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date: 22 September 2018

The Women’s War of 1929

Summary and Keywords

The Women’s War of 1929, known among Igbo women as Ogu Umunwanyi, occurred from November 23 to January 10, 1930. It was a resistance movement whereby women in the Eastern Provinces of the British colony of Nigeria intended to reverse colonial policies that intruded on their political, economic, and social participation in local communities. Women participants included predominantly Igbo and Ibibio women; however, Ogoni and Andoni women, among others, participated. Whereas the British system of indirect rule on paper intended to institute political control with minimal intrusion on African societies, colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria significantly contributed to redefining women’s position in society, which meant colonialism’s political changes led to a range of consequences for women’s work and daily lives that extended well beyond politics. In addition, the British colonial government imposed an almost completely alien political system of autocratic warrant chiefs on societies that in the past practiced a political system with diffused political authority shared across several positions, organizations, and gender.

Shortly after World War I, the British colonial army in eastern Nigeria defeated the last major resistance to colonial rule, the Ekumeku rebellion. In the ensuing decade, resistance to colonial rule continued, but Africans altered their tactics and women featured prominently in anticolonial resistance when cultural changes tended to disadvantage women. The Women’s War of 1929 marked an apex in women’s resistance in Eastern Nigeria to colonial rule. The War began in the rural town of Oloko when Igbo women suspected the colonial government intended to use warrant chiefs and the native court system to implement a new tax on women, which they believed the colonial government planned to add to an existing tax on African men. From the initial outbreak of resistance in Oloko, the women’s resistance extended across eastern Nigeria as women joined the movement and demanded either significant changes in or the removal of the colonial government. Thousands of women participated in the resistance and they employed a variety of tactics, which included removing the cap of office from warrant chiefs, looting factories, burning down native court buildings, blocking train tracks, cutting telegraph wires, releasing prisoners from colonial jails, and destroying or confiscating colonial property. The British colonial government resorted to lethal force and in the process colonial soldiers shot women at Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Opobo. The most significant loss of life occurred at Opobo and it marked the end of the Women’s War except for a few minor instances of resistance.

The tactics and scope of the Women’s War confounded colonial authorities because, even though they extensively assured women they would not be taxed, participation in the resistance increased and spread across the region. Eventually, the Women’s War caused the British to abandon the warrant chief system and establish village councils; however, generally women were excluded from political participation. More importantly, the Women’s War of 1929 marks the beginning of a transition in eastern Nigeria from predominantly localized ethnic-based opposition to British imperialism to resistance movements that transcended ethnicity and class.

Keywords: Women’s War, Ogu Umunwanyi, British colonialism, anticolonial resistance, Igbo, Ibibio, warrant chiefs, indirect rule

The Women’s War of 1929 marked an important milestone in the development of resistance to British imperialism in the eastern Provinces of colonial Nigeria.1 The resistance movement included women from several ethnic groups and women organized the movement across class lines by using their financial resources, lineage connections, and trading relationships.2 Whereas taxation provided the initial impetus for women’s resistance in 1929, a myriad of political, social, and economic consequences related to colonialism that limited women’s participation contributed to the reasons for their revolt and those consequences reflected the goals they intended to achieve with the resistance movement.

Women and Colonial Governance

British conquest in Eastern Nigeria began prior to World War I; however, British control in the region was uneven and incomplete. With the conclusion of World War I and the subsequent defeat of the Ekumeku resistance, British administrators accepted Lord Lugard’s concepts of indirect rule and enforced a political system, the Warrant Chiefs system, which favored British interests.3 British colonial policy depended on a set of assumptions and relied on expedient decision making. British administrators, in general, assumed ethnic groups in the region, primarily the Igbo and Ibibio, in the past lived in “tribes” and were organized with a single patriarchal leader whom they labeled a chief. In addition to assumptions regarding the political organizations of ethnic groups in the region, British colonial officials applied their image of a civilized society to local African groups, which meant issues related to public activities belonged only to male participants whereas women were confined to the private sphere.

British colonial officials selected warrant chiefs and native court officials based on several criteria, but ultimately most men assigned to positions of power were not the selected leaders of their communities.4 The District Officer of Owerri wrote, “They obtained their position generally because they were useful to government in the early days.”5 In fact many were community outsiders and assisted British officials during conquest in hopes of increased status.6 The Warrant Chiefs were one of the most hated institutions in the early colonial period because the British used the chiefs and native courts to maintain economic privileges, to build railroads, roads, and government buildings with forced labor, and to implement a general tax.7 British colonial strategies privileged securing and protecting British political and economic interests. British merchants and officials hoped an improved infrastructure would cut out middlemen traders and they could acquire raw materials, such as palm oil, at cheaper prices.8 What the British failed to recognize was the extent to which women traded in palm oil produce and the consequences British economic interests had on women’s livelihood.

Whereas men and women in Eastern Nigeria participated in daily life through a variety of social organizations and cultural mechanisms, the division of gendered participation in those societies tended to follow an overlapping formal and informal process of checks and balances best described as a dual-sex system rather than the semi-rigid public and private division of society the British enforced.9 Between and among ethnic groups in Eastern Nigeria a wide range of different political structures existed upon which the British placed a single political system that either created a completely new political structure or altered the previous government in significant ways. The British political system altered the dual-sex system which meant men and women found new sets of restrictions and responsibilities in terms of their relationship with the British colonial government; however, considering the patriarchal emphasis of British governance, women lost significant economic, political, and social rights and freedoms during the Warrant Chief period of indirect rule.

