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Women, Culture, and DevelopmentA Study of Human Capabilities$

Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198289647

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198289642.001.0001

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Recovering Igbo Traditions: A Case for Indigenous Women's Organizations in Development

Recovering Igbo Traditions: A Case for Indigenous Women's Organizations in Development

(p.444) Recovering Igbo Traditions: A Case for Indigenous Women's Organizations in Development
Women, Culture, and Development

Nkiru Nzegwu

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Nzegwu examines the status of women in Igbo political structure to determine the reasons for the apathy of modern Igbo women to political activity. Nzegwu then describes the internal structure of one such organization and explores how the utilization of literacy as the criterion of cultural adulthood leads to designing ineffectual programmes for women. Finally, Nzegwu investigates the history of development in Nigeria and discusses the positive contributions that indigenous women's organizations can bring to development.

Keywords:   community, development, Igbo, Nigeria, postcolonialism, women's organizations


This paper may read to philosophers like an anthropological argument for the utilization of indigenous women's organization in development.1 To some modernization theorists,2 development economists, and policy‐makers it would sound like nativism, a romantic re‐creation of a precolonial reality that is of little relevance to Africa's postcolonial condition. But viewed critically, it is a radical critique of foundational assumptions about gender that underlie current development programmes. The sociological and philosophical elements of the critique connect at points where historically constituted gender identities, social histories, and cultural norms expose the inadequacy of preconceived ideas about progress and culture that propel economic development. Though I shall argue my case through a detailed examination of Igbo women's history,3 much of my argument has relevance to many other countries of Africa.

It is important to stress that this philosophical critique is not a point‐by‐point refutation of any specific development theories. Rather, it is a reading which interrogates foundational assumptions informing development (p.445) wisdom. The generalist approach permits us to see how gender inequality is built into programmes. It enables us to understand the conceptual biases of the participatory‐models of Non‐Governmental Agencies (NGOs), and the technocratically oriented models of large development bureaucracies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

My argument proceeds in three broad moves. In the first section, I shall examine the ‘status of women’ in Igbo political structure to determine the reasons for the apathy of modern Igbo women to political activity. In the second section, I shall describe the internal structure of one such organization and examine how the utilization of literacy as the criterion of cultural adulthood leads to designing ineffectual programmes for women. In the last section, I examine the history of development in Nigeria and explore the positive contributions indigenous women's organization could bring to development.

1 The Status of Women in Igbo Political Structure

Colonialism in Africa was much more than a metaphor. It was an alienating historical condition that erased and silenced the voice of women. In eastern Nigeria in general, and Igboland in particular, the British policy of indirect rule resulted in the installation of a sexist administrative structure that, despite the demise of British imperial rule, has persisted to this day. Women's disadvantaged position in southern Nigeria today, and in the eastern parts of the country in particular, could directly be traced to two important features of the colonial government: its economic and social policies that effectively marginalized women; and the asymmetrical political structure that arrogated to male officials the power to make decisions for women. This structural bias robbed women of their historical powers and relegated them to the category of dependent minors. The enforced invisibility meant that women were denied education, employment, decision‐making powers, and access to resources such as credit facilities and loan schemes.4

Prior to colonization, the political culture of the Igbos could theoretically be described as dual‐sex.5 Under this dual‐symmetrical structure, women (p.446) had their own Governing Councils—Ikporo‐Onitsha, Nd'inyom—to address their specific concerns and needs as women. The councils protected women's social and economic interests, and guided the community's development. This dual‐symmetrical structure accorded immense political profile to women both in communities with constitutional monarchies (on the western side and some parts of the eastern banks of the River Niger—Onitsha, Ogbaru, and Oguta), and in the non‐centralized democracies of the eastern hinterland.

Although Igbo society was divided along gender lines, antagonistic gender relations were generally avoided because the indigenous political process was primarily consensus‐seeking. The socio‐political structure required and depended on the active participation of women in community life. Their views were deemed critical, not because they were women, but because of the special insight they brought to issues by virtue of their spiritual, market and trading duties, and their maternal roles. In precolonial times, the Obi of Onitsha governed in consultation with the Omu (female monarch), and later with Ikporo‐Onitsha following the demise of the Omu institution.6 In other parts of Igboland, Nd'inyom governed with ezeala (the spiritual custodians of societal norms). The maintenance of a harmonious gender relationship was critical to the well‐being of Igbo society. The consequences for destabilizing the intricate gender structure could be agonizingly severe.

For instance, men who devalued women risked being ‘sat on’,7 or shunned by women who invoked constitutionally validated sanctions to restore normalcy. Scholars like Green (1964), Judith Van Allen (1976), and Monday Effiong Noah (1985) have noted that these took various forms including besieging the man in his house and singing scurrilous songs that taunt his manhood, or roughing him up and/or destroying his prized possessions. It is interesting to note that other men in the village hardly ever came to the rescue or defence of one of their own. ‘Nya ma!’ (It's the persons own business), they would say. ‘O kotelu okwu umunwnayi!’ (The person brought the wrath of women on himself). Green gives a telling account of an incident in Agbaja, in which women exercised this disciplinary power by killing two unpenned pigs belonging to a male neighbour, which were eating their crops. Fearing a violent response from the male owner or his male friends, Green was startled by the owner's non‐aggressive response. Turning to a male informant for elucidation, she was casually (p.447) informed that the owner and the other men would not take action because ‘it is the women who own us’.8

In Onitsha, the same sanctionary measure was enforced in the public refusal to accord a titled offender the customary respect due a person of his rank;9 or refusing to have him properly buried until an apology was extracted from the family.10 In extreme cases as occurred under the reign of Omu Nwagboka in the late 1880s,11 women withdrew en masse from any activity in which inter‐gender relationship was implicated; and in some parts of Igboland, women collectively moved out of their villages until their demands were met.12 Leaving men to fend for themselves and their children, impressed viscerally upon them the worth and value of women. The social disruption that usually followed the violation of women's rights provided compelling reason for all to strive for social harmony.

