In Memory of the Aba Women Mega Protest: 90 Years After | By Chijioke Ngobili

In Memory of the Aba Women Mega Protest 90 Years After By Chijioke Ngobili

On Saturday, 23rd November 1929—exactly 90 years today and another Saturday, 23rd November 2019—a physical and oral exchange ensued between a middle-aged schoolteacher whose name was Mark Emerụwa and a wife of one Ojim whose name was Nwanyerụwa in Oloko of Ụmụahịa area in today’s Abia State, Nigeria, on the grounds of resistance of the British taxation of women in the area.

This exchange would escalate within 24 hours into two major protests by women within the Oloko town and a series of other women protests, violent demonstrations and total anarchy within the whole of Owere Province (what is today’s Imo, Abia, Bayelsa and Rivers States) as well as Calabar Province (what is today’s Ákwá-Ibom and Cross Rivers States) lasting up to January 10, 1930 — all led and instigated by Igbo, Ibibio, Opobo, Andoni women as well as other women of the former Eastern Nigeria. There’s no well-known record of other peoples of Africa and Asia colonised by the British that achieved such magnitude and scale of colonial resistance solely led by women beyond this!

For all I have studied about the relationship between the Igbo people and the British in the past centuries, it’s clear that the both peoples are not quite compatible with each other and so do not always get along, contrary to what’s obtained with other Nigerian ethnic nations such as the Fulani/Hausa and Yoruba. The British have always been suspicious of the Igbo and the Igbo, in turn, have been suspicious of the British and their motives at any point.

The British conquest of Igboland and its closest neighbor, the Ibibio remains one of the most delayed and dragged in the British colonial subjugation and experiment in Africa and Asia. For anyone who understood this anthropological background carefully, the ‘Aba Women Revolt’ was bound to happen. And from colonial records, the British colonial officers anticipated it but never did it occur to them that a colonial resistance would be solely conceived and delivered by women up to the magnitude and duration the Aba Women protests lasted.


It should be noted that pockets of Opobo, Ibibio and other Igbo neighbors are of Igbo descent and mix and have shared almost the same cultural systems and political organization/economic interests for a very long time before the colonial subjugation. For example, the Arọ people of Arọchukwu are a composition of Igbo, Ibibio and Akpa ethnicities — generically referred to as the “Ekoi peoples” together with other pockets of ethnicities along that axis. The founder of Opobo, famously known as ‘King Jaja of Opobo’, was a former slave of Igbo origin from Ámáigbo in today’s Ọlụ Zone of Imo State. He broke away from the Bonny empire and went ahead to found his own in 1869, naming it Opobo.

There are also a few oral accounts linking the Nembe/Brass coastal peoples in today’s Bayelsa State to the Igbo too. This ancient association and interaction explains why women in Igboland were able to, as at the time, mobilise other non-Igbo women in distant lands to join in a widespread resistance of British taxation and colonial disdain. To understand this a little more, one has to note that the languages of these women are distinctly different from Igbo.

There was barely any literacy in writing and speaking English as the universal language of these peoples as obtained today. The closest we can hazard from this large network of interaction is that many of the women were polyglots of their respective languages/dialects and had been engaging in some extensive trading and trade partnerships, being the ones who controlled the markets and market routes in the traditional past.

A European woman anthropologist, Sylvia Leith-Ross, in trying to solve the puzzle of the large-scale mobilization of these women, discovered that the mobilizations were done during the market activities making it impossible for the colonial authorities to ever have the slightest inkling and quell it early. In all, the women stood up against injustice, intimidation and economic exploitation which came to a peak in taxation.

The Backgrounds

The background to the British taxation of the colonized peoples of Nigeria including the Igbo and their south-eastern neighbors that joined in the Aba Women Protests dates to 1914 when Fredrick Dealtry Lugard proposed the system of Native Treasury as an economic commitment formula to keep the colonized entities together. By 1916, the first experiment in taxation by Lugard had been done in Oyo (Yoruba land) and it was uneventful.

In the North, it was almost a tradition that was in existence before the British, owing to the oligarchy and large political centralizations; and so, taxation went on without disturbances. But in heavy contrast, the colonial authorities and successive administrations—from Fredrick Lugard in 1914 to Graeme Thomson who came to power in 1924—were very cautious to introduce taxation to the Igbo people and their south-eastern neighbors.

