The role of women in wading off colonialism in Africa is often overlooked. This however does not mean that women did not partake in the struggle against colonialism in Africa. Patriarchal biases and male chauvinism are the two most potent causes of why the role of women in the colonial struggles is often down casted or under emphasized.
Prominent female figures such as Winnie Madikizela Mandela of South Africa and Mbuya Nehanda in Zimbabwesignificantly contributed to the struggle through pioneering Umkhonto We Swize and spiritual advice respectively. In West Africa, Nigeria in particular, the role of women in resisting colonialism cannot be gained. Let us look into how the famous Igbo women contributed to the struggle for independence in Nigeria.
Igbo women’s participation in the struggle against British colonial oppression is widely known in African history as the Aba Women's Protest. This referred to a period of incessant unrest in colonial Nigeria over November 1929. The protests broke out when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria travelled to the town of Oloko to protest against the Warrant Chiefs, whom they accused of restricting the role of women in the government. The protest encompassed women from six ethnic groups being the Igbo, Ibibio, Andoni, Ogoni, Efik, and Ijaw.
In these protests that stretched from November to December, tens of thousands of African women in South-Eastern Nigeria danced, sang, and marched in protest against an enforced and exploitative British colonial policy of taxation, and against patriarchal legal structures. The women’s weapons were not guns or cannons, but bricks, stones, their own voices and bodies. In a response well practiced by the British in their colonies, the soldiers were ordered to fire at the women, and approximately 70 women were killed.
Many more died from their injuries. The protests continued into early 1930, when a Commission of Inquiry attempted to resolve the women’s grievances with legal reforms, which ultimately brought little change in South-Eastern Nigeria. While some historians have attempted to argue that the women’s war was not driven by nationalism, this was not the case. The actions of the Igbo women and their determination can only be explained under the banner of nationalism and a quest for sovereignty. During these protests, women directly attacked buildings and institutions directly related to colonial rule, and argued for the removal of colonial forms of governance.
The Igbo women had a deep understanding of the colonial undertones that characterised the colonial institutions that they protested against. An account of the Women’s war has it that the protests were ignited in October 1929 when a local Igbo woman, Nwanyeruwa was involved in a heated wrangle with a colonial official. It is narrated that Nwanyeruwa was approached by a census taker. He demanded that she count her animals and her family members. She responded by saying angrily, “Was your mother counted?” Nwanyeruwa was referring to the fact that women were not required to answer census questions, and were not taxed.
She left, and went to retell her story to the women’s network in her city of Oloko. Shocked and angered, the three women leaders of this network—Ikonnia, Mwannedia and Nwugo—decided to organize a campaign to ensure that they would not be taxed. They started off by sending out palm leaves to neighbouring villages in their district. The palm leaves were a symbol of invitation among women, telling them to come to a protest that was being organized at the district’s administration office in Oloko.
Each woman who received a palm leaf was told to pass the leaf on with its message to another woman, forming a chain mail line of communication. In early November, the hugely successful protest took place. Over 10,000 women congregated outside the district administration office, and demanded that the Warrant Chief of Oloko give them a written assurance that they would not be taxed.The women sat outside the district office for several days, when, finally, the British offices above the Warrant Chief ordered him to give the women a written assurance that they were not to be taxed.
The massive congregation of women outside the district office had taken the officers by surprise, and they were not sure how to handle the vigilant women. The Warrant Chief, however, disliked having to respond to the women’s demands. After handing over the written assurance, he re-asserted his power by taking several women protesters hostage and harassing them. News of the harassment spread, and the protest swelled.
The campaigners decided to continue their protest outside the district office, now demanding that the Warrant Chief be removed. After two days, the British again acquiesced. Not only was the Warrant Chief removed, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment. The women could barely believe their success. After years of being ignored, the British had been forced to listen to their demands. News of both the written tax assurance and the removal of the Warrant Chief spread and soon, women all across Igboland were organizing to make the same demands.
The protest had grown from one women’s network in Oloko demanding to not be taxed, to a protest that spanned across two provinces and over six thousand square miles. The goal had also grown: now, not only did women want written guarantees that they were not to be taxed, they wanted corrupt Warrant Chiefs to be removed. The persistent demands irked the ire of the British officials who felt that the women were now over demanding. They felt that the protests could blow out of proportion. They considered the women unruly and not law-abiding.
By mid-December, police officers and troops were called in to deal with the situation. Although the women had been steadfastly nonviolent, police were ordered to shoot into crowds. Through the use of force and compulsion, the campaign was forced to end. The victories however remained and the impact of the protests were long-term. Realising the potential that women proved to have in determining the politics of the day, the colonial government re-visited the policy of Warrant Chiefs.
In 1933 a new political system was put in place. Under the new system, Warrant Chiefs were replaced by ‘massed benches’, with several judges convening to make decisions. Not only could villages choose how many judges they wanted on their ‘bench’, they were responsible for making the judge selection. The victory of the women paved the way for such defining protests such as the Tax Protests of 1938, Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s, and the Tax revolt 1956.
Munashe O'brian Gutu
A pan-African son of the soil with a vision to impart and unravel the rich African history. Penning Afro-centric perspectives to de-mystify long-standing propagandist biases. Africa rise!
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