Mutual gender respect thus developed, as each group had equal access to sanctionary powers and the judicial and constitutional backing to use its powers, if need be, against the other. Women who consistently and deliberately devalued the men of their marital village risked a visit from the ancestral mask of the ward. However, women's stronger group identification through their Governing Councils and their ability to work collectively in diverse associations gave them immense protection and coverage. Their networking skills enabled women to mobilize instantly across cultural, religious, and economic boundaries.13 Since Igbo men lacked the same kind of network associations and gender identification commonly found with women, it was harder for them to enforce their decisions. Realizing that to take on one woman was to take on the whole, a situation the men were most anxious to avoid, they found it easier to lodge their complaints with the appropriate women's group rather than take action on their own.

Women's independence was fostered by cultural traditions that placed a premium on female assertiveness and collectivity, and did not define power as socially deviant. If men usually capitulated and were, or seemed politically ‘helpless’ before the collective strength of women, it is not because they were passive or timid. It was more that they were accustomed to women being in positions of power and influence, and had consequently developed respect for their administrative skill. The indigenous structures of governance (p.448) publicly validated and reinforced women in ways that normalized their presence in the judicial, economic, and political spheres of life. Thus Igbo men could matter‐of‐factly accept the ‘sitting on a man’ mode of conflict‐expression together with its graphic imagery of ‘being sat on’, because in their communities women adjudicated cases, established and enforced rules and regulations, worked in concert with Obi, ndichie, and ezeala in the administration of the community. Since women's political identity is a fact of life, and in their eyes ‘nwanyibuife’ (women are of significance), there could be no shame in acknowledging and abiding by women's regulations.14

The theoretical significance of the social act of ‘sitting on a man’ is that it most forcefully revealed the existence of a society in which men lacked the sort of patriarchal authority so readily presented in ethnographic literature, and assumed by development policy planners. The political significance of that sanctionary force and one which is not adequately highlighted is that it afforded women a powerful constitutional check on male excesses in society, and assured that their views were adequately factored into policy decisions.15 Reminders of the destabilizing effects of gender conflict were used symbolically to protect and reinforce women's power. Writing in the 1930s, Green notes that at times of natural disasters, which have had a particularly great impact on women's lives (for example, when there was a higher than normal infant mortality rate, or an increased incidence of stillbirths), ‘women collectively . . . [held] . . . men and their magic responsible’ and demanded propitiation.16 This type of critical scrutiny established a framework within which men were held accountable and gender imbalances redressed.

In Igbo political tradition, representation without sanctionary powers to back it up implied non‐representation, ‘ewe onu okwu’ (not to have a say); its effect was social marginalization. Thus politically marginalized and reclassified as dependents under colonial rule, Igbo women, in the period between 1925 and 1935, incessantly organized protest rallies and picketed the offices and residences of colonial officials to wrest some form of representation.

(p.449) In 1929 these protest movements culminated in ‘Ogu Umunwanyi’ (the Women's War), in which they sought to modify the system to give them some form of representation similar to what they had in precolonial times. Appreciative of some of the benefits of colonialism such as better medical care and transportation networks, and aware of their educational handicap (‘our eyes were not opened’), the women did not desire to overthrow the colonial rule as alleged.17 Specifically, they just wanted to be consulted on the selection of Native Affairs officials, and in the formulation of policies. They wanted the prosecution of all oppressive and corrupt chiefs and court clerks, and offered to provide the necessary evidence to convict these officials. To introduce safeguards in the administrative system, they proposed that the post of warrant chiefs be limited to three years of service, and that women must be consulted in the selection of officers for those posts.18 Most important of all, they wanted tax exemption for women.

The Women's War, which was fought to protest the imposition of taxation on women, began in Bende division of Owerri province and spread quickly throughout Owerri and Calabar provinces of eastern Nigeria. The 1929 financial crash had impacted negatively on women's produce trade, motivating them to seek assurances from the colonial government that they would not be taxed.19 Faced with bureaucratic stonewalling, the women resolved not to pay any taxes nor have their properties assessed. So when the Warrant Chief Okugo sent an assessor to compile the figures, Nwanyeruwa Ojim refused to permit an assessment of her property. An alarm brought other women to the scene who proceeded ‘to sit’ on Chief Okugo and the assessor, Mark Emeruwa. Messages were sent to women in other villages who, on learning of the crisis, joined the struggle. Although Chief Okugo was deposed to placate the women, the women refused to allow the dethronment to deflect them from their larger objective.

In their confrontation with the colonial administration, the women mostly employed the conflict‐resolution mechanism of ‘sitting on a man’ to signal their grievances. Unaccustomed to such militancy from women, the nervous colonial officials ordered in armed police and troops to ‘quell’ the disturbances, which had spread over an area of 6,000 square miles. Officially 50 women were killed and another 50 wounded by the time order was restored. Despite the heavy caualties on the women's side, the end of the war did not signal the end of the protest movement and women's agitation for representation.

(p.450) The profound historic importance of the 1929 Women's War consisted not simply in the courageous attempt of the women of eastern Nigeria to challenge invisibility and fight the devaluation of their personhood. It also unequivocally established that women's independence was a fact of life in precolonial times—and that these traditions could still be called upon to empower women. The fiery strong response of these women to the erosion of their rights conclusively showed not just that women had political roles and rights in precolonial times, but also that the political institutions through which they claimed these rights were integral parts of the political tradition in Igboland and Ibibioland. It also showed their political acumen, foresight and vision, and revealed the existence of a powerful, highly efficient political structure with networks that transcended ethnic boundaries. The women displayed an incisive grasp of the colonial agenda, an ability to perform rapid and accurate analyses of the fluid, complex situation, and a remarkable capacity for formulating and deploying appropriate strategies.

The Women's War was also important for another reason. It marked the rise of Western gender ideology, as evidenced by the non‐participation in the women's action by a growing class of privileged women. Whereas in the past women had rallied in solidarity to assert their demands, the individualistic emphasis of the new ideology prevented the converts, the wives of administration officials, from participating in the political movement.20 Their disinterest and lack of political consciousness was best explained as a rejection of Igbo gender ideology that had fostered women's independence and placed a premium on assertiveness and being outspoken. Suddenly, being assertive and having a political opinion signified the ‘primitive African’; while being cultured and civilized meant being submissive and obedient. These status‐conscious wives of local officials ironically modelled themselves into the non‐assertive, self‐effacing, passive women that Igbos had always derisively portrayed as ‘mmili oyi’ (cold water, ineffectual).