The residents and district officers in Igboland and Ibibio land who have been experienced in their nature and life of the peoples, had, from 1916 to 1927, shared several correspondences with their principals in Lagos, forewarning them of the imminent dangers that might trail the introduction of taxation among the Igbo and their neighbors.

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To confirm the fears, the colonial authorities, in 1922, commissioned an anthropologist, S. M Grier to investigate the claims of the residents and district officers. Grier did the assignment and his reports tallied with those of the officers, with critical recommendations to the government which was in the following emphases:

  1. If any tax system is introduced among the Igbo and their neighbours, then the system of free labour should be terminated.
  2. Only adult males should be taxed to avoid any unforeseen complications.
  3. The Native Court system should be reorganised before any tax system is introduced.
  4. Natural rulers/leaders elected by the Igbo (Eastern) people themselves should be placed in positions of authority and not the government-imposed warrant chiefs.

Sadly, the government of Graeme Thomson didn’t follow up with these recommendations of Grier; the report was almost treated with disdain. But the colonial authorities and scholars would later return to it in 1930 when all hell had been let loose. Stubborn to introduce taxation in the East, the colonial government, in April 1927, sent W. E. Hunt to test the waters ahead of 1928 (the year slated for the taxation proper). Hunt spent considerable energy trying to explain to the Eastern peoples the benefits of introducing taxation among them. But it was all water poured on stone. In Okigwe and Owere areas where he had gone around explaining fruitlessly at village meetings, Hunt’s frustrations could be felt in his own words:

“But for most part, my words were wasted, falling upon uninterested, uncomprehending or somnolent ears. Interest in benefits to come was swept aside by the thought of the imminent payment of money to the government”.

In Ikot-Ekpene and Warri, Hunt also had near-similar experience. Despite all these, the government went ahead to introduce taxation among the Igbo and their neighbours in April, 1928. By June, 1928, the tax collection had been completed. The tax rate was between 5 shillings and 8 shillings depending on the area and the adulthood of the males. Surprisingly, it went smoothly without major disturbances. A few minor disturbances notwithstanding were encountered in Ọnịcha and Ogoja (among Nkumuru and Assiga ethnic groups) as well as among Izii and Ezaa women of today’s Ebonyi State who tried to resist the taxation but were arrested and tried in the courts, stifling any further disturbances. Looking back, historians remark that, by coincidence, the Izii and Ezaa women seemed to had fore-grounded the large-scale Aba women protests that would happen the next year. In the end, the total amount collected in the taxation for the 1928 fiscal year was £364,824 (according to Harry Gailey in his book, The Road to Aba) or £357,267 (according to Adiele Afigbo in his book, The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in Southeastern Nigeria, 1891-1929), but the estimated amount expected by the colonial government in the East was £288,630, meaning there was surplus of over £70,000. Quite a huge sum in 1928!

The Event Proper

The fateful Saturday, November 23, 1929!

A young colonial officer and a captain called John Cook who was an assistant district officer of the Bende Division had earlier tried to take a census of the “women and livestock” along with the adult males of Oloko on October 14, 1929 explaining that it doesn’t change the taxation system. John Cook was actually testing the waters even though his colonial principals in Owere and Calabar denied that he was acting on their orders. (Cook was indeed ‘cooked’ as the scapegoat used to dodge the rains of attacks and queries that later came from the highest quarters in Lagos and London).

Realizing that the women of Oloko had frowned at their being “counted” alongside the males and will show some more frown if he continued, Cook delegated the risky job of the “counting” to the warrant chief of Oloko called Ọkụgo Ekuma Okezie who was 67 years old at the time having been born in 1862. A wealthy old fox widely hated and despised like his colleagues in Igboland, Warrant Chief Ọkụgo knew he’d be signing his death warrant if he ever went about Oloko ‘counting’ women and livestock alongside the adult males. Smartly, he delegated the ‘dirty job’ to Mark Emerụwa, a teacher with the Niger Delta Pastorate—after Cook had given him much pressure to do the counting.

In Ojim’s compound, Emerụwa had gone to do the counting when he encountered one of Ojim’s wives called Nwanyerụwa who resisted him with harsh words thus attracting physical and oral exchanges that would be reported at the women’s meeting that was holding that day (Nov 23, 1929).