Depending on the local political system, women possessed a variety of ways to influence political decisions either through direct participation or through indirect protest and soliciting male authority. For Igbo communities, whether constitutional village monarchies or democratic village republics, the dual-sex system afforded women control over their affairs whether economic activity or political participation.10 Colonial rule enforced laws that increased women’s difficulty in retaining their economic and political authority and it directly undermined indigenous methods of social influence by dismantling the religious beliefs of ethnic groups and replacing the religious system with Christianity.11 Women’s access to political and economic authority via the dual-sex system was protected through female spiritual authority represented in masked spirits such as Abere, which adjudicated market and trade issues, and also lineage organizations.12 Prior to colonial rule, Igbo women gained status through their participation in female networks such as the otu umuada (daughters society), otu inyomdi (wives society), and ogbo (age grade) society title society, as well as their positions as priestesses and diviners, and their connection with deities. The colonial administration and supporters of the colonial government pursued patriarchal policies closely connected to Christian beliefs that sought to turn what were previously routes to power and influence to practices associated with lack of civilization and positions of derision.

Women’s participation in local markets provided an important avenue for wealth and status. Women controlled and operated the local markets and women rotated goods for sale on specific market days. In addition to controlling market activities, women were important cultivators of crops and even crops designated under male authority, such as yam; women cultivated and benefited from selling the crops.13 Women’s central position in local markets and their economic activity in palm oil produce meant, prior to colonial rule and immediately after the imposition of British conquest, that women benefited from the new economic conditions.14 Women’s livelihood, owing to the trade goods in demand for British industry, became connected to global economic conditions. With the downturn in the global economy in the mid- and late 1920s, the price British merchants paid for palm oil produce dropped dramatically, particularly in comparison to the imported goods women sought to purchase with British currency.15 The economic downturn occurred at the same time the British colonial government changed their strategy of governance by replacing forced labor with taxation, which they depended on warrant chiefs to implement.

Whereas the British depended on coerced and unpaid forced labor to build their colonial infrastructure, once the basic network for roads and railways was completed the colonial government employed low-level administrators either from local communities or assigned from other regions. Usually British district officers assigned local warrant chiefs the task of collecting taxes. The colonial government implemented a tax system in 1928 in the eastern provinces as part of an effort to unite the three provinces in the region into a single Nigerian colony with a coherent administrative system.16 Colonial officials in the next year followed up with a more aggressive process of assessing livestock, people, buildings, and goods to acquire a comprehensive tally of people’s wealth. The recounting process eventually fueled rumors among women in the region that the colonial government intended to tax women as well as men. This contributed to women’s concerns because women were already contributing to the men’s tax, either their sons’ taxes or their husbands if they were unable to raise the full amount. Women testified at the commission of inquiry that “Tax paid by men already affects us also” and “the tax paid by men affects women, because if a woman has a son and her son cannot afford to pay his tax she has to pay it for him.”17

Origins of Women’s Resistance

Women resisted aspects of colonial rule before and after the Women’s War; however, in many ways the War was the culmination of women’s resistance in eastern Nigeria and after 1930, whereas women still participated in resistance to colonial rule, their tactics changed. Women’s opposition to colonial rule in 1929 occupies an important transitional period in eastern Nigeria’s history because the resistance relied on preconquest cultural gendered identities and methods of resistance to male intrusion into areas of women’s authority, but it also implied new objectives which responded to fundamental changes in gender divisions, women’s positions in society, and how they interacted with men within their communities as well as the colonial government. Briefly noting the evolution of women’s resistance in the early 1900s demonstrates how women’s initial efforts tended to focus on local community issues, but by 1929 their efforts were increasingly directed toward the colonial administration, owing to a common experience of oppression.

Women in Igbo society employed a variety of tactics to limit male intrusion into areas under women’s authority prior to colonial rule and women tended to use collective action when choices made by men in their communities threatened women’s interests. Women’s resistance tactics included methods employed by average women for opposing individual men or groups of men whereas women in positions of religious authority had specific methods of political action. Two of Igbo women’s tactics were “sit ins” and “sitting on a man,” where the latter was generally a tactic of last resort. Igbo women sat in or slept at the compound of a man who offended women, which generally meant a man or group of men violated cultural rules that protected women’s rights. The tactic included singing songs that questioned the manhood of the offender to emphasize the gravity of the offense. In “sitting on a man,” women, as a last resort, used nudity to protest offensive actions made by male members of the community.18 In both of those instances women usually directed their actions against a single male offender and they intended to attack the man’s status by publicly humiliating him. Women employed boycotts when men in the community as a group made decisions women opposed. The most significant boycott occurred when women returned to their natal homes and left the men to care for the children and tend to household tasks.19 Priestesses, medicine women, and women who worked at the shrines of deities possessed other forms of protest based on their religious authority.20 Women with spiritual authority tended to focus on interpretations of cultural, political, or social changes they found detrimental to society. They organized the community to oppose particular issues including the growth of Christianity’s influence.

Prior to 1929 interactions between women and the colonial government and their communities depended on particular issues and whether the resistance was rural or urban in origin. In 1924 the colonial administration at Calabar city passed a market ordinance that taxed anyone trading in the local markets. In 1925 women in Calabar opposed the tax by boycotting European firms and damaging some European property. The resistance in Calabar city was a direct response to the colonial administration’s interference with women’s rights to trade and their authority over the markets. The way women reacted to the colonial administration’s policy in 1925 resembles how women opposed the British in the towns of Aba, Umuahia, and Opobo during 1929. The Dancing Women’s Movement of 1925, locally referred to as Nwaobiala, was also an urban resistance movement centered in Owerri focused on opposing economic and social changes connected to British influence.21 In contrast the Spirit Movement in 1927, largely an Ibibio movement, focused on cleansing the community and was a hybrid of indigenous beliefs and Christianity. The movement’s primary objective emphasized women’s reproduction. The concept of the health of the land was connected to beliefs in women’s reproductive ability and women believed the colonial administration’s control of the land interfered with women’s health and reproduction.22 One woman specifically testified at the end of the Women’s War, “Our grievances are that the land has changed—we are all dying.”23 In both the Spirit Movement of 1927 and the Women’s War of 1929, women believed the colonial government’s violation of the local belief system, religion, and culture caused a variety of women’s hardships including disease as well as economic problems.

