As her plane touched down in Lagos, Nigeria on Saturday, February 2, 1959, there was only one thing on the mind of the celebrated Nigerian politician and activist, Margaret Ekpo: the upcoming federal elections in December and how she could further her fight for women’s rights on the back of them.
A frequent traveller, Ekpo had just completed a trip to the United States. Now returning to her base in Aba, eastern Nigeria, she was about to deliver another speech from her political armoury.
Regarded as a female “pillar” of the political party the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), in eastern Nigeria, Ekpo was met by a large crowd of women who came to welcome her back from her trip.
After exchanging pleasantries with the women, Ekpo urged them to stay in high spirits and launched into political campaign rhetoric. She told them to “smash” the opposition at the forthcoming elections.
Well-known for her uncompromising language, she was never one to disappoint her audience.
Killings at Enugu Colliery
Ten years earlier, a tough-talking Ekpo had eye-balled the colonial authorities during the November 1949 Enugu Colliery strike. During the inquiry that followed the slaughter of 20 protesters during the strike, Ekpo made her name as a no-nonsense feminist who did not mince her words.
In November 1949, a labour union dispute was raised by the Nigeria Africa Mineworkers Union at the British-owned Enugu Colliery, which had coal mines in places such as Obwetti, Udi and Iva Valley, over unfair dismissals, wages and poor working conditions.
The miners protested, and markets and shops were closed in neighbouring towns and villages as local women joined them.
But when police opened fire on the protesters and their supporters at the Iva Valley coal mine, 20 coal miners and one bystander were killed. Many others were injured.
The following month, the colonial government published a notice inviting members of the public to the Enugu Commission of Enquiry for “any persons who desire to give evidence”.
According to The Nigerian Citizen newspaper, which published proceedings from the enquiry, which began on December 12, 1949, among several of the testimonies it heard was that of Mr FR Kay. Kay was a senior British colonial administrator in Owerri Province, in the mid-west of Nigeria. He told the hearing:
“Mrs Margaret Ekpo convened a meeting at which she said had any Black woman been injured in Enugu, she would go into the first house in Aba Division, (eastern Nigeria) where she could find a white woman and would shoot her dead.”
The protests – and Expo’s warning – had taken place against a background of growing nationalist movements, the creation of new political parties and increasing animosity towards the British colonial government.
Incidents such as the 1945 Labour Union General Strike and then the 1949 Enugu Colliery killings, fuelled these tensions.
Ekpo was born in Creek Town, Calabar, in southeast Nigeria in 1914. She attended primary and secondary school, but her plans to benefit from the few educational opportunities available for girls and women at that time were dropped when her father died in 1934.
At the age of 24, she married John Udo Ekpo, a medical practitioner. In 1944, she accompanied him to Ireland, where she finally had an opportunity to pursue higher education, enrolling at the Rathmine School of Domestic Economics in Dublin.
Later, the couple returned to Aba in eastern Nigeria, where her husband commenced his medical career at Aba General Hospital, while she set up a domestic science training school.
Ekpo’s political awakening was sudden. At the height of nationalist agitation for independence from British colonial rule, disaffected Nigerians began convening community meetings to discuss racial discrimination in the colonial civil service. Ekpo participated on behalf of her husband who could not attend because of his work as a civil servant.
As with other departments in the colonial service, medical service departments discriminated against Nigerians in terms of promotions, working conditions and wages. For example, government hospitals were built for the colonial officers and medical services were only accessible by Europeans and, later on, their Nigerian employees. However, Nigerians were not allowed to treat Europeans.
Widespread discontent across the country prompted many Nigerians to align with nationalist political parties such as the National Youth Movement, National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons, Action Group, Northern Peoples’ Congress, Northern Elements Peoples Union, United Middle Belt Congress and others.
Ekpo’s growing awareness about racial discrimination and the existing weight of oppressive colonial taxation, further radicalised her.
