NOSTALGIA: Remembering The Aba Women’s Riots

The Aba Women's Riots

The Women’s War, or Aba Women’s Riots  was a period of unrest in colonial Nigeria over November 1929. The protests broke out when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende DistrictUmuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria traveled to the town of Oloko to protest against the Warrant Chiefs, whom they accused of restricting the role of women in the government.

The Aba Women’s Riots of 1929, as it was named in British records, is more aptly considered a strategically executed revolt organised by women to redress social, political and economic grievances. The protest encompassed women from six ethnic groups (Ibibio, Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo, and Igbo).

It was organised and led by the rural women of Owerri and Calabar provinces. During the events, many Warrant Chiefs were forced to resign and 16 Native Courts were attacked, most of which were destroyed. It was the first major revolt by women in West Africa.

In 1930 the colonial government abolished the system of warrant chieftains, and appointed women to the Native Court system. These reforms were built upon by the African women and have been seen as a prelude to the emergence of mass African nationalism.

CAUSE OF THE ABA WOMEN’S RIOTS

In pre-colonial Nigeria, there were already traditional means of administration which involved women in the grand scheme of things. Men and women would collaborate with one another in leadership capacities, and this was how progress was made.

The colonial era however, sought to disrupt the preexisting order as that was deemed to be “obsolete” and a recipe for chaos. The colonial powers then attempted to create political institutions which commanded authority and monopolized force.

While they considered the political institutions headed by Igbo men, they ignored those of the women, effectively shutting them out from political power.

The colonial authorities believed that this patriarchal and masculine order would establish a moral order throughout the colony. The women became increasingly dissatisfied with colonial rule because of increased school fees, corruption by native officers, and forced labor.

The final straw leading to the Aba Women’s riots was the introduction of direct taxation. Taxation laws had already been introduced for men in 1928, but a certain Captain J. Cook, an assistant District Officer, who temporarily took over the Bende Division, sought to revise the taxation system, therefore leading to the war itself.

THE ABA WOMEN’s RIOTS

The Aba Women’s War was sparked by a dispute between a woman named Nwanyeruwa and a man, Mark Emereuwa, who was helping to make a census of the people living in the town controlled by the Warrant, Okugo. Nwanyeruwa was of Ngwa ancestry, and had been married in the town of Oloko.

In Oloko, the census was related to taxation, and women in the area were worried about who would tax them, especially during the period of hyperinflation in the late 1920s. The financial crash of 1929 impeded women’s ability to trade and produce so they sought assurance from the colonial government that they would not to be required to pay taxes.

Faced with a halt in their political demands, the women settled that they would not pay taxes nor have their property appraised.

On the morning of November 18, Emereuwa arrived at Nwanyereuwa’s house and approached her, since her husband Ojim had already died. He told the widow to “count her goats, sheep and people.” 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, and Emeruwa grabbed Nwanyeruwa by the throat. Nwanyeruwa went to the town square to discuss the incident with other women who happened to be holding a meeting to discuss the issue of taxing women.

Believing they would be taxed, based on Nwanyeruwa’s account, the Oloko women invited other women (by sending leaves of palm-oil trees) from other areas in the Bende District, as well as from Umuahia and Ngwa. They gathered nearly 10,000 women who protested at the office of Warrant Chief Okugo, demanding his resignation and calling for a trial.

The methods used by Aba women were :surrounding the home of the man in question, insulting his manhood, and destroying anything that he would characterize as a prized possession. 

Women would gather at the compound of the man in question, and sing and dance while detailing the women’s grievances against him. The women would often bang on his hut, demolish it, or plaster it with mud. Actions like mistreating his wife or violating women’s market rules were punishable by being “sit on.”

The nakedness of women in many African and Sahelian communities was considered a taboo that indicated the force of power women had to stop the malfeasance. When it came to the Warrant Chiefs, along with singing and dancing around the houses and offices, the women would follow their every move, invading their space and forcing the men to pay attention.

The wives of the Warrant Chiefs were often disturbed and they too put pressure on the Warrants to listen to the demands of the women. This tactic of “sitting on the Warrants,” i.e. following them everywhere and anywhere, was very popular with the women in Nigeria, and used to great effect.

Through the choice of clothing, the use of body language and choice of song, drew attention to the role and status of women in Nigeria, particularly in protection the good of the land. Other men in the village rarely came to their rescue and would say that they brought the wrath of women onto themselves.

The Aba Women’s riots eventually came to a head in January 1930, after the demands of the rioting women had been met, and the colonial administration had reviewed the laws which led to the riots.

The result of the Aba Women’s riots was that the position of women in society was greatly improved. In some areas, women were able to replace the Warrant Chiefs. Women were also appointed to serve on the Native Courts.

After the Women’s war, women’s movements were very strong in Ngwaland, many events in the 1930s, 40s and 50s were inspired by the Women’s War, including the Tax Protests of 1938, the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s in Owerri and Calabar Provinces and the Tax Revolt in Aba and Onitsha in 1956.

The Women of Aba will always be remembered for their bravery even in the face of strong colonial opposition. It is as a result of their resilience, that their demands were eventually met.

By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.

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