Opinion

The Oracle: Chief (Mrs) Margaret Ekpo and Hajia Gambo Sawaba in History (Pt 15)

By Chief Mike Ozekhome

Margaret Ekpo (1914-2006), a Nigerian women’s rights activist and social mobilizer, who was a pioneering female politician in the country’s First Republic and a leading member of a class of traditional Nigerian women activists. She played major roles as a grassroot and nationalist politician in the Eastern Nigerian city of Aba, in the era of an hierarchical and male-dominated movement towards independence, with her rise not the least helped by the socialization of women’s role into that of helpmates or appendages to the careers of males.

EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION

Margaret Ekpo was born in Creek Town, Cross River State, to the family of Okoroafor Obiasulor and Inyang Eyo Aniemewue. She reached standard six of the school leaving certificate in 1934. However, tragedy struck at home with the death of her father in 1934, her goals of further education in teachers training was as a result put on hold following her father’s death. She subsequently settled for a ‘pupil-teaching job,’ teaching at various elementary schools until she got married, in 1938, to a Yaba High School-trained medical practitioner, Dr. John Udo Ekpo. He was from the Ibibio ethnic group who are predominant in Akwa Ibom State, while she was of Igbo and Efik heritage. She later moved with her husband to Aba.

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 the country, Ekpo established a Domestic Science Institute (DSI), where she trained young girls in dress-making and home economics.

MARGARET’S ARRIVAL ON THE NATIONAL SCENE

Margaret Ekpo’s first direct participation in political ideas and association was in 1945. Her husband was indignant with the colonial administrator’s treatment of indigenous Nigerian doctors but as a civil servant, he could not attend meetings to discuss the matter. Margaret Ekpo then attended meetings in place of her husband, 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. She later attended a political rally and was the only woman at the rally, which saw fiery speeches from Mbonu Ojike, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Herbert Macaulay.
Not content with being the only woman at political meetings, Ekpo 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. She wanted more women to become members of the Aba Market Women Association, so that she could pass on information from her meetings to them, but their husbands would not let them. Luckily, After World War II, there was a general scarcity of salt, an item no household could be without. Ekpo went round the shops and deposited money for all available bags of salt, giving her control of its sales. She ordered that any woman who was not a member of the association should not be sold to. Resultantly, all the men released their women to register.

At the end of the decade Ekpo had organized a Market Women Association (MWA), in Aba. She used the MWA to promote women solidarity as a platform to fight for the economic rights of women, economic protections and expansionary political rights of women.

Margaret’s awareness of growing movements for civil rights for women around the world prompted her into demanding the same for the women in her country and to fight the discriminatory and oppressive political and civil role played in the suppression of women. She felt that women abroad were already fighting for civil rights and had more voice in political and civil matters than their counterparts in Nigeria. She later joined the decolonization-leading National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NGNC), as a platform to represent a marginalized group.
In the 1950s, Margaret teamed up with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest killings at an Enugu coal mine. The victims were leaders protesting demeaning colonial practices at the mine. In 1953, Margaret was nominated by the NGNC to the regional House of Chiefs, and in 1954, she established the Aba Township Women’s Association (ATWA). As 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 the following year, women voters in Aba had outnumbered male voters in a city wide election. She 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. After a military coup ended the First Republic, she took a less prominent approach to politics.

MARGARET’S IMPERISHABLE STRIDES AND ACHIEVEMENTS

Ekpo was one of three women appointed to the House of Chiefs, in the 1950s – besides 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 the Nigerian representative to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference (1964), 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), a delegate to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference (1959), a delegate to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference (1953 and 1957), women’s interest representative to the Eastern House of Chiefs, Nigeria (between 1954 and 1958) and member, Eastern House of Chiefs, Nigeria (between 1948 and 1966). In 2001, Calabar Airport was named after her.

MARGARET’S PAINFUL EXIT

Margaret died on 21st September, 2006, at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital. She was aged 92. There is no way the history of Nigeria can be written without including the name of this legend.

