Barbara Etim James believes that the solution to many of Nigeria’s issues rests with the country’s many chiefs, rulers, and queens, despite the country’s low hopes of elected leaders.
The 54-year-old was crowned queen of the Efik kingdom in southern Nigeria two years ago.
“Modernising suggests that you’re making something traditional more Western,” she says.
Ms. James would like to flip that on its back.
“I’m bringing my global experience into a culture, not taking the culture into modernity.”
Ms James juggles her job as the CEO of a private equity company with her position as queen, often traveling for work from her hometown of Calabar to cities such as Lagos and Abuja.
“Calabar is my base but I spend a lot of time outside. But I have sort of field workers on the ground,” she says.
Members of her community’s traditional council must be physically present in Calabar for monthly sessions, where she must come back to from wherever she is – a scenario she believes technology will improve.
“I am now having conversations with them about online meetings,” she says.
The suggestion may at first appear outrageous to people who consider it an insult to invite a respected person to an event by text message or phone – you have to send them a card, Ms James says.
“But they are very happy when people send them money online or by phone to their account,” she says, an argument she uses to support her point during discussions about enhancing culture with technology.
Politicians ‘only for short term’
Traditional rulers have been ejected from their offices after being accused of not giving politicians love or respect, demonstrating how ceremonial their duties are and posing concerns about how much actual power they possess.
Orthodox presidents, she claims, are closer to the people than elected officials because they have a better understanding of what is actually going on thanks to their network of informants.
“State governors usually spend the first year settling down, the second year getting to work, the third year preparing for re-election, and the fourth year on elections,” she says.
“They come and go so they have shorter interest but traditional rulers tend to be there for life.”
About this, few traditional rulers have a well-thought-out economic agenda for improving the lives of their residents, apart from getting some money allocated by local government.
This is where the queen feels her expertise of roles other than the conventional one would be useful.
“We have strong social groups but they don’t think economically,” she says.
“It’s all social and consuming but not economic. Celebrations, ceremonies, events… But what can you do together? Can you own a farm? Can you own an enterprise?”
She says she wants people to “think economically” – how to make money as well as spend it.
He presides over a layered network of 12 Efik family groups and subgroups, including one named Henshaw Town, located in the coastal town of Calabar, the capital of Cross River state.
Ms James was crowned Obong-Anwan (queen) of Henshaw Town in 2019, in appreciation of her prominent role in the Efik kingdom over the previous decade.
” First and foremost, it is a duty, but you would need someone who is capable of assisting others. It’s not cheap.
“He built a big house and got the whole community to build houses, bought cement for them, and I witnessed all that,” she says.
She moved to London for a master’s degree in business systems research after completing her computer science studies at the University of Lagos, and then lived in the UK.
Yet she never lost touch with her roots.
“Having traveled around the world and being introduced to a wide range of experiences has taught me to appreciate what I have.” She describes it as “individual, unusual, and in need of nurturing.”
“Most people grow up, become exposed, and then migrate to Lagos or Abuja, where they have no interest in or respect for their hometown or village. “I’m a rare person.”
‘Women are strong.’
After a 12-year marriage to an Irish man, she divorced him in 2009 and returned to Calabar. Obong-Anwans are not required to be married.
“The woman’s status in Efik culture is not derived from her spouse,” the queen says.
“Women are good in our own right.”
Many people in the area have English surnames like Duke, Henshaw, and James. The conventional dress of both men and women continues to be influenced by Victorian fashions.
Few Nigerians have attempted to remove similar indicators of colonial influence and affiliation by modifying their surnames, street and town names, but Ms James believes this is unnecessary.
“It’s not that we aren’t enlightened or don’t learn about our imperialist history that the Efik don’t see the need for the substitution therapy. It’s just that we consider that to be so and aren’t afraid of it,” she explains.
“It took effect. It isn’t to suggest we don’t recognize colonialism’s and slavery’s detrimental sides… That’s just that we don’t blame the British for it.”
Instead, she argues that Nigerian ethnic groups can concentrate on creativity that will preserve rather than obliterate their history.
“What should we do to get our traditional dance groups back to life? How do we prevent the disappearance of our languages? How do we ensure that our communities do not perish but instead thrive in the next generation? “she asks
These are the topics she’s been discussing with her people, as well as the problems she wants to be known for during her time as Obong-Anwan of Henshaw Town.