The Aba Women’s Protest of 1929, referred to as Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo land Nigeria, was one of the most significant protest movements in the former British Empire. The protest was organised and led by rural women of Owerri and Calabar provinces, and once the war started, it spread like wildfire in southeastern Nigeria among the Ibibio, Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo, and Igbo ethnic groups, covering a total area of over 15,550 square kilometers (about 6,000 square miles) and involving a population of about two million people.
In actual fact, the emergence of the Aba women’s riot was up and coming. The Igbo and Ibibio lived largely in mini-states where men and women exercised varying degrees of political power. They held weekly meetings on the market day of their community, made and enforced laws that were of common interest to them. Important laws of the village council were ritualised with the earth-goddess and given a sacerdotal sanction. When the British colonialism brought fundamental changes that eliminated women’s political roles in pre colonial Igbo and Ibibio societies, women, however, saw themselves as the moral guardians and defenders of the taboos of the earth-goddess, believing that they naturally embodied its productive forces. Before then, women were traditionally allowed to participate in the government and held a major role in the market. Both genders 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 due to the fact that they were married to elites. The British saw these practices as “a manifestation of chaos and disorder”, and so they attempted to create political institutions which commanded authority and monopolised force. 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 British believed that this patriarchal and masculine order would establish a moral order. The women were dissatisfied with the British colonists because of increased school fees, corruption by local officers, and forced labour.
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Direct taxation, the cause
In 1926, the colonial government counted the number of men in Bende Division of Owerri province, which was used in taxing them in 1928 and in September 1929, Captain J. Cook, an assistant District Officer, was sent to take over the Bende division temporarily from the serving district officer, until his return from leave in November. Upon taking over, Cook found the original nominal rolls for taxation purposes inadequate because they did not include details of the number of wives, children, and livestock in each household and set about revising the nominal roll.
The announcement of Cook’s intention to revise the nominal roll was made to a few chiefs in Oloko Native Court and the counting began about Oct. 14, 1929. The women of Oloko suspected that the enumeration exercise was a prelude to the extension of direct taxation, which had been imposed on the men the previous year. Women were already burdened with supporting their families and helping men pay their taxes.
The protest was sparked by a dispute between a woman named Nwanyeruwa and a man, Mark Emereuwa, who was helping to conduct a census of the people living in a town controlled by the Warrant, Chief Okugo.
On the morning of Nov. 18, 1929, Emereuwa arrived at Nwanyereuwa’s house and approached Nwanyereuwa, since her husband Ojim, had already died. He told the widow to count her goats, sheep and people but since Nwanyereuwa understood this to mean, “How many of these things do you have so we can tax you based on them”, she was angry. She replied by saying “Was your widowed mother counted?” meaning “that women don’t pay tax in traditional Igbo society.” The two exchanged angry words with Nwanyereuwa pouring her palm oil on Emereuwa and Emeruwa grabbing Nwanyeruwa by the throat, making more threats. The widow proceeded to the town square to find other women who were already deliberating on the tax issue and explained to them her sad experience. Nwanyeruwa’s account prompted the women to invite other women with the aid of palm leaves from other areas of the Bende district.
The meaning of the palm leaves vary according to circumstances, but in this case, palm leaves signified a call to an emergency meeting, and people were forbidden to harm those who bore the leaves. Within a short period, thousands of them had assembled in the compound of Okugo, ”sitting on him” (a traditional practice involving chanting war songs and dancing around a man, making life miserable for him until the women’s demands were met), demanding his resignation and imprisonment for allegedly assaulting some of them. Fearing that the situation might get out of hand, especially as the protests spread to Umuahia, where factories and government offices were located, the British district officer acceded to the women’s demands, and jailed Okugo for two years. Generally, the protest in Bende division ended peacefully and the district officer effectively used the leaders of the protest known as the Oloko Trio- Ikonnia, Nwannedia and Nwugo to contain the protests.
However, the protest took on a more violent form in Aba division of Owerri province and it was from there that the protests spread to parts of Owerri, Ikot Ekpene, and Abak divisions. The protest began in Owerrinta after the enumerator (census taker) of Warrant Chief Njoku Alaribe knocked down a pregnant woman during a scuffle, leading to the eventual termination of her pregnancy. The news of her assault upset local women, who on Dec. 9, 1929, protested against what they regarded as ”an act of abomination.” The women massed in Njoku’s compound, and during an encounter with armed police, two women were killed and many others were wounded. Their leader was whisked off to the city of Aba, where she was detained in prison. Owerrinta women then summoned a general assembly of all Ngwa women at Eke Akpara on Dec. 11, 1929, to recount their sad experiences. The meeting attracted about 10,000 women, including those from neighboring Igbo areas where they resolved to carry their protests to Aba.
Furthermore, as the women arrived on Factory Road in Aba, a British medical officer driving on the same road, accidentally injured two of the women, who eventually died. The other women, in anger, raided the nearby Barclays Bank and the prison to release their leader and also destroyed the native court building, European factories, and other establishments. No one knows how many women died in Aba, but according to T. Obinkaram Echewa’s compilation of oral accounts of women participating in the protest, about 50 women were killed by soldiers and policemen.
The women’s protest then spread to Ikot Ekpene and Abak divisions in Calabar province on December 14, taking a violent and deadly turn at Utu-Etim-Ekpo, where government buildings were burned and a factory was looted, leaving some women dead and some wounded. On December 16, more casualties were recorded at Ikot Abasi near Opobo, also in Calabar province where some women and one man were reportedly killed, and 31 others wounded.
Eventually, the British government authorised civil and military officers to suppress the disturbances and district officers were granted the right to impose fines in the disaffected areas as compensation for damages to property and as a deterrent against future protests.
On Jan. 2, 1930, the government then appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the roots of the disturbances in Calabar province that submitted a short report on Jan. 27, 1930, but due to the report’s limited scope, the government appointed a second commission on Feb. 7, 1930, to cover Owerri and Calabar provinces. The commission began its work at Aba on March 10, 1930, and submitted its report on July 21. The report convinced the government to carry out 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 whose decisions were enforced by group courts.
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The achievements of the women’s protest are remarkable and provides a broad picture of the difficulties involved in imposing a foreign administration on indigenous peoples and the crucial role women played in a primary resistance movement before the emergence of modern Nigerian nationalism. The women’s uprising is seen as the first major challenge to British authority in Nigeria and West Africa during the colonial period.