British colonial officials turned their guns on women in two Nigerian towns in the 1920s, to put down protests against “head” taxes and levies on market stalls, killing scores.
“Some say that the women’s uprising was the first major challenge to English colonial power in Nigeria and West Africa.”
What has come to be known as the “Aba Women’s War of 1929” was a two-month revolt against a colonial poll tax imposed on market women in southeastern Nigeria. The seeds of the revolt were planted in 1914 when the colonial governor of Nigeria, Frederick Lugard, imposed “indirect rule” on the British colony, allowing England to govern through the local rulers they installed and controlled. Colonial rule altered the position of women in Nigerian society. It removed them from participation in local governance and replaced their collaboration with men in the domestic sphere with explicitly patriarchal social rules and divisions.
In mid-November 1929, thousands of women organized a major protest against a tax on their children, livestock, and other personal items. As the protest achieved little, they decided to escalate their efforts, refusing to pay the tax while preventing colonial government representatives from entering their homes to count their possessions. When colonial agents attempted to force them to comply, the women surrounded local colonial administration centers in Calabar and Oweri and nearby towns in protest. They attacked European-owned stores, factories, and banks, and set fire to the local colonial courts and other official offices, burning them to the ground.
“Women surrounded local colonial administration centers in Calabar and Oweri and nearby towns in protest.”
It is estimated that over two months, at least 25,000 women participated in the protests. By the end of December, as the protests became more destructive, colonial police were sent in to deal with the women. They fired live rounds into the crowd, killing 50 women and wounding another 50. While the protests did not end colonialism, they did force colonial authorities to withdraw the tax and reduce the power of installed local rulers. Some say that the women’s uprising was the first major challenge to English colonial power in Nigeria and West Africa.
In May 1930, Nnamdi Benjamin Azikiwe published an article about the Nigerian women’s revolt titled “Murdering Women in Nigeria” in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine, The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.In 1930, Azikiwe (later known as “Zik,” but at the time going by “Ben”) was a Nigerian student studying in the U.S. who would work as a columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, Philadelphia Tribute and the Associated Negro Press. He was influenced by Garveyism, inspired by the history of Liberian sovereignty, and was an important figure in mid-twentieth century Pan-Africanism. An editor and publisher who launched the West Africa Pilot and other anti-colonial newspapers, Azikiwe would become the first elected president of independent Nigeria in 1963.
“Murdering Women in Nigeria” documents the protests while providing a forensic analysis of British colonial rule. Azikiwe describes how colonialism functions not only by brute force and systematic violence, but also through the administrative regimes of taxation, the deployment of law and the imposition of legal mechanisms of dispossession, and the use of “education and training in Western economic ideas” as a means toward the pacification of the “natives.” Azikiwe also shows how colonial rule depended on a rogue’s gallery of administrators and agents, including white missionaries and explorers, uneducated English officers and local African interpreters. Yet as the Women’s War demonstrates, colonial rule was met with local resistance: Azikiwe shows us that the “incessant agitation” of those Africans who retained “many of their ideals of personal liberty” provided a consistent challenge to foreign rule.
Murdering Women in Nigeria
by Ben N. Azikiwe
The truth about the extraordinary massacre of Negro women in the British West African Colony of Nigeria is not yet clear, and may never be, despite the fact of at least two “official” investigations. The following article is written by a native of Nigeria, studying in the United States. The Editor has taken the liberty of correcting the author’s manuscript in certain respects and adding certain explanations.
The press reports regarding the shooting of women by the British Government in Opobo, Nigeria, West Africa, censored as they have been, still show a growing resentment of the native population against the colonial autocracy of Great Britain. The shooting of unarmed women in cold blood is certainly a form of barbarism. When a power like Great Britain permits such an exhibition of savagery, it merely demonstrates that talks of World Peace, of the Kellogg Pact and of the League of Nations are platitudes.
The trouble with Nigeria arose over a poll tax, that is, a head tax which it was attempted to place upon women as well as men. The poll tax in Africa is a method of forcing the natives to labor. The combination of confiscating the land and making the native pay $5 or $10 a year as a tax in cash will often reduce a tribe to virtual slavery. This is the case of Kenya. In Nigeria, on the other hand, the natives still retain title to their lands. The dominion of Great Britain over many tribes who for one thousand years have been their own masters and maintained great states is recent and by no means complete. The so-called indirect method of government is in vogue. That is, the British rule through the chiefs, but the chiefs are either appointed by the British, or if they are elected, must be subservient to the District Commissioner or lose their office. Thus, on the iron hand of British power is the velvet glove of a native chieftaincy.
“The poll tax in Africa is a method of forcing the natives to labor.”
When now the Resident of Owerri Province recently ordered a District Officer of Opobo District to collect taxes from the people trading in markets, trouble arose. Most of these traders were women. For decades they had made use of these markets without paying taxes for their stalls—indeed, according to native law and custom, the market place was communal and could be used freely by those who wished. On the other hand, the British needed more revenue and ordered it collected.
