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Strength of A Woman | The Story of Aba Women’s War by Onigegewura

When Tai Solarin said in his memoirs that a child’s first teacher ought to be a pretty lady, the iconoclastic educator must have had Onigegewura in mind. Of all the teachers who taught me in primary school, Miss Sola Adefarakan made the greatest impression on my young mind. It was in her class that I read my first full-length Yoruba novel, Ajítòní, as well as my first English prose, The Man Without A Face.  It was also in her class that I learnt about Aba Women Riot of 1929.

Miss Adefarakan was as brilliant as she was beautiful. She not only taught us about the valiant women of Aba who stood up for their rights, she also made us to dramatise the historic event. It was a very sad day for me when Funke Adesiyan told me Miss Adefarakan was no more. I remembered her as I began to write this story.

This piece is dedicated to the beautiful memory of Miss Sola Adefarakan. I am eternally indebted to you, Ma.  Teachers live forever.

Miss Adefarakan did not tell us the names of the Aba Women. Their names were not recorded in books of history that were recommended for us in those days. They were simply described as Aba Women.  But surely they must have had names. We were also not taught that the matter was more than riot. Who were these brave women who refused to bow before perceived injustice? What could have ignited the fire of revolution in these village women? A revolution that shook the British Empire to its feet. To find out answers to these questions, let us follow Onigegewura to Oloko village where it all started on that fateful day in November 1929.

Yes, you read that right. Aba Women Riot did not start in Aba. It also did not end in Aba. It actually started in Oloko village. You don’t know where Oloko village is? It is one of the four villages that constitute Ikwuano Local Government in the present day Abia State. Of course you know that ikwu in Igbo means ‘relations’ and ano means four. Ikwuano therefore means ‘four relations’. The local government is usually described as the food basket of Abia State because of its agricultural endowments.

It was in this agrarian community that history was made almost 90 years ago when the rural women did what was unheard of. They challenged the constituted authority of the British colonial masters. And it started with one woman. Yes, one woman!

When Nwanyewura woke up that November morning, the last thing on her mind was to become a heroine who would be celebrated by generations yet unborn. Nwanyewura was a popular figure in Oloko. She was a traditional nurse who performed circumcisions for new-borns and older children. Her husband, Mazi Ojim, was also a prominent citizen of the village.

She was in her compound squeezing palm oil from kernels when Mark Emeruwa entered. Emeruwa was a schoolteacher who had been out of work for some time. He had recently been engaged by the Warrant Chief Okeugo of Oloko to conduct a census of all the men, women and domestic animals in Oloko. The news had started as a rumour. Women were going to be taxed. As a prelude to taxation, it was decided that a census needed to be conducted.

The reactions of the village women were unanimous. “How could women who have no means themselves to buy food or clothing afford to pay tax?” was the question on every woman’s lips.

It was against this background that Emeruwa sauntered into the compound of Mazi Ojim on that November morning. “I am here to count. Now count the sheep and goats for me and give me the tally!” He commanded Nwanyewura who had by now paused to attend to the unwanted visitor. So it was true. Women were going to be counted for the purpose of taxation.

“Was your mother counted?” Nwanyewura asked sternly. The mention of his mother must have provoked him. In a twinkle of an eye, Emeruwa struck her across the face and seized her throat. Nwanyewura did not hesitate. She retaliated by grabbing the throat of the representative of His Majesty, the King of England.

“Awulamu!” She screamed in alarm.

People in the compound heard her cry of alarm and rushed to rescue the mother of the house from the grips of Emeruwa. They finally succeeded in separating the warring duo. Emeruwa fled. This was not what he expected. He had assumed that as a representative of the almighty Warrant Chief all the women were going to comply with his directives without complaining. He rushed to report to his employer.

In a matter of minutes, the news had spread round Oloko village. Women began to troop into Oloko from neighbouring villages. Could it be true? Women were going to be taxed? What is the business of women with taxation?  Has it not been said that udele si na owehu ihe jikolu ya na onye okpu isi? [The vulture has no business with the barber.] Nwanyewura was asked to repeat her story over and over again. At the end of each narration, the women hissed and clapped their hands in demonstration of unbelief.

A war council was quickly formed. Three women were appointed as leaders of the group. They were Ikonnia, Nwannedie and Nwugo. Their mandate was to confirm Nwanyewura’s story as well as the truth about the proposed taxation of women.

The women had hardly reached their respective homes when they were informed that Chief Okeugo, the Warrant Chief of Oloko,  had summoned Nwanyewura to his court.  For the third time, Nwanyewura became the centre of attention. At the court, the Warrant Chief told her the consequences of her action as being a rebellion against His Majesty’s government, a treasonable felony.

