Aba Women's War of 1929: When the British Colonial Masters Shot and Killed 50 Women
My daughter’s elective course in History of Africa, where she has involved me, has really spurred my interest in many historical events I knew little or nothing about, or cared not much about. I have recently read quite a lot of materials on some historical events in Nigeria while I prepared for an interview with her over the weekend, regarding her upcoming research paper on “The Imperial British Strategy of Divide and Conquer in Nigeria.” The Aba Women’s War of 1929 really drew my awe. I was so enthused by this story that I couldn’t help writing my own short essay on it. As I researched this monumental 88-year-old event, I was fascinated to learn that women of eastern Nigeria are still inspired by the bravery of their mothers and grandmothers. For instance, women of Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State, reenacted this war on November 18, 1989, to mark its 60th anniversary. I think the Aba Women's War of 1929 against the mighty British, should be an inspiration to every black woman – Nigerian or non-Nigerian. Nobody can stop you when you are determined.
Here is what I found:
The British had difficulty conquering the Igbo people of Southern Nigeria (1). The complicatedness they encountered arose from the fact that, unlike many other parts of what became Nigeria and surrounding countries, the Igbos were independently minded and lacked established central political authorities for the colonial masters to build upon. The Igbos did not have central political or religious figures like the Obas of the West or Emirs of the North that were mainly time-honoured politico-religious positions acquired by inheritance. So, whereas the people of the western and northern parts of Nigeria were already accustomed to yielding to an established authority, the Igbos elected their own chiefs purely on individual merit, where anyone – regardless of lineage, could vie for the position and could also be removed by majority vote (2). In fact, some Igbos resented the only formation that appeared to be a political and economic establishment. It was called the Aro Confederacy, and had been a large, notorious, slave trading network.
The British noticed the anti-Aro sentiments amongst the Igbos, and in the name of liberating them from the confederacy, they launched the Anglo-Aro War of 1901–1902 led by British officers Lt.Col. H.F. Montanaro, Capt. A.T. Jackson, Major A.M.N. Mackenzie, Lt.Col. A. Festing, and Major Heneker. The Aro side was led by Eze (King) Kanu Okoro of Arochukwu, and Okori Torti. Despite easily conquering Aro villages by killing several thousand men, including Eze Okoro himself and some other Aro leaders (against 700-800 casualties on the British side), and burning revered shrines, people's houses, community squares and crops, continual political control over the Igbos remained elusive for the British. So, the British forces began intensive pacification missions to convince the locals of British supremacy and good intentions. But the Igbos soon realized they had been tricked (1). In actual fact, while the Aro Confederacy was complicit in slave dealing, they had challenged the increasing British penetration of the hinterland. They fiercely resisted what they perceived as Whiteman’s infringement and threat on their culture, influence, and sovereignty.
Anti-British sentiments remained strong among the Igbos, and in 1929, an elderly, uneducated Igbo woman – a widow, called Nwanyeruwa, challenged British authority. That was an unprecedented undertaking by any single individual, let alone a woman. Her audacity sparked a short and violent war between women and the highly organised and well-equipped British authorities and their security forces. The war was probably the most shocking major crisis the British experienced during their rule in Nigeria and environs. The war began on November 18, 1929, as a simple dispute, when a census man, named Mark Emereuwa, asked Nwanyeruwa to “count her goats, sheep, and people” (2). Traditionally, women in West Africa were not charged taxes, and they were not required to answer census questions. Nwanyeruwa was very suspicious of the British and concluded she would soon be taxed. Exasperated, she immediately stirred other women from her village and her call for resistance quickly spread to nearby villages. It wasn’t long before the entire region was engulfed by dissent by the women. The British authorities were shocked and chagrined that the women would not give up their resistance and will not be intimidated. Then, war broke loose. Thus, a sudden campaign, initially non-violent, meant to ensure women from the region wouldn’t be taxed, and to protest the oppressive nature of British rule, got progressively heated to the point of the British using their guns on the women (3, 5).