Women’s opposition to British interference in their society shares characteristics throughout the 1920s; however, the Women’s War marked an important change in the scope of women’s resistance. Whereas rural opposition to British policies tended to resemble Igbo women’s “sit in” resistance tactics, urban opposition to colonial authority employed tactics different from women’s precolonial strategies for dealing with male intrusion into women’s interests. Most of the resistance movements prior to 1929 originated in cities and remained local, but the Women’s War began in a smaller rural town and the resistance spread beyond rural communities while intercommunity participation led to new resistance tactics.24

Disputes between specific towns and the colonial administration contributed to the Women’s War of 1929. British colonial administrators from 1927 to 1929 blundered on several occasions when interacting with communities in the Eastern region of Nigeria, which led to a climate where “the relationship between the colonial administration and the people was pervaded by mutual distrust and suspicion.”25 Fear of protest against taxation from the start led colonial officials to disguise and misrepresent their intentions. In particular, an ongoing dispute emerged in Opobo after 1928 related to the amount of tax and the methods used to assess it.26 Even after the first year of taxation, which met with small-scale and sporadic resistance, the colonial government embarked on recounting already assessed towns to intentionally arrive at a more accurate list of persons and property. The thorough recounting of towns directly interfered with women because tax collectors counted women’s property when they entered family compounds. Colonial officials failed to understand the difference between men’s and women’s property and the cultural rules that prohibited counting people and livestock. Whereas taxation provided the important trigger event for women’s resistance, it was “a protest as much against the imposition of taxes at a time of economic hardship as against the system of local administration.”27

Resistance in Oloko and Ukam

Rumors that the British colonial government intended to increase taxes in 1929 and possibly tax women as well as men circulated throughout Igbo and Ibibio territory in October and November. Apparently, women expressed concerns about taxation once colonial employees tasked with reassessment recounted buildings and property. Colonial officials and some women’s testimonies provide evidence that women in the Oloko area met prior to reassessment and determined to resist if they received evidence suggesting that the colonial government planned to tax them. The warrant chief of Oloko, Okugo, after threats from the district officer, assigned a local mission teacher, Mark Emeruwa, to count people and property in Oloko beginning on November 23, which he appeared to undertake with some ambition as he intended to thoroughly record men, wives, children, goats, and sheep.28 When Mark Emeruwa attempted to count Nwanyeruwa, an Oloko woman, a physical altercation ensued between them; however, there are conflicting accounts of the confrontation. According to Nwanyeruwa, she was attacked and choked by Mark Emeruwa, but he claimed she dumped palm oil on him. In either case, Nwanyeruwa reported the incident to leading women in the community who allegedly had already agreed to oppose any tax assessment that involved counting women or their property.

Following Nwanyeruwa’s report, women quickly organized action to prevent any further counting. Women specifically targeted local men they considered responsible for counting women. They first proceeded as a group to the mission station where Mark Emeruwa was employed and organized a “sit in” according to local custom, which included singing and dancing. Once he told the women he followed orders given to him by Warrant Chief Okugo, the women left and organized a “sit in” at Okugo’s compound and demanded an explanation for why they intended to tax women. Okugo inappropriately handled the situation by ordering men to use force to remove the women from his compound, which resulted in physical injuries to some women. Okugo found himself trapped between increasing pressures from the district officer to reassess the taxes and the community’s resistance to taxation. Perhaps unjustly and as a way to attempt to appease women’s concerns, when Captain Hill arrived, he arrested Okugo on December 3 at the request of thousands of women gathered at the government office in Bende and Okugo was eventually convicted and imprisoned; however, after the Women’s War ended the colonial administration released him.

The arrest and conviction of Okugo marked an important turning point in the Women’s War. What began as a local resistance to a specific set of events, two Igbo men in particular, became widespread opposition to the colonial system. Colonial officials deeply regretted Captain Hill’s method of handling the situation, particularly his willingness to leave Okugo’s Warrant Chief Cap with the women, which they considered a resounding victory.29 The successful removal of Okugo apparently emboldened women to further protest the colonial system throughout the region. Even though women claimed to protest taxation, after many assurances from colonial officials and even a telegram from Oloko women, the resistance continued and specifically targeted warrant chiefs, native courts, and colonial officials.30 The arrival of up to 10,000 women in Bende, according to Captain Hill, demonstrated the rapid manner in which women arrived to support Oloko women.31

Ukam, on December 4th, was the first Ibibio town to participate in the revolt against the colonial administration, only a few days after the arrest of Okugo. When Mr. Floyer, the official tasked with reassessment, proceeded to count in Ukam he received complaints from the warrant chiefs and court members. On the same day he met with leaders in Ukam, he reassessed Ikot Obio Itong, a town near Ukam. Before he concluded the assessment, women followed him and ridiculed him and shortly thereafter young men also joined the women. Mr. Floyer concluded the assessment and left; however, a group of men met him on the main road where they confiscated his helmet and tax book by force and chased him away.32 Colonial officials held a meeting with all of the warrant chiefs to appease people’s concerns; however, regardless of what colonial officials thought was a satisfactory meeting, people in Ukam attacked colonial buildings including the jail, where they released the prisoners. At this point, the resistance in Ukam broke out in full force as men and women sought to remove all aspects of the colonial administration. In order to maintain control, the colonial government transferred additional troops from Opobo and Aba to suppress the Ukam revolt. After a few more days, the revolt ended and the colonial administration regained control with little conflict except for the destruction of colonial property.

