Several women arrived in Umuahia, the capital city of Abia state in Southeastern Nigeria, ahead of the annual August Meeting – a tradition in existence since 1965.
“No matter where you go, remember the road that will lead you home,” Ada Akunna, an Igbo woman returning to Nigeria from London for the August meeting, echoed the chorus of a popular South African track as her way of expressing her excitement in returning home for the annual peace event.
The August Meeting is a product of the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) formed by Mrs Okoye of Onitsha Province, before the Nigerian Civil War.
It is an annual event among the Igbo tribe in the Eastern part of Nigeria, intended to foster empowerment, reorientation and mobilisation of women for community building and political participation.
As part of the event, Igbo women in Nigeria and the diaspora wear clothing of certain colours and styles throughout August and the first week of September: “We try to represent our local communities by wearing different colours. Some communities wear blue costumes, while others wear red and yellow. It's just a way of distinguishing different communities during the meeting,” explained Chiasoka Arinze, an active member of the group.
The three-day event starts at the village level, where the women deliberate on issues threatening the peace of their communities. They discuss possible solutions and end the ceremony with a thanksgiving service in a church.
The Meeting has had remarkable impact and influence, as member Ekene Emeka describes:
“The August Meeting has grown tremendously. When we started, they mocked us as jobless poor women. That has changed! Nowadays we have wives of eastern governors attending the event and listening to our suggestions for socio-economic growth and policy implementations that will enhance peace.”
Their most notable contribution, which further solidified their commitment to peacebuilding, was the pacification of the political agitation between the Nigerian Federal government and members of a separatist group in Nigeria called IPOB, which aims to restore the Republic of Biafra, a country which seceded from Nigeria prior to the Nigerian Civil War.
The political unrest fueled a series of attacks by the Nigerian Federal government against the leaders of the secessionist group in 2022. It left many civilians dead or jobless. During the 2022 August Meeting, the women deliberated on the issue and provided relief materials, gifts and support for those who had no shelter.
“After the war between the IPOB group and the Nigerian government, many of our properties were destroyed and some of us left homeless. The women from the August Meeting group bought new grinding machines and distributed them to those of us affected by the war. This helped me kickstart my business and now I earn something tangible enough to fend for myself,” Maryam Ngozi, a beneficiary of the relief materials said.
The group did not stop with providing relief Materials. They also marched through the streets, carrying placards with the inscription “End the war! Let there be peace.”
This campaign was carried out with the intention to end the regional crisis in the East and advocate a healthy environment for socio-economic growth in the Eastern region.
'Women of the blue house during their dance parade at the 2022 August Meeting'. Image provided by Victor Eyike.
Resolving community tensions
Aside from enhancing national peace, the group also support peacebuilding and conflict resolution approaches in their local communities. Several cases of land disputes, domestic violence and other issues have been addressed during the annual meetings.
Vera Okolo, a poultry farmer in one of the local communities had a land dispute with her uncle that lasted for over ten years. Eventually, it was resolved during the August Meeting.
“My Uncle kept encroaching on my farmland, which I inherited from my father. I couldn't take the case to court because I lacked funds. When I complained to the women during the August Meeting, they intervened and sent my uncle a call to order. He eventually stopped encroaching and now I farm on the land without any issues,” Okolo said.
Several industry heavyweights have applauded their efforts, seeing the August Meeting as a serious initiative that would add value to the development of the communities, states and wider society.
The 2022 Meeting saw Guinness, a premium brewery brand, support 50 women with business infrastructure and equipment, providing opportunities for them to flourish through business ownership.
One of the beneficiaries, Rose Obi, expressed her excitement after getting a free health check-up, sponsored by Guinness.
“It’s amazing that we are getting sponsors who are willing to support our cause. It gives us more reason to keep pushing. We had free mental health workshops, business empowerment programmes and free business consultations during the three-day event. It was a nice experience,” Mrs Obi reiterated.
Despite these sponsorships and the rich display of culture from across the country during the August Meeting, the group has however constantly decried lack of funding as a major challenge threatening their existence.
“We always send letters to several corporate brands to support us during the three-day event, but hardly get a positive response. If the government can invest in our vision, it would go a long way in spreading our message to foster peace among communities,” Judith Ibe, an avid member of the group, said.
What needs to be underlined from the August Meeting is that youth and women should be seen and learned from as agents of positive peace – in terms of addressing not only the challenges of physical violence, but also the challenges of structural and cultural violence. They contribute positively to broader social change processes to transform violent, oppressive and hierarchical structures, behaviour, relationships and attitudes into more participatory and inclusive ones.