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OMU OKWEI OF OSOMARI – QUEEN & MERCHANT (1872-1943)

She was one of the wealthiest and most influential Igbo women of all time.

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 was an astute and successful trader, selling vegetables, palm oil, cloth, and a wide variety of goods throughout the country.

Her mother sent her, at age nine, to live with one of her aunts among the Igala people. While living with her aunt, Okwei learned the Igala language and basic business practices. She traded first in fruits and vegetables, then moved into yams and poultry.

Okwei re-joined 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 married a trader named Joseph Allagoa. Her husband left her the following year, shortly after the birth of her son Joseph. After the marriage breakup, she expanded her business to include pots, pans, lamps, and clothes, she travelled along the River Niger, exchanging the manufactured goods for foodstuffs from Nigerians which she then sold to the Europeans at a profit.

In 1895, Okwei once again married the man of her choice. Opene of Abo was the son of Okwenu Ezewene, a wealthy woman trader. They had a son together. Okwei later went into partnership with her mother-in-law creating a flourishing business.

In 1904, Okwei dissolved the partnership and set up an independent trading unit, becoming an agent of the Royal Niger Company. She exchanged liquor, tobacco, pots, plates, lamps and matches.

As her profits grew, Okwei began lending money to a network of smaller traders in exchange for a commission on all their sales.

She then began importing goods directly from England and reaped enormous profits. Over the years she had invested in a great deal of ivory, gold, and silver jewelries, 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.

Okwei was one of few women who were offered a warrant by the British Colonial Government to serve in the Onitsha Native Court from 1912 until the 1930s.

In August 1935, the Osomari people recognized Okwei’s achievements by crowning her Omu, or Queen, of Osomari.

She died in 1943. She is widely regarded as the greatest Omu that ever reigned. A marble statue was erected in her memory, and one of the main streets in Onitsha was named after her. Since her death, no other woman has held the title of Omu.

Her first son, Francis, was crowned His Royal Majesty Francis Ossomade Joseph Allagoa, MINGI X, Amayanabo of Nembe Kingdom (1954-1967). Okwei’s grandson, Ambrose, was appointed the First Indigenous Chief Judge of Rivers State in 1975. He later became His Royal Majesty Ambrose Ezeolisa Francis Allagoa, MINGI XI, Amayanabo of Nembe Kingdom (1979-2003).

 

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