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Aba Womens Riot


Encyclopedia » History
Abia

This rebellion was a pioneering event of movement noted in being remarkable for the ingenious organizing strategies that incorporated song and dance while at the same time was as militant as any liberation struggle before or after. The fact that it was organized by African women in times of European male colonial domination of the territory called Nigeria – one of the most lucrative colonies – is a credit to the courage and diligence it took to ensure their imprints on the pages of history. In addition to being respected for the biological role of childbirth, African women are also widely respected for their participation in agricultural production, trade and other economic pursuits for the sustainability of their communities.[1] It is with this self-awareness of their importance to the sustainability of any enterprising efforts that these women organized and decided to revolt against the imposition of taxes, as was noted in the literature in review, Riot or Rebellion

"At the end of 1929, just when the government was congratulating itself upon the success with which the difficult
task of introducing direct taxation into these provinces had been accomplished, rioting of a serious and unusual
kind broke out in Calabar and Owerri. In Owerri province, in the heart of the Igbo country, where a particularly
dense population inhabits the palm forest, there is a place called Oloko. Here a warrant chief, Okugo, under
instructions from the district officer, was making a reassessment of the taxable wealth of the people. In his
attempt to count the women, children, and domestic animals. A rumor at once spread among the women that the recently introduced taxation of men was to be extended to them."[2]

This report was documented by Margery Perham, a British woman that dedicated her career to studying British colonial administration and was concerned with moral and ethics of colonial rule.[3] She was noted for being “fiercely critical of British rule and was the scourge of the Colonial Office. She wanted to know why the British had opposed the development of nationalism and how they might assist nationalists, especially in Africa, in building new nations.”[4] An interesting discovery was that most of the primary sources used in studying the Aba Women’s Riot were compiled by the British who were more interested in understanding how they could have miscalculated their “citizens” and hence begun gathering intelligence information on the Igbo people.[5] It is in this quest for understanding the Igbo people, in general, and Eastern Nigerian women specifically that led to policy changes in the colonial structure – a temporary victory that would characterize the lack of support by the British during the Biafran War (1967-1970).

The question of calling it a rebellion versus a riot, while a worthy distinction not to be minimized by mere semantics, is not the focus of this paper. Rather, this paper will aim at highlighting the (causation or causes) of this women’s movement that was rare in form yet very powerful - especially when reviewed with awareness of present day analysis of the role of women and development in Africa.

The causations were simple enough: the British policy on taxation of individuals was economically frustrating for these colonial ‘citizens.’ As Perham reported, “…the price of palm-produce was falling, and new customs duties had put up the cost of several imported articles of daily use.”[6] The British had first imposed taxes on the men, a case for controversy yet one that was tolerated. However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the further insistence that these taxes be extended to women, children and animals. The other important, and more complex, policy trigger to this movement was the creation of the loathed role of the warrant chief. This colonial role was extremely disruptive to the traditional systems of governance used in the times before British rule. Particular to the Igbos, there was a de-emphasis on roles such as ‘chiefs’ and ‘kings’ and the few men that managed to acquire some level of prestige to be acknowledged as great men or chiefs, had to do so only after rigorous initiation that was difficult for most to obtain.[7] Despite the rigor towards attaining this position, the role of the chief did not equate a king or ruler but was more likened to that of spokesperson for the people in relations with neighboring tribes. In addition, Igbo women had their organizations that controlled certain spheres of community life such as priestesses that headed traditional spiritual orders – this role was also only attained after rigorous initiation.[8] Igbo women, as most other African women, were able to attain social standing by successfully trading, farming and weaving as many Igbo sub-tribes are matrilineal. Though, Igbo women generally did not engage in physical combat they were key advisors in war strategies and their place in society was honored as such. With the implementation of these warrant chiefs, roles that were imposed by the British to mainly communicate colonial law, there was a power shift that displaced traditionally held roles by both women and men.

