The 1929 Igbo Women’s War, referred to as Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo or the Aba Women’s Riot by the British colonial authority in Nigeria, was one of the most significant protest movements in the former British Empire. The protest was organized and led by rural women, and once the war started, it spread like wildfire in southeastern Nigeria among the Igbo and Ibibio of Owerri and Calabar provinces, covering a total area of over 15,550 square kilometers (about 6,000 square miles) and involving a population of two million people.
By the mid-nineteenth century, formal British policy in what later became Nigeria was designed to protect British interests in the expanding trade activity in the Nigerian hinterland. By 1861, British administration was formally established in the colony of Lagos and the Niger Delta region. Through a series of treaties and military expeditions designed to end internal slavery and facilitate trade in such commodities as palm oil and kernel (palm produce), present-day Nigeria came under effective British control by the beginning of the twentieth century.
The women’s protest arose in the palm-oil belt of Southern Nigeria. The Igbo and Ibibio lived largely in mini-states where men and women exercised varying degrees of political power. Meetings of the village council involved adult males and were held in the common cultural center and the abode of the community’s earth-goddess. Important laws of the village council were ritualized with the earth-goddess and given a sacerdotal sanction. Their violation was seen as an act of sacrilege that needed ritual purification to restore the moral equilibrium of the society and save humans from infertility, famine, and other calamities.
Women had their own sociopolitical organization. They held weekly meetings on the market day of their community, and made and enforced laws that were of common interest to them. But British colonialism brought fundamental changes that eliminated women’s political roles in precolonial Igbo and Ibibio societies. Women, however, saw themselves as the moral guardians and defenders of the taboos of the earth-goddess, believing that they naturally embodied its productive forces. The cosmology of the women, and the moral outrage they expressed over the intense economic and social changes that occurred during colonialism, are helpful in understanding not only the roots of the Igbo Women’s War, but the unusual solidarity and frenzy the women displayed during the crisis.
The initial protest was sparked off in Oloko in Bende Division of Owerri province, where in 1926 the colonial government had counted the number of men without indicating that the figures would be used in taxing them in 1928. Thus, when on November 18, 1929, the British-appointed Warrant Chief Okugo asked a teacher to count his people in keeping with the directive of the British district officer, women who feared that they would be taxed began to protest against the census.
The women dispatched palm fronds to other women in Bende Division, summoning them to Oloko. The meaning of the palm fronds vary according to circumstances, but in this case palm fronds signified a call to an emergency meeting, and people were forbidden to harm those who bore the fronds. Within a short period, thousands of them had assembled in the compound of Okugo, ”sitting on him” (Warrant Chief Okugo), a traditional practice involving chanting war songs and dancing around a man, making life miserable for him until the women’s demands were met, and demanding his resignation and imprisonment for allegedly assaulting some of them.
Fearing that the situation might get out of hand, especially as the protests spread to Umuahia, where factories and government offices were located, the British district officer acceded to the women’s demands, and jailed Okugo for two years. Generally, the protest in Bende Division ended peacefully, and the district officer effectively used the leaders of the women to contain the protests.
The Women’s War, however, took on a more violent form in Aba Division of Owerri province, and it was from there that the protests spread to parts of Owerri, Ikot Ekpene, and Abak divisions. The protest began in Owerrinta after the enumerator (census taker) of Warrant Chief Njoku Alaribe knocked down a pregnant woman during a scuffle, leading to the eventual termination of her pregnancy. The news of her assault shocked local women, who on December 9, 1929, protested against what they regarded as an ”act of abomination.” The women massed in Njoku’s compound, and during an encounter with armed police, two women were killed and many others were wounded. Their leader was whisked off to the city of Aba, where she was detained in prison.
Owerrinta women then summoned a general assembly of all Ngwa women at Eke Akpara on December 11, 1929, to recount their sad experiences. The meeting attracted about ten thousand women, including those from neighboring Igbo areas. They resolved to carry their protests to Aba.
As the women arrived on Factory Road in Aba, a British medical officer driving the same accidentally injured two of the women, who eventually died. The other women, in anger, raided the nearby Barclays Bank and the prison to release their leader. They also destroyed the native court building, European factories, and other establishments. No one knows how many women died in Aba, but according to T. Obinkaram Echewa’s compilation of oral accounts of women participating in the war, about one hundred women were killed by soldiers and policemen.
The Women’s War then spread to Ikot Ekpene and Abak divisions in Calabar province, taking a violent and deadly turn at Utu-Etim-Ekpo, where government buildings were burned on December 14 and a factory was looted, leaving some eighteen women dead and nineteen wounded. More casualties were recorded at Ikot Abasi near Opobo, also in Calabar province, where on December 16 thirty-one women and one man were reportedly killed, and thirty-one others wounded.
