For the 2020 International Women’s day, March 8th, I thought very appropriate to talk about the Aba Women’s War, also known as the Women’s War of 1929, or the Aba Women’s Riots (name given by the British to the movement to minimize its effect), or the Aba Women’s Rebellion. This is thought to be the first anti-colonial revolt organised by women to redress social, political and economic grievances in Nigeria, and possibly in West Africa. The Women’s War of 1929 lasted almost 2 months and encompassed the Owerri and Calabar provinces, an area with over 2 million inhabitants. Over 25,000 women came out to protest. This was a union of women from six ethnic groups: Igbo (the majority), Ibibio, Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, and Opobo. As a result, in 1930 the colonial government was forced to abolish the system of warrant chieftains, and appoint women to the Native Court system. These reforms have been seen as a prelude to the emergence of mass African anti-colonial nationalism.
Many African societies were and still are matriarchal in nature. However, with the contact with the colonizers, their cultures have been altered to reflect that of the oppressor which is patriarchal, or to be a mixture of the two. Colonialism altered the position of various Nigerian women in their societies. Women traditionally were allowed to participate in the government and held a major role in the market. Men and women also worked collaboratively in the domestic sphere, and were recognized to both have important individual roles. Women also had the privilege of participating in political movements. The British, coming from a patriarchal system, saw these practices as “a manifestation of chaos and disorder”, and so they attempted to create political institutions which mirrored theirs (very typical of Europeans). While they considered the political institutions headed by Igbo men, the British ignored those of the women, effectively shutting them out from political power.
The event that ultimately led to the war was direct taxation. In April 1927, the British colonial government in Nigeria took measures to enforce the Native Revenue (Amendment) Ordinance. Direct taxation on men was introduced in 1928 without major incidents. Women feared that they will be next.
On the morning of November 18, 1929, a dispute between a woman known as Nwanyeruwa and a tax collector by the name of Mark Emereuwa started in Oloko in Owerri province; the two exchanged angry words, and Emeruwa grabbed Nwanyeruwa by the throat. After this, using the traditional methods of communication, i.e. sending a palm-leaf, which is a symbol of trouble and a call for help, all the women in the neighborhood were rounded up. From the whole countryside women poured into Oloko and proceeded according to custom to “sit” upon the man who had tried to tax Nwanyeruwa. “Sitting on a man” is a local practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule. Thousands of women congregated at the Native Administration centers in Calabar and Owerri as well as smaller towns to protest both the warrant chiefs and the taxes on the market women. The women chanted and danced, and in some locations forced warrant chiefs to resign their positions. The women also attacked European-owned stores and Barclays Bank and broke into prisons and released prisoners. They also attacked Native Courts run by colonial officials, burning many of them to the ground. Colonial Police and troops were called in; they fired into the crowds that had gathered in Calabar and Owerri, killing more than 50 women and wounding over 50 others. Until the end of December 1929, when troops restored order, ten native courts had been destroyed, a number of others were damaged, houses of native court personnel were attacked, and European factories at Imo River, Aba, Mbawsi, and Amata were looted. By 10 January 1930, the revolt was regarded as crushed.
In the end, it is said that at least 25,000 women were involved in these revolts The women’s protests were carried out on a scale that the British colonial state had never witnessed in any part of Africa. The Aba Women’s War of 1929 prompted the colonial authorities to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women, and to curb the power of the warrant chiefs. The women’s uprising is seen as the first major challenge to British authority in Nigeria and West Africa during the colonial period. Women were not just fighting for themselves, but also for the men who were falling under the unjust colonial tax system.
So every time we celebrate the International Women’s Day, we need to remember the Aba Women’s War of 1929 in Nigeria which was a strong message to the dominating colonial system that women will not be oppressed; that women’s voices needed to be heard, and most importantly that women too have power!