Before the anti-colonization movements of the 1950s, which are often associated with the men of the independence movements, there were many powerful acts of resistance against colonial powers not led by men, or even women of political inclination. But, by everyday women.
The Women’s War, or Aba Women’s Riots, was an insurrection in British Nigeria in November 1929 that is cited by scholars as having “torched off the most serious challenge to British rule in the history of the colony”.
The “riots” or the war was led by women in southeastern Nigeria, specifically, the provinces of Calabar and Owerri. Thousands of Igbo women organized a massive revolt against the policies imposed by British colonial administrators.
The riots evolved from events in early January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. In this new system, British administrators would rule locally through “warrant chiefs,” or individuals appointed by the governor, as opposed to Igbo chiefs who were traditionally elected.
Within a few years, the appointed warrant chiefs became increasingly oppressive, seizing property, imposing draconian local regulations, and imprisoning anyone who openly criticized them. Although people were angry with the warrant chiefs, they knew the source of their power, the colonial administration, and they were grieved.
Things finally came to a head when colonial administrators announced plans to impose special taxes on the Igbo market women. The market women, responsible for supplying the food to the growing urban populations in Calabar, Owerri, and other Nigerian cities, feared the taxes would drive them out of business and disrupt the supply of food and non-perishable goods available in the market.
In November of 1929, thousands of Igbo women gathered at the Native Administration centers in Calabar, Owerri, and other smaller towns to protest the warrant chief and the taxes on market women. They used the traditional method called, “sitting on a man” or “making war on a man” , where they publicly shamed men through all night song and dance ridicule, detailing grievances with his behavior, beating on the walls of his home with yam pestles, and occasionally, tearing the roof from his home. This forced some warrant chiefs to resign.
The women also attacked Native Courts run by colonial officials, burning many of them to the ground. They attacked European owned stores, including Barclays Bank, and broke into prisons and released prisoners as well.
Colonial police and troops were called in, and when they arrived, they fired into the crowds that had gathered at Calabar and Owerri, killing more than 50 women and wounding over 50 others.
Scholars note that this was “a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest”. At least 25,000 Igbo women were known to have been involved in the protests.
The Aba Women’s War prompted colonial authorities to drop the tax on the market women, and curb the power of the warrant chiefs.