Votes for women – a long time coming
During her career, Ekpo joined ranks with the prominent feminist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, under the umbrella of the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU). Together, they travelled to different provinces to mobilise women to join the NWU and be a part of Nigeria’s decolonisation journey.
According to the book, The Feminisation of Development Processes in Africa, by Valentine Udoh James and James S Etim, Ransome-Kuti travelled with Ekpo to the Enugu Colliery during the crisis at the coal mine in 1949 and also visited the widows of the deceased.
Ekpo wrote to Ransome-Kuti to express her appreciation for the older woman’s guidance. “I cannot explain to you what new spirit you have poured into me. I feel 100 percent stronger,” she told her.
Both women invested their time raising political awareness about universal adult suffrage, women’s education and independence from oppressive colonial rule.
In the 1940s, Nigerian women were still not allowed to vote. An example of the electoral regulations issued in 1942 by the colonial government for elections into the Legislative Council of Nigeria was as follows:
“Every male person who is a British subject or a native of the Protectorate of Nigeria, who is of the age of 21 years or upwards and has been ordinarily resident for 12 months immediately preceding the date of registration in the Municipal area and was, during the calendar year immediately preceding, in possession of a gross annual income of not less than one hundred pounds, shall be entitled to be registered as an Elector.”
These regulations stayed in place until 1951 when Adult Taxpayer Suffrage was introduced. But it still excluded many women.
Electoral regulations for Nigerian women were implemented on a piecemeal basis. Universal Adult Suffrage was implemented in Lagos in 1950, but only rolled out through the rest of the country on a regional basis. Women in the Eastern and Western Regions gained full voting rights in 1954 and 1959 respectively. But, in northern Nigeria, women had to wait until 1976 for the right to vote and stand for election.
Mobilising women with salt
Ekpo sought to mobilise women in Aba, and its neighbouring towns by touring and speaking about the importance of women forming associations as platforms to resist discriminatory colonial policies. She urged them to join the ongoing nationalist agitation for Nigeria’s independence from Britain.
In 1954, she formed the Aba Township Women’s Association (ATWA).
In her book, Igbo Women and Economic Transformation in South Eastern Nigeria 1900-1960, Gloria Chuku, describes how other associations similar to the ATWA sprang up all over the Eastern Region as women mobilised to protect their economic and political interests.
To encourage women to join ATWA, Ekpo devised a particularly clever plan.
The world was just emerging from the end of the Second World War and was still reeling from shortages of essential commodities, especially salt. Ekpo purchased all the bags of salt in Aba Market and controlled its sale to members of ATWA. Any woman who wanted to purchase salt had to first register with the Association. The result was to mobilise women under one major socio-political body. It marked Ekpo out as an astute political player.
Other associations, such as the Aba Community League and the Aba Market Women’s Association, joined forces with ATWA to share anti-colonial messages and mobilise their cohorts towards electoral politics.
These mobilisation strategies transformed into a formidable women’s socio-political movement. Women were able to secure seats on the Aba Urban District Council – breaking the male political monopoly of the local council and securing a voice in local politics.
In 1957, Ekpo was appointed to the Aba Urban District Council (AUDC) Caretaker Committee.
But her ambitions were not limited to local politics. As the ruling party in Eastern Nigeria, the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) was the region’s main political representative at the constitutional conferences between Nigerian the British colonial government. Ekpo was a prominent member of the NCNC and the only female delegate from the region to represent women’s voices in all the constitutional negotiations.
The female delegate
The NCNC party’s leadership recognised Ekpo’s socio-political negotiating skills, and her name featured regularly on lists of advisers included in delegations representing the Eastern Region of Nigeria at Constitutional Conferences held in London and Lagos.
It was only the Eastern and Western Regional Premiers who invited a few women to be a part of their delegations. No woman was included in the Northern delegations to the constitutional talks throughout the period leading up to Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
So Ekpo became one of a few well-known Nigerian female politicians representing women’s interests in conferences that shaped the country’s constitutional future.
