The Patriarchal Naira Notes

By: Covenant Odedele

This is in no way to burst your bubble or throw a spanner into your easy-going wheel. Fellow Nigerians, stand at attention and reason with me on this thought process. Have you ever noticed that there is no woman on the upfront of any Nigerian currency, from coins to notes? Have we no heroines?

I am not a feminist, neither is it time to celebrate International Women’s Day, but our Nigerian women need a shade of inclusion in our legacies and recognitions, and also for our future. While some countries have different personalities on their banknotes, a former colonised nation like Nigeria has consistently had only one category of persons — leaders of the independence movements. We have moved far too long with an implied idea that women have not done much, and we need to ditch this by properly rewarding them, when and where it matters. While we currently have the eminent Dr. Ladi Kwali at the back of the N20 note as the only recognised woman on any naira note, the naira is dominated by men like Awolowo, Azikiwe and Bello.

One of the first historic women to appear on any form of money was Arsinoe II, a Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, in the 3rd century BCE. Since then, many national currencies have depicted women either during their lifetimes or posthumously. Powerful women, like Pharaoh Cleopatra VII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Empress Maria Theresa, each issued coins with their portraits, helping them assert their influence over nations and empires.

In Nigeria, this has not been the case. In fact, just one of the nine currently used denominations of the naira bears the portrait of a woman on its front — and she shares the little space with three other men, making the naira another medium to reinforce the inequality between these two genders.

Incredibly and controversial to this, General Murtala Muhammed’s name graces both an airport and the upside of the N20 note but Ladi Kwali was given just a flat in this three-storey building. Even the roll call of past and present governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria has been predominantly male. Out of the 12 chief executives who have served the bank since its inception, only one is a woman — Sarah Alade. What is more, she served in an acting capacity and also the shortest tenure compared to her predecessors. Also in 2019, Priscilla Ekwere Eleje became the first Nigerian woman to ever have her signature on the 1000 naira note, and this “milestone” was celebrated as though it was exclusively for the male counterparts. This is not the way it should go.

The arguments that not a lot of women have done incredible exploits across the country like their male counterparts, though compelling, will not augment. Here in Nigeria, we have women whose efforts cannot be side-lined, and history would always bear witness. In the olden days, some women led wars and uprisings. They were influential and political. Efunroye Tinubu, the Ẹgba amazon, was a rich woman in a man’s world, wielding power and influence; installing kings and making money of slave trade before fighting against slave trade by herself. Queen Idia is the great woman of Benin; whose face is the most popular representative of African culture.  Efunsetan Aniwura, the great Iyalode of Ibadan, also comes readily to mind. All these examples represent the forces that fought slave trade in the 18th century.

Madam Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was the power of her time; a feminist and political influence in the Nigerian power-scape. She famously holds the claim to being the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. Asides from that, she was a foremost politician in Nigeria. Have we forgotten the labours of Margaret Ekpo, or those of Mary Slessor, who gave twins a chance to live? In fact, this exclusion has made some important names unknown and unheard. Gambo Sawaba, a women’s rights activist is widely regarded as the most jailed Nigerian female politician. Sawaba experienced it all; she was publicly flogged, suffered police brutality, and imprisoned a reported 16 times. How about Dr. Ameyo Adadeboh, the Ebola heroine whose life was lost in the battle for Nigeria’s independence from the Ebola virus. Grace Alele-Williams, Flora Nwapa, Dora Akunyili, Oby Ezekwesili, and many more — all these are 21st century heroines whose impacts cannot be erased.

It is reasonable to understand that individuals on banknotes serve not only as role models, but also as constant reminders of who our role models can be; this is because banknotes are accessed by an entire population. Increasing the visibility of individuals at such a scale signals national values as well as emphasises national pride upon the person’s achievements. Focusing on women’s successes via acknowledging their national importance sets them up to be role models, having the potential to help form positive and egalitarian representation of women and men in society. If a woman can do better what a man would do, then women should adorn our currency more, and the idea of inclusion is a subconscious idea that needs to be implanted in the system to truly thrive. Part of the ways to ensure this is placing women on the same pedestal of importance we have placed men. Now, imagine a naira note with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on it. What priceless awesomeness!

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