Teacher, politician, and activist, Margaret Ekpo (July 27, 1914 – September 21, 2006) was born on in an era when a very young Nigerian nation was under the rule of colonial masters. By the 1950s, when it was clear that Nigeria’s independence was not too far ahead, Ekpo had already become a house-hold name.
With the much respected Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900 – 1978), Ekpo routinely toured the country, mobilising women to become politically conscious and participate in the emerging political affiliations in order to protect their interests and ensure the advancement of the nation.
Early Life and Education
Margaret Ekpo was born in Creek Town, Calabar, Cross River State, on July 27, 1914, into the family of Inyang Eyo Aniemewue from the Royal stock of King Eyo Honesty II and Okoroafor Obiasulor native of Agulu-Uzo-Igbo near Awka in Anambra State.
She reached standard six of the school-leaving certificate in 1934 but she could not further her education to secondary school level because she lost her father in the same year.
Her goal of further education in teachers’ training was also put on hold. So she then started working as a pupil teacher in elementary schools.
In 1946, she had the opportunity to study abroad at what is now Dublin Institute of Technology, Dublin Ireland. She earned a diploma in domestic science and on her return to Nigeria she established a Domestic Science and Sewing Institute in Aba.
Marriage and Career
Margaret got married to Dr. John Ekpo in 1938. Her husband was from the Ibibio ethnic group who are predominant in present-day Akwa Ibom State, while Margaret was of Igbo and Efik heritage.
Margaret Ekpo was thrust into politics by chance. In 1945, her late husband, Dr. Ekpo, had taken great exception to the discriminatory practices of the Colonial Administrators of Aba General Hospital. But as a civil servant, he could not attend the meetings organized by Nigerians to protest against these policies but he sent his wife instead.
Margaret Ekpo, who had been listening to her husband’s complaints with quiet indignation, was only too happy to be her husband’s ears and eyes at these meetings.
Soon afterwards, members of a nascent political party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) would address a political rally in Aba, with Margaret Ekpo in attendance.
It was at this rally, after listening to fiery speeches by Herbert Macaulay, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Mazi Mbonu Ojike (of the boycott the boycottables fame) urging Nigerians to claim their Independence from Great Britain, that the fire of political activism was ignited in Margaret Ekpo. She was the only woman at the rally and not a few wondered what a woman was doing there when she should be at home, attending to her family. Margaret Ekpo was undeterred, however. Besides, she had the full support of her husband.
In the 1950s, she joined Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest killings at an Enugu coal mine; the victims were leaders protesting colonial practices at the mine. 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 leader of the new market group, she turned it into a political pressure group.
By 1955, women in Aba had outnumbered men voters in a city-wide election. In 1961, she won a seat at the Eastern Regional House of Assembly, a position that allowed her to fight for economic and political issues affecting women, especially in the areas of transportation around major roads leading to markets and rural transportation in general.
Margaret Ekpo was responsible for the formation of the NCNC Women’s Wing, along with the wife of the leader of the party, Mrs. Flora Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became its first president while Margaret Ekpo was the vice president. When Flora Azikiwe became the First Lady in 1960, Margaret Ekpo assumed the presidential post of the women’s wing. As president, she continued to lead the women in campaigns for party candidates across the country, making for quite a formidable campaign team.
After a military coup ended the First Republic in January 1966, she took a less prominent approach to politics.
Margaret Ekpo’s political career finally ended with the commencement of the Nigerian-Biafran war. During the war, she was detained by Biafran authorities for three years. In spite of the long detention, under conditions which could best be described as deprived (at a point she became quite ill for lack of adequate feeding), Margaret Ekpo remained unbowed, unbent, unbroken, and was never bitter.
When asked why she was detained in a 2004 interview by journalist, Onyeka Onwenu, she shrugged as she replied: “They never told me, but I guessed it had to do with our agitation for Calabar and Ogoja States to be carved out of the Eastern Nigerian Region. It was a trying time for me; however, I accepted it as a sacrifice I had to make for the unity of Nigeria.”
Margaret Ekpo died on Thursday, September 21, 2006, at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, Calabar, Cross River State, full of years. She was 92.
In 2001, the Calabar International Airport was renamed the Margaret Ekpo International Airport (the only airport to be named after a woman in Africa). A secondary school in Calabar South Local Government was also renamed after her.
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Stella Attoe, S. O. Jaja (1993): Margaret Ekpo: Lioness in Nigerian Politics.