As the writings of Leith‐Ross and Green show, this Western gender ideology hardly made an impact in the rural areas between the 1930s and early 1950s. To a large extent, the pattern of life of the rural and urban poor continues to this day to manifest stronger identification with traditional norms and values than with Western cultural values. With the domestication of middle‐class women by the 1950s, we find a two‐tiered reality: an upper‐crust Westernized society, overlaying and to some extent concealing indigenous social values and practices. At the upper‐tier level, educated middle‐class Igbo women find themselves shackled to a sexist system that (p.451) leaves them politically disadvantaged to this day.21 In an environment where success is defined in economic terms, many women who have had to adopt a subordinate stance to their male partners do not realize that this is itself a form of oppression, regardless of the prosperity enjoyed. Meanwhile their economically disadvantaged ‘uneducated’ sisters retain a stronger sense of their identity, and a greater degree of control over their lives.

What development planners too often ignore in designing policies is that vestiges of this cultural consciousness still remain today, albeit in a modified form. The present ambivalence of Igbo women, especially middle‐class women, to political action is symptomatic, not of tradition but of an alienation from Igbo history produced by the experience of colonialism. For the urban‐poor and rural women, the primary disenchantment is with the so‐called ‘democratic’ process of Western political tradition that had marginalized and stripped them of their female dignity. As early as 1929 women like Mary Onumaere were protesting against the rising power of men: ‘we don't wish to be oppressed by out menfolk.’22 Others like Nwato of Okpuala wondered at the internal contradictions of colonialism: ‘we thought that white men came to bring peace to the land . . . if this oppression continues, how are we to praise you?’23

Nigerian men in general benefited immensely from the inherent sexism of the system as the British officers were willing to work with them to install colonial rule, however much they despised them on racial grounds. Whereas in the past Igbo men had to share power with women, as they succeeded educationally, economically, and politically they egoistically clung to power and could not be depended upon to distribute resources equitably. The co‐optation of African men into the Western gender stereo‐types did incalculable damage to modern Nigerian political culture. Freed from the restraining checks and balances that had curtailed sexism, male bias was massively built into policies, programmes, and structures of the system to safeguard it for men. The results were the denial of effective representation to an inordinately large number of women; the exclusion of women's corrective influence in governance; and the creation of a politically passive female citizenry and sexist, dictatorial men.

2 Women's Organizations: The Ikporo Onitsha

In beginning with an analysis of the colonial impact on African cultural life, it might seem that I have fallen prey to what has most derisively been (p.452) described as ‘the predilection of African intellectuals’, namely the urge to ‘romanticize’ precolonial traditions, and to unimaginatively explain away Africa's ills by blaming colonialism. It is certainly true at a superficial level that colonialism is not completely responsible for all the problems in Africa. But at a deeper level it is especially culpable, given the structures: economic, military, and bureaucratic, including gender, that it left in place.24 Given the male bias of our colonial legacy, the female empowering institutions of Africa's indigenous cultures were devalued with no space created for the women in the new Western‐derived one.

One place where this sexism is most evident in postcolonial Africa is in the field of development where projects are targeted at men and a wide disparity exists in the income‐earning pattern of men over women. Barbara Rogers (1980) had argued that this income disparity derived from non‐recognition of women as producers. Citing numerous examples she showed that the underpinning conceptual bias of development militated against women in the distribution of benefits through stereotypically treating them as ‘dependents’ of males who were treated as ‘principal income generators’. By noting that women's labour was consistently taken for granted, Rogers showed the heavy labour‐intensive demands made on women which far exceeded that made on men.

The linkage between women's self‐worth and financial autonomy, which Ndiya25 women made in 1946, is now being made by critics of development theories. Anticipating the adverse effects of a gender biased economy, Ndiya women had warned the British against the implementation of policies that would deprive women of their livelihood and self‐worth. ‘What shall we do insofar as we know that if the mill (being introduced by the British) is owned and run by men, we will be thrown out of a job?’ (emphasis mine). They knew the effect of male monopoly of resources; they knew that if they became economically vulnerable and beholden to men their social worth and dignity would be severely undercut.

Zenebewoke Tadesse's (1990) analysis of women in African economy is important in that she identifies the positive impact of income‐generating activities on women's self‐confidence. To bring about the sort of structural changes she envisaged, women would have to be more intimately and more positively factored into development planning. It is not just that policies that accord with the status quo must be rejected since they reinforce the marginalized status of women. It is more that development planners should revise radically their approach if their projects are to be realistically adapted to the needs of the target group. When development planners assume that rural women must lack organizational skills, and conclude that they should devote their resources to funding ‘awareness workshops’, they illicitly transpose (p.453) the apathy of the middle‐class women on to rural women who have in fact continued to be politically active; they illegitimately suppose that lack of literacy skills is equivalent to lack of organizational skills.

Observing the politics and ideological power of literacy, Pattanayak (1991) notes that when literacy is construed as the basis of modernization: ‘illiteracy is grouped with poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, and health care, while literacy is often equated with growth of productivity, child care, and the advance of civilization.’26 Such a classification, Pattanayak suggests, ‘naturalizes’ literacy as the panacea for successful development even as research shows that the correlation between literacy and the adoption of improved agricultural practices is insignificant.27 What this establishes is that literacy is not a substitute for practical skills, nor does lack of it obstruct improvement. There is no question that in today's world literacy is vital, but it must be put in a proper perspective. It does not have a propulsive force all its own to instil knowledge and experience.

Despite the lack of literacy skills, many African women are engaged in trading activities and agricultural production, and in addition possess a wide range of technical, organizational, and administrative experience gained through hands‐on practical activities in numerous indigenous associations. As the Igbo Women's War showed, these experiences equip women to evaluate their economic situation and take on the challenges of mobilizing other women at the grassroot level to implement projects. But planners' devaluation of these capabilities—at the same time a devaluation of these women's personhood—has generally led to the exclusion of these valuable experiences from development programmes. Planners need to take account of the diverse character traits of different groups of women, and to be open and receptive to alternative models of experiences and organizational skills.

