THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARGARET EKPO
On that fateful day when the question was asked, “Who will bell the cat?”, Margaret Ekpo stepped forward and said, “I will”. In the words of Alfred P. Sloan, “There has to be this pioneer, the individual who has the courage, the ambition to overcome the obstacles that always develop when one tries to do something worthwhile, especially when it is new and different”. That pioneer, was Margaret Ekpo. Born in an era when men exclusively dominated the Nigerian political sphere, Margaret Ekpo came and said “me too”.
Margaret Ekpo (1914-2006) was born in Creek Town, Cross River State. She reached standard six of the school leaving certificate in 1934 but had to put her education on hold after the death of her father, Okoroafor Obiasulor in the same year. She began to teach in Elementary schools and got married to Dr. John Udo Ekpo in 1938. In 1946, she had the opportunity to study abroad at what used to be the Rathmine School of Domestic Economics in Dublin, Ireland but is now known as the Dublin Institute of Technology, Dublin Ireland. She earned a diploma in domestic science and established a Domestic Science and Sewing Institute in Aba when she returned to Nigeria.
We can say that Margaret Ekpo’s involvement in politics began in 1945. Her husband, John Ekpo was unhappy about the way colonial administrators treated the indigenous Nigerian doctors at the Aba General Hospital. As a civil servant, he was not allowed to attend meetings where these matters were discussed. Margaret Ekpo went in his stead. Afterwards, she attended a political rally where she was the only woman in attendance. But again, she was the trailblazer for women’s participation in politics in Nigeria. At the rally, she had the opportunity of listening to fiery speeches made by great men like Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mazi Mbonu Ojike who were urging Nigerians to join in the struggle for independence from our colonial masters. She subsequently began to devise ways of encouraging Aba women to participate in political rallies. This was of course, not an easy feat.
Margaret Ekpo organized a Market Women Association in Aba to unite the market women and she tried to get more women to join. She hoped that she could pass on information she got from meetings to the women. However, most women were unable to join because their husbands disapproved. Margaret Ekpo did not give up. After the second world war, salt became a scarce commodity and Margaret Ekpo smartly used this to her advantage. She bought up all the bags of salt available, monopolizing the salt market and declared that salt would only be sold to women who were members of the association. Since all households needed salt, the men allowed their wives to join the association.
Dr. John Ekpo had to be taken to Ireland for medical attention in 1946. During this period, Margaret Ekpo studied and earned a diploma in Domestic Economics in 1948. On their return to Nigeria, Margaret Ekpo established a Domestic Science and Sewing Institute in Aba, Abia State. She taught young women about dressmaking and home economics at the institute. The institute and the market women association were platforms she used to unite, support and fight for women’s rights. Around this period, she joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) to join in the struggle for freedom.
In 1949, Margaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest the killings of leaders protesting unfair colonial practices at an Enugu coal mine, what is known as the November 1949 Enugu Colliery strike. Innocent people were killed for daring to protest and demand for fair wages. Together, Margaret and Funmilayo organized a day of mourning for the victims and succeeded in drawing attention to the event both locally and internationally. Margaret Ekpo in her usual fiery, unabashed manner gave a speech at the event. She was said to have declared that had a Nigerian woman been among those killed, she would have gone straight to the first house in Aba Division and shot a white woman in retaliation. She was arrested for making such a speech alongside Jaja Wachukwu, Samuel Mazi and Nwachukwu Abengowe. They were harassed and threatened with deportation. Yes, they were going to be deported from their own country. The Aba women that Margaret Ekpo had helped awaken did not take things lightly with the colonial masters. They threatened to set the entire town ablaze. Their protests were successful and Margaret Ekpo as well as the others arrested were promptly set free.
Margaret Ekpo and the women of Aba did many great things together. One of such was getting justice for Mrs. Onyia, a prison officer who was murdered for rejecting the advances of a male colleague. They marched into the Enugu Prisons Department demanding that the body of the victim was released and the murder mystery was solved. The murderer was executed and the futile attempts made at covering up the murder were also revealed. Margaret Ekpo was in 1953 nominated by the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) to the regional House of Chiefs and earned herself the well-deserved ‘Chief’ title. She established the Aba Township Women’s Association in 1954, which she was able to convert to a political pressure group. Only a year after, her persistent encouragement for women’s participation in politics yielded fruit as the Aba women outnumbered the male voters in a city-wide election, a feat that was thought impossible only a few years prior. Talk about progress! She became the President of the NCNC’s women’s wing in 1960 when the previous president, Flora Nnamdi Azikwe became the inaugural First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In 1961, Margaret Ekpo finally won a seat in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly, becoming the first Aba woman in that position, a pioneer. She used her position to advance her fight for women’s rights, pushing for the involvement of women in economic and political matters. She brought about positive changes like improved transportation infrastructure, especially for the major loads leading to markets, making life easier for the market women. She represented women every chance she got. She was Nigeria’s representative at the World Women’s International Domestic Federation Conference in 1963. She was also a Nigerian representative at the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference of 1964. She was a Member of the Nigerian Parliament from 1960-1966, representing women’s interests and paving the way for their advancement in the political and economic spheres.
During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), Margaret Ekpo was detained by the Biafran authorities for three years. She took ill at some point due to lack of adequate feeding. In 2001, Nigeria’s then president, President Olusegun Obasanjo, renamed the international airport in Calabar after her as a tribute to her contributions towards the advancement of Nigeria. The airport, located in Calabar just near her birthplace of Creek Town, is now known as the Margaret Ekpo International Airport. She passed away a few years later in 2006.
Margaret Ekpo was a formidable woman, creating her own path when there were obstructions and breaking down barriers against women. She was a true activist and a successful one as well. We celebrate her bravery and resilience today.