Resource 4: The Aba women’s riot
Background information / subject knowledge for teacher
In 1928–1930, Aba women protested against the oppressive rule of the colonial government. These Igbo women of eastern Nigeria feared that the headcount being carried out by the British would mean they were to be taxed. The women were unhappy about the over-taxation of their husbands and sons, which they felt was making them poor and causing hardship. The women also objected to the use of warrant chiefs to collect monies. Previously, new village leaders or heads had been chosen and removed by the people themselves. Decisions were reached informally or through village assemblies. While they had less influence than men, women did control local trade and specific crops. Women protected their interests through assemblies. This was changed by the colonial government, which appointed its agents as warrant chiefs to rule over the people. These British-appointed African judges and tax enumerators abused their position, obtaining wives without paying the full bride prize and seizing property.
The women staged a protest on 24 November 1929. They held an all-night song and dance ridicule (‘sitting on a man’). The women’s protest spread. Ten thousand women rioted and the demonstrations swept through the Owerri-Calabar districts.
A warrant chief, Chief Okugo, had had to count the population and livestock for taxation purposes. The women sang ‘Ma O ghara ibu nwa beke mma anyiu egbuole Okugo rie’ (‘If it were not for the white man we would have killed Chief Okugo and eaten him up’).
The women attacked three specific targets:
- the native courts;
- any European-owned factories; and
- warrant chiefs from native courts where sessions were in progress.
One warrant chief was pushed off his bicycle, his gun was taken away and the women chased him into the bush.
Late in December 1929, the women forced the Umuahia warrant chiefs to surrender their caps, thus launching their successful campaign to destroy the warrant chief system. In Aba, women sang and danced against the chiefs and then, according to an observer, ‘proceeded to attack and loot the European trading stores and Barclays Bank and to break into the prison and release the prisoners’. Some 25,000 Igbo women faced colonial repression and, over a two-month period of insurrection, December 1929 to January 1930, at least 50 were killed. But this effectively ended the warrant chief system.
Adapted from: On War, Website