Female leaders in Nigeria may not be as widespread as one would expect, but it is not a new concept. In the past, women have taken charge of the affairs of their communities either as chiefs, queens and queen mothers. In most cases, these stories have been hereditary – from a male traditional ruler to his daughter and have more emphasis on keeping the title within the family as opposed to keeping it with women.
However, in Anioma, a town in Delta state, a group of women known as omu are charged with the role of managing women affairs in the town and regulating the conduct of married women according to social norms.
The history of the Omu dates back as far as the fifteenth century and is a debated topic amongst historians today. There are two varying stories about the creation of the Omu sect in Delta state. The first school of thought says the Omu dates back to the influences from neighbouring ethnic groups. The Anioma people are predominantly Igbos and share boundaries with other local groups like the Binis, Urhobos, Isokos, and Igala. According to this version, this tradition comes from the Ilogo-Omu, an Olokun priestess in old Benin kingdom. Olokun is a goddess of the sea worshipped by women in pre-colonial Benin and Yoruba land and as thus, most of the priests were women. She married the king of Issele-Ukwu and incorporated her aides to purify the palace and keep malevolent spirits at bay. When the king died, she moved out of the palace but continued appealing for her son, the new king and the kingdom at large. It is this act that earned other holders of the office in towns with the monarchal administration the title of ‘queen mother’. The other version links the prestigious female institution to Asaba and Igala land claiming that an Asaba lady who had married an Igala man introduced it to her people. Majority of historians stick to the first narrative to avoid conflicts and arguments.
Despite the varying version of events, the Omu in Aniocha continue to be in charge of the women affairs and hear complaints from husbands about their wives. They also oversee local trade and protect from decline through rituals. The work of the Omu is more spiritual as they are seen to be intercessors. To be selected as a member of the Omu, you have to go through a rigorous selection process. The male leaders and the otu-umu are responsible for selecting through divination and politics. The names of prospective candidates are sent to oracles for confirmation and after the oracle approves, she is informed through a symbolic process. She will either have an eagle feather stuck on her hair or be presented with the ugba-omu, a calabash and one of the official insignia of the office , or she is presented with a piece of nzu, a locally mined chalk. The eagle feather is an indication of an enhanced status, the ugba-omu is the traditional feminine symbol for female traders and signifies her responsibility to women, and the nzu, a ritual chalk, denotes purity and suggests her ritual role.
On the day of coronation after all due diligence has been done, the Omu is presented with her staff of office in the form of a knotted broom, an ofo and a circular fan. The broom is a feminine marker but the ofo and the fan are symbols of her new male status and authority. It is widely believed that all Omus lose their femininity to masculinity on this day. They hereby become leaders of their households and the only difference between them and men is the absence of genitals. It is widely assumed that widows, divorcees and post-menopausal women are preferred for this office because no Omu should live with a man from the time of her selection until death. In a recent interview with Punch Newspapers, the current Omu of Anioma, Martha Dunkwu reemphasised on assuming masculinity once she was appointed. According to her, once you become an Omu, you must return to your father’s house where a palace will be built for you. She goes on to say that if you were married, you can visit but not stay for long hours. Also, the Omus are allowed to have wives who are expected to have children for them. These wives are found male consorts who provide sexual fulfilment and the kids from these relationships belong to the Omu.
The Omu institution in Anioma may not be the ideal situation. It still emphasises masculinity as ultimate and devalues femininity. However, it still is one of the foremost cases of female leadership in Nigeria and as the struggle goes on, it is hoped that stories like this make it easier for women in public spaces.