Whereas establishing hard evidence that the people in Ukam revolted owing to events at Oloko is difficult to prove, the timing of events and the widespread support of Oloko women suggests people in Ukam were aware of the women’s success and Okugo’s arrest.33 Ibibio scholars often include Ukam as part of the Women’s War even though the colonial government’s assessment after the commission of inquiry concluded that the revolt at Ukam was an unrelated event.34 The revolt in Ukam employed tactics similar to Oloko but there were also important differences because men in the town participated in the revolt along with women and the tactics were not limited to “sit in” and “sitting on a man” practices. At Oloko women used their culturally accepted methods for resisting the intrusion of male authority into women’s sphere of authority and once the aberrant behavior was corrected, women ended their resistance. However, beginning in Ukam and in other towns that participated in the Women’s War, the evidence suggests that rather than correct inappropriate male behavior the women wanted to remove the colonial government from power. The people of Ukam destroyed telegraph lines, blocked roads, and physically threatened British officials. Discussion between colonial officials and male leadership in Ukam revealed two sources of complaints. There were specifically stated concerns about the taxation of women and tax reassessment, but men also noted concerns that the colonial administration sought to take more land. Owing to men’s concerns about land, colonial officials concluded the revolt in Ukam was not part of the Women’s War. Colonial officials failed to recognize whether women encouraged men to resist behind the scenes. In the first place, colonial officials assumed the men’s complaint about land was more important than the possible taxation of women even though taxation was the first issue they brought up to colonial officials. In addition, the colonial government also misunderstood the connection between land and women’s concerns even though generally women had limited authority over land allocation.35 The revolt in Ukam was an important event during the Women’s War because it forced colonial officials to move troops from Aba and Opobo, which became important targets for women’s continued resistance to the colonial administration.

Mass Resistance at Aba

Women from Aba participated in a meeting with Oloko women and according to colonial reports they spoke directly with Nwanyeruwa. According to testimony, Aba women recognized the success of Oloko women but “they did not want the matter to end there. They said they wanted all of the court members in Owerri Province to be taken away and to burn all Native Courts.”36 The success in Oloko emboldened the women in Aba to continue the resistance and women included a wider range of goals that represented women’s concerns in addition to the rumor of increased taxation. Women at Aba employed some of the same “sit in” tactics used at Oloko, but their objectives changed significantly. Oloko women confined their complaints to taxation rumors but beginning in Aba women clearly opposed the colonial system rather than a single male action or specific offense. Women targeted the colonial administration by attacking native courts, confiscating court records, releasing prisoners, looting European factories, and obstructing merchant activity in a variety of ways. Aba was a main trade hub for the British palm oil trade and a railroad passed through the town. As women arrived in Aba to resist the colonial administration, a car accident that resulted in the death of at least one woman may have exacerbated the women’s concerns.

Beginning on December 10th, women throughout Owerri province converged on Aba and the number of women participants continued to increase. British officials attempted to prevent the free movement of women by blocking roads and in some cases chasing women away with sticks or rifle butts. Women who arrived in Aba reached a peak number on the following day and they congregated along the roads and in the local markets. They directed their initial resistance in Aba toward lorries; women threw stones and sticks at lorries and attempted to prevent the movement of vehicles. On the one hand lorries were an important method for transporting British trade goods and government personnel and possessions, but the vehicles also symbolically occupied space that conflicted with women’s movement and British officials forced local communities to build the roads without compensation for their labor. In addition to attacking lorries, women also threw stones and sticks at government buildings in Aba, including a house that functioned as the district office. Women also targeted European firms including the United Africa Company and the Niger Company. Women employed all of these tactics prior to the car accident in Aba.

Dr. Hunter, probably in a hurry and annoyed with crowds of women who blocked the roads and pelted his car with sticks, tried to drive through the crowd and in the process hit two women who suffered serious injury.37 The car accident in Aba highlighted the contest between the British and women regarding gender and space. In the past, women maintained walking paths to markets, which were replaced by British roads; furthermore local communities, including women, were required to maintain roads.38 Dr. Hunter apparently believed the roads were primarily reserved for vehicles whereas the women considered the roads a part of their space used for foot traffic and local market access. After the accident, women in Aba became more active in their resistance to the British and specifically targeted European factories. In particular, women wanted Dr. Hunter punished, but they also expressed dissatisfaction with British women who refused to support them. Several British women in Aba expressed fear that the women were going to attack them when they refused to support the resistance to the colonial administration.39 Women, after the car accident, targeted all Europeans regardless of gender and specifically focused resistance toward all aspects of British colonialism.

On December 11 women continued their attack on colonial infrastructure including government buildings, banks, and factories. Women looted factories and allegedly carried off goods with the assistance of some young men.40 British officials responded with force and used sticks and rifle butts to beat and chase women out of town. Several women received injuries significant enough that they went to a local hospital. By the evening, the British set up pickets along the roads to prevent women from reentering the area. On the following day, more police arrived in Aba and the district officer held a meeting with women in order to end the resistance. The increased presence of colonial police combined with the use of physical force appeared to prevent further attacks. British officials in Aba at the time blamed the court system for women’s attacks and believed the warrant chiefs and clerks extorted the women secretly without the colonial government’s knowledge. While women did attack the native court and jail, women attacked British buildings and vehicles from the beginning of the revolt in Aba; therefore, women’s objectives at Aba were not confined to a simple revision of the colonial system but the removal of the British altogether, and after the car accident women employed more aggressive tactics to that aim.