Representatives of the British Government in the Nigerian Civil Service are not familiar with the native dialects, and must employ interpreters. Few of these interpreters are educated and their knowledge of English is usually poor. Nevertheless these interpreters stand between the British and the mass of natives. This gives them prestige and power. It enables them to prey on the ignorance of the natives and to act as stool-pigeons and lackeys for the whites. On the other hand, the white cadets and assistant district officers are high school graduates, or appointed from army reserves. Only a few of them are educated men. They have usually not even rudimentary knowledge of political science, law, or social development. Thus, between the higher officials and the mass of the natives stand two vitiating influences – the untrained white officials, and the interpreters.
The natives of Opobo belong to the Ibo Tribe and speak a variation of the Ibo language, called Kwa-Ibo. The original Ibo is spoken in Onitsha, the center of the Ibo country. The Ibo tribes, together with the Hause and the Yoruba people are the largest tribes in Nigeria, and in the delta districts of Southern Nigeria, Ibo has become the lingua Franca. The Ibos themselves are a war-like tribe [sic] dating from the sixteenth century, but after civil war in Benin they migrated and settled on the east side of the river Niger.
“White officials usually do not even rudimentary knowledge of political science, law, or social development.”
Missionaries and explorers invaded Southern Nigeria in the early nineteenth century. Among them were Laird, Lander, Mungo Park, and Barth. There were bloody expeditions and massacres for sixty years. Riots, insurrections, and risings took place until at least in 1900, Colonial Frederick Lugard, now Lord Lugard was victorious and declared the 335, 000 square miles of Nigeria a colonial dependency of Great Britain. In 1914, Southern Nigeria, Northern Nigeria, and Lagos Colony were amalgamated to form the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.
Since 1900 the British have tried to pacify the natives, and many of them are receiving some education and training in Western economic ideas. Nevertheless, they retain many of their ideals of personal liberty, and these, from time to time, have caused open ruptures with Great Britain. There were, for instance, the Ekumeku risings, the Engu rebellion, and the Oil River expedition. While the chiefs retained their power, yet the people of Nigeria had no voice in British Administration until 1923. By the incessant agitation of the leaders of the National Congress of British West Africa, limited franchise was granted to four West African colonies. Under this provision, the Negroes elect a minority of the Legislative Council, and Opobo is represented in the Council by two chiefs and the Honorable F.C. Obianwu. Naturally the natives are not satisfied with this, because the British Official Majority can at any time over-ride the native minority; moreover the chief must be subservient.
“The people of Nigeria had no voice in British Administration until 1923.”
The recent Opobo massacre was due to the poorly qualified political officer of the Civil Service, and the lack of any chance of conference and understanding between the mass of people and the British rulers. In 1925 a similar incident took place in Calabar, twenty-five miles from Opobo. The District Officer ruled there that the women of various tribes must pay poll tax. The chiefs did not understand the ruling and the women, therefore, went to their usual stalls the next day, and were driven out by the police. They held a mass meeting and sent a petition to the white British Resident of Calabar Province. The Resident was away on tour and the assistant refused to receive the petition. He ordered the chiefs to command the women to obey the law and make a complaint afterward. The chiefs objected on the ground that the women had no right of suffrage and were not represented in the Town Council; also, they insisted on the communal ownership of the markets. The District Officers drove them out of his office. The women became enraged, staged a demonstration and attacked the shops of the white merchants. Over 5000 of them marched through the streets of Calabar.
Immediately the District Officer ordered the Commanding Officer of the Calabar Unit of the Nigerian Regiment to quell the riot. The Officer refused to obey him saying his Majesty’s soldiers were not trained to fight against women, and that he was not under the command of the District Officer. Thereupon the District Officer ordered the Commissioner of Police to take action. Three white superintendents of police, and three black Inspectors, with the Police Commissioners, ordered the woman to disperse. The women pelted them with rotten fruit and vegetables. The Police were ordered to fix bayonets and charge; scores were killed and hundreds wounded.
This happened in 1925, but the news was quickly hushed up and in the end women in Calabar were compelled to pay poll tax. If the people of Great Britain had known the circumstances of this riot, the Opobo barbarity might have been prevented.
In Opobo, as we noted in the March Crisis, there was a similar attempt to lay a head tax on women and a similar protest on account of the commonweal character of the markets and because the women did not have a right to suffrage. There are charges and counter-charges as to what occurred. The English say that it was some of the chiefs who illegally tried to lay a tax and keep the proceeds. At any rate there was misunderstanding and in the end, 10,000 natives destroyed $50,000 worth of property, raided the government offices and prisons, and drove out nearly all the whites. Troops were brought in with machine guns and killed twenty-nine women and one man, and wounded eight women.
Ben Azikiwe, “Murdering Women in Nigeria,” The Crisis 37 no. 5 (May, 1930), pages 164 and 178.
Editors, The Black Agenda Review
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