Diverse views have been offered to explain the causes of the Women’s War. Some colonial apologists described the war as ”riots” carried out by African women who failed to appreciate the ”blessings” of British rule. Colonial apologists also forwarded spurious theories of female biopsychology to justify their views, arguing that the ”riots” were rooted in ”irrational mass hysteria” resulting from ”a sudden flow of premenstrual or postpartum hormones”(Echewa 1993, p. 39).
Another school of thought that emerged during the decolonization period of Nigerian history offered a conflicting analysis and blamed the Women’s War on the warrant chief system the British imposed on the peoples of southeastern Nigeria. Although the warrant chief system contributed to the Women’s War, a more holistic analysis of the war’s underlying causes is necessary, and a more fundamental issue must be considered: an economic one.
The imposition of direct taxation and the economic upheaval of the global depression of the 1920s saw a drastic fall in the price of palm produce and a high cost of basic food stuff and imported items. Thus the women’s protest was precipitated, in part, by the global depression. The protests occurred when the income women derived from palm produce dropped, while the costs of the imported goods sold in their local markets rose sharply. For example, from December 28, 1928, to December 29, 1929, the prices of palm oil and kernel in Aba fell by 17 percent and 21 percent, respectively, while duties on imported goods like tobacco, cigarettes, and gray baft, a form of cloth used to make dresses, increased 33 percent, 33 percent, and 100 percent, respectively. The deteriorating terms of trade led to the impoverishment of women, and once the rumor spread that they would be taxed, the Women’s War started.
Another important cause of the protest was rooted in the political transformation resulting from the British indirect-rule policy. According to some historians, the Women’s War stems from the military occupation of the Igbo area by the British in the early 1900s and the ”warrant chiefs” they appointed to administer the various communities. The society’s traditional authority holders, who feared that they would be punished for resisting the invaders, did not come forward to receive the “certificates” or “warrants” the British issued to appointed chiefs. As a result, the majority of warrant chiefs were young men who were not the legitimate authority-holders in the indigenous political system. The appointment of warrant chiefs as representatives of the local people was contrary to the political ideology and republican ethos of the Igbo people.
The appointment of warrant chiefs intensified conflicts in the society, as evidenced by the Native Courts Proclamation of 1901, which conferred exclusive judicial functions on the new chiefs in their communities. The village councils were denied their traditional functions, and worse still, cases involving abominations were punished without the ritual propitiations and sacrifices necessary for ”cleansing the earth” and restoring moral equilibrium. Women were particularly upset by the desacralization of laws, and during the protests they called for the restoration of the old order.
The British-appointed warrant chiefs also abused their offices to enrich themselves, in part because they were paid meager allowances that could not sustain their newly acquired prestige and lifestyle. Virtually all of them established private courts in their compounds, where they settled disputes. They also used their headman to collect fines and levies, thus alienating members of their community.
Similarly, the executive functions the warrant chiefs performed for the British government, including the recruitment of men for forced labor to build railways, roads, and government guest houses, heightened their unpopularity. During the protests, women complained about forced labor, claiming that it increased their workload by depriving them of the services they received from their husbands in farming and the production of palm produce. Women were also concerned about the emerging urban centers, which had become hubs for those engaged in prostitution and other vices that the women believed polluted the land.
The British government authorized civil and military officers to suppress the disturbances, and district officers were granted the right to impose fines in the disaffected areas as compensation for damages to property and as a deterrent against future riots. On January 2, 1930, the government also appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the roots of the disturbances in Calabar province.
The commission submitted a short report on January 27, 1930, but due to the report’s limited scope, the government appointed a second commission on February 7, 1930, to cover Owerri and Calabar provinces. The commission began its work at Aba on March 10, 1930, and submitted its report on July 21. The report convinced the government to carry out many administrative reforms, including the abolition of the warrant chief system, a reorganization of the native courts to include women members, and the creation of village-group councils whose decisions were enforced by group courts.
The achievements of the Women’s War are remarkable, and an analysis of the roots of the protests indicate that the women were concerned about the abuses of the warrant chief system, the rapid pace of social change, and the fear that they would be taxed. Their solidarity was reinforced by their common religious ideas and values and the moral revulsion they expressed over acts of sacrilege.
Although the government suppressed the protests ruthlessly to avoid future disturbances, Igbo women mounted similar protests during the 1930s and 1940s against the introduction of oil mills and the mechanization of palm production, which undermined their economic interests. A discussion of the Igbo Women’s War provides a broad picture of British colonialism in Africa, the difficulties involved in imposing a foreign administration on indigenous peoples, and the crucial role women played in a primary resistance movement before the emergence of modern Nigerian nationalism.