Margaret Ekpo was a Nigerian women’s rights activist, social mobiliser and pioneering female politician in Nigeria’s First Republic.
Ekpo was born in 1914 in Creek Town, Cross River State Okoroafor Obiasulor, a native of Agulu-Uzo-Igbo near Awka in Anambra State and Inyang Eyo Aniemewue, who was from the family of King Eyo Honesty II, of Creek Town. In 1934, Ekpo’s father died, forcing her to leave education with only her Standard Six School certificates. Ekpo had intended to attend teacher training college, but was unable to due to her level of education. She found a tutoring job and taught at a variety of elementary schools until 1938, when she married Dr. John Udo Ekpo.
In 1945, Ekpo began to becoming involved in politics after her husband became dissatisfied with colonial administrations treatment of indigenous Nigerian doctors at the Aba General Hospital. As a civil servant, he was unable to attend meetings organised to discuss these discriminatory practices and fight the cultural and racial imbalance. Ekpo went on his behalf and then attended a political rally at which she was the only woman. She heard speeches by Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mazi Mbonu Ojike urging Nigerians to claim their independence from Great Britain and took up the nationalist struggle. Ekpo set about devising ways to encourage women in Aba to participate political rallies. She tried to get more women to join the Aba Market Women Association so that she could pass on information from meetings to them, but their husbands were reluctant to allow this. After World War II, salt was difficult to get a hold of and Ekpo used this to her advantage. She bought all the bags of salt, giving her control of its sales and then ordered that only women who were a member of the association could be sold to. As salt was a necessary item, all the men allowed their wives to register.
In 1946, Ekpo’s husband was taken to Ireland for medical attention and Ekpo used her time there to study for a diploma in Domestic Economics which she received in 1948 from the Rathmine School of Domestic Economics in Dublin, Ireland (now the Dublin Institute of Technology). On their return to Nigeria, Ekpo founded a domestic science institute in Aba, Abia State. Ekpo trained girls in dressmaking and home economics at the institute. She continued her activism, and by the end of the 40’s she had organised a Market Woman Association in Aba to unionise women in the city. The organisation promoted female solidarity as a way to fight for the economic rights of women and to expand their political rights. She also joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) to fight for decolonisation.
In 1949, Ekpo joined Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in protesting the killings of leaders protesting colonial practices at an Enugu coal mine. They organised a day of mourning for the victims, and were able to draw international attention to the incident. Ekpo made a speech at the event, and was subsequently arrested and threatened with deportation. The women of Aba were outraged, and threatened to set the town ablaze, leading to Ekpo’s release. During their time together, Ekpo and Ransome-Kuti discussed the need for women’s involvement in politics, and together they went on to tour the South Eastern region to encourage women to engage with politics.
In the early 1950’s, following the murder of Mrs. Onyia, a prison officer killed for rejecting the advances of a male colleague, Ekpo and the women of Aba stormed the Enugu Prisons Department demanding to see where the deceased was buried. Eventually, the body was released and the truth of the murder was uncovered, leading to the execution of the murderer and the reveal of the attempt to cover up the incident. In 1953, Ekpo was nominated by the NGNC to the regional House of Chiefs, and in 1954 she established the Aba Township Women’s Association, which she was able to turn into a political pressure group. A year later, women in Aba outnumbered male voters in a city wide election. In 1960, Ekpo became the President of the NCNC’s women’s wing after the previous president, Flora Nnamdi Azikiwe became First Lady. Together, Ekpo and Azikiwe had been responsible for the formation of the NCNC’s women’s wing. Ekpo led women in canvassing for party candidates across the country, forming a formidable campaign team.
In 1961, Ekpo won a seat in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly, becoming the first Aba woman in the position. She was able to use her position to continue to fight for issues affecting women, including the progress of women in economic and political matters and improving infrastructure so that it was easier for them to travel to markets. She was a Nigerian representative in Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference in 1964; Nigeria representative, World Women’s International Domestic Federation Conference in 1963; Member of Parliament, Nigeria, 1960 –1966 and Women’s interest representative, Nigerian Constitutional Conference in 1960. After the First Republic ended following a military coup, Ekpo took on a less prominent role in politics.
Ekpo died in 2006. A refectory is named after her at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and her name graces the Calabar International Airport. She was a human rights activist, feminist, social crusader and a revolutionary woman in politics. She fought for Nigeria’s independence and demanded economic and political equality of women in Nigeria.