Matriarchs, Womenfolk And Nation Building In African

By Amb Godknows Igali

One of the most significant and awe-inspiring mysteries of human existence is the gift of womanhood; in particular, God’s endowment with responsibility over regeneration of human­kind. So, every International Women’s Day (IWD) is fortuitous, not only to ponder on the deep spiritual worth of our womenfolk, but to look back on their roles and valued contributions overtime

The 2021 Celebration of IWD comes on the silhouette of the explainable euphoria over the election of Kamala Harris, as Vice President of the United States of America and more, our own, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to head the World Trade Organization (WTO). Coincidentally, on the celebration of IWD in 2020, I presaged Madam Ngozi’s ascension, in a dedicated piece, describing her then as “The Veritable Celebration of African Womanhood”. But the greater joy today is in the realization that the celebratory story of African womanhood in nation building has endured overtime.

The truth is that women have always been key in nation building and in the political transformation of the African society. This is often dwarfed in the light of the more visible role they play as agents of social and economic development, especially at the primary level. The heritage of African feminist footprint in state building and overall development can be appreciated from different levels. Direct involvement in state building and political leadership; entrenched institutional roles for multilayer participation in society; and most important, imbedded matriarchal influence appreciation in overall African world-view and spirituality.

Agreed that in most of Africa, society has tended to be overtly male dominated. However, the role of matriarchy in leadership in precolonial African society was ingrained and in several cases officially registered. Motherhood and maternal veneration ensured that the men, even at their highest levels of political accomplishment were essentially “sons of their mothers”. Unarguably, the average African man, past and present, from the most prominent empire builders and warrior-kings to the ordinary citizens is often their “mothers’ boys”. As a matter of fact, in the African social environment, unlike most other societies, men who are of great public standing always revere, with greatest piety, the ethereal presence of their mothers or some other maternal presence, unlike other cultures were male-maternal relationship is social and emotional. With African men, motherhood is also a spiritual cover. This also explains why in many African societies, the most revered religious roles are preserved for women-“priestess”. Indeed, this position is furthered by the fact that in some African cultures, the dominant names for God are of feminist root. This relates with the whole idea of veneration of “mother-earth”.  A good example is the Ijaws of the Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where God is severally known as “Woyingi” – our mother; “Tamara” or “Ayiba” – she who creates; etc.


Beyond the general sociological worth of matriarchal relevance, in many parts of Africa, women are often assigned specific political roles. Indeed, with several African groups, inheritance is through the female line. Good examples abound, amongst various groups in Ghana, especially the Ashanti, the Nembe (Ijaw) of Nigeria, etc. This helped produce powerful women in both political acculturation and actual governance roles. It reoccurred mostly in climes were the office of the “Queen Mother” took the centre stage. One of the most celebrated of these Queen Mothers, was Idia of Ancient Benin who ensured the ascendance of her son, Oba Esigie (r. 1504-1556) on the throne against unimaginable opposition. Thereafter, he worked to bring about his success and historical reckoning as one of the greatest African potentates ever. Her son has immortalized her with the famous “FESTAC MASK”. Much later in history, Queen mother, Nandi (1760-1827) mother of Shaka Zulu, of South Africa, helped her son expand his kingdom and was in charge of the Zulu Army and responsible for his great military exploits. The office of the Queen Mother among the Ashantis of Ghana was even of more relevance. In particular was Yaa Asantewaa (1840-1921). She led an army of thousands during the Wars, against the British colonial forces in 1900 also known as “the war of the Golden spoon. In 1901, the British exiled her to Seychelles until her death in 1921.

At a more directly engaging level were African women empire builders and rulers. A classic example which appears even in the holy books is the legendary Queen Makeda of Sheba – “the Queen of Sheba”. Besides the scenic beauty, elegance and romance which she shared with King Solomon of Israel, accounts from Jewish and Arabic traditions confirm the great political legacy of this African mother. Her son, Emperor Menelik 1 of Ethiopia later ruled over much of the Horn of Africa in the 10th century BC, after rejecting the right to succeed King Solomon. Similarly poignant is the heroism of Queen Moremi Ajasoro “The Courageous”. Queen Moremi (12th century) was not ready to limit herself to being the wife of Oduduwa, the epical founder of the Yoruba race. Queen Moremi saved the nation from extinction in the hands of marauding attackers by placing her life up for martyrdom. Yoruba presence and civilization today spreads from Western Nigeria to large sections of Republic of Benin and Togo, the Caribbean and Latin America. Her son, Oramiyan, one of the greatest figures in African history, ended establishing the Ife Kingdom, old Benin and Oyo Empire and their associated royalties.


Perhaps, the most celebrated political ascendency and achievements of any African women is the account of Queen Amina of Zaria. Her home town Zaria (Zazzau) was one of what was referred to as the original seven Hausa city States, the others being Daura, Kano, Gobir, Katsina, Rano, and Garun Gabas. As Queen, she expanded the bounds of her city to cover most of what is today Nigeria’s North-West and North central. Her army, about 20,000 foot soldiers and 1,000 cavalry troops, was known to have been well trained, motivated and equipped. She birthed the golden era of Zaria and Hausa people.

