It is seen as the first major challenge to British authority in Nigeria and West Africa during the colonial period.
For two months in 1929, local market women from the Igbo tribe of southeastern Nigeria waged war against the policies imposed by British colonial administration and its warrant chiefs in what became known as the “Aba Women’s Riots of 1929” or the “Women’s War.”
The rebellion was sparked by the decision by the British colonial powers to impose an exploitative tax policy on the women, who were then tax-exempt in the Igbo tradition.
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It all began from January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria.
Under this arrangement, the British administrators would rule locally through “warrant chiefs”, basically Igbo individuals appointed by the governor. During pre-colonial times, Igbo chiefs were elected and not imposed on the people.
Thus, under indirect rule, instead of having British personnel all over, these appointed warrant chiefs served as representatives of the Queen of England, thus saving the colonialists manpower, which they would subsequently use in pillaging resources across Igboland.
Soon after, the appointed warrant chiefs started oppressing the people, seizing the property of their subjects at will and imposing ridiculous fines and charges, as well as, imprisoning anyone who dared to criticize them.
What incensed them, particularly, the local women, was the move by colonial powers to impose special taxes on them.
Historical accounts state that in the 1920s, the British government was under heavy criticism for not developing their colonies in spite of the gains they had made from them.
Since the British were just recovering from the losses they had incurred in the First World War, they knew they had to raise funds and so they resorted to internal means of generating revenue.
The proposal was to impose direct taxation on women and enumerate the children, livestock, and other personal items as taxable possessions.
They could not achieve this effectively without getting the numbers right, hence they organized a census, which the local people realized had to do with the new tax policy.
The Igbo market women, responsible for supplying food to the growing urban populations in towns like Calabar, Owerri, and neighbouring cities, believed that the tax would destroy their business and affect food supply. They, therefore, asked that they should be exempted but their plea fell on deaf ears.
The women decided not to pay the tax or welcome anyone into their homes to count their properties and so when a census officer, named Mark Emereuwa decided to count the properties of a widow, Nwanyereuwa in a town controlled by the warrant chief, Okugo, it did not end well.
“On the morning of November 18, 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.” 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 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,” according to accounts by Kentake Page.
The women, who got incensed over the development, mobilized their colleagues from neighbouring villages and marched to the office of the warrant chief, demanding his resignation.
For two months, a revolt attracted about 25,000 Igbo women, who converged at the native administration centres in towns like Owerri and Calabar and surrounding areas to protest the warrant chiefs and the taxes imposed on them.
“Using the traditional practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule (often called “sitting on a man”), the women chanted and danced, and in some locations forced warrant chiefs to resign their positions,” Blackpast.com stated.
Becoming the fiercest resistance the British ever faced in their various African colonies, the rebellion resulted in the destruction of several properties and government infrastructure.
The Igbo women not only attacked European owned stores and banks and broke into prisons, releasing inmates, they also torched native courts run by colonial administrators.
Colonial police were eventually called to intervene; they fired into the charged crowd that had gathered at towns like Calabar and Owerri, killing over 50 women and injuring several others.
The Aba Women’s War ultimately forced colonial authorities to abandon their plans of imposing a tax on the market women and to limit the power of the warrant chiefs.
Though the women’s rebellion did not end colonialism at that very instant, it inspired other minority groups across Africa to protest their existing condition and eventually the struggle for independence.