For the two fiery months of November and December of that year, 1929, around 25,000 women, stretching out from Aba to Calabar and Owerri provinces protested the looming taxes and the power of the Warrant Chiefs imposed on them by the unpopular British (4, 5). The women chanted and danced, urging noblemen who collected taxes to resign from their posts. The angry women went on a rampage. They looted European-owned stores. They raided and wrecked the British-owned Barclays Bank. They broke into jailhouses and freed prisoners. The women attacked native courts run by colonial officials and disrupted any on-going proceedings. They even burned some of the buildings to the ground (2). However, the campaign was not without cost. Armed colonial police and some military personnel gunned down at least 50 women, and 50 others were severely wounded (3).
The "Aba Women's War" took two months for the colonial government to suppress and it became a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest. To backtrack a little, the riots evolved from January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor, Lord Luggard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. Under his plan, British administrators would rule locally, through "Warrant Chiefs", who were essentially local individuals appointed by the British governor to administer the draconian policies of the colonial masters (4). As mentioned earlier, Igbo chiefs had been traditionally elected on their personal merit, but the British authorities abolished their democratic systems and, instead, imposed "Warrant Chiefs" who did the bidding of the colonial masters.
Within a few years, the appointed Warrant Chiefs became increasingly oppressive. They wantonly seized property, imposed overbearing local regulations, and jailed anyone who openly criticized them. These Warrant Chiefs were hated, similar to the hatred American slaves had for Black slave-drivers – called Taskmasters, who were appointed by slave owners to impose or execute harsh or onerous workloads on their fellow Blacks. Although much of the anger was directed against the Warrant Chiefs, most Nigerians knew the source of their power, the British colonial administrators. The attempt to impose special taxes on Igbo women added to the disdain the locals had for them, and bolstered their sense of grievance. These Igbo women were peasant farmers and market women (2). They were already unhappy with the heavy taxes imposed on their husbands and sons. Moreover, the women were responsible for supplying the food they grew to the growing urban populations in Calabar, Owerri, Port Harcourt, and other Nigerian cities. They feared the taxes would drive many of them out of business and seriously disrupt the supply of food and non-perishable goods available to the populace.
The angry Igbo women used the long-established practice of censoring erring men through all-night song and dance, jeering at the men. It was often called "sitting on a man", an ultimate ridicule of a weak or thoughtless man in that culture. The women congregated nightly at the Native Administration centers to protest both the warrant chiefs and the taxes on the market women. By going after the incomes of local women, the colonial masters and their Warrant Chiefs had lost any sense of decency and therefore, any regard the women had for them. So, as far as the women were concerned, these men must be sat upon (4). The women chanted and danced, and in some locations, the Warrant Chiefs were on the run, disappearing before dawn. Men stayed away except for the colonial male security officers who resorted to deadly force after the women would not budge under threat.
The sacrifice of Aba women, especially those that were killed or injured, was not in vain. After the war, the British dropped their tax plans. Their puppets (the Warrant Chiefs) were forced to resign. Moreover, Britain and other colonial powers in the West African region recognised the hitherto underestimated power of women and improved the overall position and rights of women over the regions.
(1) Crowder, Michael. The International Journal of African Historical Studies 20, no. 2 (1987): 325-27. doi:10.2307/219854.
(2) D. C. Dorward, ed., The Igbo "Women's War" of 1929: Documents Relating to the Aba Riots in Eastern Nigeria (Wakefield, England: East Ardsley, 1983);
(3) Judith Van Allen, "Aba Riots" or “Women's War"?: British Ideology and Eastern Nigerian Women's Political Activism (Waltham, MA.: African Studies Association, 1971)
(4) Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1976).
(5) Nina Emma Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women's Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982);
SOURCE from Mazi NwankamaNwankama ........facebook wall