While women attacked the native court and expressed concerns about colonial taxation, their actions represent additional complaints with male authority and colonialism. Aba was a main hub of British trade and the women targeted every aspect of the colonial economic system from warehouses to transport to company agents. The decline of economic conditions in the palm oil trade, lost revenue owing to merchant policies governing the palm oil trade, and how merchants changed the rates women received from palm oil produce, all contributed to complaints women had regarding the colonial economic system. Women clearly recognized the connections between the colonial administration, indirect rule, and trade, which they sought to overturn rather than correct.

Opobo and Violent Responses to Resistance

Even though the colonial police used physical violence to prevent the continuation of resistance in Aba, women continued to attack warrant chiefs, native courts, and British administrative buildings. Women moved their locations of action based on the movement of British police. As administrators moved resources to stop a revolt in one town the women focused on areas where there were few or no colonial police. After attacks at Aba, British administrators started to take the women’s resistance more seriously and they appeared to grow tired of women’s continued resistance. At this point in the Women’s War, women continued to implement aggressive tactics toward the British economic system and in response British colonial officials countered with increased violence in their attempt to end the Women’s War. Ultimately, the use of violent force by the colonial police ended women’s resistance.

According to colonial reports, at about the same time women revolted at Aba, the Women’s War expanded eastward into Ibibio territory. At the town of Utu Etim Ekpo, women joined the resistance, and following the events in Aba they attacked the native courts and British merchant buildings and looted merchant warehouses. Several other towns in the vicinity including Ika and Ikot Ama participated in the resistance and destroyed native courts. When colonial officials accompanied by police and a Lewis gun arrived in Utu Etim Ekpo, they instantly punished the town by levying a fine of 1000 yams and ten goats.41 Colonial police and the army often levied fines in food and burned houses in towns if people refused to fulfill colonial supply requests. On the following morning, a group of women attempted to reenter Utu Etim Ekpo and the colonial officer sent a detachment of soldiers with a Lewis gun to meet the women along the road. In order to prevent the women’s advance toward town, the soldiers opened fire and when the women continued to advance; they fired the Lewis gun three times and with the third attempt killed at least eighteen women along with multiple injuries.42 On the previous day along the Abak road, colonial police fired at the women’s feet and then charged them with rifle butts, but only three women were incidentally struck with bullets. Utu Etim Ekpo constituted a significant departure in how the colonial police used lethal force to attempt to disperse women and end the resistance.

The height of violence during the Women’s War occurred in the area of Opobo, which included Opobo town and then further down river the Opobo government station. The district officer for the region, Mr. Whitman, attempted to alleviate women’s concerns in Opobo on December 15 and the women agreed to set a meeting on the following day; however, shortly after he left the women attacked the native court and government building in Opobo town and then continued on to the government station in Opobo. Women apparently made the decision to attack the government buildings regardless of the district officer’s attempts to hear their complaints.43 The women’s actions in Opobo resembled the tactics used at Aba and support the argument that women may have used the complaint of taxation as a justification for a wide range of issues they believed warranted the removal of the British colonial system. Women at Opobo initially demonstrated little interest in discussing complaints with the colonial government and placed no credence on colonial officials’ guarantees.

On December 16 the British sent a detachment of police and soldiers to Opobo station in order to end the women’s resistance. The colonial officials attempted to engage a discussion with the women’s leaders unlike the strategy at Utu Etim Ekpo. Women presented the colonial officials with a list of eight demands that included no further taxation on men or women among other demands regarding social issues, such as arresting prostitutes, which women perceived were consequences of British influence. As the crowd of women pressed the colonial officials near the government post office, a colonial officer opened fire on the women either by intention or accident and a general attack on the women ensued. Military force resulted in at least thirty-two deaths and thirty-one injuries for African women who were from a variety of areas and ethnic groups.44 The relatively large number of casualties at Opobo station effectively ended the Women’s War. Women in the Ibibio areas had previously expressed the idea that women were “vultures” and were thus protected during their resistance from male authority; the concept of Ibibio women as vultures partly related to their duties in markets whereby women were the cleaners and protectors of the market. Women were the sole participants in that activity and no one was allowed to intervene in those activities.45 However, women’s casualties demonstrated that the British would intervene and use deadly force to prevent further resistance.

Whether women participants in the anticolonial resistance employed only cultural forms of protest consistent with “sit ins” and “sitting on a man” or used new methods of resistance is a complex question to answer. Women’s comments at the conclusion of the conflict regarding the colonial administration fall into three general categories; women who wanted new warrant chiefs selected, women who argued white men should sit as judges, and women who argued for the removal of the colonial administration altogether. Some women stated that it was not for women to participate in matters related to the warrant chiefs. “It is not for us to say that or to appoint chiefs, nor do we women expect to be appointed chiefs.”46 However other women wanted to participate in the selection of new chiefs, “New chiefs, who the women say are good men, such are the people we want.”47

Generally, women during the early stages of the Women’s War sided with the removal of the current chiefs in favor of better selections; men they hoped would not abuse power. Women who participated in the later events tended to argue for broader changes in the colonial administration. Oloko women in a telegram to Aba stated, “the tax matter is settled to our satisfaction nothing like houses destroying at Oloko where tax matter first started.”48 Women participants recognized a shift in the resistance from the early phases of the conflict to what happened during and after Aba. One woman testified, “No, I have never seen anything like it before.”49 European missionaries who had been in the region for a considerable time as well as other African men testified that they had never seen or heard of this kind of resistance by women. Women’s tactics followed many cultural practices for resisting the intrusion of male authority into their affairs; however, the scale and intercommunity cooperation marked a transition in resistance to the colonial government. The deep-seated frustration with the impact of colonialism on local culture and way of life probably led some women to explore changes beyond correcting male behavior or replacing men in authority to extending more authority to women. As Olenga commented, “Should we not dictate,” which diverted from other women who stated, “No sir, women are not judges,” and “We don’t want women. Women should not dictate to men.”50 The complexities of women’s opinions on changes in colonial administration and the participation of women in the system probably reflected a variety of daily life experiences and cultural values.

