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Remembering the Aba women riot, 90 years after

There’s no well-known record of other peoples of Africa and Asia colonised by the British that achieved such magnitude and scale of colonial resistance solely led by women beyond this!

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Aba women riot archival photo

On Saturday, 23rd November, 1929—exactly 90 years today and another Saturday, 23rd November, 2019—a physical and oral exchange ensued between a middle-aged schoolteacher whose name was Mark Emerụwa and a wife of one Ojim whose name was Nwanyerụwa in Oloko of Ụmụahịa area in today’s Abia State on the grounds of resistance of the British taxation of women in the area.

This exchange would escalate within 24 hours into two major protests by women within the Oloko town and a series of other women protests, violent demonstrations and total anarchy within the whole of Owere Province (what is today’s Imo, Abia, Bayelsa and Rivers States) and Calabar Province (what is today’s Ákwá-Ibom and Cross Rivers States) lasting up to January 10, 1930 — all led and instigated by Igbo, Ibibio, Opobo, Andoni women as well as other women of the former Eastern Nigeria. There’s no well-known record of other peoples of Africa and Asia colonised by the British that achieved such magnitude and scale of colonial resistance solely led by women beyond this!

For all I have studied about the relationship between the Igbo people and the British in the past centuries, it’s clear that both peoples are not quite compatible with each other and so do not always get along, contrary to what’s obtained with other Nigerian ethnic nations such as the Fulani/Hausa and Yoruba.

Also, read The Powerful Concept Of "GODS" And Their Worship In Igbo Land

The British have always been suspicious of the Igbo and the Igbo, in turn, have been suspicious of the British and their motives at any point. The British conquest of Igboland and its closest neighbour, the Ibibio remains one of the most delayed and dragged in British colonial subjugation and experiment in Africa and Asia.

For anyone who understood this anthropological background carefully, the ‘Aba Women Revolt’ is bound to happen and from colonial records, the British colonialists also anticipated it, but never did it occur to them that a colonial resistance would be solely conceived and delivered by women up to the magnitude and duration the Aba Women protests lasted.

The Event Proper

On that fateful Saturday, November 23, 1929, a young colonial officer and a captain called John Cook who was an assistant district officer of Bende Division had earlier tried to take a census of the “women and livestock” along with the adult males of Oloko on October 14, 1929, explaining that it doesn’t change the taxation system.

He was actually testing the waters even though his colonial principals in Owere and Calabar denied that he was acting on their orders. (Cook was indeed cooked as the scapegoat used to dodge the rains of attacks and queries that came from the highest quarters in Lagos and London).

Realising that the women of Oloko had frowned at their being “counted” alongside the males, and will show some more frown if he continued, Cook delegated the risky job of the “counting” to the warrant chief of Oloko called Ọkụgo Ekuma Okezie who was 67 years old at the time having been born in 1862.

A wealthy old fox Warrant Chief Ọkụgo knew he’d be signing his death warrant if he ever goes about Oloko ‘counting’ women and livestock alongside the adult males. Smartly, he delegated the ‘dirty job’ to Mark Emerụwa, a teacher with the Niger Delta Pastorate—after Cook had given him much pressure to do the counting.

In Ojim’s compound, Emerụwa had gone to do the counting when he encountered one of Ojim’s wives called Nwanyerụwa who resisted him with harsh words thus attracting physical and oral exchanges that would be reported at the women meeting that was held that day (Nov 23, 1929).

On Sunday, November 24, 1929, the women mobilised themselves in hundreds protesting and demanding to see Mark Emerụwa in front of his house facing the Niger Delta Pastorate. They “sat on him” (ha nọdo ya) — Igbo expression women used to prevail upon someone and keep him/her under house arrest so his movements and activities are limited.