Therefore, guided by the belief that development assistance to grassroots women's organizations is often stalled through lack of historical knowledge, I shall follow my general account of Igbo traditions with a description of indigenous women's institutions that are deserving of development support. These associations deserve consideration for several reasons: they seek activities that have social and cultural relevance; they are advantageously positioned to channel resources to women who need more empowerment and autonomy; their existence has been obscured by hostile development policies; and their leadership is not currently in a position to articulate their demands or to argue for them in terms that officials of foreign development agencies expect and demand. My aim is not to invoke outmoded ancestral relics, but to point out enduring administrative structures that have relevance for development at the grassroot level.

(p.454) I must begin by describing the organizational structure of these groups which, historically, played important social, economic, political, and spiritual roles in the community. Understanding the internal structure of an organization like Ikporo‐Onitsha, I will show why an unswerving focus on literacy as the criterion of cultural adulthood leads to the adoption of ineffectual policies for women.

In much of former eastern Nigeria, most communities have a broad‐based Women's Governing Council that has sole jurisdiction over the local affairs of women in a specific community. These councils are radically different from, and unconnected to the élitist, class‐conscious, government‐funded National Council of Women's Societies with its headquarters in Lagos. Membership in these indigenous Women's Councils is open to women of a specific community regardless of their educational or class background. In fact, literacy is not a prerequisite for participation. Some of the elderly women leaders of these councils never received formal education, yet their organizational skills and leadership are widely respected.

Unlike the Western‐derived National Council, the indigenous Women's Councils have an effective hold over their membership. This is so because they represent the interests of women in their community of salience, which means their home of origin, and are therefore especially responsive to these women's special interests. Regardless of a woman's social status and educational accomplishments, a council's directives are binding on her and are never treated with levity.

In Onitsha for example, such a women's council is the Ikporo‐Onitsha (Women of Onitsha). This council has represented, and still represents, the interests of Onitsha women in Onitsha. It does not matter whether a woman lives in Lagos, Kano, Enugu, or New York, her interest is represented by the Governing Council even in her absence. No decision that has an impact on the lives or status of Onitsha women can be made without the council's knowledge and consent. Historically, this organization has played important social, economic, political, and spiritual roles in the community. To cite just a few examples, it steered women through such politically turbulent times as the resistance to colonial policies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the 1963 to 1967 Obiship constitutional crises, and the three‐year dispute with the then East Central State government in late 1973 to 1976, following that government's usurpation of Onitsha women's traditional market rights.

Prior to 1890, the Ikporo‐Onitsha had the Omu (or female monarch) as its leader. The Omu and her Council of otu ogene was the female principle in governance, and complemented the male principle that was embodied in the Obi (or male monarch) and the ndichie.28 Each institution was responsible exclusively for the actions and activities of members of the respective (p.455) sex; their powers and privileges complemented one another. On national matters, however,29 the two collaborated in formulating and establishing the Onitsha nation's position. This constitutionally defined consultative process ensured that the female viewpoint was well‐represented in decisions affecting the whole community. At a trade negotiation in the 1870s, in which the State of Onitsha was to decide whether to permit the establishment of a European trading firm, John Whitford reported on the participation of ‘the old women who constituted the Board of Trade’ (that was the Omu and her Council) in the decision‐making process.30

Following the imposition of colonialism, the office of the Omu declined. The denial of recognition to the Omuship as the legitimate constitutional representative of women was politically damaging.31 Worse still was the economic subjugation that followed. The trade and market portfolio of the Omu were gradually taken over by the British ‘in the interest of trade’. New trading policies were promulgated32 that tasked the women's ability to obtain operating capital, that deprived the office of the Omu of its revenue base, and in turn, stripped Onitsha women of their traditional influence over trade and market affairs. Their autonomy and powers were consequently undermined.

To survive the political erasure initiated by this economic trend, a radical transformation of the institution of the Ikporo‐Onitsha took place. This transformation brought the organization into line with the changing reality of women's reduced economic circumstances and loss of power. To preserve the council's political role, the financially costly initiation and governance ceremonies were cut drastically. The excised constitutional powers were vested in the oldest surviving woman who, from then on, was addressed as Onye‐isi‐ikporo‐Onitsha (the head of Onitsha women). Succession to this powerful office was simplified, and devolved automatically to the next oldest woman in line, once the full funeral ceremony of the predecessor was completed. Although the powers of subsequent Onye‐isi‐ikporo‐Onitsha were nowhere near that of the Omu in precolonial times, the institution to this day commands immense respect and loyalty in Onitsha. The flexibility introduced by the radical restructuring gave the council new life and identity. Most importantly, its informal nature gave it a tactical advantage it never had before. This advantage was effectively deployed (p.456) against the East Central State government between 1974 and 1976, to discredit and embarrass their own, Ukpabi Asika, who was then the Administrator. The police officers who were sent to track the activities of the women ran into an impenetrable thicket of elusiveness.

Today, the Onye‐isi‐ikporo‐Onitsha rules through a Governing Council of 35 members: a general secretary, six to seven women leaders of opinion who advise on policy matters, and three representatives each from the nine founding villages of Onitsha. In keeping with the community's principle of equality, representation to Ikporo‐Onitsha is on the basis of equal representation from villages, rather than population or numerical strength. Selection of representatives is based on such qualities as moral probity, strong character and charisma, articulate and fearless nature, and maturity in age. The representatives must have demonstrated leadership skills, and distinguished themselves in such other subsidiary associations. The stringent moral requirements for representatives are based on the idea that a strong moral centre is needed to deal with the tumultuous exigencies of political life. The age requirement of over 40 is not mandatory; it seems to have been put in place discretionarily to spare nurturing mothers the agony of juggling between activist community duties and child care.

The council conducts its affairs at two levels. The first is the intra‐village level, in which representatives of the nine founding villages report and discuss the activities of their home constituency and vigorously represent their interests. Second is the Onitsha‐national level. Here, the collective interests of Onitsha women prevail. By this I mean that issues are analysed from a gendered perspective in terms of their effect on Onitsha women as a whole. Strategies are then developed for their resolution. Because the Governing Council is a central unifying organization, its internal dynamics tend toward the promotion of shared communitarian values rather than divisive individualistic values. Except for caucus meetings, all meetings are held in an open public forum at ilo mgbeleme (the sacred assembly ground) where anyone can attend.

