Margaret Ekpo International Airport in Calabar, Nigeria, was named after a salient politician, nationalist and women’s rights activist in the West African country who rose to fame in the 1950s during the country’s political struggle for independence.
Margaret Aniemewue Ekpo, noted for mobilizing women both rich and poor to fight for their economic and political rights and participate in politics, entered into politics under unforeseen circumstances.
In the 1940s, her husband, who was a doctor, had been strongly against the discriminatory treatment being given to indigenous medical staff by the British colonial administration, but since he was a civil servant, he could not attend meetings organized by Nigerians to protest the unfair treatment.
Hence, Ekpo took his place by attending such meetings, acting as the mouthpiece of her husband and eventually entering into mainstream political activity.
Ekpo was born in 1924 in the settlement of Creek Town in Cross River State, southeastern Nigeria at a period when women were not allowed to vote as the country was under British colonial rule. After having received much of her early education in Nigeria, Ekpo, in 1946, got the chance to study abroad at what is now Dublin Institute of Technology in Dublin, Ireland, where she earned a diploma in domestic science before returning to Nigeria to set up a sewing institute in Aba.
The teacher and political activist would later become a major force in Nigeria’s politics by first becoming politically active through the meetings she attended in place of her husband and by fighting for basic needs of the average woman in her society.
In 1946, the pioneering feminist founded the Market Women Association to unionize women in the city of Aba in Nigeria’s Abia State. Knowing that the movements for civil rights for women around the world was growing, Ekpo wanted same for the women in her country but this was not without challenges as men were not releasing their wives to join the Market Women Association.
Things changed after World War II as a smart Ekpo gained control of the sale of salt when it became scarce, giving orders that women who did not belong to the association should not have salt sold to them, according to Information Nigeria. The men subsequently had to release their wives to join the group which grew within a decade into a platform to fight for the economic and political rights of women.
Ekpo would later become an active member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) party, where she got nominated as a special member of the influential regional House of Chiefs to represent women. The strong and outspoken woman got further charged into politics during a rally in Aba by the NCNC when she listened to burning speeches by activists such as Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe Mazi and Mbonu Ojike, all urging the Nigerian people to rise and fight for independence.
Being the only woman at the rally, many were confused and wondered what she was doing there when she should be at home taking care of her family. But that did not stop Ekpo from her political activism. In the 1950s, she joined political campaigner and women’s rights activist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest killings at an Enugu coal mine in which victims were said to be protesting the colonial practices at the mine.
After being nominated by the NCNC to the regional House of Chiefs in 1953 and establishing the Aba Township Women’s Association a year after, Ekpo became the leader of the new market group which she subsequently turned into a political pressure group.
By 1955, women voters in Aba had grown in numbers through her activism and after Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, Ekpo got elected to the Eastern Regional House of Assembly, making her the first woman in Aba to attain that position and one of the few female politicians in the country to be elected to such an office.
With this position, she encouraged more women to enter into politics while fighting to improve their political and economic needs such as pushing for major roads leading to various markets to be improved and other rural road infrastructure.
Ekpo would continue to be an elected politician until the start of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war in 1967 when she was detained by Biafran authorities for three years under harsh conditions making her ill at a point due to lack of food.
Before her death on September 21, 2006, the then president Olusegun Obasanjo renamed the airport in Calabar, a city near her place of birth, after her as an appreciation for her role in the independence struggle of the country and the advancement of women’s rights.
Thus, from November 2001, the Calabar International Airport became known as the Margaret Ekpo International Airport, making it the only African airport to be named after a woman.