Nwanyeruwa was an Igbo woman from southeastern Nigeria during the colonial era who organized and led 10,000 Nigerian women to protest against the exploitative taxation system imposed by the British colonial administration. That revolt is generally called the Aba Women’s War of 1929. Her actions were cited as a significant piece of relevance in the history of African nationalism.
Little is known about Nwanyeruwa’s life, however, historians have posited that the heroine was born in Igboland. a region that covers the better part of Southeast Nigeria. She was a member of the Oloko tribe in Nigeria. At the time, women also had a say in the decision-making of the home and Nwanyeruwa wasn’t an exception. She was the symbol of paramount authority at home. Before the revolution, Nwanyeruwa was said to be married to an Igbo man named Ojim, who had died sometime before 1929.
At Oloko market, Nwanyeruwa was reputable for selling palm oil and palm kernels. She was an influential businesswoman.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The British were already at the helm of affairs during the nineteenth century. They tightened their grip through indirect rule by the start of the 1900s. As per their mode of operation, the local inhabitants of their colonies were governed by the native representatives appointed by the British. In the area then known as the Southern Nigerian Protectorate, the British introduced the Warrant Chiefs System, whereby local men were appointed by the colonisers to exercise authority on their fellow villagers and the Native Courts, where disputes were settled according to British law. Both systems excluded women, who had been active in the political life of pre-colonial times.
When the introduction of direct taxation ensued in the 1920s, many of the natives were disgruntled and felt exploited. To them, it was not only a financial burden but a representation of submission to British colonial dictates. This coincided with the Great Depression and many locals were forced to even mortgage and sell their children. The resentments grew when the people realized that the Warrant Chiefs who were supposed to oppose the taxation on their behalf were bedfellows with their colonial counterparts. The final move which stoked anger and bitter resistance from locals was the added introduction of a census, which was deemed as a symbol of objectification in the white man’s eyes. However, despite the ramblings of discontent, both census and taxation in 1928. But in 1929, when rumours spread that women were going to be taxed as well, the British administration met their waterloo.
Meetings were held in the Oloko Native Court and resolutions were made that if taxation was extended to them, they will revolt. The women kept watch and waited until a move was made towards imposing a further tax. On November 1929, Captain John Cook ordered a new census to take into account each man’s number of wives, children, and animals. At the time Nwanyeruwa had utilised the market network to organize a women’s movement against local Igbo warrant chiefs, particularly one Chief Okugo.
THE ABA WOMEN’S RIOT
The Women’s war, otherwise known as the Aba Women’s Riot, was ignited after a dispute between Nwanyeruwa and a man called Mark Emereuwa, who was helping to make a census of the people living in the town controlled by Okugo (Oloko).
One morning on November 18, Emereuwa arrived at Nwanyeruwa’s house and approached her since her husband was no more. He told the widow to “count her goats, sheep and people.” Since Nwanyeruwa 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.” She replied by saying “Was your widowed mother counted?,” meaning “that women don’t pay tax in traditional Igbo society.” They both exchanged unpleasant words and Emeruwa grabbed Nwanyeruwa by the throat. Nwanyeruwa later rushed to the town square and explained her ordeal revealing that taxing was imminent. That was the signal the women of Oloko had been waiting for.
The women sent out palm leaves signalling help from their comrades in the neighbouring villages, who in turn sent out palm leaves further out. Women were summoned to revolt against the Warrant chiefs and British rule. The most common form of protest among Igbo women at the time was known as “sitting.” The act demanded women would gather at the compound or vicinity of the wrongdoer to sing, dance, and create a disturbance. Sitting was generally used as a form of punishment to influence change. In this case, Nwanyeruwa’s call to sit in protest of the chiefs who had colluded with the British official spread further. In the next hours, thousands of Igbo women gathered outside the home of Chief Okugo demanding his resignation. They surrounded his compound, chanting songs throughs throughout the night, before mobbing him and destroying his home. The women were dressed in war attire with traditional makeup.
In the coming weeks, a massive revolution broke out. Over 10,000 women targeted Warrant Chiefs, Native Courts and European factories in their villages, destroying buildings and looting them. A particularly destructive accident took place in the city of Aba, hence the naming of the revolt as Aba Women’s riots, or Ogu Umunwanyi (Women’s War). The women agitated for the abolition of taxation and the dismantling of the Warrant Chiefs system, as well as the chiefs’ prosecution. hey asked that “all white men go to their country” so that the land could heal and return to what it had been before their arrival. A total of 50 to 60 Igbo women were killed during the rebellion. The revolt was quelled in January 1930. The result of the riots was a longtime delay of new taxation policies for some years. In March 1930, just two months after the Aba Women’s War, Nwanyereuwa is quoted as saying, “We had no money to pay tax. I was once a rich woman, but as [Okugo] had been taking money away from me I had now no money.”
Women took up revolutionary activities after Nwanyeruwa’s heroics. She inspired women in other Nigerian villages to start their political movements. The protest also positioned women in high and commendable standards. After the revolts, women were called upon to replace the Warrant Chiefs. Some women were appointed to serve on the Native Courts.