Another case that now resonates in most historical discourse is the exploits of the ‘Amazon’ of Dahomey (now Republic of Benin).  The group of women warriors trace their origins to the ruler, King Houegbadja, (1645-1685). They were initially a band elephant hunters but his successor and daughter Queen Hangbe (1708-1711) formalized them as a corp of a female bodyguards. The group of female warriors was referred to by their male counterparts as “Mino”, meaning “Our Mothers” or “Mother Warriors”. With the ominous outcome of the Berlin Conference (1884/1885) and France’s push to take over Dahomey, these female warriors became the national defence squad and were reputed by European intelligence reports as “firing their flint stock from the waists and not the shoulder”!                     

One of the first places which earliest European explorers made contact with in Africa was the Bantu Empire of Kongo. Though based in Angola, it extended to much of Central Africa and parts of Southern Africa. After arrival in 1483 and contact with the ruler, Manikongo in the succeeding years, the Portuguese tried to extend their influence and presence. Nina Mandy the Queen had led her people to successful resist such colonial penetration as far back as 500 years ago. The queen resisted colonisation right until her death in 1663. Her political influence in governance was overwhelming and became first major resistance to European takeover of Africa which became manifest in the centuries that followed. The rest of actual resistance against European colonization of Africa was in no way an exclusive male enterprise or left to the Amazons of Dahomey. During the reign of Menelik (1844-1913), the Italians, tried to make a foothold in Ethiopia. In the resistance which ensued, Queen Taytu Betul (1851-1918) played the direct leading role in mobilizing the people to help her husband at ousting the Italians especially in the Battle of Adwa in (1896). She kept Ethiopia uncolonized.

With European conquest achieved by the barrel of the gun, the next phase of feminine activism and political participation in Africa shifted to nationalist struggle. In virtually every country on the continent, women leaders, against cultural barriers and stereotypes, therefore, rose up again alien rule. For example, from the turn of the century, Huda Shaarawi, emerged as Egyptian top political figure and feminist leader. In a predominately Islamic society, where discriminatory attitudes against women existed, she in 1923, formed her own organization and went on to pioneer the establishment of an Arab body for active participation of women in public life.

In Nigeria, great women such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, (1900-1978), an educationist and wife of a religious figure rose up against the existing orthodoxy. In what seemed a taboo, even for men, she challenged the age-old traditional order and even succeeded, temporarily, in 1949 in recusing from the throne a seating monarch, the Lake of Egbaland. Besides her towering legacies as founder of the Nigerian Women’s Union and Federation of Nigerian Women Societies, she championed the right of suffrage for Nigeria women. Her radical and activist work was pursued further by her sons, popular musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Dr. Bekon Ransamoe-Kuti. In national politics, she was a great voice.

In what was then Eastern Nigeria Region, the related experience of Magareth Ekpo (1914-2006) was at centre stage. A political landscape that was totally dominated by patriarchal traditions, she was able to break the glass ceiling to emerge a leader. She is refuted as the intellectual forte behind the famous Aba Women Riot on 1929 against excesses of colonial administration. This was the first ever of its type in all of British colonial Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe estate. Her political influence in the region was at par with the likes of Prof Eyo Etta, Mbonu Ojike, especially in mobilization of women to political action. In the 1950s, she teamed up with her “elder sister” Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, to protest against killings in Enugu coal mines and welfare of workers. She was elected into the Eastern House of Assembly, a platform which she used to fight for women.

In their great contributions to the fight against colonialism and building of the Nigeria State, there were other great women such as Janet Mokelu (1910-2003), a pioneer mobilizer and politician, Oyibo Odinamadu (b.1928), one of the early educated women and inspirator for establishment of National Council of Women Societies of Nigeria (NCWS) in 1958. In the north of Nigeria where like in North Africa, religion was used to exclude women, emerged the fiery Gambo Sabawa (1933-2001), canvassing a proletariat based movement and political mantra.

Going further Southward on the African continent Gisèle Rabesahala of the island country of Madagascar, was the first woman to be elected as a municipal councillor in 1956, and became head of a political party in 1958. She is more renowned for her life-long struggle for Madagascar’s independence, and fight for human rights.


In South Africa, the Apartheid System and Minority Rule were amongst the greatest injustices in human history. Introduced in South Africa in 1948, the fight against it was shared equally between men and women. The role of women was of singular impact as it was deeply people based.

Amongst so many others, Lilian Ngoyi (1911-1980) was the first woman elected into leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), the arrowhead for the struggle. With unusual oratory skills, she took the anti-apartheid fight across the world. Equally, multiple award winning singer Marian Makeba, (1932-2008) dedicated her entire life work to the liberation struggle going round the world with her voice. No less were the roles of Winnie Mandela (1936-2018), who in the long wake of her husband (Nelson Mandela’s) incarceration for a quarter century took the gauntlet of being the principal voice against what existed. There were also Helen Joseph, Helen Suzman and Ruth First (though white), as well as Alberta Sisulu, Rhima Moosa, Charlotte Maxeke, etc.