The Oloko women who were waiting to hear the verdict needed no further evidence of British imperialism. The women had no problem with taxation of men. But to tax women? That was the height of it all. The news spread like wild fire. Oloko women were joined by their sisters from neighbouring villages. They were armed with palm fronds and leafy branches in each hand. They trooped to the streets chanting songs of sorrow and woes. Unknown to even the participants, what history would later term as Aba Women Riot had started

Their first point of call was the residence of Mark Emeruwa at Niger Delta Pastorate Mission. The mission had been founded many years earlier by Bishop Ajayi Crowther. “Come out, Emeruwa! Come out!” The women shouted. Emeruwa heard but he refused to come out. The women proceeded to sit on him. When you sit on a man, it means that the person is prevented from carrying out his normal routine without answering to your demands. After all, a nyuko mamiri onu, o gba ofufu [When people urinate on the same spot, it foams.

Some of the women decided to also pay a visit to Chief Okeugo. The Warrant Chief had heard what happened to his agent. Before the arrival of the women, he had barricaded himself in. The chanting women arrived to meet the doors of the house locked. “Okeugo! Come out! Come and explain why you have ordered that women must pay tax.”

Like Emeruwa, Okeugo refused to come out of his fortress to address the women of Oloko. The women had all the time in the world. They proceeded to sit on him as well. Okeugo knew that the women would soon be tired. He knew they would leave before midnight. Unknown to him, the women were determined not to leave. For two nights and days, they kept vigil at his residence. They sang, they danced and they shouted.

Okeugo, Onye Oloko Aye

Nne agaghi inu gi Aye

Nna agaghi inu gi Aye

Okengbe Iloro Uwa Oloko Oloko Aye

Okeugo, a big eagle of a woman

Oke, an Oloko person, Aye

Mother will not give birth to you, Aye

Father will not give birth to you, Aye

Since you reincarnated in the world

Okeugo and his family could not come out. They could only peep behind closed windows and doors at their erstwhile obedient and loyal subjects. The once powerful warrant chief knew that his family would soon starve to death if there was no help. He decided to do something to ensure that he did not die of starvation. Ugwu muta mgbaji ukwu, Agadi nwanyi amuta agakata ezue ike. [When the hill learns to cause waist pain, the old lady learns to rest intermittently]. A message was smuggled out in the middle of the night. On the third day, men of Native Police arrived at his residence to chase away the women. The women retreated but they did not surrender.

Immediately the women dispersed, Chief Okeugo did not wait a moment longer. He knew that the women who sat on him for two days were ready to sit on him for two years. He fled his house and went to take refuge in the native court. He felt a bit safer in the premises of the court.

The District Officer at the time was Captain J. N. Hill. He was away when the crisis broke out. It was the acting DO, Captain John Cook, who mandated the Warrant Chiefs to count and tax the women. Captain Hill resumed on December 2 to meet the rampaging women of Oloko. The first thing that struck him was the sheer number of the women. They were more than 10,000 strong. The women were also well informed despite the fact they were not formally educated. The women knew their rights and were able to articulate their demands. One, they wanted Okeugo to be put on trial, and two, women must not be taxed.

They demanded Okeugo’s cap of office – his symbol of authority. The DO had no choice but to throw Okeugo’s red cap to the women. According to him: “it met the same fate as a fox’s carcass thrown to a pack of hounds.” The women however were not satisfied. They wanted Okeugo to be put on trial.

Unknown to them, Captain Cook had smuggled Okeugo out of Oloko under the cover of darkness. The embattled Warrant Chief had been taken to Bende where he was kept in a government building. Captain Hill realized that nothing short of trial was going to pacify the women, he decided to put Okeugo on trial, and in public too. At the end of the trial, Okeugo was found guilty. He was de-capped and stripped of his status as a chief. He was also sentenced to two years imprisonment.

The women of Oloko had won! They had succeeded in removing a warrant chief! The success of Oloko women became the ripple in the pond. It galvanized women from all over the East and South. As the women went back to villages, they informed others of the heroics of Nwanyewura and the brave women of Oloko. Back at their bases, the women began to demand the removal of their own warrant chiefs!

The women of Aba heard the news of Okeugo’s fall from power and his imprisonment. They heard how the women of Oloko refused to be intimidated by the powers of the white-man and his agents of oppression. Oloko and Nwanyewura became the new symbol of the power of womanhood. If Oloko women could stand up to be counted when it mattered, Aba women must not be left behind.

On December 6, 1929, the District Officer of Aba woke up to receive information that women were moving in the direction to Aba and on to Owerrinta. According to Shasore, “They were dressed with leaves on their heads, carried branches and clubs, and marched through Umuahia.” The women protesters were not just Aba women. They had come from all over Igbo land.