Collective Punishment and Legacy of the Women’s War

Following the end of the Women’s War, British colonial officials sought to punish communities that participated in the resistance and also sought to understand why women revolted and what might have been done to prevent resistance. News of the women’s deaths reached British newspapers and the government in Britain initiated a review of the events in conjunction with the colonial government. On the one hand the British government looked to determine who was responsible for causing the women’s deaths and the colonial officials involved in the war specifically attempted to justify the actions of colonial officials as often as possible. Once the British government initiated a broad commission of inquiry in the spring of 1930, African men and women used the testimonies to try and influence political changes in the colonial government. Whereas women lost the war, they continued to petition the colonial government to revise its political and economic policies.

Almost as soon as British administrators ended the resistance, they held collective punishment inquires in the towns where women destroyed government buildings and merchant properties. The colonial strategy for using collective punishments focused on levying fines on entire towns to recover the cost of damages as well as to discourage future resistance. If the entire community paid for the cost of resistance, then communal control might prevent further resistance. With a patriarchal mindset, British officers assumed African men encouraged the women’s resistance and they hoped punishing men with fines would encourage men to prevent further resistance from women. The colonial government made few arrests owing to problems with acquiring concrete evidence for who was involved in looting factories and destroying buildings. The collective punishment inquires provided little new evidence to colonial officials because many women feared arrest and Africans appeared to quickly learn the colonial government was willing to take responsibility for the rumor of a new tax on women. Ironically, the collective punishments far exceeded any potential tax on women and further contributed to hardships on local communities.

At the request of the British government in London, the colonial government initiated a more comprehensive inquiry into the Women’s War in the spring of 1930. The commission of inquiry held meetings for about three months and rotated the location of the inquiries throughout eastern Nigeria. Colonial officials hoped to encourage men and women to provide as much accurate information as possible and even promised that regardless of the contents of the testimony they would enforce no additional punishments; however, it was unlikely that colonial officials convinced most participants in that regard. In some areas, more women offered to give testimony than the colonial government wanted to interview and in those cases the colonial administration instructed women to select a spokeswoman. Colonial officials at the commission of inquiry tended to focus attention on justifying the actions of colonial officers in order to defend themselves from further critique in London and African men and women jostled for control in the hopes that the outcome would result in changes to colonial governance. In the long term, the commission achieved some of those objectives. The British government seemed content with the report and considered revising police tactics for managing civilian resistance, while colonial officials realized how little they understood about the African societies they ruled. In the 1930s the British government provided funding for early anthropologists to study the region and significant emphasis was directed toward gender relationships and political organization. The research resulted in the colonial government abolishing the warrant chiefs and installing local councils to administer government affairs; however, overall women continued to be excluded from public affairs and political decisions.

Whereas the Women’s War contributed to important political changes in how the British governed eastern Nigeria, no changes were made in economic policy, which represented the bulk of women’s concerns. The colonial government continued to allow merchants to collude to keep palm oil prices low and imports comparatively highly priced. Taxation required Africans to participate in a cash economy in which they sold products to British merchants to gain currency to pay tax or to purchase other imported goods from British merchants. Even though the British made changes in government organization, they reinforced patriarchal authority and women continued to be disproportionally excluded from the decision-making process. While the Women’s War ended indirect rule via warrant chiefs and some of the corruption of the native court system; nevertheless, many of the women’s concerns related to daily life and work remained unchanged or in terms of economic livelihood possibly became more difficult in the ensuing years.51

Regardless of the limited short-term successes, the Women’s War contributed to a long-term legacy of women’s resistance and the development of national identity. Women’s employment of lineage and market relationships meant the Women’s War diverted from previous male-dominated resistance movements that tended to focus on ethnic and language similarity. The Women’s War was a comprehensive challenge to British colonial authority that crossed ethnicity, class, rural, and urban divisions and included a common understanding of women’s identity. In that respect, the Women’s War of 1929 employed a general sense of unity required for the success of the independence movement after World War II. The commonality felt by women in the region continues into the present with recent women’s protests related to the oil industry in the Delta region. Whereas women remain somewhat marginal participants in Nigerian politics, although progress had been made, they continue to depend on their identity as women to resist contemporary government decisions.52

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography of the Women’s War centers on at least four significant debates. The first major debate engaged British imperial history and whether the Women’s War was a war or a riot. How historians labeled the event represented fundamental assumptions of empire, the relationship of women to empire, and social changes in the colony regarding gender and women’s place in society. British imperial historians including Margery Perham and Harry Gailey as well as African historian A. E. Afigbo generally accepted the British imperial label, the Aba Riots.53 Perham and Gailey generally described the evidence as a riot, which meant the women acted based on emotion with little to no planning or coordination. The term riot reflected not only notions of gender but also race. Contemporary British concepts of the racial inferiority of Africans informed how early British imperial historians portrayed women as emotional and irrational hordes attacking civilized and well-intentioned Europeans. Perham’s work in particularly reinforces the concept of Africans as children and British patriarchal superiority. In contrast, Africa historians emphasize how “the women acted like a militia” with coordinated and planned action.54 While Afigbo uses the term riots, his evaluation differs from British imperial historiography from the time period. In many ways, Afigbo initiated a nuanced reinterpretation of the Women’s War by emphasizing the importance of cultural institutions and practices; however, his focus was placed on the warrant chief system rather than culture and gender divisions.