Ikporo‐Onitsha branches are found in any town in Nigeria where there is a sizable Onitsha community. These branches are seen as ‘international’ affiliates and the members are referred to as ‘abroad’ members. Each of these branches has an ad hoc ‘ambassadorial’ relationship with the Governing Council in Onitsha, with which it maintains an open line of communication and to which it reports. Most of the branch membership are professional women: teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, retailers, and business women. Participation for abroad members is through the branch, and through village representatives when they relocate to Onitsha. Through firmly established networks and protocols, the branches are regularly kept informed of current local developments and of the official positions of the Governing Council. They receive directives from the council; and in turn send back their suggestions. Because Nigerians identify themselves primarily (p.457) with their home of origin or ‘ethnic or cultural nation’, rather than their place of domicile or ‘foreign land’, they tend to be more interested in the progress and development of their cultural state than in the affairs of the place of domicile.

Like traditional Women's Council's elsewhere in Igboland, Ikporo‐Onitsha has survived because of continuous organizational reviews, re‐evaluation of policies, timely critical responses, and adaptability to changing social conditions. Its well‐developed chain of command and stringent requirement of accountability have earned it immense respect and credibility. The council's success in ensuring accountability derives from its intense monitoring system. Nothing is hidden in an environment where everyone knows the business of others. The knowledge that ‘everyone is their sister's keeper’ means that you do only what you can publicly live with or defend. Fraud is possible, but what keeps people in check is not just the public exposure of their crimes, but the humiliating dressing‐down that will be publicly meted out to them at ilo mgbeleme. What people dread above all is the alienating effect of ostracism which the Governing Council may pronounce on the culprit as a last resort.

Ostracism, the corrective sanction that impresses viscerally on individuals their dependency of social relations, highlights the limitations of Western notions of privacy and the primacy of the individual. The Onitsha position is that an individual's conceptualization of himself or herself as a person necessarily takes place within a social context. Only within a community of fellow beings can the idea of self‐realization become intelligible. For realization implies interaction with others, establishing rites of engagement and interrelationship. Outside the border of a social realm, individuals, according to the Onitsha, become non‐human, and if allowed to continue that sort of existence will break down and come to exemplify non‐human tendencies. Ostracism—which bars a person from participation in family and community affairs—is a practical demonstration of the idea that humans are social beings. Living in a society and being shunned by its members definitely accords an individual his or her space, but only by vividly demonstrating to them their implicit dependence on others. Since the ostracized person is, in effect, removed from the social to the natural realm, he or she enters the ‘land of the living dead’, to live a devastatingly solitary existence. Full restoration of social rights and obligation comes from recanting and paying the stipulated fine.

It is noteworthy that this power is also applied against men. In cases where gender equilibrium is threatened profoundly, ostracism can be translated into withdrawal or disengagement of women's power from normal social interrelationship with men. This withdrawal force acts as a constitutional check, forcing men to confront their dependency on women. For instance, between 1977 and 1978, Ikporo‐Onitsha led the whole community (p.458) (men and women) in ostracizing the Obi of Onitsha Ofala Okagbue to protest his abdication of his constitutionally assigned obligation to fight for the traditional rights of Onitsha women. The same was done to the Owelle of Onitsha, the former first president of Nigeria, when his political position was defined as antagonistic to the stand Ikporo‐Onitsha had taken officially on promoting women's welfare. Adazia Enwonwu, the Ndichi who openly taunted women for lacking significance, could not be buried as planned initially by his family, until a ritual rite of recantation was performed.

The fact that these female‐centred Women's Councils have survived to this day is a testimony to both their adaptability and their resilience. They have responded progressively to the challenges of oppressive economic realities by establishing co‐operatives to encourage women's trading activities.

The goals of these Women's Councils overlap with those of development agencies that are committed to grassroot development. First, the councils inculcate an ethics of community work in women, which in turn fosters a wide range of organizational, trading, and business skills. Because these skills and experiences are not abstractly named and theorized about, development officials routinely denigrate and dismiss them. Yet the hands‐on administrative training that women leaders receive in the course of their service to multiple associations gives them an incisive encyclopaedic knowledge of their community. Their total understanding of cultural norms and market economics make them excellent candidates for the role of ‘people professionals’ in the sorts of programmes that require information on local social and cultural structures.33

Lack of this sort of cultural knowledge has hampered development efforts in Africa in many ways. Programme evaluators too often lack the skills to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the social impact of programmes, hence they tend to rely on preconceived ideas about women and about literacy rather than ‘reading’ the specific realities of the culture. Projects like water supply systems, food production, mechanized farming, workshops on fertilizer usage and business investment are diverted to men on the naïve assumption that men are ‘naturally’ disposed to leadership and mechanical skills, while women are non‐mechanically inclined and ‘naturally’ disposed to a submissive role.

Numerous projects have failed for such reasons. Consider the case of water projects. Women, not men, are the traditional water managers in most African communities, and for that reason they possess all the relevant data. This came to light in a water‐scheme project in northern Ghana (p.459) funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Similar projects in other communities floundered, with the exception of one in which women were involved in the planning, implementation, and management of the project.34 That the women co‐ordinated project succeeded does not imply that men are irresponsible, but rather that they lacked the requisite knowledge about water resources to contribute effectively to the water‐scheme project.

With this general moral knowledge in mind, and knowing that sustainability and accountability are the bane of development projects in Africa, let us now consider again the case of Nigerian development to determine what needs can be met by an organization like Ikporo‐Onitsha.

3 Development Prospects: A Role for Traditional Women's Organizations

In postcolonial Nigeria, there have tended to be four main types of development projects. The first, and one that is generally given urgent national priority, is the heavy industrial type that seeks the transformation of the economy from agrarian to industrial. The second type targets male farmers in rural communities with the aim of improving their self‐sufficiency through modern agricultural techniques and raising the productivity level of their cash crops. The third type of project focuses on social modernization in areas such as health care, literacy, water resources, and job training that strives to improve the general quality of life in the urban centres. Finally, the fourth category promotes self‐help projects that are expected to have a far‐reaching impact at grassroot levels.