HAJIA GAMBO SAWABA

Hajia Gambo Sawaba (1933-2001), was a luminous Nigerian politician and activist, who was an important women organizer for the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), during Nigeria’s first Republic. She was one of the early members of NEPU in Zaria, a party that identified with the poor and working class, and became their major support base. Sawaba is also known for some of her charitable causes and strong views on women’s liberation in the arena of politics. Her political activities during the period earned her persecutions from both the colonial authorities and the native administration and many times, these resulted in her being incarcerated. Her biography included notes on several instances of beatings and assaults attributed to the NPC’s Yan Mahaukita. She was born in Zaria, Kaduna state, to parents Fatima and Isa Amarteifo (a Ghanaian). Her birth name was Hajaratu Amarteifo but she was born after a set of twins and so was nicknamed Gambo; the nickname stuck. A name that was supposedly given to her by Malam Gambo Sawaba, an outstanding member of NEPU in Zaria, who was twice elected to the Zaria City Council. Her father was of Ghanaian origin while her mother was from Nupeland.

EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION

Gambo was married off at age 13 to a World War II veteran, Abubakar Garba Bello, who left and never returned after her first pregnancy. A general hospital was later named after her in Kaduna. As a child, Gambo Sawaba was often described as stubborn and forthright. By her own admission, she often went out looking for fights, although she rationalized the said fights as her way of protecting the weaker people she knew. According to her, “I could not stand by to watch a weak friend or relation being molested.” Whenever she got to the scenes of such fights,she would immediately say, “OK, I have bought the fight from you”, to the weaker person and take over the fight. She also showed a marked affection towards mentally challenged and generally less privileged members of society. She spoke with them, accommodated some and gave the ones she could, money, clothes and food.  She attended the Native Authority Primary School in Tudun Wada. However, within a spate of a few years, starting in 1943, she lost her father and then her mother. She cut short her education.

POLITICAL CAREER AND ARRIVAL AT THE NATIONAL SCENE

Hajia Gambo Sawaba entered politics when she was 17. At that time, northern Nigeria was dominated by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which had the support of the Emirs and British Colonial Authority. Hajia Gambo Sawaba belonged to opposition group, the Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU), which she joined in Zaria when a local branch was formed. The party held secretive meetings to hide their activities from the Police.

NEPU’s early message was to relinquish power from the elites and rally round the poor. They were anti-colonialism and anti-corruption. Gambo was made women’s leader at Kaduna’s Sabon Gari branch. At one point, she travelled to Abeokuta to meet female activist – and mother of singer Fela – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Gambo had read about her successful protest against the taxation of Egba women.

A few months later, Gambo made a name for herself when, at a political lecture in Zaria, she climbed on to a podium and spoke out in a room full of male contemporaries who were afraid to open their mouths. She continued to raise her profile by going door-to-door and meeting women who were not allowed to attend political activities because of their gender. She campaigned against the marriage of underage girls and the use of forced labour. She was also a great advocate of Western education in the North. She died of natural causes in October, 2001, aged 71.

LOVE, MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN

Imagine that at 13 years of age, Gambo had been married off (if we can call that marriage), to Abubakar Garba Bello, a World War II veteran. When the teenaged Gambo was pregnant with their first child, Bello suddenly disappeared, never to be heard from again. The child was Bilikisu. A few years later, Gambo got married again to Hamidu Gusau. That marriage was, to call a mountain a mole hill, tempestuous. Husband and wife often had disagreements that degenerated into violent fights (never a good idea), because Gambo could dish up a good fight and apparently, so could Hamidu. The two eventually parted ways and Gambo would try marriage twice more.

HAJIA GAMBO SAWABA’S IMPERISHABLE STRIDES

Gambo was said to have been sent to jail a staggering 16 times in her lifetime – usually on trumped-up charges – and was often brutalised by the Police. In 1953, she organised an inaugural meeting of the women’s wing in Kano city.

In July 1958, during NEPU’s second congress, the women’s wing decided to join up with the Nigerian Women’s Union, which was under the leadership of Ransome-Kuti.

During the second republic, Gambo became a member of the Great Nigeria People’s Party and served as a Deputy Chairman. In the 70s, she was involved in small-scale trading and later worked as a contractor. Hajia Gambo, Nigerians will forever honour and celebrate you.

FUN TIME

The stress is abhorrent and torturous. The fears are enormous. To ease these, we shall henceforth, week after week, share some laughter to kick-start a fresh week. Laughter is the biggest medicine for stress. It is therapeutic. Says Mary Peterbone Poole, “he who laughs, lasts!”.

“This is the first time in the history of English that a question and the answer are exactly the same!!!

Question: Who declared Coronavirus as a pandemic?

Answer: WHO declared Coronavirus as a pandemic.

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK

“Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved”. (Mattie Stepanek).

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