The Female King of Colonial Nigeria is the story of a woman, Ahebi Ugbabe, who rose from the status of a local girl and commercial sex worker to that of a village headman, a warrant chief and a king.
Ahebi was born in Enugu-Ezike, an Igbo community, in the late 19th century. At the age of 13 or 14, she fled into neighboring Igala land to escape marriage to a deity as propitiation for her father’s sins.
While in exile, she became a commercial sex worker, and in this way, aligned herself with powerful men such as the ruler of Igala, and British colonial officials.
She also became fluent in pidgin English and other African languages, a skill that proved relevant to her future political ambitions. The early 20th century was a period of British incursion into Igboland, and Ahebi used this to her benefit by leading the British forces into Enugu Ezike, her hometown.
As a reward for her support, the British invaders installed her as a village headman. Due to her efficiency and continued loyalty, she was elevated to the post of warrant chief, a feat that was contrary to British policy of female political exclusion in colonial Nigeria.
With the help of the Attah (ruler) of Igala, whose influence extended to Northern Igbo land, Ahebi Ugbabe became king of Enugu-Ezike, therefore upsetting the gendered politics in her community. As king, she performed female masculinities, and superceded all existing male political hierarchy and authority.
However, when she attempted to assume full manhood by introducing her own masquerade, a deed performed only by men fully initiated into the masquerade cult, she met serious resistance from which she never recovered.
For fear that her society may not accord her a befitting burial, Ahebi performed her own funeral in her life time. When she eventually died in 1948, she had a very quiet send-off. Notwithstanding, she became deified as a goddess in her mother’s hometown, and is remembered in many Enugu-Ezike songs and parables.