On 2nd December 1929, women numbering up to 10,000 and mostly in their middle ages, trooped to the streets in a seldom seen occurrence in African societies. It was not the only women protest Nigeria would ever see, but the reforms that followed the protests truly cemented the place of the partakers, tagged as ‘Aba Women’, in history.
The British colonial government led by the new Assistant District Officer Captain J. Cook had been making renewed plans through the Warrant Chiefs to begin to tax the women. Direct taxation of the men had begun in 1928 with no resistance whatsoever, so the new Assistant District Officer thought the policy should be taken a step further. The women resisted it in a deeply strategic move. The market women/traders which comprised ethnic groups of Ogoni, Andoni, Igbo, Opobo, Ibibio and Bonny milled in numbers and traveled to the town of Oloko in the Bende District of Umuahia and rioted. In the few weeks that followed, the protests spread across most of the Eastern region.
A climax in the foundation to the Aba Women riot was an altercation between an Oloko woman, Nwanyereuwa, who challenged being counted and Emereuwa, a worker who was helping with the district’s nominal count, and who physically assaulted her due to her resistance. Nwanyereuwa took to the market to report the incident and in the following weeks, mobilizations were executed until the protest got to its peak where several District Heads were forced to resign and about 16 Native Courts sacked.
The methods employed by the leaders of the Aba Women Riot of simply sending a symbolic message with palm-fronds across many villages in quick succession guaranteed that they would readily outpace and outsmart the police intelligence. It also ensured that it would be a peaceful but severe protest at first. The police and the government were caught unawares. Of course, these women’s riot was arguably largely successful due to the unwillingness of the government authorities in using sheer firepower to resist them. However, troops would later be deployed to vital flashpoints when the protests turned more unruly.
Caught in between indifference and absolute support, the men left the fight for freedom from another round of slavery entirely to their women. The wisdom and intelligence of the leaders of the groups which comprised 3 elderly Oloko women – Ikonnia, Mwannedia, and Nwugo contributed to keeping violence resulting from the protest to the minimum. Madam Mary Okezie, somewhat the only educated one among the women in the area and who though did not participate in the riot, made an instrumental submission of addressing the riot backlash to the Aba Commission of Enquiry; thus offering her literacy skills to back the protests.
The Aba Women riot lasted roughly 2 weeks. About 50 women were reportedly shot dead, despite efforts by the women leaders to make the protests as peaceful as possible. The riots, however, marked a point in history where women pushed a change in governance with their resistance and activism. A new administration under Governor Donald Cameron took into account recommendations which culminated from the protest by revising the structure of the Native Administration to include women participation. The tax regime targeting the women also never saw the light of day.
More recently, and in a near repeat of history, 112 women took to the streets in Owerri demanding to know the whereabouts of the IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu and they were summarily arrested. There obviously must be a fair approach to handling public protests; else we would have resigned our fate to that of a hyper-policed state.
As much as this recent version of women resistance reflects a more reactionary approach by the police authorities in preventing public disorderliness, it is still a far cry from how policing in the 21st century should be handled. There is hardly any protest in Nigeria in recent times, even for the more peaceful ones, where protesters are not being shot at. We could say the Owerri women were lucky because they only got detained, however, martyrs of the Aba Women Riot will go down in history being murdered only for the crime of vehemently protesting an injustice.
Feature image: pulse.ng