Being a constitutional democracy, Nigeria elects its representatives, however, the hundreds of ethnic communities scattered across the country still acknowledge their own traditional rulers. It is widely accepted that out of these traditional leaders, the king (Obong) of the Efik Kingdom in southern Nigeria is one of those highly respected.
The Obong, based in the coastal town of Calabar, capital of Cross River state, leads a stratified network of 12 Efik family groups and subgroups. One of these is called Henshaw Town, and that is where you will find Barbara Etim James. The 54-year-old was crowned the Obong-Anwan (queen) in Henshaw Town in 2019 following her immense contributions towards the growth of the Efik Kingdom.
Her mother had been Obong-Anwan, but she died in 2016. Efik queen James, who doubles as the head of a private equity firm, wants to use technology to bring change. Her mission is to enhance culture with technology, and one of the first ways she intends to do that is to take all royal meetings online, a BBC report said.
But this may be a difficult task, especially when most people think it’s inappropriate to invite respected persons in the community to an event via phone or text message. Invitation cards are the norm. “But they are very happy when people send them money online or by phone to their account,” James, who spent 20 years living in the UK, said. She hopes to change the status quo.
“I’m bringing my global experience into a culture, not taking the culture into modernity,” she explained.
Growing up, she had always loved her people and culture, having watched her late father Emmanuel Etim James play active roles in his local community, earning the respect of others. And though James later moved to the UK, she never lost touch with her community. Completing her studies in computer science at the University of Lagos, James had moved to London for a master’s degree in business systems analysis before later settling in the UK.
“Many people grow up, get exposed, move to Lagos or Abuja, and they have little interest in or value in their life for their hometown or their village. I am very different.”
Indeed, James is very different. Having divorced an Irish man she married for 12 years, she moved back to settle in Calabar in 2009.
Currently, as the head of a private equity firm, she often travels from Calabar to cities like Abuja and Lagos for work. And being queen, she has to be physically present in Calabar during monthly meetings with members of the traditional council in her community. This means that if she is out of town, she has to travel back home to Calabar for these meetings to be held. So why not make such meetings virtual? James is at the moment having conversations with members of the traditional council about online meetings. And with the pandemic forcing societal changes around the globe, including the shutdown of in-person business operations, James is confident that she will make headway.
Besides, James believes that traditional leaders like her are more effective in bringing change than politicians.
In Nigeria, one of Africa’s fastest-changing societies, traditional rulers still wield power. And although they do not hold formal political power and their role is largely ceremonial, James believes that they still have more impact than politicians since they are closer to the people than government officials are.
Being closer to her people, James realized the need to have an economic plan to help improve lives. She has instituted an enterprise fund that gives out small loans to people who want to start businesses. While stressing on innovation that can sustain the culture of her people, James also wants to drum home the need for strong social groups that think economically, that will be looking at how to make money to make lives better.
The Efik ethnic group, primarily located in southeastern Nigeria, makes up a significant number of the Calabar people. They speak the Efik language. Culturally and linguistically related to the Ibibio, the Efik migrated down the Cross River during the first half of the 17th century and founded settlements including Creek Town and Duke Town, according to one account.
It is documented that the Efik were the first to embrace western education in present-day Nigeria, with the establishment of Hope Waddel Training Institute, Calabar in 1895 and the Methodist Boys’ High School, Oron in 1905.