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Women in the Development of Nigeria Since pre-colonial Times

By S. A. Effah Attoe


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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

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

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

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
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.