On Monday, November 25, 1929, it was Ọkụgo’s turn. When they arrived at his house in their numbers, Ọkụgo dispersed them with his retainers but they returned the next day being November 26, 1929 in thousands demanding for his cap of office. Ọkụgo couldn’t drive them away again. By this time, three responsible and powerful women had emerged as the leaders of the women—Ikonnia, Nwannedie and Nwugo. The presence of these three gave discipline, tenacity and order to the protests. In the following days, events followed the timeline below:

A. November 27: John Cook came to the marketplace with policemen to appease the women and explain that the government doesn’t intend to tax. That was Cook saving his own head. The women of Oloko felt assured but insisted that Ọkụgo be handed to them whereupon Cook refused.

B. November 28: The women returned to the court area demanding for Ọkụgo as they presented the injured ones among them while Ọkụgo dispersed them. Cook told them he is going to hand over to a new officer, Hill so and so, won’t be able to try and punish Ọkụgo as they desired.

C. November 29: Cook succumbed to the pressure as he arrested and charged Ọkụgo with assault taking him away to Bende.

D.  November 30 (a week after): John Cook handed over the administration of Bende Division to Hill.

E. December 2: The women gathered in their tens of thousands at the court area of Oloko and Hill found himself overwhelmed trying to control them. The women wanted Ọkụgo to be handed to them or he is tried immediately as they desired. They also compelled Hill to hand them Ọkụgo’s cap which Hill made a huge mistake of throwing to them as they ended up, like packs of wolves, overpowering the police and pouncing on the government offices.

F. December 3: Ọkụgo was tried and found guilty of two offences—spreading false alarm and physically assaulting the women protesters. He was sentenced to two years of imprisonment. The women then dispersed satisfied they have achieved their first two objectives.

Read more: How Christianity Brought Distortion To Igbo Culture And Religious Traditions

Emeruwa would later be tried with Nwanyeruwa by February of 1930 when the inquiries into the protests had been set up by the government.

The Peak

By December 6, 1929, the news of the revolt had filtered into Aba and the women there caught the fires almost immediately, demanding the destruction of native courts and disbanding of the members of the courts.

In Opobo, what happened in Oloko replicated itself with a colonial officer called Cadet Floyer playing another Cook in some census job. Unfortunately, the news of what happened in Oloko had reached Opobo and the women went haywire almost lynching Floyer.

Aba, being a strategic town that feeds into four other major towns (Owere, Ikot-Ekpene, Opobo and Asa) as at 1929, became the hotspot of the revolt, making it earn the title “Aba Women Revolt/Riot” by the panels/committees set up to inquire on it.

The whole of December 1929 was the apogee of the protests by the women. The situation got more dangerous, chaotic and bloody. As it is with such widespread protests, lootings of European firms by some of the women began to happen in retaliation for the economic exploitation they’ve been suffering.

Some women got shot and died in the process while many more sustained injuries. Others were stampeded in the chaos too. From Owere to Calabar provinces, the women burnt to ashes several courts and destroyed government offices in retaliation.

The whole thing seemed to be happening spontaneously such that the British colonial intelligence remained confused and clueless as to the mechanism that aided the spontaneity and solidarity of the women to the cause from one large province to another.

In Abak Division of today’s Akwa-Ibom State, the women gathered in thousands almost lynching the warrant chief Akpan Umo. Umo later got the treatment of Ọkụgo of Oloko as he was charged as the women demanded.

Perhaps, the bloodiest of the protests was at Opobo where about 26 women were recorded to have died instantly from live gunshots and 31 women wounded. Also, one man (Alimi Aromeashodu) died from a stray bullet in the process too.