Perham documents the role of one particular warrant chief that went by the name Okugo. It was noted that as a result of Okugo’s insistence that the women pay taxes, the women organized themselves in masses and went to all the houses of the chiefs to verify that this law in fact was mandated in all provinces. Perham reports about an incident that followed the implementation of the new tax law,
Okugo, continuing reluctantly to carry out his orders, sent a messenger to count some of his people. This man entered a compound and dound one of the married women, Nwanyeruwa, who was pressing oil, to count her goats and sheep. She replied angrily, ‘Was your mother counted?’ at which they closed, seizing each other by the throat. A meeting was called and Nwayeruwa’s excited story was told as confirmation of the rumor.[9]

"It was at this point that the women were noted for starting their rebellion. Shortly following this incident, masses of women from the countryside come to the town of Oloko to protest Okugo’s treatment of Nwayeruwa. Perham as documented,
…All night the danced round his house singing a song quickly invented to meet the situation. Growing hourly
more excited, they went on to Okugo’s compound where his own people tried to defend him with sticks and
bird arrows. The crowd mobbed him, damaged his house, demanded his cap of office, and charged him with
assault before the district office of Bende."[10]

This vigilante behavior, without full comprehension of the consequences of their behavior, would be exhibited in many other anti-colonial movements around Africa…many to meet the same fate as the market women of Eastern Nigeria. After many months of organized demonstrations, the market women’s movement was increasing getting stronger and was estimated to have included about fifteen hundred women demonstrating at one time. Their demands for justice were also increasing in militancy and as a result mandated military involvement. As Perham reported on a bloody incident that occurred on December 17, 1929,

"…[the women] made threatening and obscene gestures toward the troops, called them sons of pigs, and said
they knew the soldiers would not fire at them. At last they struck at the district officer with their sticks. The
lieutenant caught the blows, made signs to the district officer as to whether he should fire (for it was
impossible to make himself heard in the uproar) and, just as the fence began to give way before the rush of
women, shot the leader through the head with his revolver. Two volleys were then fired on the crowd which
broke and fled, leaving thirty two dead and dying, and thirty-one wounded."[11]

Although, the Aba Women’s Market Rebellion of 1929 ended in bloodshed, there were many achievements attained. For one, a flood gate had opened for the plights of African women under colonial rule and it? The law (provide detail for ‘it)’ was to be revised in 1947 in the Egba Women’s War – which was spearheaded by Yoruba women in Southwestern Nigeria predicated by similar triggers of taxation, lack of political representation, the oppressive excesses of the warrant chiefs, court clerks and the police.[12] Another major achievement of the Aba Women’s Market Rebellion of 1929 was the abolition of the warrant chief system in the Igbo region. The warrant chiefs were replaced by Ezeala, or sacred authority holders of their communities, and the process of identifying these Ezealas was a democratic system that involved the input of the women – who where also now allowed to serve as members of the Native Court (a restorative justice court system that was rooted in indigenous beliefs of justice).[13] The taxation, however, remained.

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Citations:

[1] “Women and Information Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa,” by Odedra-Straub, Mayuri. Published on the internet: http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu37we/uu37we0s.htm
[2] “Riot or Rebellion? The Women’s Market Rebellion of 1929” as reported by Perham, Margery. Published on the internet: http://www.historians.org/Tl/LessonPlans/nc/Trask/abarebels.htm
[3] “Historians I Have Known” by Louis, Roger Wm. Perspectives Online Journal vol. 39, No. 5 (May 2001). © American Historical Association, http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2001/0105/index.cfm
[4] Ibid
[5] “Igbo Women from 1929 – 1960” by Oriji, John N. West Africa Review (2000) ISSN: 1525-4488. African Resource Center, Inc., http://www.africaresource.com/war/vol2.1/oriji.html
[6] “Riot or Rebellion?” pp 1
[7] “Igbo Culture and History” by Ohadike, Don. Things Fall Apart by Achebe, Chinua. London: Harcourt Heinemann Publication, 1996.
[8] Ibid
[9] “Riot or Rebellion?” pp 2
[10] Ibid, pp 3
[11] Ibid, pp 3
[12] “African Women and the Fire Dance” by Nzeqwu, Nkiru. West Africa Review (2000) ISSN: 1525-4488. African Resource Center, Inc., http://www.africaresource.com/war/vol2.1/oriji.html
[13] Oriji , “Igbo Women from 1929 – 1960” Last Update: December 16, 2000

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