Igbo Women and Political Participation in Nigeria, 1800s-2005

Article excerpt

The participation of African women in the political processes of their respective societies is an area that has attracted much scholarly attention. While some works have focused on women's roles in indigenous African political organization, others have traced the history of their engagement in politics from the colonial period to decolonization and the achievement of independence.1 From the corpus of literature on the participation of African women in politics, we can delineate two opposing paradigms: one that hinges largely on the romanticization of African women's political history before European colonial domination, and another that emphasizes their political subordination and invisibility. According to the former paradigm, women had enormous political power in their various societies until the imposition of European colonial rule and the Victorian gender ethos, when such power was undermined or entirely eroded. The latter paradigm holds that the current relatively marginal involvement of African women in political process can best be explained by the lingering inhibitive cultural and patriarchal forces against women's engagement in politics that characterized African societies before European contact. The answer to the question of how much political power and control African women had and have continued to exercise does not lie in either of the two paradigms listed above. Rather, it lies somewhere between them, irrespective of the particular society one focuses on. It is important that any true assessment of the role of women in politics must look at the major arenas of political power and authority as well as how gender roles were played out in such theatres.

Both men and women wielded political power and authority (though in differing degrees) in precolonial Igbo society, where social roles and responsibilities were the channels through which power diffused, and where gender equality was measured in comparative worth. Hierarchical relationships in Igbo society were determined by age, experience, ability, marital status, and rites of initiation. Individuals earned power, authority, and respect as a result of their moral probity, leadership charisma, persuasive oratory, heroic military service or gallant prowess as well as intellectual and business acumen- attributes that were not the sole possession of one gender.2

This article examines the participation of women, either directly or indirectly, in the affairs of Igbo government, the British colonial system, the Nigerian political system, and in the activities of groups and subgroups that exercised authority. The analysis is based on such principal determinants of authority in Igbo indigenous political system as individual abilities and experiences, age, kinship relations, and group solidarity. To understand the dynamism surrounding the participation of Igbo women in politics, Igbo and Nigerian political history is subdivided into four main phases: the precolonial, colonial, decolonization, and post-independence periods. This article argues that while the precolonial era witnessed the involvement of women in important but largely complementary political activities, the colonial period brought about the marginalization or even erosion of female political power and authority in the region. Though the political arenas have become larger and wider since decolonization than they were during the precolonial period, Igbo women's participation in politics in this era could at best be described as active but subdued. Although women were very active as a result of their enormous involvement in political mobilization and electoral processes of the period, they exercised subdued political power due to the politics of co-optation and tokenism that have continuously characterized Nigerian political history, especially since independence.

The discussion that follows focuses on the historical processes that have affected Igbo and Nigerian sociopolitical structures, religious life, and economic systems over time, as well as the ability of Igbo women to influence and engage in policy formulation and decision-making processes of their society during the four major phases identified above. …