In Nigeria, seeing a female participate in politics at the top level is like getting new naira notes — it is a very rare occurrence. 

In November 2022, the United Nations announced that Nigeria was part of the countries with the lowest level of female representation in the national parliament at 4.1%. Compared to Senegal’s 57% and Rwanda’s 67% rates, this is an insanely low rate for women.

But as rare as it sounds, Nigeria’s political history is sprinkled with the tales of many great women and their exploits. From Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to Chief Alimotu Pelewura, women have been involved in Nigeria’s struggles towards democratic freedom. 

One of these women is Margaret Ekpo, Nigeria’s first female politician who was known to mobilise women around the country for social justice causes. Let’s tell her story here

Ekpo as Nigeria’s First Female Politician

As a wife and teacher, Ekpo’s political interests grew due to her husband’s displeasure with the poor treatment of Nigerian doctors by colonial masters. She, later on, started her political journey in 1945. This was by joining the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) at a political meeting in Aba. 

She was responsible for the formation of the NCNC women’s wing. This was along with the wife of the leader of the party, Flora Nnamdi Azikiwe. Azikiwe became its first president with Ekpo as vice-president. 

In 1953, she was nominated by the NCNC for a seat in the regional House of Chiefs. In 1954, she established the Aba Township Women’s Association which she used to fight for the economic rights and protections of women as well as the expansion of their political rights.

As the ‘boss lady’ of the ‘new market’ group, she was able to gain the trust of a large amount of women in the township. She channeled their energies into exerting political pressure on the government. By 1955, women in Aba outnumbered male voters in a city-wide election because of her work. 

In 1960, Ekpo became the president of NCNC women’s wing after Flora Azikiwe became the first lady. As president, she continued to lead women in canvassing for party candidates across the country, forming a formidable campaign team.

Ekpo won a seat in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly in 1961. This made her become the first Aba woman to attain this achievement. Her position enabled her to fight for the progress of women in economic and political matters. This includes the availability of transportation on major roads leading to markets. After a military coup ended the First Republic, she took a less prominent approach to politics.

Ekpo the Activist

Ekpo started her activism in 1949. This was during a protest in Enugu at Iva Valley mining site. Coal miners requested a wage increase and their ring-leaders were shot by colonial officers. 

Ekpo got in touch with other women leaders around the country (most notably Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti) and they declared a day of national mourning for the victims. This helped draw attention to the incident not only in Nigeria, but also across the world.

During the demonstrations on the day of mourning, she made a controversial speech that stepped on the toes of the British.

She was later arrested because of this. Alongside her were her contemporaries Jaja Nwachukwu (the first Speaker of the country’s House of Representatives), Samuel Mazi and Nwachukwu Abengowe. They were harassed and threatened with deportation. In retaliation, the women of Aba threatened to set the town ablaze. Eventually, Ekpo and the others were set free.

In the early 1950s, a fellow police officer murdered Mrs Onyia. This was because she rejected his advances. The authorities covered up the murder to avoid controversy. However, Ekpo and the Aba women stormed the Enugu Prisons Department. They demanded to see her burial site.

When the white superintendent rebuffed them, they threatened to break the prison gates and enter forcibly. The guards allowed them in. They exhumed the body and carried out an autopsy. They found out the truth and executed the guilty warden.

Honours and Awards

In 2001, the government named Calabar airport after her. Her name graces the Ekpo Refectory at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and various other buildings and structures across the nation. Until her death in 2006, she was the Life Patron of the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS).



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