In a two month long rebellion targeted at warrant chiefs and the British colonial administrators at the time, ordinary Nigerian market women displayed a defiance that is both historic and egalitarian in all it’s ramifications. When the colonial officers decided to initiate a policy that imposed direct taxation on market women coupled with a history of general disregard for women’s rights by the entire regime, over ten thousand Igbo women traveled from far and near to the town of Oloko to stage a protest.
The insurrection though founded on the fatuous policy was fanned to flame by other ridiculous decisions previously made by the regime. It was this regime that ruptured the traditional system of government which allocated some amount of rights to women, made warrant chiefs out of local rulers, men impenetrable by the law and quick to carry out the administrators crass requests. It was this regime that increased school fees, encouraged compulsory labour, fostered corruption among local officers and first imposed direct tax on men.
The final stroke however occurred when the Bende region received a new serving Officer whose administration believed that the exemption of women, children and livestock in the taxing process rendered the system generally inefficient. The new officer, Captain Cook amended the existing scheme and introduced a house to house counting to be enacted by the warrant chiefs.
One fine morning in November 1929, Mark Emereuwa who was one of the men conscripted to carry out the census walked into the house of a recently widowed woman, Nwanyeruwa and demanded that she count her goat, sheep and people. Understanding this to bear relation to taxing and aware that women did not pay tax in Igbo culture, Emereuwa’s request was met with a hostile riposte from the Ngwa woman who challenged him saying, “Was your widowed mother counted?”
Her brave question sparked a reaction from Emereuwa who grabbed her by the throat during the heated argument that ensued. When Nwanyeruwa freed herself from his grip, her first port of call was the town square where the women were coincidentally holding a meeting to address the subject of taxing. Her harrowing account of what had just happened between her and the census officer prompted a response from the women. They resolved that the only way out of the dilemma was rebellion.
The Oloko women immediately sent out leaves of palm oil trees as invites to women in neighboring towns and villages to become part of the insurrection. Their plan was simple, to engineer a peaceful protest against the conspiracy inspired census, to advocate the rights of women in government and to as Nwanyeruwa would once express ensure that ,”women will not pay tax till the world ends and Chiefs were not to exist any more.”
It was not the first time women in Nigeria had embarked on collective action, women in Agbaja stayed away from their homes for a month because they believed the men were murdering pregnant women and in 1924, women in Calabar numbering over 3000 kicked against a market toll that was instituted by the government.
What however transpired in the following weeks beat the most profound imaginations of the colonial rulers. Spearheaded by three women; Ikonnia, Mwannedia and Nwugo, the women convened in their thousands employing an age long traditional display in their protest popularly known as “Sitting on a man.” It involved publicly shaming a man by gathering at his home alongside all night singing and dancing derisively to express their grievances.
They visited the offices of the warrant chiefs starting with their district, calling for their resignation, the elimination of taxation and a redress of the generally patriarchal laws. The protests were replicated in Calabar, Owerri and other smaller towns.
The women destroyed ten native courts, ransacked European owned factories and businesses including the Barclays Bank, broke into 46 prisons freeing prisoners and most importantly informed the colonial administrators, that although they seemed ordinary and lacking the backing of being married to social elites or warrant chiefs, they recognized the presence of their voice and were determined to not be silent.
By the end of the two month long protests in which about fifty women were killed, the administration dropped it’s plans of taxation, the actions of warrant chiefs were reviewed and some women were appointed warrant chiefs in certain areas. The women through the biggest rebellion colonial masters had ever seen on the continent catalyzed a sequence of events that would eventually lead to independence and is till this day regarded as Ogu Umunwanyi or Women’s War of 1929.
But what might nonetheless be the biggest win for the Aba women’s riot is the legacy left behind. This resistance that inspired 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.
It is the realization of the force that is collective rebellion, whether we be ordinary market women in an egalitarian government, there is an easy moral lesson that we can do something, that we can be something.