Women in the Development of Nigeria Since pre-colonial Times

Posted by on 10/19/2002 10:00:19 PM
Post Comment Women in the Development of Nigeria Since pre-colonial Times Nigeria

By S. A. Effah Attoe


Related Links: Female Personalities

Literature on Nigeria's national development is relatively silent on the contributions of women. However, 1975 (the International Women's Year), was a period of ferment in ideas about the status of women (Ogunsheye, 1988).

In Nigeria, awareness about the role of women in development gained momentum in the later half of the "1980s (Omu & Makinwa, 1987). Awareness was further enhanced in 1995 as a result of the effective partic ipation of Nigerian women in the International Conference on Women in Beijing, China.

In spite of these efforts, it is appropriate to state that the role of Nigerian women in development has not been sufficiently emphasised. In highlighting the Nigerian experience, three periods namely, the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial, will be briefly looked at.


During the precolonial era, Nigerian women contributed to the sustenance of the kin groups. Precolonial Nigerian economy was basically at a subsistence level, and Nigerian women participated effectively in this economy. Apart from being moth ers and wives and taking charge of the domestic sector, women contributed substantially to the pro duction and distribution of goods and services.

In the agricultural sector, the women farmed alongside their husbands and children. In south eastern Nigeria, women also took part in the pro duction of palm oil and palmkernel. They also par ticipated in local and longdistance trade in different parts of Nigeria and were fully involved in the pro curement and sale of various food items and relat ed commodities.

Women in pre-colonial Nigeria were fully involved in food processing, for example, fish drying (especially in the coastal areas of Calabar, Oron and the Niger Delta area), garri pro cessing et cetera. In eastern Nigeria, the women of Okposi, Uburu and Yala were very active in salt production.

Women were engaged in potterymaking, espe cially in Afikpo in present day Abia State, and in weaving. In northern Nigeria, even the women in purdah were involved in food processing and also traded with the aid of their children. Most often, these women supplied the means of sustenance for entire households.

Precoionial Nigerian women also provided health care and spiritual services, extensively. Most traditional religions feature immortal females as goddesses. Most goddesses in Nigeria were por trayed as river goddesses, fertility goddesses and earth goddesses. In the Niger Delta area, women provided music, songs and dances required during religious activities. Women also officiated as priest esses, diviners, healers, traditional birth attendants, and oftentimes as custodians of sanctuaries for gods and goddesses.

The legal status of Nigerian women in precoio nial times needs highlighting. Under the precoio nial customary laws in most Nigerian societies, women were considered free adults. At the same time, certain limitations were imposed which subor dinated them to male authority. Women had inde pendent access to income. Since land was usually owned communally, whoever worked or tilled the land, whether male or female, derived the benefits. Nevertheless, women in many societies could not inherit land.

Education in precoionial times was functional. It enabled women to obtain a skill in order to earn a living. Ogunsheye observes that "a woman who was without a craft or trade, or who was totally dependent on her husband, was not only rare, but was regarded with contempt" (Aliyu, 1992), As regards politics, women in precolonial Nigeria were an integral part of the political set up of their communities. Most often, they carried out separate functions from the men. These functions were fully complementary.

In precolonial Bomu, for instance, women played active parts in the administration of the state. They held very impor tant offices in the royal family, including the offices of the Megira (the Queen mother) and the Gumsu (the first wife of the Mai or King) (Ola, 1978).

Women also played a very significant role in the political history of ancient Zaria. The modern city of Zaria was founded in the first half of the 16th cen tur/, by a woman called Queen Bakwa Turuku. She had a daughter called Amina who later succeeded her as Queen. Queen Amina was a great and pow erful warrior. She built a high wall around Zaria in order to protect the city from invasion and extended the boundaries of her territory beyond Bauchi. The people of Kano and Katsina paid tributes to her. She turned Zaria into a very prominent commercial centre.

The story was not different in ancient Yorubaland. The Oba ruled with the assistance of a number of women refereed to as the ladies of the palace. The ladies of the palace consisted of eight titled ladies of the highest rank.

The significant role played by prominent women such as Moremi of lfe, Emotan of Benin and Omu Okwel of Ossomari in the precolonial history of Nigeria cannot be ignored. Moremi and Emotan were great amazons who displayed tremendous bravery and strength in the politics of lfe and Benin respectively, while Omu Okwei dominated the com mercial scene of Ossomari in present day Delta State (Omu and Makinwa, "1976).


The colonial economy was an export oriented one and it seriously undermined the prestige of the traditional occupations of Nigerian women. While it placed women at a great disadvantage, it enhanced the economic status of the British, Lebanese, Syrian and a few male Nigerian merchants.

Many of the smaller markets hitherto dominated by women gradually disintegrated as a result of the emergence of expatriate firms such as John Holt, United African Company (U AC.), Lever Brothers et cetera. Women were denied access to medium and large scale loans which were vital in operating at the bulk purchase level of the colonial economy. In agriculture, cash crop incentives, technology and innovations were restricted to men (Curtin, 1964). Colonial policies and statutes were clearly sexist and biased against women.

