The glory of rebelliousness should not be daunted by fear; for it is the salvation of the oppressed.
"A toothless goat will grow teeth to bite when pushed against the wall," an old woman told me. Sadly, that was the case of the 1929 'Aba women’s riot.'
The two months rebellion which is also known as the ‘Women’s War’ in Igbo history broke out when Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria, traveled in their thousands to the town of Oloko to protest against the warrant chiefs and the policies imposed by the British colonial administrators in southeastern Nigeria.
The protest actually involved 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.
In the events of the revolts, many warrant chiefs were forced to resign and sixteen native courts were attacked, most of which were destroyed.
Over 50 women lost their lives in the process, as many others were counted among the injured.
The root cause of the Aba women’s riot was not an overnight event, in truth, it was long in the making.
First of all, the indirect rule system which was instituted by Lord Lugard in 1914 had given room to the possibility for British colonial administration to rule through 'warrant chiefs.'
These warrant chiefs who were mainly top Igbo chiefs were appointed by the governor. And as result of this vested power, the warrant chiefs became increasingly oppressive within few years.
Properties were seized, and imprisonment was the lot of anyone that dare to publicly criticize them.
Furthermore, the women were already becoming dissatisfied with the white authoritarians as a result of increased school fees, forced labour, and corruption by local officers.
And in other to curb the manifestation of disorder as claimed by the immigrant masters, the alteration of women's positions in government and society was carried out.
( It should be noted that prior to 1929, women were allowed to participate in government and also, they had a major role in the market. Elite women were also privileged to participate in political movement).
Chiefly, the ultimate event that birthed the war was direct taxation. The British colonial administration had taken measures to enforce the ‘Native Revenue Ordinance’ in April 1927.
The then lieutenant governor of Nigeria had consigned a colonial resident- W. E. Hunt to bring an understanding of the objectives and provision of the new ordinance through explanation to the people of the five-provinces in the eastern region.
This strategy was used to make clear the path for the direct taxation whose date of arrival was April 1928.
However, in September 1929, captain J. Cook was delegated to take over duties of the Bende division temporarily from the serving officer, Mr. Weir, until the return of Captain Hill from leave.
And within few weeks of control, captain Cook had deemed the originally stated rolls for taxation insufficient, because they did not include details of a number of wives, children, and livestock in each household.
He decided to revise the existing roll.
And it was this unreasonable and vexatious act of captain Cook that flamed up the two months fire of the Aba women’s riot.
Record has it that on the morning of 18 November 1929, a man named Mark Emereuwa who was conducting census ( the census was in relation to taxation) on the people living in the town of Oloko, upon the instruction of the warrant chief- Okugo, entered the compound of a widow named Nwanyereuwa and instructed her to "count her lives stocks and people living with her."
Knowing fully well that this means you will be taxed based on the number of the outcome, Nwanyereuwa became embittered; and in replying, she said, "was your widowed mother counted?"
This simply means that women were not supposed to pay tax in Igbo society. Angriness was however expressed with words by the two of them.
Thus, 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 account prompted the women to invite other women with the aid of palm leaves from other areas of the Bende district.
Approximately ten thousand women were gathered, and a protestation insisting on the removal and trial of the warrant chief was staged.
It would go down in history that the effect of the Aba women’s riot prompted the British administration to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women and to curb the power of the warrant chiefs.
In addition, the positions of women in society were greatly improved as women were appointed to serve as chief warrant in some areas.
It also offered the possibility for ordinary women who could not be counted among the elite to participate in social activities.
In conclusion, it would be recalled that the scale on which the protest was carried out has never been witnessed before.
The rebellion encompassed over six thousand square miles, and the displayed bravery became contagious; as many events in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s were inspired by the Women's War.
These events include: 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.
Indeed, rebelliousness is a glorious thing. It should be preached as the salvation of an oppressed soul.
No people should hesitate to rebel against an oppressive system; for the darkness of oppression prevails where the light of rebelliousness is wanting.
And should you one day tell another the story of the women's war, remember to tell of the persuasive Ikonnia; the intelligent Mwannedia, and the passionate Nwugo.
These women were the trio leaders that led the Oloko town protest.
Remember too, to tell of madame Nwayeruwa who also played a vital role by counseling the women to protest peacefully.
And although things went the opposite way in few reported cases, it is one of those things that is believed to happen when the oppressed decides to fight back for their right.