Early historiography focused on the rumor of taxation as the primary cause for women’s resistance and whereas African women historians tended to emphasize cultural and social changes related to gender divisions, taxation continues to have significant credence with some historians such as Chima Korieh.55 Assessing whether rumors of taxation or other gender-related social issues were the primary cause of women’s resistance often depends on how historians critique the primary sources. Women often included taxation in their explanations for revolt to colonial officials; however, the question is whether taxation meant the same thing to women and colonial officials and also whether women stated taxation because they learned the colonial administration accepted it as an explanation for resistance and were less likely to levy heavy punishments. The argument for taxation as the primary motivating cause suggests the primary source material from the commission of inquiry was skewed by women who were adding other concerns besides taxation after the fact in order to try and maneuver for wide-ranging changes to the colonial system.

In the process of evaluating the causes for the war, British imperial historians initially depicted the events as irrational and uncoordinated. African women historians generally argue that the methods of resistance were organized through women’s indigenous social structures and the debate seeks to answer to what extent the women depended on historically accepted methods of resistance or employed completely new resistance strategies. Evaluation of the methods women used during the Women’s War also continues to be a vibrant debate between historians who follow Judith Van Allen’s assessment that resistance followed women’s traditional protest strategies and those who subscribe to Caroline Ifeka-Moller’s argument that while women employed some indigenous gendered strategies the women also developed new methods of resistance, which suggests the development of a new concept of Igbo and Ibibio femininity.56 The initial events in Oloko and some of the rural areas resembled women’s traditional methods of protest; however, as Ifeka-Moller noted, later events of the Women’s War and particular resistance in larger towns diverged from women’s cultural forms of resistance.

Finally, historians debate the outcome of the Women’s War specifically in terms of what the women achieved and failed to achieve. On one hand historians argue women played an important role in the formation of Nigerian nationalism; however, at the same time feminist scholars note the limitation of women’s ability to gain political power after the Women’s War. The debate is closely connected to how historians evaluate the women’s methods of protest. Historians who subscribe to Van Allen’s assessment tend to focus on how women sought to restore gender relationships and women’s position in society to precolonial norms, whereas historians on Ifeka-Moller’s side of the debate tend to argue how women sought to gain new influence and political power in their communities that transcended women’s power in society prior to British colonialism.57

Primary Sources

The majority of primary sources covering the Women’s War of 1929 are located in the Enugu and Ibadan Archives in Nigeria as well as in London. Most of the sources were recorded by British officials and they are all available in English. In addition to British colonial archives, brief information exists in British newspapers and the diaries and documents of British missionaries, merchants, and colonial officials who temporarily resided in eastern Nigeria. The colonial archival sources are roughly organized into three groups: the memoranda of colonial officials during the Women’s War, the collective punishment inquiries held right after the end of the war, and the Commission of Inquiry held during the spring of 1930. Approximately six hundred pages of these sources were published in The Women’s War of 1929 by Toyin Falola and Adam Paddock. Whereas African historians in the 1970s and 1980s depended on oral history for some of their material, it is unclear if the transcripts of the interviews exist or where they might be located.

Further Reading

Achebe, Nwando. Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900–1960. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005.Find this resource:

Afigbo, Adiele E. The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in Southeastern Nigeria, 1891–1929. London: Longman, 1972.Find this resource:

Chuku, Gloria. “Igbo Women and Political Participation in Nigeria, 1800s–2005.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 42, no. 1 (2009): 81–103.Find this resource:

Falola, Toyin and Adam Paddock. The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Gailey, Harry A. The Road to Aba; A Study of British Administrative Policy in Eastern Nigeria. New York: New York University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Ifeka-Moller, Caroline. “‘Sitting on a Man: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women’: A Reply to Judith van Allen.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 7, no. 2 (1973): 317–318.Find this resource:

Iheduru, Obioma M. “Women and Political Militancy in Southeastern Nigeria.” Journal of the GAH 18 (1997): 76–97.Find this resource:

Ina, Koko Ete. “The Tax Crisis of 1929 in Ibibioland.” Transafrican Journal of History 21 (1992): 171–181.Find this resource:

Korieh, Chima J. “The Invisible Farmer? Women, Gender, and Colonial Agricultural Policy in the Igbo Regions of Nigeria, c. 1913–1954.” African Economic History 29 (2001): 117–162.Find this resource:

Martin, Susan. Palm Oil and Protest: An Economic History of the Ngwa Region, South-Eastern Nigeria, 1800–1980. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Matera, Marc, Misty Bastian, and Susan Kingsley Kent. The Women’s War of 1929: Gender and Violence in Colonial Nigeria. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.Find this resource:

Mba, Nina Emma. Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900–1965. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1982.Find this resource:

Van Allen, Judith. “‘Sitting on a Man:’ Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 165–181.Find this resource:


(1.) The Women’s War of 1929 comes from the Igbo label for the event, Ogu Umunwanyi, and is the preferable term for the event instead of Aba Riots, which distorted the scope and context of women’s resistance. However, Ogu Umunwanyi is an Igbo term and it is unclear if women belonging to other ethnic groups also adopted the Igbo term to explain their resistance. The English version is used here to avoid the perception that the Women’s War was an all Igbo resistance movement.

(2.) Whenever possible the specific ethnicity is used for the women’s identity. Nigerian is not used as a label for Eastern Nigerian people because at that time they did not claim a Nigerian identity. Eastern Nigeria is used only as a geographical region corresponding to the relevant colonial administration.

(3.) Don Ohadike, The Ekumeku Movement: Western Igbo Resistance to the British conquest of Nigeria, 1883–1914 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991).

