Okwei of Osomari (1872–1943)
Okwei of Osomari (1872–1943)
Nigerian trader who created an extensive business network throughout Nigeria and was crowned omu or queen of Osomari in 1935, a tribute to her leadership and success. Name variations: Omu Okwei, queen of Osomari or Ossomari; Felicia Ifeoma Ekejiuba or Ekejuba. Pronunciation: Oak-way. Born Felicia Ifeoma Ekejiuba in 1872; died in Onitsha, Nigeria, in 1943; daughter of Prince Osuna Afubeho, of the Ibo tribe, and one of his several wives; never formally educated, but began to learn about trade at age nine; married Joseph Allagoa, in 1889 (divorced 1890); married Opene of Abo, in 1895; children: (first marriage) Joseph; (second marriage) Peter.
By age 15, began building a trading network; went into partnership with mother-in-law, Okwenu Ezewene (1896–1904); became an agent of the Royal Niger Company (1904); was one of Nigeria's wealthiest women (1920s); crowned Omu (Queen) Okwei of Osomari (1935), a title bestowed on no one else after her death.
Felicia Ifeoma Ekejiuba, who would be known as Omu Okwei, was born in 1872, the daughter of Prince Osuna Afubeho of the Ibo (Igbo) tribe. Her father was a celebrated warrior and a wealthy man, the owner of many trading and war canoes as well as several hundred slaves who fought and traded for him throughout Nigeria. Her grandfather was King (Atamanya) Nzedegwu of Osomari, who had reigned in the mid-19th century, establishing trading relations with the British and also inviting Roman Catholic missionaries into his kingdom. Okwei's mother, one of the prince's several wives, was from a family of equal prominence; her father Obi Aje was the son of Obi Ossai, an important king of Abo who had signed agreements with British traders in 1830.
Okwei's mother had no male child who survived to adulthood, which limited her claims to her husband's property. It was in the Nigerian tradition for women to support themselves, however, usually through farming and trading, and Okwei's mother was an astute and successful trader, selling vegetables, palm oil, cloth, and a wide variety of goods throughout the country. Recognizing that her daughter's future prosperity might well depend on her ability to trade, Okwei's mother sent her, at age nine, to live with one of her aunts among the Igala. Nigeria was a country of many tribes and languages, and success in trade depended on mastering the system of extensive trade networks and the languages spoken in trade, one of which was Igala. While living with her aunt, Okwei learned Igala and basic business practices. She traded first in fruits and vegetables, then moved into yams and poultry.
Okwei rejoined her mother when she was 15, after her father had died, and they lived at Atani, a port on the River Niger. In 1889, when she was 17, she chose to marry a trader named Joseph Allagoa, whose family's importance was not equal to hers. Upon marriage, a daughter traditionally received a dowry from her family which she would use as capital in her trading ventures, but Okwei's family, disapproving of Allagoa, refused to provide her with one. Headstrong and independent, Okwei nonetheless married the man of her choice. Through him and his friends she met and cultivated many important traders and agents. True to her family's expectations, her husband left her the following year, shortly after the birth of her son Joseph, but the valuable business relationships she had forged survived the breakup. With her line of merchandise expanded to include pots, pans, lamps, and clothes, she traveled along the River Niger, exchanging the manufactured goods for foodstuffs from Nigerians which she then sold to the Europeans at a profit. Friendly, hardworking, and honest, Okwei was popular with Africans and Europeans alike.
In 1895, Okwei once again married the man of her choice. Opene of Abo was the son of Okwenu Ezewene , a wealthy woman trader, but Okwei's family opposed this marriage as well, and again refused to give her a dowry. With her son, Okwei relocated to Onitsha, where her new husband and mother-in-law lived, and began working in partnership with Okwenu. Through Okwenu's contacts, she expanded her products to include tobacco and cotton goods, while also taking care of her family, which grew to include a second son, Peter.
One great obstacle to trade was the lack of a universal Nigerian currency; Nigerians in Onitsha used cowrie shells as money, refusing to trade in the British currency used by the Europeans. To bridge this divide, trade was frequently conducted through the use of tickets, which could be converted into either British currency or Nigerian cowrie shells. In 1904, Okwei dissolved her partnership with her mother-in-law and set up an independent trading unit, becoming an agent of the Royal Niger Company. She exchanged liquor, tobacco, pots, plates, lamps and matches, which were in great demand among Nigerians, for palm oil, which was in great demand among Europeans. As an agent of the Royal Niger Company, Okwei accumulated 400 tickets, which she used to procure yet more palm oil. This she sold to the Europeans at an enormous profit, which she used to enlarge her business.
