A lot of Nigeria’s kings are known and recognised, sometimes even revered. It is a fact that nearly all the traditional rulers in the country for quite some time have been men. However, in the 19th century, there was a female king in the Igbo kingdom of Enugu-Ezike and her story is what I want to tell you about today.
Her name was Ahebi Ugbabe and her story is nothing short of inspirational – despite the fact that her story is not all positive. She rose from being a local girl and commercial sex worker to become a village headman, a warrant chief and a king. Born in the Igbo community of Enugu-Ezike in the late 19th Century, Ahebi fled from her village at the age of 13 or 14.
She had to flee in order to escape being handed over in marriage to a deity as payment for her father’s sins. Ahebi fled to the neighbouring Igala land and it was during this period of exile she allegedly became a commercial sex worker and befriended powerful men such as British colonial officers and the ruler of Igala at the time.
She soon became proficient in pidgin English and other African languages, something that later proved very useful to her future political ambitions. As the British incursion into Igbo land gained momentum, Ahebi used this to her advantage by leading the British forces into her hometown, Enugu-Ezike.
To reward her for her support, the British invaders then appointed her the village headman. Thanks to her efficiency and loyalty, she was soon promoted to “Warrant Chief”, something that went contrary to the British invaders’ exclusion of female political office holders in colonial Nigeria. She was also the only woman to have been appointed to this role in colonial Nigeria.
Ahebi Ugbabe soon became king of Enugu-Ezike thanks to the support of the Attah of Igala at the time, whose influenced went as far as Northern Igbo land. By becoming king, Ahebi had upset the heavily gendered politics of her community. As the king, her authority superseded that of all other male political hierarchy and authority. Talk about being a boss bitch.
Naturally, Ahebi wasn’t popular amongst her subjects and though she inserted herself into a lot of masculinities, it never worked. She even tried to introduce her own masquerade (an act performed only by men who have been initiated into the masquerade cult) but she was met with resistance. This resistance was also part of what informed Ahebi’s decision to perform her own funeral rites in her lifetime, rather than let her community handle it.
Ahebi’s reign eventually came to an end thanks to the successful “Women’s War” of 1929, which sought to abolish the imposition of Warrant Chiefs on Igbo land by the British invaders. She later died in 1948 and was buried quietly. Nevertheless, she was still deified as a goddess in her mother’s village and her legacy is still carried on today through Enugu-Ezike songs and parables.
Ahebi Ugbabe’s life may not have been perfect or easy but she withstood the odds to achieve something that will go down in history as one of the most iconic feats for women in Nigerian history. Did you find her story inspiring? Have you learnt anything new? Well, you’re welcome! For further reading, you should buy Nwando Achebe’s book “The Female King of Colonial Nigeria” here.