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The Women’s War that altered History

“The significance of the violence hinges on how these women were not afraid to put their lives on the line to get their demands. These women came together and displayed exceptional strength, bravery and sacrifice in order to fight an oppressive system.”

The women's riot of 1929:  Their voices were loud
The women’s riot of 1929: “Their voices were loud”

Their voices were loud. Nwanyeruwa was irate. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Emereuwa!” She clapped her oily hands in front of the man who, only moments ago, had come into her compound to take a headcount.

“Look, woman, I don’t have time for your nonsense. Count your goats and sheep. How many are you in this compound?”

Nwanyeruwa, turned around as if pricked. “Was your widowed mother ever counted, eh, Emereuwa, answer me?”

At the mention of his mother’s name Emereuwa grabbed Nwanyeruwa by the throat. “Woman, you have crossed the line. Why do you have to insult my mother?”

*

This was November 18, 1929, and the year was remarkable in many ways. It was the year of the United State’s Great Depression. It was the year of extreme austerity and unprecedented hardship. It was the year of madness, of hunger, and of death. People lived from hand to mouth, scraping daily to feed even once a day. Things were so difficult that many committed suicide, especially in the global West. 

However, in the midst of the economic turbulence, colonial powers saw fit to use the opportunity to introduce austerity measures in the colonies to help their motherland. At the forefront of this was the British Empire, the greatest colonial power at the time. The British colonial policy had always been to advance British private interests. Their attempt to increase tax in Eastern Nigeria was met with resistance. This resistance was peculiar in that it was led and organised entirely by women. To the British Colonizers, as long as Africa was concerned, nothing like this had ever happened before. 

*

So that fateful 18th of November, after her altercation with Emereuwa, Nwanyereuwa left her compound to report what had transpired to the women’s meeting holding currently at the village ilo. Nwanyeruwa had been a widow for many years in the town of Oloko in Bende District. She was originally from Ngwa but had been married by a man called Ojim from Oloko where she had come to play integral roles in women organisations. In the harsh economic atmosphere, she and many other women clearly did not have the financial willpower to indulge the new tax measures of the colonial government. The women believed that the census, initiated by agents of the colonial government (warrant chiefs and their cohorts), was directly linked to taxation. In the town of Oloko, as in many other parts of Igboland, the women had long held a grievance against the imposition of warrant chiefs by the colonial government. They saw this as an affront on Igbo culture; politically, the Igbo live in self-contained republican enclaves rather than kingdoms. This is evident in the saying, Igbo enwe eze. The women also saw the impending taxation of women as a travesty because “women do not pay tax”.

The new direct taxation law was passed the year before in 1928. In April 1927, the colonial government had decided to enforce the Native Revenue (Amendment) Ordinance. Subsequently a colonial resident by the name of W.E. Hunt was commissioned to explain the new laws to the locals in the five provinces of the old Eastern region in preparation for when the law will finally take effect exactly a year later in April 1928.

However, in September 1929, Captain J. Cook, an assistant District Officer, was relocated to Bende District to serve in the stead of Captain Hill who was on leave. Upon taking over, the overzealous Cook found that the original nominal rolls for taxation purposes were inadequate because they did not include details of the number of wives, children, and livestock in each household. So he set about revising the nominal roll. In the aftermath he requested all warrant chiefs to begin a thorough head count of the directly taxable wealth of the people. Cook’s intention was announced to a few Warrant Chiefs in the Oloko Native Court. The counting then began on October 14. It’s culmination was the early morning scuffle in Oloko between Emereuwa, the school teacher who was acting as Warrant Chief Okugo’s agent, and the widow Nwanyereuwa.

*

Women had important roles to play in traditional Igbo society. The sociopolitical realities allows the strategic participation of women. In most cases they function as the moral compass of the society. The Umuada construct is a case in point. This revered organisation served as a veritable checks and balances of the Igbo society. The Umuada women presided over such cases as the abusive husband, the erring wife, and many others. It was the methods of the Umuada that Oloko women employed in their protest. One such effective method is “sitting”, known in Igbo as nnobido. This practice involved visiting the erring individual’s compound and singing war songs and making derisive jokes, effectively forcing the individual to bend to their demands.

*

After getting the report from Nwanyereuwa, Oloko women acted fast. They sent palm fronds to other parts of the old Bende region, summoning women from these parts to the emergency. This elaborate system of communication had long been in practice in Igboland. As a matter of fact, the women had networks across the region through market women’s cooperatives and other various socioeconomic organisations. 