In the first phase of postcolonial development in Nigeria between 1960 and 1973, the underlying model of development maintained that transformation from a communal to a capitalist economy was a prerequisite for modernization.35 It was assumed that a technological focus, in such areas as iron and steel, road networks, bridge‐building, dockyards, and agriculture was the only route to development. In line with Rostow's theory of modernization, the central assumption was that cultural development would automatically follow technological initiatives; and that the level of development of a society is determined by the number of intensive primary and secondary industries it possesses. So heavy capital‐intensive projects were touted as a critical requirement for a sound economic base.

(p.460) Between 1973 and 1983, the second major phase commenced. It was marked by an emphasis on technological transfer that led to an increased presence of Nigerians in the middle and upper‐middle management positions. Majority shareholdership (known as indigenization) by Nigerians was another important issue. The assumption was that local ownership of industrial projects guaranteed access to technical knowledge. As in the first phase, large‐scale capital‐intensive projects such as iron and steel and petrochemical industries, and tangible symbols of success such as stadia, monumental office complexes, and airports were the preferred goals in development. As oil money rolled in from petroleum sales—100 billion dollars between 1973 and 1981—the need to raise agricultural productivity declined as a national priority. Earlier initiatives in agricultural development were largely abandoned as the attention shifted to the development of a manufacturing sector based solely on the assembly of semi‐finished products. Social and cultural projects such as adult literacy, rural electrification, and water schemes were also largely ignored and, when carried out, were haphazardly performed and monitored.

In both the first and second phases, indigenous culture was viewed as obsolete and not thought to have any significant initiating or critical role to play in industrialization. To all intents and purposes it was inert. This simplistic view of culture had devastating consequences for development, contributing to the failure of projects such as the iron and steel plant at Ajaokuta, the Aladja steel plant, the Lansat telecommunications system, and the three hi‐tech incinerators in Lagos. The eventual realization that technological development presupposes a certain cultural and valuational environment led to a re‐evaluation of development parameters. A different orientation exists today. The 1980s recession and the drastic decline of the economies of many African nations, coupled with the brutal effects of the Structural Adjustment Programmes insisted on by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have forced African nations to shift gears radically. A focus on grassroots development began in earnest in the early 1980s.

Today, development as practised by grassroot development programmes, is guided by the principle that the self‐reliance of the rural and urban poor is critical to sustain cultural progress and development. At the initial stages, the NGOs programme representatives zealously approached their task with a paternalistic approach. Such an approach was counter‐productive since it shut out local participation in the design of projects, with the result that local aspirations, values, priorities, and needs were excluded. The discovery that projects failed when they were not linked to the specific interests and needs of beneficiaries, brought about a change in the NGOs problem‐solving techniques. To match projects to needs, participatory methodological models that stressed local participation in project design and implementation were adopted increasingly. However, a fundamental problem (p.461) still remained with the models: their gender neutral emphasis ignored women.36

Since the attainment of independence three decades ago, Nigerian women have consistently been excluded from development. Initially, the standard argument was that development was gender neutral, and there was no need to target any specific group for programmes. Such arguments rang hollow as they masked the fact that the principal beneficiaries of development programmes were usually men. With the increasing presence of women in key decision‐making positions in donor agencies, a gender perspective was added. Women, it was pointed out, constitute 70% of the workforce in agriculture in sub‐Saharan Africa; so it makes sense to ask how they have benefited from massively funded agricultural projects.

But old perceptions and prejudices die hard. A telling case is that of the Washington‐based African Development Foundation (ADF). In its first eight years of existence, from 1980 to 1988, only 17% of grants have gone to support the efforts of local women's organizations. Yet a recent research programme and grant guideline states its support for local women management systems:

The participation of women who are often the traditional water managers, in the design and implementation of water supply systems, is leading to improved maintenance and technological choices that are more adaptable to community needs and environmental demands. (‘Perspectives on Self‐Reliant Development’, in Research Programs and Grants of the African Development Foundation (Washington, DC: ADF, 1989), 3–4)

In spite of such laudable statements, however, development co‐ordinators and programme evaluators still make unwarranted assumptions about the capabilities of rural African women, and assume that their interests are served adequately in projects controlled by men. Given that a major aim of current development efforts is to facilitate grassroots development through linkages with ‘existing traditional, local management systems’,37 it would seem imperative for development planners to get to know traditional women's organizations. If rural development projects fail or are non‐sustainable, it could very well be that local resource organizations with an extensive pool of experienced and skilled people are being neglected.

The question really is: how relevant are indigenous Women's Councils such as Ikporo‐Onitsha to such development initiatives and objectives? What mechanism, if any, does it have to enhance women's development, and how effectively could it respond to modern development issues? It is important, here, to see both sides of the ‘development divide’ to know what benefits the organization can bring to rural women's development and also where (p.462) planners' expectations are unrealistic. Three unrealistic expectations of planners should be briefly mentioned.

First, the expectation that rural women in Nigeria will take advantage of available funding opportunities of NGOs and private voluntary agencies is unrealistic when these agencies fail to work with indigenous organizations that are in a uniquely strong position to disseminate information. Secondly, the expectation of programme evaluators that projects will be funded on the basis of well‐written project proposals stacks the deck against these women. It is like asking the women to translate their needs and experiences into the language that programme evaluators would understand without providing them with the requisite conceptual and linguistic tools. The issue at stake is not simply one of literacy, it is one of conceptual fairness. The agency that acts this way is still treating the African poor with condescension and on its own Western basis in spite of protestations that it is interested in Africa's problem. Thirdly, Africa's declining economic situation may show that evaluators' desire for self‐sufficiency as a project goal is unrealistic.

Now, let's turn to the positive contributions Women's Councils could bring to development. First, the organizations have grassroots orientation and legitimacy. They have a strong community base and community focus as well as extensive knowledge of their community's values and needs. Their traditional legitimacy gives them the ability to mobilize women effectively and to guarantee women's participation in programmes. Moreover, the councils' diverse membership means that they can tap an extensive pool of professionally skilled women (and men) for advice. ‘Vertical linkages’ between professionals and women implementors of projects match local skill to local need and help keep costs down. Professionals will view this service as part of their community service. It is noteworthy that Ikporo‐Onitsha, for instance, used this strategem to obtain first‐rate legal advice from a pool of prestigious lawyers for a four‐year period without paying a dime.

