First Republic Nigerian Women’s Rights Activist And Social Mobilizer

Chief Margaret Ekpo

Chief Margaret Ekpo was a Nigerian women’s rights activist and social mobilizer who played a pioneering role in the country’s First Republic as a leading female politician. She was part of a group of traditional Nigerian women activists who went beyond ethnic solidarity to champion women’s rights. Margaret Ekpo made significant contributions as a grassroots and nationalist politician in Aba, Eastern Nigeria, during a time when the movement towards independence was dominated by a hierarchical and male-centric structure.

BACKGROUND Margaret Ekpo was born in Creek Town, Cross River State, to the family of Okoroafor Obiasulor and Inyang Eyo Aniemikwe. Her father was originally from Aguluzigbo, a rural town in Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State. Through her mother, she belonged to the royal family of King Eyo Honesty II of Creek Town. She completed her school leaving certificate up to Standard Six in 1934 but had to postpone her plans for further education in teachers training after her father’s death. She started working as a pupil-teacher in elementary schools and married a doctor named John Udo Ekpo in 1938. While her husband was from the Ibibio ethnic group, she had Igbo and Efik heritage. The couple eventually settled in Aba.

In 1946, Margaret Ekpo had the opportunity to study abroad at what is now Dublin Institute of Technology in Dublin, Ireland. She obtained a diploma in domestic science and upon her return to Nigeria, she established a Domestic Science and Sewing Institute in Aba. Her involvement in women’s rights activism began in 1945 when her husband, as a civil servant, was unable to attend meetings discussing the treatment of indigenous Nigerian doctors by colonial administrators. Margaret Ekpo attended these meetings in his place, which were organized to address discriminatory practices and cultural/racial imbalances in administrative promotions.

She later attended a political rally where she was the only woman present. The rally featured passionate speeches from Mbonu Ojike, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Herbert Macaulay. By the end of the 1940s, she had formed the Market Women Association in Aba to unite market women in the city. Through this association, she fostered women’s solidarity and fought for economic and political rights, as well as protections for women. Margaret Ekpo’s political career was interrupted by the Nigerian Civil War, during which she was detained by Biafran authorities for three years.

Margaret Ekpo was inspired by the growing movements for women’s civil rights worldwide and fought against the discriminatory and oppressive role played by colonialism in the subjugation of Nigerian women. She joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) as a platform to represent marginalized groups. In the 1950s, she collaborated with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest the killings at an Enugu coal mine, where leaders were protesting colonial practices. 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 this new market group, she gained the trust of a significant number of women in the township and transformed it into a political pressure group. By 1955, women in Aba outnumbered male voters in a citywide election.

Margaret Ekpo won a seat in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly in 1961, enabling her to advocate for issues affecting women at the time, particularly economic and political matters such as transportation infrastructure leading to markets and rural areas.

Following a military coup that ended the First Republic, she took a less prominent role in politics. In 2001, Calabar Airport was renamed Margaret Ekpo International Airport in her honor. She passed away five years later in 2006.


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