland, in 1948 (the school now referred to as the Dublin Institute of Technology). She earned a diploma in domestic science and on her return to Nigeria she established a Domestic Science and Sewing Institute in Aba.
Margaret: Iron Woman, Iron Heart, Iron Zeal
Margaret was instrumental in grass-roots and nationalist politics in the Eastern Nigerian city of Aba. In an era of a patriarchal and male-dominated movement towards independence, she held her head high while navigating the storms of politics and integrating women’s roles and interests alongside. Her motivation was fanned by the fiery speeches she heard from Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mazi Mbonu Ojike at a political meeting in Aba. It was a meeting that urged Nigerians to claim their independence from Britain. She decided to encourage the participation of women folk in decision making in Aba.
Margaret: Strategist and Activist Extraordinaire
Margaret Ekpo’s first direct participation in events with political dimensions was in 1945. Her husband was indignant with the colonial administrators’ treatment of indigenous Nigerian doctors but as a civil servant, he could not attend meetings to discuss the matter. Margaret Ekpo decided to attend the meetings in his place. The meetings were organized to discuss the discriminatory practices of the colonial administration in the city and to fight cultural and racial imbalance in administrative promotions.
But more action was yet to come. By the time she was in her 40’s, she had already organised a Market Women Association in Aba. The association promoted female solidarity as a way to fight for the economic rights of women and expand their rights to politics. Her desire for many women to join the association was counteracted by the refusal of the husbands of most traders. Coincidentally, it was at a time of salt scarcity due to the aftermath of the Second World War. The problem became Margaret’s opportunity; she decided to pay deposits for all the available bags of salt in the market, giving her a total control on sales. She then ordered that any woman who is not a member of the association should not be sold to. This consequently led to caving in by most husbands, consenting to her demands.
After her success in Aba with the Market Women Association, Margaret went ahead to join the decolonization process which led to the establishment of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a platform to represent a marginalized group. In 1949, Margaret joined Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest the killings of leaders of an Enugu coal mine who were protesting colonial practices. The two women leaders organized a day of mourning for the victims which drew the attention of many Nigerians and that of people across the world. Margaret made a speech that led to her arrest and a threat of deportation from authorities in Enugu state. However, the women of Aba came to her rescue and threatened to set the town ablaze if she wasn’t released.
Margaret Ekpo’s awareness of growing movements for civil rights for women around the world prodded her into demanding the same for the women in her country and to fight the discriminatory and oppressive political and civil role colonialism played in the subjugation of women. She felt that women abroad including those in Britain were already fighting for civil rights and had more voice in political and civil matters than their counterparts in Nigeria. In 1953, Ekpo was nominated by the NCNC to the regional House of Chiefs, and in 1954 she established the Aba Township Women’s Association. As the leader of the new market group, she was able to garner the trust of a large number of women in the township and turn it into a political pressure group. By 1955, women in Aba had outnumbered men voters in a citywide election.
Margaret Ekpo won a seat to the Eastern Regional House of Assembly in 1961, a position that allowed her to fight for issues affecting women at the time. In particular, there were issues on the progress of women in economic and political matters, especially in the areas of transportation around major roads leading to markets and rural transportation in general.
Legacies, Honours and Recognition
After a military coup ended the First Republic, she took a less prominent approach to politics. But irrespective of that, there were notable achievements and legacies left by this great woman. Some of these include her being:
- One of three women appointed to the House of Chiefs, in the 1950s.
- The Nigerian representative to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference (1964).
- The Nigerian representative to the World Women’s International Domestic Federation Conference (1963).
- Member of Parliament Government of Nigeria (1960 – 1966).
- Women’s interest representative to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference (1960).
- Delegate to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference (1953 to 1959).
- Women’s interest representative to the Eastern House of Chiefs, Nigeria (between 1954 and 1958).
- Member, Eastern House of Chiefs, Nigeria (between 1948 and 1966).
In 2001, Calabar Airport was named after her. She died in September 2006.
Featured Image Source: Independent Newspapers Nigeria
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