Examination of the political structure of the Women's Council revealed the existence of a complex administrative structure with an effective monitoring system and inbuilt mechanisms to ensure accountability. As is well known, corruption and lack of accountability have been some of the problems that have consistently plagued development projects in Nigeria. These malpractices occur not because project managers are unqualified, but because they know that the punitive measures society will take would not undermine their social identity in the community of salience, once the booty is shared communally.38

Accountability, then, must be matched to the ethical motivations inherent in the cultural scheme. In the African setting, where the concept of (p.463) person is tied to community validation, people will do whatever is in their power to be validated positively by their community of salience. What is significant in the account of Ikporo‐Onitsha's sanction mechanisms is not so much the nature of the sanctions as that they are applied in ways that directly challenge the legitimacy and basis of the individual's self‐identity and social validation. Such mechanisms could be used to guarantee a higher level of accountability in project implementation.

The complex, efficient administrative system of Igbo Women's Councils highlights the error in creating brand‐new structures that are culturally alienated from local participants, rather than utilizing existing ones. Again, what is revealed from intimate contact with Women's Councils is not their unwavering female‐focus, but the leaders' incisive grasp of complex, fluid, and shifting situations, and their ability to implement their strategies.

Admittedly, the existing Women's Councils are locally limited in scope, rather than national in their orientation. This will be a point against them among those who believe in de‐emphasizing ethnicity as a focus of development. But there is no evidence that ‘being national in outlook’ (presumably, lacking a specific ethnic focus) is either necessary or sufficient for development. For one thing, the whole idea of national unity requires elaboration: what sort of unity do we wish to have, and what will be the role of ethnic plurality in it? This does not mean that development projects cannot have a national focus. But planners must be more reflective, seriously considering the conceptions they are using, and asking how indigenous ideas of nationhood and loyalty might be put to work at a trans‐ethnic level.39 To do this, they might do well to focus on the advantages that Women's Councils could bring to development.

Here is one concrete way to employ these councils. To initiate successful development projects in Onitsha, one needs to take advantage of cultural idiosyncrasies. Igbos are notoriously competitive. They care immensely for their natal communities of salience, and worry about how their progress measures up to that of rivals. Nothing will be achieved if one community is targeted for development without kindling the competitive spirit between communities. Therefore, one might suggest that a successful utilization of these Women's Councils in the role of intermediary organizations (and of their leaders as ‘people's professionals’) must also employ three close rival communities as the experimental base for testing the utility of the councils. The competing communities should be aware that the criterion for evaluation is sustainability of projects. They should be informed that communities (p.464) that perform well will receive increased funding and resources in the future.

Regular inter‐community or lateral feedback is critical in the experiment. The objective is to keep the communities abreast of one another's relative performance; but feedback also allows them to compare notes on their progress, and learn from one another's strengths and weaknesses. If the competitive spirit is removed, one has removed the driving force to sustain the project to the point of self‐reliance.

Can and will this work? At this stage, it is important to insist once again that the reason one hears this quesion is because the councils remain so unfamiliar to Western eyes, and seem so odd when held up against Western ideas of organization. The request for ironclad guarantees that one hears in such questions is really a call for reassurance before a move into unfamiliar conceptual terraine. In reality, the question cannot be answered before trying. It cannot be answered by solipsistic agony and torment. Indeed, it cannot be answered by abstract reflection at all. It can be answered only through practical engagement—by actually working with the women and their organizations. And throughout the process there must be an open mind, a mind responsive to change and flexible in change, a mind capable of perceiving and adapting to each unique situation, a mind informed by historical and cultural knowledge. That is the sort of mind—and the sort of rationality—that development planning in Africa really needs.


Bibliography references:

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(p.465) Mba, Nina (1982). Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women's Political Activities in Southern Nigeria, 1990–1965. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

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(1) If it does, we should see it as a manifestation of the depth in which eurocentric, colonial assumptions about knowledge have permeated scholarship. Received ‘critical’ attitudes towards the conceptual categories of non‐Western societies today, are implicit reproductions of racist prejudices and biases in which these societies have historically been cast. Materials from ‘other’ cultures are exoticized as ethnographic literature, while the exotic materials of white‐Western life is ‘naturalized’ and presented not only as normal but as theoretically unproblematic.

(2) Rostow (1960); Gino Germain, The Sociology of Modernization: Studies on its Historical and Theoretical Aspects with Special Regard to the Latin American Case (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1981); Josef Gugler and Williams Flanagan, Urbanization and Social Change in West Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

(3) The textual sources of much of that history are the works of colonial officials like D. Amaury Talbot, Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People: The Ibibios of Southern Nigeria (London: Cassell, 1915); M. M. Green (1964); Sylvia Leith‐Ross (1965). Recent book length studies on women have come from the following: V. C. Uchendu, The Igbos of Southern Nigeria (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965); Ify Amadiume, Male Daughters/Female Husbands (Zed Books, 1987). Other writers whose works include a section on Igbo women are Richard Henderson, The King in Every Man (1972); Nina Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women's Political Activities in Southern Nigeria 1900–1965 (1982); E. E. Evans‐Pritchard, The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and other Essays in Social Anthropology (New York: The Free Press, 1965); P. Amaury Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria: Ethnology, vol. 111 (London: Frank Case, 1926).

(4) Since the late sixties noticeable changes have begun in the area of education. Parents are increasingly pushing for their daughters' education following the realization that women, more than men, invested more in the care of aged parents.

(5) Kamene Okonjo (1976), 45–58; also Green (1964), ch. 11. Though written with colonial objectives in mind (which accounts for its much criticized racist overtones), Green's book remains an incisive reading since she aims for a woman‐centred view.

(6) Even today, Ofala Okagbue, the Obi of Onitsha, seeks out women's stand and opinion before making policy pronouncements. This co‐rulership is noted by Felicia Ekejiuba (1966: 219) with respect to Omu Okwei in Ossamala; Henderson (1972) with regards to the Omu of Onitsha, and Kamena Okonjo (1976: 47–51) with respect to the Omu of Obamkpa.

