Even for many who are astutely familiar with African histories and legends, identifying a historical heroine in the stories of old tends to be so much hard work, unfortunately.
Those with greater depths and memories may mention Queen Amina, a 15th-century queen of the Hausa of modern Nigeria. Maybe, they would also come up with Yaa Asantewaa, the queen of an Asante state who took on the British in the 19th century.
Well, here’s one more: Queen Dode Akaabi (some other spellings are Akaibi or Akabi).
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Akaabi was many firsts for the Ga people, a coast-dwelling people in Ghana and the founders of Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Technically, Akaabi is also the only woman to have led a major ethnic group in the Gold Coast that became Ghana.
The Ga state, which used to be an amalgamation of about a dozen traditional communities, was founded circa 1510. After about 300 years, the term “Ga state” was used in reference to a much wider area.
Akaabi was the first female monarch of the Ga and has been the only one since the monarchy replaced theocracy in the nucleus Ga state in about the 16th century. The Ga communities used to be led by priests known as wulomei until statehood was concretized and kings were chosen according to noble houses.
Even after theocratic rule, a Ga king was supposed to be the religious head of the Ga. But Akaabi was the first monarch who is believed to have relinquished her religious roles, having very little care for divinity and deities. Some assertions hold that her apathy for the religious roles was because she was a woman and only men were supposed to perform many Ga religious rites.
Interestingly, Akaabi was not even Ga by birth, which made her the first non-Ga ruler of the Ga state. She was a princess of the Awutu, a southern people who trace their heritage to the Guan, the earliest known people to settle in the geographical area now called Ghana.
Akaabi married a Ga king, Mampong Okai. Okai’s era began the ascendancy of ancient Ga wealth as a result of playing middlemen in the gold trade between Europeans stationed on the coast and the African peoples in the hinterlands where the gold mines are still located today.
In 1610, Okai died and Akaabi became the regent until her eligible son could become the monarch. But this was a woman who had spent her time as queen gathering important allies and inciting fear in the people, the result of which meant her regency took an unexpected 25 years.
A woman, a non-Ga and a person unable and/or unwilling to partake in religion and divining? Constitutionally for the Ga, Akaabi’s rule was every bit wrong.
For the people, her rule did not have the support of the deities so this meant that Akaabi had to find novel ways to, for instance, legislate. Since she could not claim revelation from the gods, all legislation were entirely her discretion.
Indeed, in one way, you may argue that Akaabi’s regency was a sting in the necessity for a Ga king to consult gods in the rule over human beings. Akaabi became a formidable law-giver and went to great lengths to make sure her laws were heeded.
She is known to have instituted one of the most unforgiving regiment of punishments for rule-breakers in the Ga state. People who fell foul of the laws would rather go into self-imposed exile than face punishment.
Akaabi was also a very unique African ruler in that she dedicated retributive attention to men who disrespected women, in her estimation. This sort of feminist dedication is unrecorded in any other African history.
For instance, she is believed to have sent men into hunting wild animals without hunting accouterments if they raped women. Other repercussions for disrespecting women in Akaabi’s Ga state included fines.
With particular reference to her womanhood and how she dealt brutally with men, it is actually easy to read sources that call Akaabi, the “wicked” or “tyrannical” queen of the Ga. But in a paper published in 2015, historian Harry Odamtten challenges the negative image of Akaabi handed down to us.
Odamtten argues that it is quite plausible that the narrative about Akaabi is guided by anti-woman motivations when the qualities she exhibited would have been described in positive terms of men.
What is mostly not said is that Akaabi also led the Ga into battles and won. Some historians credit her with certain territories secured in the early 16th century by the Ga.
She was also a skilled politician who kept the relationship the Ga had with the Europeans on the coast. This relationship paid off quite well with Akaabi investing heavily in pomp and opulence for the throne.
Her relationship with her kindred in Awutu was also good for the Ga. The bond on which she insisted between the Ga, the Awutu and other peoples who bordered the western frontiers of 16th century Ga lands ensured that the Ga people had no hostile aggression from that side until the founding of Ghana in 1957.
In 1635, Akaabi is said to have been murderously pushed into a pit dug at her behest for purpose of a well. She was buried alive.