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The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe

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The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe. Nwando Achebe. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis , 2011. Pp. 305. ISBN. 978-0-253-22248-0 (pb). $29.00.

The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe is one of the most compellingly argued, rigorously researched scholarly writings in the fields of history and women studies in colonial Igbo society, Nigeria and Africa.  Based on the unusual political dealings of Ahebi Ugabe of Enugu- Ezike, a woman who by challenging the systems of male power rose from obscurity in a world of suffocating patriarchy to become the only female warrant chief, local adjudicator, and ultimately, king, the book is a more than a welcome and timely addition to the discourse on Igbo women in colonial Nigeria. The book’s five chapters and copious but very helpful Appendix and Bibliography trace the transformation of Ahebi Ugbabe from an ordinary village girl to king whose social and political decisions and actions impact on her locality of Enugu-Ezike and its neighbours, destabilising geopolitical and gender constructions whilst leaving their marks on the colonial authorities and the making of modern Nigeria. With most of Nigerian and African histories generally underplaying the contributions of women in national struggles and development, barring the exceptions, in the case of Nigeria, of Margaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Ransom Kuti, Ahebi’s story is worth reading for both historical and sociological reasons.

The Female King of Colonial Nigeria places Ahebi Ugbabe on the same, if not on a higher iconographic pedestal as Ekpo and Ransom Kuti, two of Nigeria’s most celebrated political crusaders for women’s rights, education and emancipation. It contests, as a secondary objective, the dominance of men’s control of historical narrative as well as offering a peculiarly insightful reading of the unhelpful misconceptions of women in Igbo civilisation and Africa in western scholarship and epistemology. Ahebi was ahead of her time. Her political positioning at the heart of colonial enterprise despite the risk of becoming an irritant to British rule and to Igbo patriarchal institutions, was remarkable. Her pioneering roles, as we are now privileged to read, in education and commerce, and dealings with male chieftains and kings across the borders of her then northern Igbo kingdom, beyond to Igala and possibly to Benin, is a feat that few pre-independence Igbo and Nigerian women achieved anywhere.

The book is a historical document and mirrors the tendency in historians to want to prove everything. As helpful as this may be for historians, the maze of detailed descriptions, oral and documentary evidences, images, musical scores, maps, government and private papers, and lengthy analyses of individual and collective accretions of memory could be daunting for non-historians. However, this tendency for elaboration is not allowed to become a major weakness; it is tempered stylistically as Achebe uses her incisive storytelling, performative voice to draw audiences and readers to the most important features of her narration. The result is not only a narrative in which Ahebi Ugbabe shine through, it is a captivating read and document with little of the anthropological preference for rebuilding and polishing Ahebi’s image in the quest for historical authenticity.

Nwando Achebe’s achievement is a publication that is definitely headed for prominence in scholarship on Igbo history and women studies in Africa’s colonial and postcolonial histories. But for Achebe’s perseverance and scholarship Ahebi’s story would have remained unheard: her restoration is not simply as political crusader; her positioning of women at the centre of political and cultural discourse is an important counterpoint to the collectivisation of women in African and western discourse as Achebe argues in the introduction. Achebe avoids the temptation to idolise her subject as another legendary character: her picture of Ahebi Ugbabe is that of a real woman, a political visionary and cultural activist whose place in history was secured by the combination of commercial and political astuteness with human frailties. For a society with few such figures this book is a scholarly feat worth reading and owning for more than the authenticity and quality of research. It reveals something of the spirit, social activism, and individualism of Igbo women epitomised by the closely related collectivism displayed by the Aba women’s riots.

Reviewed by: Victor Ukaegbu, University of Northampton.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 103-105]

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