A speech delivered by former Nigeria’s Ambassador to Liberia, Amb. Chigozie Obi, during a colloquium held Monday by Prime Business Africa in partnership with the Credibility Group to honour Prof Nnenna Oti, Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), over her role in the Abia State 2023 governorship election as Chief Returning Officer.
Let me start by thanking our Credibility Group and Prime Business Africa for organizing this timely discussion which affords us the opportunity to showcase the stellar performances of a sister who has distinguished herself as a woman of honour and integrity, in her chosen career in academia, her family life, in the Lord’s vineyard and in society, in general. I am indeed honored to be invited to share this platform and my views and perspectives on the topic, “Professor NnennaOti: “Nwanyibuife” – The Gender of Integrity”, with very distinguished sons and daughters of alaIgbo.
Nwanyibuife, as has been translated, literally means a woman is something but it could also acquire a deeper character and meaning when taken as “a woman is important” and it is in this light that I would like to anchor my brief intervention.
There are two schools of thought in alaIgbo on the role of women in society. Whereas one school of thought which I would like to refer to as old school is of the archaic view that the place of a woman is in her kitchen which we call “mgbala” in my Owerri dialect, where she is expected to cook for the family, raise her children and cater to her husband’s every need. Women were only supposed to be seen and not heard.
It was this old-school mentality that informed the decisions of families of yore to train and educate only their male children while their daughters were taught by their mothers how to run their homes which included cooking and cleaning. A woman’s relevance in society under this school of thought drew from whether she was married or not and to whom she was married, which is summed up in the saying – “ugwunwanyi wu di ya”.
This portrayal of Igbo women as subservient, inferior, voiceless and mere appendages to their men were expressed by some writers including a Missionary under the colonial rule, George Thomas Basden, who wrote inter alia that “Igbo women have but few rights in any circumstances and can only hold such property as their lords permit. There is no grumbling against their lot; they accept the situation as their grandmothers did before them, taking affairs philosophically, they managed to live fairly contentedly”.
Fortunately, there was yet a second reality in our society of yore which has happily metamorphosed into what is prevalent in our alaIgbo today, one that recognized and still recognizes the role and importance of “Umuada” in the Anambra dialect or “Umumgboto” in my Owerri dialect, in the society. This second reality is hinged on the notion that if you train a woman, you train a nation. The Ụmụada is an association of daughters from the same community. They are forces to reckon with in their natal homes, as opposed to their matrimonial homes, where their powers are limited. They assume juridical and peacemaking roles and regularly perform purification as well as funeral rites for deceased members of their communities.
Barely eight years after Basden expressed his antiquated views on the place of women in Igbo society, women rose to challenge colonial policies during the popular anti-colonial Aba Women’s Riots of 1929. These same women, earlier on represented as powerless, could not have amassed such power, influence, and courage to challenge the colonial authorities within a short period of time, if they did not already possess such clout.
Such permissive Igbo societies allowed women to take on male gender roles where male children were absent or are seen as “efulefus”. These “male daughters” were allowed to produce children in their fathers’ homes, hopefully, boys that would retain their fathers’ names. There were also cases where barren women married wives who would produce children that would bear their husbands’ names. These were very powerful positions that were held by women in traditional Igbo societies.
It explains why some Igbo people bear names like Amaefula and Ahamefula. The “female husband” status can also be acquired through amassing as much wealth as possible and taking up formal political power and authority like their male counterparts. In a society that expects adult women to be married, these “female husbands” were free to marry their own wives and “father” their children. Such women are seen as men by their communities. This is, however, different from same-sex marriage as in the Western sense. The relationship between the ‘female husband’ and her bride is not amorous or based on same-sex relationships.
In many cases, the “Isi Ada”, or oldest daughter of a lineage, played a part in political, judicial, and religious institutions. Her reports to the women of her group could lead to collective action opposing the decisions of the male political leaders. Some wives of Ezes might also hold power equivalent to that of male elders and, in some cases, women ruled as monarchs or regents for under-aged kings.
A top leader within these structures was often the “Omu”, the “mother of society.” She might come from the royal family, be elected, or be chosen by an oracle. She dressed like a king and had her own palace, though in most cases she didn’t hold as much authority as a male monarch. She was often in charge of the marketplace and might have religious authority.
So from the foregoing, one can safely deduce that traditional Igbo societies largely respected and accorded women a measure of relevance and importance leading to the cherished name of “Nwanyibuife”.
It was the British that bastardized what was hitherto, a well-oiled functioning system with their introduction of the indirect rule system in alaIgbo, which imposed governance through male authorities and ignored their female equivalents. Village assemblies were replaced with Native Courts, run by British officers and handpicked Igbo men, and women’s oversight of marketplaces was replaced with male market administrators. While women occasionally snagged positions of authority within the colonial system, it was rare.
This trend continued and even after independence women remained underrepresented in Nigeria’s political institutions. According to Africana Studies scholar, Gloria Chuku, “Igbo women, since the colonial period, have struggled to regain the ‘traditional’ dual-gender system of association that fostered community-based modes of female mobilization and enabled them to maintain certain economic, political, and social organizations that protected their interests”. It is exactly this struggle that has led to the formation of many women’s interest groups in alaIgbo and in Nigeria as a whole and of late, the establishment of a Ministry of Women Affairs in the country.
This brings me to our honoree, Professor Nnenna Oti. It is little wonder that alaIgbo has produced a daughter like her. She is a sister who channeled generations of strength, positing defiance in the face of duplicity. A woman who, like the Umuada, rooted herself in her convictions, the pursuit of knowledge, the nurturing of family, the tenets of Godliness, and the ethical morality of a societal leader, a feat which has earned her the title, in my book, of “Akwaaakwuru” I of alaIgbo. Luckily, there are many more like her in alaIgbo, waiting to be discovered and to be given the chance and opportunity to prove themselves.
Nwanne’mnwanyi, I can only say to you, “jidek’iji”.Onyenweanyigbaagiume.
I thank you.