(4.) All warrant chiefs in Nigeria were male, expect for one, Ahebi Ugbabe. This further diminished the power and authority that women in eastern Nigeria had in the precolonial era. See Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

(5.) W. Birrell Gray and H. W. B. Blackall, Memorandum as to the Origin and Causes of the Recent Disturbances in the Owerri and Calabar Provinces, (Government Press: Lagos, January 27, 1930), 24.

(6.) Nwando Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900–1960, Social History of Africa (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005), 178.

(7.) Achebe, 112.

(8.) John Nwachimereze Oriji, Ngwa History: A Study of Social and Economic Changes in Igbo Mini-States in Time Perspective (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 71.

(9.) Caroline Ifeka-Moller, “‘Sitting on a Man: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women’: A Reply to Judith van Allen.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 7, no. 2 (1973): 317–318; and Obioma M. Iheduru, “Women and Political Militancy in Southeastern Nigeria,” Journal of the GAH 18 (1997): 78, 83.

(10.) Gloria Chuku, “Igbo Women and Political Participation in Nigeria, 1800s–2005,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 42, no. 1 (2009): 83–84.

(11.) Jenny Daggers, “Transforming Christian Womanhood: Female Sexuality and Church Missionary Society Encounters in the Niger Mission, Onitsha,” Victorian Review 37, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 96–98; and Achebe, 83–84, 178.

(12.) Chuku, 83–87; Achebe, 164; Judith Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man:’ Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 165–181; and Iheduru, 80–81.

(13.) Achebe, 112, 144.

(14.) Oriji, 65–68.

(15.) Susan Martin, “Gender and Innovation: Farming, Cooking and Palm Processing in the Ngwa Region of South-Eastern Nigeria, 1900–1930,” The Journal of African History 25, no. 4 (1984): 411–427.

(16.) Harry A. Gailey, The Road to Aba; a Study of British Administrative Policy in Eastern Nigeria (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 83–87.

(17.) “The Testimony of Akulechula,” in The Women’s War of 1929: A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria, ed. Toyin Falola and Adam Paddock (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2011), 382; “The Testimony of Nnenda Nwoji,” in Falola and Paddock, 658. Women’s testimony that they contributed to men’s tax does not mean men controlled women’s money but rather that some women chose to contribute to men’s tax to avoid legal issues with the colonial government or the local warrant chiefs.

(18.) Achebe, 175–177.

(19.) Achebe, 174.

(20.) Achebe, 56–61, 78.

(21.) Nina Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900–1965 (Berkeley: University of California, 1982), 70–71; Cletus E. Emezi, “Protests and Political Disturbance in Colonial South-Eastern Nigeria,” Journal of African Studies 8, no. 3 (1981): 140.

(22.) Marc Matera, Misty Bastian, and Susan Kingsley Kent, 145.

(23.) “The Testimony of Nwoto,” in Falola and Paddock, 688.

(24.) Ifeka-Moller, “A Reply to Judith van Allen,” 318.

(25.) Iheduru, 88.

(26.) CEK5, Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Inquire into the Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces, December 1929 (Lagos: Government Printer, 1930), 73–74.

(27.) Michael Crowder, West Africa under Colonial Rule (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 475; and Iheduru, 77.

(28.) CEK5, 13.

(29.) CEK5, 15.

(30.) CEK5, 55; and Samuel N. Nwabara, Iboland: A Century of Contact with Britain, 1860–1960 (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1977), 188.

(31.) The majority of participating women were almost certainly Igbo, however, it is likely that Ibibio women also arrived in support, perhaps from the area of Ukam for trade or women who were Ibibio in origin but married into an Igbo community.

(32.) CEK5, 26.

(33.) CEK5, 24–25.

(34.) Koko Ete Ina, “The Tax Crisis of 1929 in Ibibioland,” Trans African Journal of History 21 (1992): 172.

(35.) Ikefa-Moller, “Female Militancy,” 142.

(36.) CEK5, 36.

(37.) CEK5, 45–46.

(38.) Matera, Bastian, and Kent, 129–130.

(39.) “The Testimony of Lizzie Scott Buist,” in Falola and Paddock, 526.

(40.) CKE5, 51.

(41.) CEK5, 66.

(42.) CKE5, 67; and Falola and Paddock, 837.

(43.) CKE5, 74–76.

(44.) Falola and Paddock, 835–836.

(45.) Misty L. Bastian, “‘Vultures of the Marketplace’: Southeastern Nigerian Women and Discourses of the Ogu Omunwaanyi (Women’s War) of 1929,” in Women in African Colonial Histories, eds. Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 271.

(46.) “Testimony of Akpangbo,” in Falola and Paddock, 274.

(47.) “Testimony of Ahudi,” in Falola and Paddock, 313.

(48.) “Testimony of Ogbodia,” in Falola and Paddock, 582.

(49.) “Testimony of Ogbenie,” in Falola and Paddock, 310.

(50.) “Testimony of Olenga,” in Falola and Paddock, 600; “Testimony of Ubala,” in Falola and Paddock, 355; and “Testimony of Akulechula,” in Falola and Paddock, 382.

(51.) Mba, 97.

(52.) Mba, 97–99.

(53.) Margery Perham, Native Administration in Nigeria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937); Afigbo, The Warrant Chiefs; and Gailey, The Road to Aba.

(54.) Nwabara, 193.

(55.) Chima J. Korieh, “The Invisible Farmer? Women, Gender, and Colonial Agricultural Policy in the Igbo Regions of Nigeria, c. 1913–1954,” African Economic History 29 (2001): 118–119.

(56.) Ifeka-Moller, “Female Militancy.”

(57.) Van Allen, “Sitting on a Man”; and Ifeka-Moller, “Female Militancy.”