By evening on December 2, 1929, over ten thousand women had massed in Oloko and marched to Emereuwa’s compound and proceeded to “sit” on him. For much of the night the women, led by the trio of Ikonnia, Nwannedia, and Nwugo, chanted war songs deriding Emeruwa, stamping their feet and dancing in frenzied fury. From Emereuwa’s compound they marched to Warrant Chief Okugo’s house with increased indignation. Their chants could be heard far into the night. It was clear that the women meant business. Suddenly, Okugo’s acolytes emerged and attacked the women with sticks and arrows. Seeing this, the now irate women, disobeyed Ikonnia’s pleas and started to destroy things in Okugo’s compound. They threw stones at the windows and demanded that Okugo surrender his cap of office. 

Okugo was clearly dismayed by what was happening. But he knew he could not escape the women’s wrath. He was already hassled by the strain of such upheaval in his sphere of control. When he emerged they mobbed him and dragged him to the district office at Bende.

*

Warrant Chiefs such as Okugo were hated all over Igboland at the time, for they represented a travesty of culture and a direct evidence of the much hated Indirect Rule system imposed on the people by the British. People who became Warrant Chiefs had no respectful standing in society. This was because the respected elders in the traditional Igbo society refused the “Warrants” or “Certificates” since it clearly did not represent the political ideology of the Igbo. Thus the British offered the “Warrants” to willing young men.

The opportunistic Warrant Chiefs were widely seen as brutal. Using their newfound powers to enrich themselves, they taxed and extorted and generally made life very difficult indeed for their own people. They maintained Native Courts in and around their homesteads where several cases of favouritism, bribery and other forms of corruption took place. Warrant Chiefs grew so rich and powerful but were hated all over Igboland.

*

It was therefore not too far-fetched to see why the women picked on the warrant chiefs particularly. The Chiefs’ insistence on forcing British direct taxation on women was met with unbridled anger. One female witness recounted afterwards: “We women therefore held a large meeting at which we decided to wait until we heard definitely from one person that women were to be taxed, in which case we would make trouble, as we did not mind to be killed for doing so. We went to the houses of all the chiefs and each admitted counting his people.”

When thousands of women massed in front of his office calling for the cap of Warrant Okugo, the District Officer, Captain Cook, saw no possible escape from such delicate situation. He was trapped between escalating violence that may spread to Umuahia where there were factories and government offices.

The DO. nodded at his guards and they arrested Okugo and took him to the cell behind the court building. He then threw Okugo’s cap to the caterwauling crowd. They tore at the cap like hounds and it disappeared in minutes. He was sure that this proved his theory that British were dealing with animals. But at least now that they had gotten what they sought, it could all end peacefully. 

But he was dead wrong. The women continued to sit and camp around the District Office until Okugo was tried and sentenced to two years imprisonment for assault. The DO had to admit that the women’s persistence was not to be taken lightly. He set about assuring the women that they would not be taxed. But the women saw this as another example of colonial deceit. Led by Nwanyereuwa, the new figure of the fight against oppression, they began to spread the rumors of female taxation far across Igboland and into the Ibibio country.

Thus the protest escalated over an area that cut across much of the South-Eastern region covering more than six thousand square miles and involving more than two million people. 

Even though the initial skirmishes at Oloko town could be said to have ended peacefully, the propaganda spread by the women initiated fresh hostilities around the Owerri and Calabar provinces. From the second week of December, women from Owerri to Calabar looted factories and destroyed Native Court buildings as well as the property of members of the Native Courts.

The violence in the Aba Division of Owerri province was unprecedented. It was from there that the protests spread to parts of Owerri, Ikot Ekpene, and Abak divisions. The protest began in Owerrinta after the census agent of Warrant Chief Njoku Alaribe manhandled a pregnant woman during an altercation, subsequently leading to the eventual termination of her pregnancy. The news of this assault shocked local women, who on December 9, 1929, protested against the “act of abomination.” The women massed in front of Njoku’s compound that same day. Njoku contacted the police who were forced to shoot at the women rushing towards them. Two women were killed and many others were wounded. Their leader was taken to Aba, where she was detained in prison.

Angry Aba women came out to support their colleagues a day later. As the women arrived Factory Road in Aba, a British medical officer driving by the same street “accidentally” injured two of the women, who eventually died. The other women, in anger, raided the Barclays Bank down the road and the prison to release their leader. They destroyed further native court buildings, European factories, and other establishments. 

Casualties were running high in Aba though the exact figure of the dead remained unknown. But according to T. Obinkaram Echewa’s seminal compilation of oral accounts of women who participated in the war, about one hundred women were killed by soldiers and policemen.