Post independence Africa found itself in the whirlpool of wars of varied proportions all around the continent. One of the worst internal wars took place in Liberia from 1989-1997 in which over 250,000 people died.    A heroine of the peace process was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (now aged 83), who later came to rule the country and reconciled all.

In same manner, Joyce Banda (aged 71) was a key political figure in her home country, Malawi, who saved the country from imminent and constitutional crisis and upheaved during 2012-2014. Also, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was the first female President of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018. Similarly,         Sahle-Work Zewde became the first female President of Ethiopia and currently the only female out of  the 54 Presidents on the continent. But from Burundi to Central Africa Republic, unto Mauritius, Gabon and South Africa, other women have rules their countries in acting capacities.  Indeed, several more have headed national legislatures and the judiciary.                        Another set of African women political champions, who on the altar of spousal support are seen but little heard are the First Ladies. Their muted roles especially during the rough days of nationalist struggle and post independence instability and conflicts were overwhelming. The list includes, Ngina, widow of Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Maria Nyerere, widow of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; Maria Obote, widow of Milton Obote of Uganda, Mama Betty Banda Kaunda, wife of  founding father of Zambia, and Mrs Helena Nkrumah, wife of Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah.  Nigeria’s Mariam Babangida, wife of military ruler Ibrahim Babangida introduced “Better Life for Rural Women” – a crosscutting community-based programme, whose impact remains 30 years after her exit from power. Maryam Abacha equally formed a formidable support to her husband, military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha. She founded the African First Ladies Peace Mission and built the scenic National Hospital in Nigeria.  Another former First Lady with great impact, is Jahen Sadat of Egypt. Interesting enough, her leadership roles especially in human rights and political inclusion have accentuated even after leaving office following the assassination of her husband, President Anwar Sadat in 1981.


With the foundation laid by the matriarchs, African women have foraged into other areas and made great success all adding to the scheme of building virile nation states. One dominant area is the academia. In all fields of knowledge and scholarship, African women have achieved great breakthroughs. By 1963, Prof Grace Alele-Williams, one of first women on the continent to obtain a PhD, became Vice Chancellor of a major institution, University of Benin in 1985. Others such as Zulu  Sofala, Bolanle Awe, Flora Nwankpa, Ghanaian playwright Ama Ata Aidoo, Kenyan Scholar and politician, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Same has been in the professions. As early as 1908, a woman, Blanche Azouley had been called to the Algerian Bar, while Juliet Zerah of Tunisia also attained as a lawyer in 1916. Still in the legal profession, Phyllis Mackendrick of Zimbabwe, Morroco’s Helene Cazas Benatar, Egypt’s Naima llayas all- Ayubbi, and Nigeria’s Stella Thomas followed, in 1926, 1929,  1933 and 1935 respectively. As it pertains to the medical field, as early as 1929, Elizabeth Yewande Savage from Nigeria had qualified as a medical doctor, followed by Elizabeth Awoliyi who was equally licensed to practice medicine in Nigeria by 1938. Same could be said of the military and security service where women have played great roles in the defence of the territorial integrity, internal peace of their various countries and in global peace keeping. A recent case deserving highlight is that of young Nigerian women who trained as fighter pilots, a case in point being Tolulope Arotile who passed while in active service to her fatherland.                           

In the world of business, African women continue to contribute greatly to the GDP of the continent by their collective dominance of the agricultural sector. This is unnoticed but a reality. In more formal businesses, the women stock have produced some of the leading entrepreneurs in the world.  Nigeria’s Folorunsho Alakija, Angola’s Isabel Dos Santos, Kenya’s Ngina Kenyatta, etc being worthy examples.


The global theme for the 2021 IWD celebration is #ChoosetoChallege. In order words, a call for conscious efforts to continually test the waters. Not just Madam Ngozi but a stream of women champions have sustained the drive for equal partnership in nation building. In virtually every area of human endeavour, worthwhile contributions have been made by our womenfolk. It is therefore a challenge for present and upcoming generations of African women to redouble the tempo and momentum of breaking down the ancient doors of exclusion and discrimination.

Recently, the world was greeted by what I called “the Finnish Marvel” in a 2019 article. Toward the end of that year, the new cabinet of Finland was unveiled, dominated by women. Women took twelve of the cabinet positions and left seven for the men. With a remarkably impressive and exquisite line up of beauties, Prime Minister Sanna Marin (34), and her amazing quartet, Finance Minister, Katrina Kulmuni (32), Interior Minister, Maria Ohisalo (34) and Education Minister, Li Sigrid Andersson (32), were unveiled to the world. They were also leaders of the main political parties in the in the country.

No doubt, the Finnish example and similar experiences in New Zealand, Ireland, the European Union hierarchy have come about because somewhere along the way of nationhood, some people, especially women, #ChoosetoChallenge and it is surely worthwhile doing so on the heels of so great a legacy.

Happy IWD to our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters as you keep pushing

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