(7) For a detailed description of this mechanism, and how it works, see Judith Van Allen (1976: 59–86); also Green (1964: 174). For an account of this practice among Ibibio women see Monday Effiong Noah's description of the activities of Iban Isong (Ibibio women's organization) (1985: 24–31).

(8) Green (1964: 174); also see Monday Effiong Noah's description of how men scuttle for cover when they hear of the movement of Iban Isong (1985: 26–7); and Leith‐Ross, (1939: 97).

(9) This was done to the Owelle of Onitsha and former President of Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, in 1976–7 when he fell out with Ikporo Onitsha. The ‘Owelle’ is the seventh in rank of the Ndichi Ume, the highest ranking chiefs of the Obi of Onitsha's cabinet.

(10) This happened to another Ndichie, Adazia Enwonwu, in 1975.

(11) This is part of Onitsha oral history which Henderson documented (1972: 376, 525).

(12) Interestingly, Saye women of Burkina Faso used this threat in 1981 to compel their men to build a dam. See Dankelma and Davidson (1988: 35–37).

(13) Mba (1982: 92).

(14) Barbara Rogers (1980) was undoubtedly correct when she observed that it is highly questionable that men in most precolonial cultures objectified women as passive objects (p. 29). She was also correct when she treated such theoretical intuitions as revealing more about those making the judgements (p. 33). See ch. 2.

(15) Many westerners including some feminists (Ann Ferguson, 1991) are opposed to the idea of factoring sex into gender constructions. Catherine MacKinnon has shown that what is feared is a situation in which any possible distribution of powers necessarily reproduces sexist patriarchal roles and stereotypes. Hardliners on the issue find it difficult to comprehend how sexism can be overcome if sex differences are acknowledged. Focusing intently on the oppressive experiences women have undergone because of sex recognition, they usually forget in their fear (1) that male differences are already factored into constructions of power; (2) that factoring in female differences to displace male monopoly of the conceptual realm does not imply invoking negative stereotypical images; and (3) that sexism comes about not because biological sex is recognized, but because it is dealt with negatively.

(16) Green (1964: 176).

(17) Aba Commission of Inquiry Report (1930: 263).

(18) Mba (1982: 87–91). The references on the women's war came from government documents such as Aba Commission on Inquiry, Owerri Annual Report 1929 and 1930, Ogoja Annual Report 1929, Calabar Annual Report 1929 and 1930. Miss Okezie's letter (Aba District Office, see Mba (1982), 1/21/30); from Nguru (Owerri District Office, see Mba (1982), 1/14/49); testimonies from Nwanyiezi of Ikefem (Aba Commission of Inquiry Notes of Evidence no. 148) Akulechula (ibid.: 175).

(19) Ibid. 90.

(20) Mba 83–5. Mba had given several reasons for the non‐participation of middle‐class women, namely pressures from husbands, non‐membership in the community‐based associations of the areas of protest, and adequate financial means. But these are inconclusive given that the women's action ran counter to the spirit of female consciousness in Igboland. In the rural areas, the wives and daughter of warrant chiefs and court officials led some of the revolt, so status and wealth cannot be called upon as valid explanations.

(21) I have to admit that what has been described is the general trait of a class. In no way does it imply that all ‘educated’ or ‘middle‐class women’ behaved in that manner. Exceptions like Miss Okezie, Margaret Ekpo, and Adora Ulasi could easily be found.

(22) Ibid. 89. From the government document (Aba Commission of Inquiry Notes of Evidence no. 239, see Mba (1982), p. 89).

(23) Ibid. 92. From the government document (Aba Commission of Inquiry Notes of Evidence no. 805, see Mba (1982), p. 92).

(24) Femi Taiwo made this point in his paper on knowledge production which he presented at SUNY‐Binghamton in March 1991.

(25) Ibibio women. See Mba, 107.

(26) Pattanayak (1991: 105).

(27) R. Shanker, ‘Literacy and Adoption of Improved Agricultural Practices’, Indian Journal of Adult Education 40 (1979), 31–7.

(28) For further descriptions of this see Richard Henderson (1972); Nina Mba (1982: 21–6); also see Okonjo (1976: 45–58).

(29) I take here the definition of nationhood that is built on ethnicity, in which a cultural nation is equivalent to a political nation‐state. This is the case in European nationalism. See B. O. Oloruntimehin, ‘African Politics and Nationalism, 1919–35’, in Adu Boahen (ed.), UNESCO General History of Africa: Africa under Colonial Domination 1880–1935, vol. 7 (Los Angeles, Calif.: UNESCO, 1990), 565–79.

(30) Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia, Pa.: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978).

(31) For a more detailed account of this development see Mba (1982: 25–6, 49); Okonjo (1976: 45–58).

(32) The one‐shilling produce inspection test was introduced in 1928 to regulate the quality of palm oil.

(33) Lawrence Salmen used the term in another context, to describe local experts who are unaffiliated to development agencies, but who provide technical advice. My use differs only in the sense that I am treating the cultural advice to agencies as technical. See Lawrence E. Salmen, Listen to the People: Participant‐Observer Evaluation of Development Projects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

(34) This successful project was evaluated by a female consultant Theodora Carroll Foster. She met with stiff opposition from the male area co‐ordinator who felt that the local women had nothing to contribute.

(35) This is Rostow's model (1960), in which modernization defined the point of ‘take‐off’. It is assumed that industrialization, education, population, and labour are the necessary factors for sustained growth.

(36) It is instructive to mention that this attitude occurs even with female programme officials. Being female does not imply that one is aware of the presence and complex nature of the gender stereotypes inherent in programmes.

(37) ADF Guidelines (1989), 6.

(38) Although I find Harman's (1986) generalizations rather sweeping at times, he identified correctly this linkage between corrupt officials and their communities as the bane of development in Nigeria. See Harman (1986).

(39) Policy makers who consider development as a vehicle for ‘national unity’ should bear in mind that Nigerians tend to view their place of domicile as a ‘foreign land,’ and are in turn viewed as ‘strangers’ by the indigenes. This belief has had negative implications for development projects. In the politically volatile climate of Nigeria, where appointments are made on the basis of nepotism, workers will lack committment to projects that are not located in their areas of salience.