*

In her 1937 book, Native Administration in Nigeria, Margery Perham described how the war spread across other parts of the region covering the Ibibio, Ogoni and Andoni peoples. She described how in some villages in the Calabar province, “the people cleared into the bush” at the approach of the census taker, “taking their small stock and chickens with them”. Even then these head counters still insisted on counting the empty houses and chicken poops, which were typically owned by women. In the Opobo district, to the south, one agent “met with determined opposition from the chiefs as well as from the people who were already in touch with the women at Owerri. The women followed him about wailing and cursing” and wielding palm branches. He was assaulted and his tax register taken. 

In several places in the Niger Delta, women who protested against colonial power were shot and killed. In Opobo, in particular, thirty-one women were killed at the district office and a further thirty-one wounded. 

*

The significance of the violence hinges on how these women were not afraid to put their lives on the line to get their demands. These women came together and displayed exceptional strength, bravery and sacrifice in order to fight an oppressive system. The power of women to enact change cannot be underestimated. 

The successes of the women were massive. The women were mainly concerned about the excesses of the warrant chief system, the rapid pace of social change, and the fear that they would be taxed. Their solidarity was reinforced by the common ideas and values that they held. In the aftermath, two commissions of inquiries were instituted. The second and final commission concluded its report on July 21, 1930. Acting on the commission’s recommendations, the government effected many administrative reforms, including the abolition of the warrant chief system, a reorganization of the native courts to include women members, and the creation of village-group councils. 

*

Importantly, the aftermath of the Women’s War saw an increase in movements geared towards the improvement of women’s rights. One such innovation is the inauguration of the famed ‘August Meeting’ initiative amongst Igbo women. This organization was tailored towards fostering communication, solidarity, and concern regarding the plight of the common women. The women in Nigeria, like their counterparts across the world, were well aware of the disadvantages of their gender. Their desire to fight patriarchal mores and a system that sidelined women into second-class citizens fit only for domesticity and motherhood, have been taken up over the past 90 years by feminist conscious iniatives. 

The Aba women had an impregnable spirit for true change. Their fight was clearly one for gender equality and women empowerment. The pioneering role of the Women’s War show that Africa has long held such liberal values across genders and social construct. Africa’s gender discrepancies today are clearly not a forward match in the desired direction. Instead we have seen, in Nigeria especially, a steady, insidious deterioration of human values. Some years ago, Nigeria’s President Buhari, less than a year after winning the election for his first tenure, was asked in a press conference in Berlin what role his wife played in the new government. He replied that his wife “belongs to [the] kitchen, and the living room, and the other room”. This sexist answer showed the ingrained marginalization of women even in 21st century Nigeria. Now if the president would publicly acknowledge his wife’s ultimate insignificance in Nigeria’s seemingly large canvas of political roles, faux plots, and double portfolios, then there are many reasons why we could argue that our political system has failed even on its vaunted 59th anniversary. Not only for the loss of human values but also for the lack of a clear expression of sympathetic humanity in successive governments. 

The ill-advised austerity introduced by this government, including the closing of borders and the banning of the import of certain products without a proper provision for their local production, has rubbed off terribly on the rank and file of our astronomically ascending population. Everywhere you go, the country is uneasy. The price of even the most basic food items have dramatically increased. Many people I know cannot afford more than one paltry meal a day. Nerves are so pent-up and electrically charged among the poor that a little spark could easily ignite an all-encompassing inferno. One such tentative ignition will be the Minister of Agriculture’s recent statement to the effect that there is no hunger in the country. When a politician takes insensitivity to such levels, it would be little surprise that there is already massive backlash on social media. The situation hacks back to the depression period of the late 1920s. Both situations seem complementary and mutually inclusive. 

Yet, the people at the helm have lost the values that helped our fathers and mothers fight the obnoxious excesses of colonialism. For instance, since the passing of the new minimum wage into law, the government has stalled on implementing its promise of the relatively inadequate minimum wage of N30,000 naira, leading the Minister of Labor, Dr. Chris Ngige, to make the dishonest statement that N22,000 naira could feed a family of four for a month. This statement becomes even more obnoxious when one considers the fact that South Africa, a nation Nigeria claims to be a match for, has a minimum wage almost five times that of Nigeria. 

The Aba women displayed remarkable bravery by fighting for their traditional rights against a powerful system that disregarded the needs of the teeming masses. In those days, our traditional systems were eloquently intolerant of tyranny and oppression. Today, the wills of the masses seemed to have been weakened and these values seemingly lost. But the current economic strictures may yet spark another 1929. ✚

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