The Constitutions, laid down by the British Colonial Government, allowed the three regions to create legislative structures known as the Regional House of Assembly and House of Chiefs.
These institutions were political in nature and became vehicles to increase the participation of Nigerians in their own affairs. Each institution had the power to nominate Special Members as representatives of particular interests.
In January 1959, Ekpo was appointed as a Special Member to the Eastern House of Chiefs, which was a particularly conservative, male-dominated institution. Along with her colleague, Janet Mokelu, she was one of only two female members.
In her inaugural speech to the Eastern House of Chiefs, Ekpo showed her brand of political savvy by opening on a note of conciliation.
“If you look round the Northern House Chiefs and the Western House of Chiefs, you will see that these two Houses have no women representation,” she said.
“I am assuring you that the women of the Eastern Region, with two of us here representing their interests, will be solidly behind you and the Government of the Eastern Region. I seize the opportunity to extend our gratitude to our ex-Premier who has not forgotten the women. We thank you all and we hope the Chiefs here will not listen to all the gossip of the Opposition and evil-minded people who will try to buy off your minds and say ‘Oh how can you sit in the House of Chiefs with Women?’ I am assuring you that we will always co-operate with you. We will not want to take your feathers or your crowns or your caps; and we will only cooperate with you.”
In keeping with her political shrewdness, during the debates on April 28, 1960, to critique the speech of the Governor of Eastern Region, Sir Robert de Stapledon, she opened her submission by first paying direct tribute to the leader of her party, the NCNC, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe: “It is his, Azikiwe’s, belief that whatever he is doing, wherever he is, he will always remember that human beings come from the womb of women, and that without women in any part of the world, things will not be smooth-sailing. He had thought it fit to place two women in this House of Chiefs to represent the interest of women, and so, our gratitude goes to him.”
For Ekpo and Mokelu it was a rare feat for women to participate in public decision-making processes and an opportunity not to be missed.
On February 25, 1960, during the deliberations about the Second Reading of the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Bill, which arose from constitutional provisions that each of Nigeria’s three regions – Northern, Eastern and Western – were allowed to “establish their television and broadcasting services”, Ekpo said: “I am supporting this Bill and I am emphasising again that when the Board of this Broadcasting Institution will be created, there should be no discrimination. Men and women should serve on that Board. Already if you look round the Eastern Region today you do not find many women serving in any of these boards. At times you find one, at times you find none.
“So many of us women are paying tax in this Region and this tax is going to be used in paying this Corporation’s staff. Therefore, I am asking that women should form a majority in the Broadcasting Corporation because if you listen to your radio and you hear a certain female voice coming to announce the news to you, you will certainly sit up to hear the news.”
The importance of equal access to education was also a major issue for Ekpo and she emphasised this fact to the Assembly on April 22, 1960 during a debate about the Appropriation Bill which would set funds for each sector.
“I have noticed that for 1960 to 1961, we have on the budget here 100 post-secondary, 510 secondary and 102 technical scholarships,” she said. “Mr President, I would like the Minister of Education to know that we are now in Independent Nigeria, and that time has gone when they placed boys before girls.
“If you look round today there is a woman Magistrate here, doing very well. If the parents did not educate her well, she could not have been doing very well. So I am asking that when scholarships are to be distributed, they must be distributed equally to boys and girls.”
Although Ekpo pledged collaboration with the Members of the House Chiefs on matters which would improve the Eastern Region she did not hesitate to speak her mind when she disagreed.
For example, on May 3, 1960, the matter of Payment of Tax by Women was on the legislative agenda in the House of Chiefs. During the debate, Ekpo referred to her earlier statements where she said she believed women should pay tax.
Ekpo supported the payment of tax by women – when it was fair. However, due to the politically sensitive nature of the issue in the region, she proactively cautioned the Chiefs not to play any games with her statements or to quote her out of context.