On Sunday, November 24, 1929, the women mobilised themselves in hundreds protesting and demanding to see Mark Emerụwa in front of his house facing the Niger Delta Pastorate. They “sat on him” (ha nọdo ya) — an Igbo expression woman used to prevail upon someone and keep him/her under house arrest so his movements and activities are limited. On Monday, November 25, 1929, it was Ọkụgo’s turn. When they arrived at his house in their numbers, Ọkụgo dispersed them with his retainers but they returned the next day being November 26, 1929 in thousands demanding for his cap of office. Ọkụgo couldn’t drive them away again. By this time, three responsible and powerful women had emerged as the leaders of the women—Ikonnia, Nwannedie and Nwugo. The presence of these three gave discipline, tenacity and order to the protests. In the following days, events followed the timeline below:

  • November 27, 1929: John Cook came to the marketplace with policemen to appease the women and explain that the government doesn’t intend to tax. That was Cook saving his own head. The women of Oloko felt assured but insisted that Ọkụgo be handed to them whereupon Cook refused.
  • November 28, 1929: The women returned to the court area demanding for Ọkụgo as they presented the injured ones among them when Ọkụgo dispersed them earlier. Cook told them that he is going to hand over to a new officer, Mr Hill soon and so, won’t be able to try and punish Ọkụgo as they desired.
  • November 29, 1929: Cook succumbed to the pressure as he arrested and charged Ọkụgo with assault taking him away to Bende.
  • November 30, 1929 (a week after): John Cook handed over the administration of Bende Division to Mr. Hill.
  • December 2, 1929: The women gathered in their tens of thousands at the court area of Oloko and Hill found himself overwhelmed trying to control them. The women wanted Ọkụgo to be handed to them or be tried immediately as they desired. They also compelled Hill to hand them Ọkụgo’s cap which Hill made a huge mistake of throwing to them as they ended up, like packs of wolves, overpowering the police and pouncing on the government offices.
  • December 3, 1929: Ọkụgo was tried and found guilty of two offences—spreading false alarm and physically assaulting the women protesters. He was sentenced to two years of imprisonment. The women then dispersed satisfied that they have achieved their first two objectives.
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Emerụwa would later be tried with Nwanyerụwa by February of 1930 when the inquiries into the protests had been set up by the government.

The Peak

By December 6, 1929, the news of the revolt had filtered into Aba and the women there caught the fires almost immediately, demanding the destruction of native courts and disbanding of the members of the courts. It was a golden opportunity for them to vent their frustrations at the high-handedness and wickedness of the British-appointed warrant chiefs. In Opobo, what happened in Oloko replicated itself with a colonial officer called Cadet Floyer playing another John Cook in some census job.

Unfortunately, the news of what happened in Oloko had reached Opobo and the women went haywire almost lynching Floyer. Aba, being a strategic town that feeds into four other major towns (Owere, Ikot-Ekpene, Opobo, and Asa) as at 1929, became the hotspot of the revolt, making it earn the title “Aba Women Revolt/Riot” by the panels/committees set up to inquire on it. That was how the protest acquired the name and not that it started in/with Aba.

The whole of December 1929 was the apogee of the protests by the women. The situation got more dangerous, chaotic and bloody. As it is with such widespread protests, lootings of European firms by some of the women began to happen in retaliation for the economic exploitation they’ve been suffering. Some women got shot and died in the process while many more sustained injuries. Others were stampeded in the chaos too.

From Owere to Calabar provinces, the women burnt to ashes several courts and destroyed government offices in retaliation. The whole thing seemed to be happening spontaneously such that the British colonial intelligence remained confused and clueless as to the mechanism that aided the spontaneity and solidarity of the women to the cause from one large province to another. In Abak Division of today’s Akwa-Ibom State, the women gathered in thousands almost lynching the warrant chief Akpan Umo. Umo later got the treatment of Ọkụgo of Oloko as he was charged as the women demanded.

Perhaps, the bloodiest of the protests was Opobo where about 26 women were recorded to have died instantly from live gunshots and 31 women wounded. Also, one man (Alimi Aromeashodu) died from a stray bullet in the process too. The police and soldiers had opened fire on the unarmed Opobo women claiming later in the court statements that the women were closing up on them and resisting all entreaties to go back.

