You probably haven’t heard about Nwayeruwa, the woman who sparked a protest that twisted the hand of the British colonialists backwards until they had to give in on the issue of taxing women. We don’t do enough history in Nigeria; in fact, history is not being taken at all in many schools. If we have a good understanding of where we are coming from, we will understand why were are where we are, then we can move forward from there. So I am giving a little history lesson of my own and today we will be learning about the Aba Women’s Revolt of 1929. Here we go!
Colonialism changed the African society in many ways. Specifically it changed the status of women in many societies. It wasn’t always for the better. A number of credible scholars assert that the colonial structure stripped women of political power in societies such as the Igbo and Yoruba societies. The political structures the whites put in place left no room for women representation whereas women were represented politically to some extent in both cultures. In fact, there are records of female kings in Yoruba land, specifically speaking in Ife (Ooni Luwo).
In many Igbo communities, women held meetings called Mikiri, at these meetings; they discussed issues in that had to do with women. The meetings were held whenever there was any issue to discuss. Decisions about market rules, processes and the price of goods were made at these meetings. In that time, the marketplace was the commercial centre of the communities, and by making crucial decisions about the market place, women held some sway in the economic aspect of the community. The meetings enabled women to protect their interests as a group. Women also had avenues to exercise punitive measures on any man they thought was doing wrong, perhaps beating his wife or such. The women would ‘’sit on the man’’. This meant the women would camp in the said man’s house, singing to ridicule him and generally making their discontent known. This would continue until the man came out too repent of his actions. Sometimes, the village council would go on to sanction a man that was ‘’sat on’’ by women. Sometimes, women would refuse to cook for the men or threaten to leave the town in mass when a man in the community beat up his wife or maltreated her. ( J.P Clark’s The Wive’s Revolt tells a rib cracking tale of such a situation) These methods, according to scholars were effective.
However, under the colonial government women were unable to air grievances through the mediums that existed in the traditional society. No Female officers were chosen to be part of the native authority until after the women’s revolt against the taxation system. The warrant chiefs held sway on all matters including those that concerned women. The women did not take kindly to this, as an Igbo woman’s statement as reported in the Aba Commission of Inquiry Notes or Evidence shows: “We don’t want chiefs…Instead of coming home to consult women, they generally agree with the District Officer straight away.”
I went into a little history of the traditional Igbo society to provide a background for the revolt against the taxation system. It is often referred to as the Aba women riot. To call the revolt a riot is to imply that it was a disorganised lashing out by some rabble rousers. This doesn’t capture what happened. As I have shown, before the revolt, the women had organised meetings and associations. It is also important to understand that the revolt apart from targeting colonial taxes was also a revolt against the absolute power now exercised by the warrant chiefs which disenfranchised the women.
After a census, taxation was imposed on all the men in 1925. When the Assistant District officer decided to have another census in 1929, the women could foresee that taxes would also be imposed on them. The women began to contact each other and to plan a secret meeting to deliberate on the issue.
The revolt started in Oloko village when a woman called Nwayeruwa was assaulted by a mission teacher – Emeruwa-who had been assigned to do the head count. Nwayeruwa instantly sent a message to a group of women who were already holding a meeting about the taxation issue. Messages were sent to women in other villages. Women from many villages gathered in Oloko village to “sit on” Emeruwa.
Thus began the Aba women’s revolt of 1929. After the dust settled, fifty five women had died in the struggle. The warrant chief- Okugo-, who had assigned Emeruwa to do the head count, was removed and the District officer gave the women his cap of office. Okugo was prosecuted and imprisoned for assaulting the women. The protests died down in the early 1930s after the women confirmed that they would not be taxed by the colonial government. The British administration was amazed that the women could organize such successful protest. Graham Paul, one of the members of the Aba Commission of Inquiry, , commented on the confidence of the women who came to testify:
No one listening to the evidence before us could have failed to be impressed by the intelligence, the power of exposition, the direct ness---which some of the leaders exhibited in setting forth their grievances and the lessons to be learnt from their demonstration should be taken to heart.
So much can be learned from the story of these amazing women. I will try and point out a few in the next post, I will also include links to articles on the internet that you can read to find out more plus the titles of book that go in depth into some of the issues I have mentioned here.
Today, as the international women's day approches,I doff my gele for the fifty five women who died in Aba, for Nwayeruwa who refused to keep quiet, for Chinwe and for the countless other women who protested. May we always remember you. May you inspire us as women and as a nation.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to International Women's Day 2010: Women Can Build the Bridges of Social Change.