The police and soldiers had opened fire on the unarmed Opobo women claiming in the court statements later on that the women were closing up on them and resisting all entreaties to go back. The inset pictures I have attached contain the autopsy report conducted on 19 of the corpses (1 adult male & 18 adult females) by one Dr Edward James Crawford. The 18 Opobo women, as can be seen together with their autopsies, are:

1. Mary Nzekwe

2. Adiaha Okonya

3. Rebecca Thompson

4. Mary Okoronkwo Jaja

5. Oruba

6. Eka

7. Adiaha Ogbahaku

8. Rhoda Bonny Jaja

9. Adiaha Iden

10. Regina Cookey

11. Euiptia

12. Legge Jaja

13. Oboni Jaja

14. Ariwa Mie

15. Nwa Nwa Waribo

16. Addah Igbi Kilibiama

17. Sui Dappa

18. Danuna

I have also attached a page picture of the court statement by one of the police officers who, together with the district officers (Hill and Whitman), opened fire on the unarmed women at Opobo on December 16, 1929.

Outcome, Benefits, Enduring Legacies:

Meanwhile, by January 2, 1930, the central government of Graeme Thomson had already marked Owere and Calabar provinces as “disaffected areas” and went ahead to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the women’s shockingly organised protests.

But the authorities in London were far from being satisfied with the inquiry. A month after, having been pressured heavily by the Colonial Office and the Parliament in London to give clearer explanations on the protests by the women, the government of Graeme Thomson quickly set up a second commission of inquiry to dig deeper into the reasons of the protests and submit every detail.

The two provinces (Owere and Calabar) were also punished with fines on the damages done to government properties under the Peace Preservation Ordinance and Collective Punishment Ordinance. Not long after, the Colonial Office relieved Graeme of his portfolio and replaced him with Donald Cameron who was considered more experienced in handling such a society as that of Igbo and Ibibio, following his records of service in Tanganyika (today’s Tanzania).

Cameron, upon assuming office in 1931, immediately commissioned the entire colonial officers in the East to gather all the information they can on the Igbo, Ibibio and their neighbours. This charge would give birth to what is now known as “Intelligence Reports” on almost all the communities in the East.

The reports were totalled to 144. Cameron also deluged the Igbo with anthropological studies on their entire life and ways, which saw to the emergence of such notable anthropologists as Charles K Meek, Margery Perham, M D W Jeffreys, Sylvia Leith-Ross, among others.

A check of the works of these anthropologists shows their publications were all done between 1933 and 1940. Their works, earlier reports of S. Grier and others, and the intelligence reports by the colonial officers would eventually necessitate big reforms of the colonial administrative structures in the East including warrant chieftaincy.

Most of the corrupt warrant chiefs who came to power by imposition and bribery earlier than 1929 were disgraced and ousted at this time (the 1930s). Preference was given to natural leaders and those elected by Ụmụnna or the community clans.

On the other hand, the women's war/protests laid the foundation for other protests and mass colonial resistance that would happen within the East and even other parts of Nigeria. It is important to note that the Aba women's protests or “war” (as Prof. Adiele Afigbo insists) was a very big — even one of the biggest — demonstration of civil disobedience recorded in the world in the first quarter of the 20th century.

And until one investigates and researches it, one would always think it to be just a mere “riot” or some “revolt” as the colonialists themselves have struggled to diminish it (“Aba Women's Revolt/Aba Women's Riot”).

There should be indeed—like some others have insisted—such monuments as Nwanyerụwa Road/Street, Ikonnia Way/Avenue, Nwannedie Close, Nwugo Roundabout/Park or other strategic monuments in these women's names.

Sadly, I haven't heard of any in the Aba town itself let alone elsewhere in Igboland, which is an indication that many Igbo and Ibibio haven't quite understood or appreciated what our great grandmothers/grandmothers achieved for us paying with their lives and blood.

It's disheartening we have joined the colonialists to demean this sacrifice offered with nothing but sheer bravery at a time when men had tried out fighting the colonial invaders.

May the ebullient and towering spirits of these great Opobo, Igbo, and Ibibio Women continue to live within us and sire greater species of Igbo and Ibibio persons than us.

Chijioke Ngobili is a social and political commentator with a special bias for Igbo-related histories and narratives. He is on Facebook as Chi Ngo. You can also click here to read the full version of this article. 

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