By Emily Jette
In 1929, Eastern Nigeria was indirectly ruled by the British through warrant chiefs. Warrant chiefs were appointed to follow the rules of the British and administer colonial laws to the local people. After reviewing administrative records, British Captain, John Cook, instructed local warrant chiefs to re-do their counts for taxes starting mid-October of 1929 (Matera,135). On November 18, 1929, Mark Emeruwa, messenger of warrant Chief Okugo, entered the compound in Oloko village where an elderly woman named Nwanyeruwa was extracting palm oil. When Emeruwa insisted on counting the wives and livestock in the compound, Nwanyeruwa resisted the request and word spread through the grassroots of the British potentially wanting to tax not only the men but now the women. Nwanyeruwa led local women in non-violent protests against the taxation of women in Igbo land.
The Women’s War is an important piece of history because it connects to the broader theme of clashing cultures of gender in African history. When the British came into Igbo land and enforced indirect rule, their beliefs did not match those of the Igbo people. In Western cultures, a woman’s place was in the home and a man’s place was in the public. Igbo land’s beliefs of gender roles were the opposite in which a man’s place was in the home and the woman’s place was in the public, specifically in the market place. Women governed the economic health of the communities and were anxious to keep regulation of the trade in their hands yet the British administration began introducing new quality control inspections and different buying standard. Many women suffered economically due to inflation which caused a sharp decline in the price of palm oil (Sutherland-Addy,169-170). During this time, men had a difficult time finding jobs in order to not only support their families but also pay the taxes enforced through the warrant chiefs. By taxing both men and women, Igbo compound would not be able to support themselves which caused a stir in the grassroots of women’s gossip to stand up against the British.
A clash in political beliefs also connects to the Women’s War. Before colonial rule, Nigeria had village councils, not a central chief. Their form of government was decentralized and not dominated by only men; women were able to hold power through titles. British administrators were successful by working through local African officials in Northern Nigeria but in Southern Nigeria, they struggled. The British knew they couldn’t work through the Igbo political leader so they recreated a hierarchical system like the one in Britain. The hierarchical system clearly stated the lines of authority. Through the act of taking control over the marketplace, women were stripped of their titles. Nwanyeruwa’s voice to the women in the marketplace positioned her to hold the title as a leader. What was once taken away from women, now became possible again.
British administration failed to understand and appreciate the importance of women’s role in Igbo society “…based on both kinship and trade, and the ability of these groups to communicate with one another in both concerted and independent action” (Sutherland-Addy, 170). The Western ideal of the submissive house wife caused administrators to undermine women’s authority and strength in the grassroots of Africa. When Nwanyeruwa stood up to messenger Mark Emeruwa, she started a movement in which local women joined together to face the inequality being served by the British through warrant chiefs. Gender is an important piece of Nwanyeruwa’s biography because as political leaders, challengers of male authority and controllers of public life, women played important role in the African society; especially when the uprising, led by Nwanyeruwa, was named the “Women’s War”.
On March 12, 1930, Nwanyeruwa testified against warrant Chief Okugo before the Aba Commission of Inquiry. Before the Commission, she answered to the question “Will you tell us what you know about these occurrences at Oloko?” (Sutherland-Addy, 171). It was important to Nwanyeruwa that the women led a non-violent protest due to the British administrator’s skewed vision of Igbo women. Nwanyeruwa took the initiative to confront Mark Emeruwa in which word of her confidence spread throughout the grassroots of Igbo land. Women joined her in the fight against inequality. Recalling on her words to Emeruwa, Nwanyeruwa told the Aba Commission what she said to him,
“You came and said women to pay tax. We told you that men had already been taxed and that the amount paid by them as so large that it was unnecessary for women to pay tax. Men had to provide for our food and clothes. We had no money to pay tax. We sang and danced, saying that Okugo became a rich man because of the money he got from us. If he had not got money from us, he would not have been able to provide for himself…I told him that I was once a rich woman, but that as he had been taking money away from me I had now no money to pay tax.” (Sutherland-Addy, 173).