By 1915, Okwei had built a financial empire and the backbone of her enterprises shifted. Always flexible and resourceful, she built up trading links with powerful men—Chief Quaker Bob Manuel, an important trader; Jack Cooper, the Niger Company manager; and John Windfall, the bank manager at Onitsha—who were especially useful at reserving goods for her and extending credit. As her profits grew, Okwei began lending money to a network of smaller traders in exchange for a commission on their sales. As well, domestic services became important to her enterprise. Okwei made use of her excellent relationships with both business associates and employees when she arranged for some of her more beautiful maids to become the wives or mistresses of bank managers, interpreters, shopkeepers, clerks, and influential businessmen whom she knew well. Her business associates appreciated the introductions she facilitated, and the maids reportedly were grateful for an opportunity to enhance their status; through the marriages that resulted from these introductions, she established valuable, lifelong ties in the competitive environment of business.
During World War I, Okwei showed her adaptability to new conditions when the market for palm oil in Europe collapsed and she shifted instead to ivory and coral beads, which were in greater demand there. She then began importing goods directly from England, a feat which required a great deal of money and organization but reaped enormous profits. After 1918, the British decided to end the ticket system and introduce a new standard currency. Nigerians had by this time accepted the old currency, but they wanted nothing to do with the new money; Okwei made the old currency available at an exchange rate of two old shillings to five new shillings, and reaped yet another prodigious profit. Over the years she had invested in a great deal of ivory, gold, and silver jewelry, far more than she could ever wear, and she now began to rent pieces of it out for ceremonial occasions, putting more of her capital to work. By the 1920s, Okwei was a tremendously wealthy woman, with a multitude of servants working in her businesses and many homes. She was an influential member of several social clubs, and became one of the first people in Onitsha to own a car. She also bought a fleet of trucks to supplement the canoes that conveyed her goods far and wide. A great landholder, she owned more than a third of the land along the banks of the River Niger at Onitsha, and rented or leased it for more income.
The powerful entrepreneur was also a devoted wife and mother, and a great believer in Nigeria's traditional way of life, putting family first and foremost. Her second marriage had proved quite happy despite the objections of her relatives, who had regarded Opene as not particularly hardworking. This assessment proved correct, but his lackadaisical attitude suited Okwei, who preferred to make the decisions; in their amicable relationship, she was the breadwinner and he the supporter of her business efforts. She saw to it that both her sons were educated, and as adults they attained important positions in Nigeria; Joseph Allagoa became a district interpreter and court registrar in the British Civil Service, and Peter Opene was employed by the Royal Niger Company. Both of her sons' careers further increased Okwei's ties with business and government circles.
In August 1935, Nigerians of Osomari recognized Okwei's achievements by crowning her omu, or queen, of Osomari. This was one of the highest political titles among the Osomari, and her election, a rare honor, was not due solely to her royal birth, for Nigerians crowned only those they deemed worthy. As queen, Okwei became part of a traditional "dual-sex" government, in which the positions of queen and king were occupied by unrelated but co-equal individuals. The queen oversaw the needs of women, and the king oversaw the needs of men; each conferred with their own council of the same sex before making important decisions. Omu Okwei was called upon to settle disputes, initiate community development programs, and oversee the market women who were still the backbone of Nigerian small business. She conferred regularly with the Obi chiefs as well as with the district officer who represented the British colonial government. Throughout her career, she remained adept at moving between Nigerian and colonial culture, and in her new position she applied this skill to the benefit of her people.
In this period of late British colonialism, Omu Okwei was an important transitional figure in Nigeria. She understood the emerging business system better than most Nigerians, and indeed better than most colonialists. At a time when Nigeria had few roads or railways, she built up a trading empire using river transport. She fully understood the British system of currency, using it to accumulate capital, and her organizational and business skills allowed her to trade directly with British manufacturers. Her vast business network was not unlike the great industrial empires founded in America by men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. As a figure of prominence and royalty, Omu Okwei maintained many Nigerian traditions, but she was not rigidly bound by social practices or conventions, as is illustrated by her two marriages to men of her own choosing. She related to British colonials as equals, and won their respect for her business acumen. Her shrewd understanding of the intricacies of credit, banking, currency systems, and relationships with suppliers made her a wealthy woman. Throughout her career, she was also known for her honesty and fairness; shoddy business practices were not a part of her enterprise. She became the epitome of a successful entrepreneur, a role which, while new for Nigerian women, was built on the country's long tradition of female entrepreneurship, and she maintained the best of her own culture while borrowing from the best of Europe's.
Many omu had reigned before Omu Okwei, but when she died, in 1943, Nigerians agreed that she was the greatest and most powerful of them all. A marble statue was erected in her memory, and one of the main streets in Onitsha was named for her. Since her death, no other woman has held the title of omu.
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——. "Omu Okwei, the Merchant Queen of Osomari: A Biographical Sketch," in Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria. Vol. III, no. 4, 1967.
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Karin Loewen Loewen , writer, Athens, Georgia