Chief Wuraola Adepeju Esan was a Nigerian teacher, feminist and politician. She combined her political ambitions with those of a traditional noblewoman by serving as the Iyalode of Ibadan. One of the most remarkable facts about this colossus of a woman is that she was Nigeria’s first female senator.
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Early Life And Education
Wuraola Adepeju Esan was born in 1909 in Calabar, present-day Cross River State to Chief Thomas Adeogun Ojo, a veteran of the First World War and a forestry officer and Madam Ajike Ojo Aina, popularly called Iya Gbogbo (mother of all), a self-made businesswoman. Her parents were not trained in Western education yet they promoted the course for their children.
She was first educated at the Sacred Heart Covenant, Ibadan. She later went to Sacred Heart Covenant School in Calabar and Baptist Girls College, Idi-Aba, Abeokuta, Ogun State, and the United Missionary College where she was trained as a Teacher. This qualified her to take up a teaching job as a domestic science teacher at a missionary training school in Akure from 1930 to 1934. She married Victor Esan, a civil servant at the Ibadan City Council in 1938 and they had four children.
Although educational facilities available to women during the colonial era were limited. In 1944, she established the Ibadan People’s Girls Grammar School in Molete, to educate women in different subjects including domestic science. However, her views and subsequent political ideas did not advocate a much more expanded vision of women’s place in broader society.
In the 1950s, she entered partisan politics and was a member of the women’s wing of the Action Group. Though the women were important instruments to garner votes, few were accorded official power and party-wide responsibility. However, Esan was able to rise through the ranks to become the first female member of the Nigerian National Assembly, as a nominated senator from Ibadan West. She was also a founding member of the National Council of Women Societies. In 1975, she took the title of Iyalode and thus acquired the rank of a high chief in Ibadan.
Sixty years ago, a Yoruba woman – Wuraola Esan became the first woman in pre-and post-independence Nigeria to be a member of the Nigerian Senate. Esan was one of a handful of Nigerian women actively involved in politics at the time.
Although women were actively involved in political activities in the southern part of Nigeria. They were seen more as agents of mobilization for garnering the support of other women to vote in elections.
As an educationist, in 1944, she established the Ibadan People’s Girls Grammar School in Molete to educate women. Before politics, she had distinguished herself based on her philosophy that a woman has to be twice as effective and efficient as a man to get recognition in a society where women played second fiddle roles. With this philosophy, she was first among equals.
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Journey To The Senate
Esan’s emergence as a Senator was not by election but by appointment. According to the 1959 constitution, becoming a member of the Nigerian Senate was by appointment. Section 37 of the 1959 Constitution states that the Senate shall consist of:
(a) twelve Senators representing each Region, who shall be selected at a joint sitting of the legislative houses of that Region from among persons nominated by the Governor;
(b) four Senators representing the Federal territory (Lagos); and
(c) four Senators selected by the Governor-General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister.
This led to the appointment of Esan on January 8, 1960, to represent Ibadan West, at a joint meeting of the Western House of Assembly and the House of Chiefs held in Ibadan which was the capital of the Western Region.
At the meeting, there was a mild drama between the ruling party AG and members of the opposition NCNC who later staged a walkout over a disagreement on the principle on which the selection should be based.
Dennis Osadebay, leader of the NCNC which had 27 members at the Western Assembly as against 54 of the ruling AG, had said the AG is entitled to eight while NCNC is entitled to four seats in the Senate because that was the reflection of the political representation in the Western House of Assembly. The ruling party disagreed with Osadebay’s suggestion and said it will give the opposition three seats only if the Eastern Region government where the NCNC is the ruling party would give the AG three seats in the region.
When a consensus could not be reached, the NCNC lawmakers staged a walkout and the Premier of the Region, Ladoke Akintola appointed 12 Senators. They include – Olajide Somolu, Chief Sanmi Esangbedo, Dalton Asemota, Chief Solomon Huponu-Wusu, M.G Ejaife, E. A Lagunju, Wuraola Esan, Chief T.A Odutola, Chief J.S Olayeye, P.A Ogundipe, S.A Eyitayo, Dr J.O Omitowoju. The Oba of Lagos, Oba Adeniji Adele was also appointed to represent Lagos as the Federal territory.
The appointment meant Esan would be the first woman to become Senator, a distinction that placed her among 47 male Senators throughout the period she was at the Senate from 1960 – 1964.
Though her legacy is hardly remembered, biographers described Iyalode Esan as “a fierce critic of corruption and tax evasion”. She led advocacy for improving women’s education and providing loans and services to help market women.
She strongly condemned the decision of the northern region government denying women the right to vote in the province. This decision limited the likes of fearless activist Gambo Sawaba from contesting in elections.
Recalling her skill in diffusing difficult situations, Denzer LaRay, author of ‘Gender and Decolonization: A Study of Three women Leaders in West African Public Life’, quotes Esan as saying: “I have the power of combating those people who want to fight me better than men because when you smile sweetly when your enemy is coming there will not be any fight.”
After leaving the Senate, she continued her advocacy as a founding member of the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS). The 1966 military coup forced her to stay away from politics and on May 9, 1975, she was installed as the Iyalode of Ibadan.
Before her death in 1985, Iyalode Esan witnessed the emergence of Franca Afegbua as the first female elected Senator in 1983, from Bendel north in present-day Edo state.
Roberta Ann Dunbar. Reviewed Work(s): “People and Empires in African History: Essays in Memory of Michael Crowder” by J. F. Ade Ajayi; J. D. Y. Peel; Michael Crowder, The Journal of African History, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1993.
Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong; Mr Steven J. Niven (2 February 2012). Dictionary of African Biography. OUP USA. pp. 311–.
Kathleen E. Sheldon. Historical Dictionary of Women In Sub-Saharan Africa, Scarecrow Press, 2005, p 74.
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