When delving into the nature of colonial rule, many tend to focus on the roles of the oppressors. But what about those who strove to resist colonisation through movements and revolts? The Women’s War of 1929 is an event that is widely overlooked not merely due to the fact that it was a resistance movement against British colonial rule in Nigeria, but also because it was women who were at the forefront of planning and executing the wave of resistance.
In 1929, the implementation of new colonial policies imposing new tax demands in Nigeria had a dramatic effect on women, particularly in the south-eastern region. Igbo women from this region had significantly high-powered roles and these policy reforms tampered with the social norms, inflicting forms of patriarchy. Most importantly, it left their market goods worthless, resulting in harsh economic consequences. In the words of Funa Maduka in her TedTalk ‘Patriarchy should be counted as one of these diseases introduced by our colonisers.’ Igbo women in south-eastern Nigeria held power and ruled alongside their male counterparts in pre-Colonial times. For this very reason, it seemed absurd to them that the British could implement such policies which served as a hindrance to their selling of goods.
Its impact stretched across a range of areas – political, social, and economic. The revolt originated in the rural town of Oloko following the newly imposed tax demands. It spread across eastern Nigeria in waves, sparking significant mobilisations in areas such as Owerri and the Bende division of the Calabar province. Though protests initially addressed local warrant chiefs, the demands intensified to target British colonial officials. In the early phases of the protests, the officers denied the women’s claims and assured them that they would take it further with local chiefs. Yet the events only escalated and grew more violent. The protestors adopted a variety of tactics to deter the detested policies, including the looting of factories, burning down of native court buildings, blocking of train lines, releasing of prisoners held in colonial jails, and destroying of colonial property. The radical forms of protest adopted by these women, particularly during a time in which they were not only faced with colonial presence but also patriarchy, depicts the severity of the tensions in Nigeria.
But was the Women’s War solely a response to the new tax demands, or was there another motive behind it, directly targeting British Colonial rule? Whilst the tax demands are considered to be the primary cause and sparked the initial uprising, the geographic locations of the protests indicate a deeper issue. The protest spread beyond areas affected by the tax demands, a clear example being the outrage displayed in Essence, an area where tax demands remained unchanged in 20 out of 24 of the towns. This suggests a wider context behind the outrage, as it poses the question of why those women still protested. Simply put, the women’s frustrations went beyond taxes and are likely to have been channelled in opposition to British colonial rule.
The British response to the events of 1929 exemplifies this general sense of hostility towards British colonial presence in Nigeria. At the time, the European settlers grew very worried about the protests, and this in part escalated the violent response to the movement. As such, colonial officers were ordered to fire at the demonstrators, resulting in the death of thousands of women. Colonial officers shot women in Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Olopo. Olopo was the epicentre of casualties and the events there ultimately marked the end of the Women’s War. On 16th December 1929 alone, an estimated 50 women were killed in Olopo. Perhaps the British feared that their actions threatened their colonial presence and did not conform to the expectations that they had for a ‘colonised people’. As the majority of demonstrators were women, it not only went against the colonial laws at the time, but also the patriarchy that prevailed across the globe – more importantly in Britain, the place of origin of these colonial officers. It is then less surprising to grasp how the violence perpetrated against the women could have stemmed from the patriarchal views which controlled them.
The Women’s War, though undermined by the violent response, caused a stir in British colonial rule in Nigeria. The protests surprisingly resulted in a series of responses from the Colonial Office. Firstly, Sidney Webb, Secretary of State for the Colonies, appointed two Commissions of Inquiry. The Aba Commission subsequently conducted an investigation of the region in 1930 and collected testimonies from some of the women involved. Elevating the voices of the previously silenced group of women involved was a very rare action from the Colonial Commission of Inquiry, depicting the level of impact that the protests had. In a sense, the British conceded to many of the women’s demands by eradicating the warrant chief system and instead establishing village councils. Despite this, women were still generally excluded from political participation.
By 1933 some areas got increased autonomous power. In many ways, the Women’s War of 1929 was different from other forms of protest because it marked the start of a phase of opposition that transcended ethnicity and class. Previously such movements were highly ethnic-based and localized, but the widespread nature of the Women’s War suggested a unified movement against British colonial rule and served as a prelude to the mass African nationalism that resulted in independent states and the end to colonialism.
Written by Claudia Efemini
Hunter, Emma. The Women’s War of 1929: Gender and Violence in Colonial Nigeria. By Marc Matera, Misty L. Bastian, and Susan Kingsley Kent, Twentieth Century British History, Volume 24, Issue 2, June 2013, Pages 312–313, https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1093/tcbh/hws031
Paddock, A. The Women’s War of 1929. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Retrieved 1 Nov. 2021, from https://oxfordre.com/africanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277734-e-271.
TED. (2020, February 10). Why it’s time to decolonise cinema | Funa Maduka [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJi-9lrQCJw