Before British administrators invaded the Igbo land, women were able to hold titles in their decentralized government. Since then, those titles had been stripped away by the administrators and redistributed to male warrant chiefs. Nwanyeruwa and her fellow females were adamant about testifying against Chief Okugo so his red hat, signifying his status as warrant chief, would be taken away. While testifying, one statement Nwanyeruwa made about Chief Okugo was “Okugo had made it a rule, if two persons had a dispute, one should not spit on or make any row with the other. He also made a rule that personal should not fight one another in town. Another rule he made was that no one should use a machete for fighting another. But he has contravened all these rules he made. He has done the very things he made rules against” (Sutherland-Addy,174). It was a powerful move to call out the mistakes the warrant chief had made because women were stripped of their voices in the government. The new voice of women emerged from Nwanyeruwa; a voice that was once heard and listened to but lost in the development of westernized central government.
In African history, women challenged male authority by “sitting” on them. The technique of “sitting on a man” involved “…women congregating in front of his compound, dressed in war apparel and carrying the pestles and palm fronds that symbolize women’s power and discontent, to bare their breasts as a ritual signal of war and to sings sometimes scurrilous songs making clear exactly the offense that the man needs to redress. Thus the choice of dress, the use of body language, and song all dew attention to their role and status as women, in particular as women acting in protection of the “good of the land”” (Sutherland-Addy, 170). Nwanyeruwa and the women went to Emeruwa’s compound, eventually driving him out while drawing in larger crowds. After, the large group of women “sat on” Okugo’s compound and were physically attacked (Matera, 137). It is important to note that the women were not taking violent action against Emeruwa or Okugo. The intention of “sitting on” them was to stand up against the injustice of being taxed as woman. The resistance had a feminist nature which put women’s agency and power on display.
The market place in Igbo culture was the center of public life. Women played a large role in the economic income for their communities. Women controlled the trade in food, cloth, and local crafts which presented the opportunity for women to travel. By traveling, women became great communicators with other traders, African and non-African. After catching word of the possible taxation of women, “…women held village meetings…Leaders of the women in Oloko called a general meeting of women at the Orie market” (Matera, 136). Nwanyeruwa’s role as a market woman helped her spread the word about Chief Okugo’s words. Nwanyeruwa called out to the women in the market, recounting how Emeruwa had tried to count women and saying that Okugo had personally threatened her for resisting the count and told her that women were to be taxed. “The women’s paid mobilization was possible because of their strong societal organizations and effective communication networks based on concentration in the markets and dispersal along the trade routes” (Hanna, 27). The societal role given to women promoted the awareness of women empowerment. A man’s place stayed within the compound, meaning that if men were to rise up against any injustice, they would most likely not attract many outside help. Nwanyeruwa strategically used her role as a societal and economic influence to obtain recognition and aid.
British administration underestimated the amount of frustration and despair underlying the Women’s War of 1929. Unlike those who kept quiet, Nwanyeruwa, represented Igbo women’s roles as political leaders, challengers of male authority and most importantly, market women. Her biography is an important piece of history because it acted as the starting point for the Women’s War. The Women’s War of 1929 is a piece of African history not heard often in the day-to-day classroom. Yet, this event coincides during a time where women in American history were fighting for their rights and equality. Unlike American history, the Women’s War ended in violent riots called the Aba Riots. What was started as a non-violent protest led by Nwanyeruwa by “sitting on a man” was seen as a terrifying mob that needed to by violently suppressed. Despite the destruction of women’s liberty and physical suppression, Igbo women represented themselves as the leaders they once were and fought to take their rights back, a common theme seen in many cultures globally.
Hanna, Judith Lynee. “Dance and the “Women’s War””. Dance Research Journal. 14. ½(1981): 25-28. Web.
Matera, Marc, Misty L. Bastian, and Susan Kingsley Kent. “”Was Your Mother Counted? ” The Start of the Ogu.” The Women’s War of 1929: Gender and Violence in Colonial Nigeria. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian, 2011. 135-39. Print.
Sutherland-Addy, Esi, and Aminata Diaw. “The Aba Women’s War.” Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel. New York: Feminist at the City U of New York, 2005. 169- 74. Print.