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Women War (1925-1929):The Sacrificial Lambs

I n the 1920's, there was a wide popular dissatisfaction with the British administration in Nigeria due to worsening economic conditions and the disruption of the democratic traditional form of government. What is commonly known as the "Aba Women Riot" was a phenomenon which was neither Aba in origin nor a riot in nature. It was well planned uprising by women with known and identifiable goals and good leaders in front. A riot suggests an "uncontrolled, irrational action, involving violence to property or persons or both". The issue of extending direct taxation to the Eastern Provinces was re-opened in 1924 by the Lieutenant Governor of the Southern Provinces, Sir Henry Moorhouse, giving his plan to include the taking of census of all taxable male adults. That plan failed because a good proportion of taxable males ran into the bush. The attempt in 1929 to produce a more reliable nominal roll resulted in the women's war. At the end of the first year's tax collection, the British authorities had become familiar with the problems inherent in the machinery. The then Lt. Governor of Southern Nigeria, Cyril Wilson Alexander ordered a closer assessment with instructions given to check on the accuracy of the nominal roll supplied the year before by the chiefs. Simultaneously, rumours spread that women were going to be taxed along with men. It has been said that the rumour to tax women was fabricated by Chief Okugo Ekurna Okezie of Oloko in Bende. Edward Morris Falk, Resident for Calabar Province recalls issuing circulars to district officers instructing them to gather information and statistics which would lead to a final calculation of the lump sum which the units of taxation could be reasonably expected to pay on the basis of two per cent of the whole income earning population including women. The prevailing economic condition brought about drastic slump in the prices of palm produce, accompanied by a sharp increase in the cost of imported goods. It was no longer fashionable to buy oil in puncheons. The requirement to buy in pounds and hundred - weights constituted a source of great irritation to the women. Another concern was the colonial forestry laws which prohibited the indiscriminate felling of trees. Women demanded that "we don't want to be getting permission for the cutting of sticks." Whatever grievances behind the rising of 1929, started in Oloko, Bende. Warrant of Chief Okugo Okezie of Oloko had detailed Mark Emeruwa, a teacher with Niger Pastorate Mission to conduct a census of all taxable males as directed by Captain John Cook, the Ag. District officer for Bende. Emeruwa had been instructed to do a census of not only adult males but also to obtain from them, the number of their wives, children, goats and sheep. Emeruwa had started his work as directed in the conpound of Ojim on November 23, when Nwanyeruwa, Ojim's wife objected to being counted and scuffle ensued. Chief Okezie threatened to report the matter to the D.O. Oloko. Women were all summoned to a meeting "and Nwanyeruwa's excited story was told as confirmation of the rumour" about taxation of women. The women, whose number had now increased due to new arrivals, seized the opportunity and demanded Okezie removed as a warrant chief. Chief Okezie was removed, tried and jailed for two years. In the second week of December, it spread to Aba. It was Aba that its first most serious nature occurred in terms of the number of women who took part but no loss of life was involved. According to Perham, some two thousand women, scantily clothed, took part, "singing angry songs against the chiefs and messengers." By December 13, the news reached Abak. Captain James the District Officer for Abak had to secure all government property. The native court building and staff quarters at Utu Etim Ekpo had been contacted and the resident who went to Uyo, a platoon of troops under Lt. Browning proceeded to Utu Etim Ekpo to restore order, but they met 500 strong women advancing towards the camp. A line was drawn on the roads which the women were dared to cross. And they finally crossed the line. At this juncture, Captain James, Captain Blackburn, Assistant District Commissioner of Police fired their revolvers into the air, without any injury. Lt. Browning with his platoon of 26 men armed, ordered a burst of seven rounds. Poorly targeted, the first had no effect and the second, but the third found a mark. A total of 18 women were killed. Houses were burnt too. At Ikot Ekpene, the District Officer, Captain Hanitsch had visited all the Native Court areas, assuring women that they were not going to be taxed. A platoon of troops from Calabar to reinforce the defence of Ikot Ekpene was sent. Also, plans were made to destroy all bridges leading to the town. Unfortunately, a group of women numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 had reached Ikot Osurua, and Captain Hanitsch enlisted Rev. Groves and Mr. Udo Essien Obot to talk to the Women. The lack of bloodshed in Ikot Ekpene was due to the intervention of Rev. Groves and representative of Ibibio Union. It now moved to Itu which was quiet up to December, before women marched to attend a meeting at Itu hill. The District Officer, Mr Hughes had to telephone Dr. A. B. MacDonald of the United Free Church of Scotland Mission who was the physician in charge of the Itu Leper Colony. Dr. MacDonald arranged for 250 lepers to block the road. As the women went downhill, the lepers were ordered to charge and "the women were driven helter skelter down the beach again and a great victory was celebrated." The women's war reached its peak at Opobo (Ikot Abasi). In Opobo Division between 1928 and 1929, taxable adult males in Queenstown had fallen short of the estimated number. Warrant Chief Tim Uranta obtained court decision to collect the deficit from the defaulters with the help of policemen. Mr Floyer on getting to Queenstown led the police to be shown homes of tax defaulters, though most of them left for Aba and Azumini, their livestocks were all seized. Mr. Whiteman, the District officer fixed a meeting with the women for December 16. But on December 15, he was informed that the women had wrecked the dispensary and had began destroying the native court too. On December 16, a platoon of the 3rd battalion, Nigeria Regiment consisting of 30 men, a Lewis gun, and Lt. Hill arrived at Ikot Abasi from Uyo. Edward Morris Falk, the then resident, instructed Hill that he should not hesitate "to use ball cartridge in the defence of life and property." The meeting between the women and Whiteman began at about 8.00am. The women asked Whiteman to put everything in writing. Whiteman wrote the following; " The Government will not tax women " No personal property such as box is to be counted " Any woman who is a known prostitute (not?) to be arrested " Women are not to be charged rent for the use of common market shed. " They asked that licenses for holding plays should not be banned. I promise to bring this complaints to the notice of government. " They do not want Chief Mark Pepple Jaja to be head Chief of Opobo Town. I will so inform the government. " The women do not want any man to pay tax. " They are speaking for Opobo, Bonny and Andoni women. They demanded six copies of the letter for Opobo town, Bonny, Andoni, Ibibio, Ogoni and Nkoro. An office seal, the clerk and interpreter should witness to it. When the typed letters were ready, the women demanded that the letters should be enveloped with two shilling stamp affixed to them. More women arrived the scene and they were gesticulating with their fists and sticks. The women broke the fence surrounding the compound where the meeting was held. An order was demanded by an officer from Whiteman who gave by nodding, then the massacre: On the right flank, the first volley did not stop them. On firing the second round, the crowd broke and demanded cease fire. After the cease-fire, 31 women and one man were killed and another 31 wounded. One of those killed was the women leader and mother to Late Justice (Dr) Egbert Udo Udoma. So many were drowned, whereas in Oloko and Aba, no life was lost. The women's war brought to international light the misfit of the British administration. There was a reorganization of the British administration in Nigeria. Special efforts were made to employ anthropological studies of the communities in their rule and educated Nigerians were drafted into the service. Since then, no government dared impose any taxation on the rural women. Nigeria remembers these events with awe and pride, because the heroic women, through their united valiant action and supreme sacrifice, showed the way for later day Nigeria Nationalism. They forcefully asserted their role as an active social and political force and engraved their names on the sands of time. Okuette Edet writes from the National Museum Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.

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