Born into the household of Ugbabe Ayibi of Umuonu Umuida in Enugu Ezike (in what is now Igbo Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State) sometime near the turn of the 20th century, Ahebi Ugbabe stands as a striking and iconic historical figure, having been the only female warrant chief and “female king” in the entirety of colonial Nigeria. Around the age of 13, after being asked to enter a forced marriage with a local goddess as punishment for her father’s offences, she fled her home and sought refuge at Idah (in what is Kogi State), a riverside town which was then the capital of the powerful Idah Kingdom.
At Idah, she established herself as a trader and in time her business thrived and brought her into acquaintance with powerful individuals like the Attah Igala (King of the Igala people), as well as European colonial officials. Her exposure to people of various backgrounds won her familiarity with a number of local languages, and most significant of all, Pidgin English.
When the British invaded her hometown of Enugu Ezike in the early 20th century, Ahebi seized the opportunity and personally volunteered to lead the foreigners into her village. As a reward for her support and loyalty, she was installed as her village Headman and was soon promoted to the post of Warrant Chief, an exceptional instance of female empowerment in British colonial politics in Nigeria. With the support of the then Attah Igala, Attah Aliyu Obaje, who was quite an influential figure in the region, she also made herself the first traditional eze, or king, of her village - a revolutionary and bold act which sealed her legitimacy in local law.
Ahebi persevered and spent her reign ruling as an autocratic ruler, who had transformed herself into a man, socially and culturally speaking: she had a masquerade house in her palace and obeyed several societal customs that restricted her contact with adolescent girls and young women, as their menstrual fluid was considered defiling to males. In addition to taking titles and honors reserved solely for men and women, she married numerous wives for herself and her relations, owned slaves, and adopted sons, all of which were perfectly normal amongst postmenopausal women. As her influence grew, she also amassed enemies and eventually performed her own lavish burial when she was convinced that she would not receive one after her death.
Ahebi’s downfall finally came when she attempted to introduce a new masquerade into her people’s masking culture. Such a proposal went against her people’s belief that masquerading was an art strictly exclusive to initiated males and caused an uprising in her community. For the sake of peace, British colonial officials sided with her community leaders when the matter was to taken to court, and her warrant chief license was revoked. Although her reign was controversial, Ahebi used her power to change the lives of local women. Her palace served as a sanctuary for women who fled abusive marriages as well as a correction facility where men sent their stubborn wives. Although she died a quiet death in 1948, she was deified as a goddess in her maternal home and lives on in songs and folklore to this day.