The Aba Women’s Rebellion in 1929, also known as the Women’s War, marked a significant development in anti-colonial resistance achieved by women in Nigeria. Following a period of restriction upon women’s participation in the political sphere, as well as newly imposed taxes, this nonviolent protest was the first major organisation of peasant women in West Africa and it is seen largely as a prelude to the later nationalist movements in Africa. The Rebellion saw women in 1910s Agbaja avoid their homes in a month-long protest after suspicions that pregnant women were being murdered by local men, and in 1924 women organised in Calabar to oppose the imposition of a market toll. However, the Aba Women’s Rebellion marked a historically significant point in relations between British colonial proponents and Nigerian communities as the protests resulted in administrative change. Colonial rule severely changed the position of women in Nigerian societies. Whilst women had previously been involved in local governance and market trading, this was radically reduced under British rule. Colonial authorities instituted a system of indirect rule in the early twentieth century through Warrant Chiefs, introduced by Frederick Lugard as the first colonial governor. Warrant Chiefs were Igbo men appointed by British governors who managed in accordance with the colonial administration, replacing the system of elected Igbo chiefs. Rapidly escalating into an oppressive, corrupt, draconian rule: any public critics of their directives were imprisoned and institutions involving women were side-lined, thus imposing an entirely patriarchal order. In tandem with these issues were concerns over taxation. Many women in Nigeria were involved with market trade, supplying food to an exponentially growing urban population, and were targeted under a new special tax. Furthermore, tax ordinances from previous years had excluded women, until this was recognised as inadequate for taxing a household and another burden for market women was created. Combined with financial crises after the economic crash, resentment at chiefs and the colonial administration swelled into a challenge against British authority. The catalyst for the Women’s War was the figurehead Nwanyeruwa, a woman in Oloko, when the new census for taxation was taken. Women had been exempt from these taxes in previous ordinances, but when the appraisal of her house was ordered it became clear this was changing. Nwanyeruwa reported this to women in her community and news spread, resulting in thousands of women across the Bende District travelling to Oloko. In December of 1929, 10,000 women gathered outside the Warrant Chief’s office and demanded his resignation, sparking protests across the region. Nwanyeruwa is distinguished in the history of women’s militancy in Nigeria and the resulting emergence of anti-colonial nationalism. Her approach assisted in inspiring subsequent successful nonviolent protests, though some women were involved in the destruction of the Warrant Chief’s homes. Protests then broke out across the Owerri and Calabar provinces, and included women from Igbo, Ibibio, Andoni, Ogoni, Efil and Ijaw ethnic groups; the vast network between market-women proved crucial for the communication and coordination of women in the protests. Led by the Oloko Trio (Ikkonia, Nwannedia and Nwugo), these protests primarily took the form of ‘sitting on a man’. This was a traditional female Igbo method of publicly shaming men. Designed to inconvenience and draw attention to men committing injustices, women would follow them while singing, dancing or even hitting their walls with pestles. Utilising this traditional practice, women across an area spanning six-thousand square miles transformed it into a powerful tool, challenging British colonial administration and their representatives. The Oloko Trio were known for their ability to de-escalate situations that were becoming riotous, though this did not always succeed; for example, around 55 women were killed by colonial troops in the suppression of the protests by January 1930. On one occasion, two women were shot when the army was brought in after protesters had formed a roadblock and police could not pacify the situation. Over the course of these protests, European factories were looted, prisons attacked, and 10 native courts destroyed. By January 10th 1930, the protests had been suppressed by colonial troops and collective punishment inquiries were performed. Whilst the first inquiry commission in January was haphazard, the ‘Aba Commission’ in March saw 485 witnesses interviewed over a period of 38 days. Only around 100 of these witnesses were women, the rest were constituted of local Nigerian men and officials in the British colonial administration. Aimed at investigating the causes of the women’s rebellion, the commission recommended punishments for the key players while simultaneously suggesting reforms to the system. This challenge to colonial rule had never been witnessed before in Africa and the resulting changes reflected this. The system of Warrant Chiefs was abolished in 1930, and replaced with court tribunals which incorporated local forms of government and allowed women in the court systems. The Aba Women’s Rebellion has a long-lasting legacy. Successive women’s movements in Ngwaland in the following decades such as the 1938 Tax Protests and the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s were inspired and enabled by the 1929 rebellion. Its mobilisation of peasant women in a challenge to colonial authorities was on an unprecedented scale in Africa. It has been remarked that the transformation of a traditional practice for Nigerian women of ‘sitting on men’ into a formidable protest method is particularly significant. It was an important disruption to patriarchal British administration, led by women and using an inherently feminine protest method, which is thus highly symbolic.
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