During the colonial period, education was func tional. The curricula emphasised religious instruc tion and clerica! skills for boys and domestic sci ence for girls. Technological and scientific based education was not encouraged. The curricula for girls enabled them to become good housewives, rather than income earners.

As regards politics, colonialism affected Nigerian women adversely as they were denied the franchise and very few of them were offered any political or administrative appointments. For instance, it was only during the 1950s that three women were appointed into the House of Chiefs, namely Chief (Mrs) Olufunmilayo RansomeKuti (appointed into the Western Nigeria House of Chiefs); Chiefs (Mrs) Margaret Ekpo and Janet Mokelu (both appointed into the Eastern Nigeria House Of Chiefs). It was also only in the 1950s that women in Southern Nigeria were given the fran chise. The women's wings of political parties pos sessed very little functional relevance.


During this period, Nigerian women began to play very active roles in various aspects of the nation's development, and assumed a more critical role in traditional agriculture. Particularly as a result of the largescale exodus of abiebodied men to wage labour; Nigerian women took over an increas ing portion of the burden of food production, con tributing between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of Nigeria's food requirements.

While the situation in the public sector remained unsatisfactory, it was markedly different from what had obtained during the precolonia! and colonial times. Five years after independence, only 6.9 per cent of the salaried workforce were women; by 1970, 8.7 per cent of the total number of established staff in the Federal Civil Service were women. In 1980, the percentage of women had risen to 12.6 per cent. Similar pat terns were maintained in State Civil Services.

In 1979, women constituted 4,9 per cent of agri cultural manpower in Nigeria, 1.4 per cent of arti sans and craftsmen, and 1.6 per cent of the profes sional/subprofesstona! group. It was only in the medical sector that women constituted 84.3 per cent of dieticians and 80.2 per cent of nurses.

The position of women in education in post colonial Nigeria has not improved much. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in1981, only 6 per cent of adult Nigerian women were literate. By 1979, 72.9 per cent of urban girls and 80.08 per cent of rural girls were not attending school.

Universrty admission figures also reflect a low per centage of female entries in the new era. Successive postcolonial governments have encouraged female education and expanded edu cational facilities for g iris. In spite of these efforts, however, the impact on women is still low. Some of the factors that militate against women's education in the country include the perception that women needed to be educated only to be good housewives and the high dropout rate amongst women.

The economic recession since the mid1980s is also affecting women's education in Nigeria. As a result of increasing cost of education, most parents, especially in the rural areas, prefer withdrawing girls from school, instead of boys. To stem this tide, some State governments have passed edicts grant ing free education to girls up to certain levels, in other states, women with children are allowed to attend school and it is considered an offence to withdraw a female child from school before a stipu lated age. Early marriages by giris are frowned upon by many States and women's organisations. A Women's Education unit was established at the Federal Ministry of Education to encourage women education. Subsequently, all State Ministries of Education did same.

The legal system inherited from the colonial era placed many obstacles on the way of women's self advancement and participation in national develop ment. For instance, manied women had to obtain their husband's written permission to obtain inter national passports. Until very recently, women were not allowed to stand bail for a suspect. The statutory provisions still do not favour women in many respects, including divorce and inheritance.

The role of women in Nigeria's post1960 poli tics has not been reflected sufficiently, in terms of appointments to policymaking posts. In spite of massive support given to various political parties by women, women organisations, market women movements etc., until recently, very few women benefited from political patronage.

In Southern Nigeria, women already had the franchise by 1960; thus in 1960, Mrs. Wuraola Esan from Western Nigeria became the first female member of the Federal Parliament. In 1961, Chief (Mrs) Margaret Ekpo contested elections in Aba Urban North con stituency under the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) platform and won, becoming a member of the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly until 1966; Mrs. Janet N. Mokelu and Miss Ekpo A. Young also contested elections, won and became members of the Eastern House of Assembly.

In northern Nigeria, however, women were still denied the franchise even after independence. As a result, prominent female politicians like Hajia Qambo Sawaba in the North could not vote and be voted for. It was only in 1979 that women in north ern Nigeria were given the franchise, following the return to civilian politics.

During the Second Republic (19791983), there was further progress. A few Nigerian women won elections into the House of Representatives at the national level. Some of these women were Mrs. J. C. Eze of the Nigerian People's Party (NPP) who represented UzoUwani constituency in former Anambra State, Mrs V.O. Nnaji, also of NPP who represented lsu and Mrs Abiola Babatope of the Unity Party of Nigeria (LJPN) who represented Mushin Central II of Lagos State. But, on the whole, very few women won elections into the State Houses of Assembly during the Second Republic.

