By Gabrielle Banks | HoustonChronicle.com
The clash between two factions of an elite women’s club happened weeks before the pandemic took hold, at a rice and greens restaurant on Gessner. Gracie Gboliwe Chukwu, who summoned police on the day everything went awry, says the dream of fulfilling her late mother’s legacy shattered when the Houston chapter of a group she established splintered after a disputed election.
The U.S. counterpart to the club her mother co-founded in the hilly tropical city of Enugu, Nigeria, was meant for women “fit to be the king’s wife” and aimed to empower women and combat domestic violence.
A new slate of leaders Chukwu saw as illegitimate broke off in February, taking funds from the nonprofit Okwesilieze Women’s Club of Nigeria International’s coffers and setting up shop under a similar sounding name — De Okwesilieze International Women’s Club.
“They have no loyalty,” said Chukwu, a 70-year-old naturopathy practitioner.
Members who support the election results have a very different take on what happened. They believe their founder’s chosen candidates lost a legitimate election. They think Chukwu, who is also national president and insisted on being addressed as “Honorable,” simply had trouble relinquishing control.
“She’s that type of human being that wants to commandeer everything,” said member and former president Ijeoma Opara, who supports the new slate at the helm. She thinks Chukwu “didn’t know her boundaries.”
As for the election anomalies Chukwu raised, “It’s just like Trump, where is the evidence? You can’t just claim stuff,” said Opara, 54.
Opara, an attorney, challenged other aspects of Chukwu’s account, including her claim that her mother was a co-founder rather than simply member of the original Okwesilieze club that formed in Nigeria in the 1970s.
The Houston spat has now moved to Houston’s federal courthouse, where Chukwu alleges the new group has willfully and deliberately infringed on her brand.
A Houston federal judge called Chukwu’s trademark case “interesting,” perhaps because it raises a novel issue in intellectual property law.
Opara believes the original name should belong to the majority, about 22 of approximately 37 members who support the recently elected leaders.
“We are the organization, she is just a member,” Opara said.
James O. Okorafor, the lawyer for the new group, thinks the lawsuit is unnecessary and divisive given the very real issues facing Nigerian women back home.
Both factions want better conditions at home and abroad, Okorafor said, and should resolve their differences.
The women’s groups both originated in Harris County, home to the largest concentration of Nigerians in the U.S., according to analysis of 2018 census data by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The majority of the 40,000 foreign-born Nigerians in the region speak English and at least one other language, have at least a college degree and earn an average of nearly $49,000.
Most, like Chukwu, belong to the Igbo cultural tradition and settled in southwest Houston and Fort Bend County, where Nigerian-run pharmacies, dental practices, optometry shops and restaurants have cropped up along the major arteries.
Nigerians in the U.S. have higher educational attainment and earn more per capita than the overall U.S. population. About half own their own homes.
The women in the original club fit squarely into all these demographics, Opara said.
Chukwu, a new grandmother who runs a holistic medicine clinic on the Southwest Freeway, founded the nonprofit in 2003 in Houston. Their work includes wrapping gifts for low-income children during the holidays, assisting at the Houston Food Bank and delivering checks to women’s shelters.
In March 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the group a trademark registration.
Chukwu said her long-term goal was to invest more than $72,000 in fundraising proceeds toward Sound of Hope, a women’s shelter she envisioned would assist African women facing domestic violence.
“That’s a very laudable goal, but she had zero to invest,” Opara said. “She never raised one dollar toward that.”
According to Opara, Chukwu’s big fundraiser for the shelter made no profit after the club paid off vendors. The money in the group’s account is from membership dues, not fundraising.null
Chukwu said the leadership violated the Okwesilieze constitution in its November 2019 election. She believes the new president, Genevieve Onyirioha, a nursing professor at San Jacinto College, is an illegitimate victor.
Chukwu tried to confront the membership during the club meeting in February in hopes of nullifying the election.She came with police because she was worried about possible violence, she said. She said members she considers “troublemakers” shouted her down and tore up her memo about the election.
Opara said the meeting was calm until Chukwu came in with befuddled officers and her sister began shouting. The new president, Onyirioha, adjourned and members began packing up plates of chicken and salad to go.
The original group suspended Chukwu for “behavior unbecoming a noblewoman,”Opara said. Within 12 days, the leaders registered as a nonprofit under the name De Okwesilieze International Women’s Club.
In July, Chukwu sued the new club in state court. That case has now been elevated to federal court.
Okorafor, the attorney for the new group, said members formed it so they could carry on the work.
The trademark rights appear to be separated between Chukwu and the nonprofit group, said attorney Al Deaver, a partner at McAughan Deaver PLLC who specializes in intellectual property law and has no connection to the case. The original group alleges it has been using mark since 2003, which carries a lot of weight, Deaver said. The new name has some obvious overlap with the original group name.null
“They had to know that would provoke this fight,” Deaver said.
Chukwu said she just wants to move forward the club’s projects and she has the backing from the group’s founding mothers in Nigeria, who traveled to Houston in 2003 to inaugurate the group.
“They disappointed those old mothers who came here to instruct us about … family values,” she said. “The disgrace is too much.”
Opara sees this as a universal power struggle, and it’s time for Chukwu to accept the election results.
“Most people don’t want to let go of power, but you can’t be president for life. It doesn’t work.”
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