What the DO expected was not what he met. He was expecting to see a motley crowd of protesters. He was shocked to see more than 10,000 women who were well organised under the leadership of Ikonnia, Nwannedie and Nwugo, the three women who had earlier been appointed leaders.

The women who confronted him were bold and fearless. According to Richard Bourne, the women “were angry that direct taxation might be extended from men to women and were protesting at a collapse in the price of their palm produce when import costs were rising.”

The protesting women marched on to the prison and released the inmates. They then moved on to the courthouse. The embers of fire lighted in Oloko village had become a huge conflagration.

It was in the midst of the protest that a European medical doctor knocked down two of the protesting women with his car. It was like adding fuel to a burning fire. The women became incensed.  The mob advanced towards the car. The doctor and his companion fled. They ran inside the building of Niger Company which also housed the Barclays Bank. The women followed them. They ransacked the bank in seconds.

From the bank to the post office, from post office to the train station, there was no stopping the women. All buildings which represented symbols of authority were under attack. The Resident was powerless in the face of the women who were determined to remove every vestige of oppression from Igbo land.

It was no longer a riot. It had become a revolutionary movement. The colonial government was alarmed. A platoon of Nigerian soldiers was sent to Aba to quell the uprising on December 12, six days after the Aba Women Riot had started. A contingent of police was also sent in to maintain order. That was not all. The Lt. Governor Cyril Wilson Alexander also came to take control of the situation.

The women had however discovered their power. From Aba, the protests spread to Owerrinta and from there to Imo River, Mbawsi, Omoba and Azumini. By December 12, it was no longer Aba Women’s riot. It had become Ogu Umuwanyi, Women’s War. The Ibibio women who had been waiting in the wings joined the revolution. At Azumini, the women proceeded to the courthouse and set fire to all the buildings in the compound. And that was when the revolt became bloody.

By the time the riot spread to Calabar Province, the government had realized the enormity of what it was up against it. It was clear that if something drastic was not done the women would overrun the government. A platoon of soldiers was therefore waiting for the women by the time they gathered at Uyo. A line was drawn in the sand with a warning that the line must not be crossed by the protesting women. Well, an ordinary line was not enough to deter the determined women. On December 14, the line was crossed. The police responded by opening fire. Three women, Mary Udo Ekpo, Adiaha Umo, and Unwa Udom were killed instantly. They became the first victims of the Women’s War.

The government had drawn the first blood. If the government had however thought that the killing of three unarmed women would put an end to the war, it was sadly mistaken. The women grew in number and in determination. At Utu-Etim-Ekpo, there was another confrontation between armed government forces and the unarmed village women.

The commander of government troops was Captain James. He claimed that he was constrained to order his men to fire because “the force of the troops was small and in a hand to hand struggle with these mad women it was possible that some sort reverse would have been sustained and the whole country would have up.”  Captain James ordered his men to fire.

It was however at Opobo that the greatest casualty was recorded. In one day, thirty-one women and one man were killed. Alimi Aromasodun from Lagos was the male victim. It was the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

The Women’s War had come to a tragic end. It had lasted for 29 days. It was the first major challenge to the British authority in the west coast of Africa. And it all started with one woman!

The initial government response was to “frame the uprising as a mere alcohol-inspired riot of women secretly egged on by the menfolk to loot government buildings.” This is perhaps the reason the phrase Aba Women Riot became the conventional way of describing the revolution.

However, following the uproar generated by the media, government was forced to set up a commission of inquiry. It was a two-man commission. It sat for ten days. Its findings were neither here nor there. Nigerians from all walks of life were not satisfied. They began to clamour for another commission. The Governor, Sir Graeme Thomson,  was left with no choice. He bowed to the will of the people and set up a second commission of inquiry.

The new commission was made up of Mr. Justice D. Kingdon, Sir Kitoyi Ajasa, William Hunt, Graham Paul, Eric Moore and Ronald Osborne. Unlike the first commission which sat for only 10 days, the second commission sat from March 10 to July 30 and it heard close to 500 witnesses. At the end of the day, the Commission found that taxation and some errors of policy and administration were responsible for the revolt spearheaded by the women.

What of Nwanyewura, the one woman who started it all? She was arrested in February 1930 and was arraigned with Mark Emeruwa, the man whose action triggered the crisis. They were both found guilty for their role in the disturbances that rocked the region. They were sentenced to three months imprisonment.

You want to know what happened to the police and officers who killed 55 Nigerians? Well, No one was punished for the tragedy in which 55 Nigerians lost their lives. The commission blamed the women for the situation that the British officers were forced to remedy.

May the souls of the 54 unarmed women and one man who were killed in December of 1929, and that of my brilliant teacher Miss Sola Adefarakan continue to rest in peace.

Thank you for your time.

Olanrewaju Onigegewura©

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