“Knowing full well the mentality of our people in this region, I would like to clarify what I meant was not that women should not pay tax, of course you know that women do pay tax. I pay tax. The other Hon Lady by my right pays tax and numerous other women in the region do pay tax according to their yearly income.
“But some of the Chiefs here are trying to go out of this House with very wrong impressions. I want to warn them that if they dare go outside this House and into the rural areas to incite the women against us, we will put up a very strong resistance. I will resist any attempt by any of the Hon members here to leave this house and go to incite the women to the effect that I said that women should pay tax.”
Elected at last
Though Ekpo made history as a female NCNC delegate, as well as with her women-centered legislative debates in the House of Chiefs, her loyalty to the party did not go untested.
In 1957, when she first indicated her interest in contesting the regional elections to the Eastern House of Assembly, which was the legislative arm of the Eastern Region Government, she was reportedly told by the party leadership that “the elections were too crucial to take the additional risk of presenting a woman candidate”.
This has never been independently confirmed, but given that her compatriot, Ransome-Kuti, reported a similar reaction in 1959 in the Western Region, it is likely Ekpo too was overlooked by the party’s hierarchy because she was a woman, despite her proven prowess at mobilising popular support.
When the 1959 federal elections approached, Ekpo’s electoral value for the NCNC was once again highlighted. But the party hierarchy still did not want to put female candidates forward, and Ekpo was firmly rejected.
In 1960, she took over the mantle of leadership of the party’s women’s wing. And on October 1 that year, Nigeria gained its independence.
Ekpo continued her political campaigns in Aba on behalf of her party in the hope that she would be nominated as a candidate to contest the regional elections scheduled for 1961.
According to the book, Nigeria: The Birth of Africa’s Greatest Country, by Ottah N March, in an interview shortly before the country won its independence in 1960, Ekpo told the press: “My contribution towards independence will be to double my efforts to emancipate all women.”
Her chance to stand for election finally came in 1961, when she received the nod from party heads to be the candidate for Aba Urban North constituency in the Eastern House of Assembly regional elections. She won.
Her mass mobilisation of women over the years had paid off as they came out to vote for her and Janet Mokelu.
As an elected legislator in the Eastern House of Assembly, Ekpo continued to focus on women’s issues – drawing attention, among other things, to the concerns of female farmers, the need for more women on corporate boards. She pointedly asked the Minister of Education, why were married women no longer admitted into Teacher Training Colleges; and why wasn’t the Women’s Occupational Training Centre in Aba, at par with its sister college in Western Nigeria.
The electorate clearly appreciated her efforts and she was returned to her parliamentary seat by voters in the 1963 regional elections. Her second victory inspired other women in the region to participate in electoral politics. That same year, Miss Ekpo A Young won a seat to the Eastern House of Assembly during a by-election in Calabar West Constituency.
Ekpo remained in the regional assembly until January 15, 1966, when Nigeria’s government was overthrown in a military coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
As Nigeria swung back and forth between military dictatorships and democratically-elected governments in the years that followed, not much was heard about Ekpo. By the time Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1979, she was 65 years old.
However, her contributions as a female political activist and advocate for women’s suffrage and social justice, were not forgotten.
She was bestowed with several national and international awards including the Order of the Niger (OON) and Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR).
During an interview with the Nigerian singer and actress, Onyeka Onwenu, in 2004, a 90-year-old Ekpo said: “Without the help of women, the men could not have effectively executed the fight for Nigeria’s Independence from the British.”
She died at the age of 92 on September 21, 2006, and was buried in a special mausoleum built by the State Government at the Hawkins cemetery, Calabar, on December 9, 2006.
During the funeral service held at the UJ Esuene stadium, tributes were paid by state government officials who pledged to “turn her burial site to a tourist attraction to immortalise her achievements and contributions to the political development of the country and empowerment of women in the society”.
As part of the memorialisation of her name, the state government renamed Calabar Airport, the Margaret Ekpo International Airport.