During the same period, only two women were appointed Federal ministers. They were Chief (Mrs) Janet Akinrinade who was Minister for Internal Affairs and Mrs Adenike Ebun Oyagbola, Minister for National Planning. Mrs Francesca Yetunde Emmanuel was the only female Permanent Secretary (first in the Federal Ministry of Establishment and later Federal Ministry of Health).

A number of women were appointed Commis sioners in the states. In 1983, Ms FrancaAfegbua became the only woman to be elected into the Senate. Also, very few women contested and won elections into the Local Government Councils dur ing this time.

With the return of military rule in December 1983, the first formal quota system was introduced by the Federal Government as regards the appoint ment of women into governance. The Buhari administration directed that at least one female must be appointed a member of the Executive Council in every state. All the states complied with this directive; some states even had two or three female members.

In the early 1990s, two women were appointed Deputy Governors. These were Alhaja Latifat Okunu of Lagos Slate and Mrs Pamela Sadauki of Kaduna State. Chief (Mrs) D.B.A. KLiforijiOlubi served as Chairperson of a bank, i.e. the United Bank for Africa PLC. Later on, Dr Simi Johnson and Eniola Fadayomi served as Chairpersons of Afribank International Nigeria and Allied Bank Nigeria PLC, respectively. There was, however, no female minister. There was also, no female member of the defunct Supreme Military Council or the later Armed Forces Ruling Council.

In the 1990 elections into local governments heralding the Third Republic, very few women emerged as councillors and only one woman, Chief (Mrs) Titilayo Ajanaku, emerged as Chairperson of a Local Government Council in the West. During the gubernatorial elections, no female governor emerged in any of the states. Only two female Deputy Governors emerged, namely: Alhaja Sinatu Ojikutu of Lagos State and Mrs. Cecilia Ekpenyong of Cross River State. In the Senatorial election held in 1992, Mrs. Kofo Bucknor Akerele was the only woman who won a seat in the Senate. Very few women won election into the House of representa tives. One of these few was Chief (Mrs) Florence ItaGiwa who won in the Calabar Constituency under the banner of the National Republican Convention (NRC). Amongst the members of the Transitional Council appointed by President Babangida in January 1993, only two were women, namely Mrs. Emily Aiklmhokuede and Mrs. Laraba Dagash.

In the Interim National Government of Chief Ernest Shonekan, two female ministers were appointed into the Cabinet. General Abacha had a number of female Ministers at various times in his cabinet, including Chief (Mrs) Onikepo Akande and Ambassador Judith Attah.

During the military regime of General Abdulsalami Abubakar (June 9, 1998 May 29, 1999), there were two women in the Federal Executive Council: Chief (Mrs) Onikepo Akande (Minister for Commerce) and Dr. 1araba Gambo Abdullahi (Minister of Women Affairs).

In the Fourth Republic which started on May 29, 1999, the Nigerian political terrain has witnessed an increase in the number of women political appointees, even though women did not perfonn well at the elections. In the elections held before May 29, 1999, few women emerged as Chairpersons of local government councils. A num ber of women won elections as Councillors. There is no female Governor in any State of the Federation. Only Lagos State produced a female Deputy Governor in the person of Senator Bucknor Akerele.

In the National Assembly, there are only three women in the Senate, namely: Chief (Mrs) Florence Ita Giwa representing Cross River State South Senatorial District; Mrs Stella Omu from Delta State and Hajiya Khairat Abdul-Razaq (now Hajiya Gwadabe) representing the Federal Capital Territory. There are only 12 women In the House of Representatives and these are: Barrister lquo Minimah, Mrs. Patience Ogodo, Lola Abiola Edewor, Patricia 0. Etteh, Dorcas Odujinrin, J.F. Adeyemi, Binta Garba Koji,Gbenni Saraki, Florence Aya, Linda ikpeazu, Temi Harrinnan and Mercy Almona lsei.

In the State Houses of Assembly very few women emerged as members. While in some States, one or two women emerged in the Houses, most other states have virtually no females in their legislatures. States like Cross River, Akwa I born State, Rivers, Lagos and many others do not have female members in their State Legislatures.

Women have been appointed as Commissioners and therefore members of the Executive Councils in all the states, but while some states have one female, others have two females in the Executive Councils. President Olusegun Obasanjo has appointed a number of women into the Federal Executive Council. They are Dr. (Mrs) Kema Chikwe (Minister of Transport), Mrs. DupeAdelaja (Minister of State Defence), Dr. (Mrs) Bekky Ketebuigwe (Minister of State, Ministry of Solid Minerals), Dr. (Mrs) Amina Ndalolo (Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Health), Mrs. Pauline Tallen (Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Science and Technology), and Hajia Aishatu Ismaila (Minister of Women Affairs). Chief (Mrs) Titilayo Ajanaku is the Special Adviser to the President on Women Affairs.

From the foregoing, it is evident that only very few Nigerian women have participated and emerged in Nigeria's political landscape, in spite of the pioneering efforts of women like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Margaret Ekpo since the 1950s. Today, the number of women in top jobs is still near ly insignificant.

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