The inset pictures attached contain the autopsy report conducted on 19 of the corpses (1 adult male & 18 adult females) by one Dr. Edward James Crawford and obtained from the Nigerian National Archives, Enugwu. The 18 Opobo women, as can be seen together with their autopsy statements, are:

1. Mary Nzekwe
2. Adiaha Okonya
3. Rebecca Thompson
4. Mary Okoronkwo Jaja
5. Oruba
6. Eka
7. Adiaha Ogbahaku
8. Rhoda Bonny Jaja
9. Adiaha Iden
10. Regina Cookey
11. Euiptia
12. Legge Jaja
13. Oboni Jaja
14. Ariwa Mie
15. Nwa Nwa Waribo
16. Addah Igbi Kilibiama
17. Sui Dappa
18. Danuna

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Also attached is a page picture of the court statement by one of the police officers who, together with the district officers (Hill and Whitman), opened fire on the unarmed women at Opobo on December 16, 1929. As can be seen from the list, about 5 are Igbo names and the rest are likely of Igbo descent or a mix like their progenitor, Jaja who is a full-blooded Igbo.

Outcome, Benefits, Enduring Legacies

Meanwhile, by January 2, 1930, the central government of Graeme Thomson had already marked Owere and Calabar provinces as “disaffected areas” and went ahead to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the women’s shockingly organized protests. Upon that, the authorities in London were far from being satisfied with the inquiry. A month after, having been pressured heavily by the Colonial Office and the Parliament in London to give clearer explanations on the protests by the women, the government of Graeme Thomson quickly set up a second commission of inquiry to dig deeper into the reasons of the protests and submit every detail.

The two provinces (Owere and Calabar) were also punished with fines on the damages done to government properties under the Peace Preservation Ordinance and Collective Punishment Ordinance. Not long after, the Colonial Office relieved Graeme of his portfolio and replaced him with Donald Cameron who was considered more experienced in handling such a society as that of Igbo and Ibibio, following his records of service in Tanganyika (today’s Tanzania).

Cameron, upon assuming office in 1931, immediately commissioned the entire colonial officers in the East to gather all the information they can on the Igbo, Ibibio and their neighbors. This charge would give birth to what is now known as the “Intelligence Reports” on almost all the communities in the East. The reports were totaled to 144. Cameron also deluged the Igbo with anthropological studies on their entire life and ways, which saw to the emergence of such notable anthropologists as Charles K Meek, Margery Perham, M D W Jeffreys, Sylvia Leith-Ross, among others.

A check of the works of these anthropologists shows their publications were all done between 1933 and 1940. Their works, earlier reports of S. Grier and others, and the intelligence reports by the colonial officers would eventually necessitate big reforms of the colonial administrative structures in the East including warrant chieftaincy. Most of the corrupt warrant chiefs who came to power by imposition and bribery earlier than 1929 were disgraced and ousted at this time (the 1930s).

Preference was given to natural leaders and those elected by Ụmụnna or the community clans. On the other hand, the women’s war/protests laid the foundation for other protests and mass colonial resistance that would happen within the East and even other parts of Nigeria. It is important to note that the Aba women’s protests or “war” (as Prof. Adiele Afigbo insists: Ọgụ Ụmụnwaanyị”) was a very big — even one of the biggest — demonstration of civil disobedience recorded in the world in the first quarter of the 20th century. And until one investigates and researches it, one would always think it to be just a mere “riot” or some “revolt” as the colonialists themselves have struggled to diminish it (“Aba Women’s Revolt/Aba Women’s Riot”).

There should be indeed—like some others have insisted—such monuments as: Nwanyerụwa Road/Street, Ikonnia Way/Avenue, Nwannedie Close, Nwugo Roundabout/Park or other strategic monuments in these women’s names. Sadly, I haven’t heard of any in the Aba town itself let alone elsewhere in Igboland, which is an indication that many Igbo and Ibibio haven’t quite understood or appreciated what our great-grandmothers/grandmothers achieved for us paying with their lives and blood. It’s disheartening we have joined the colonialists to demean this sacrifice offered with nothing but sheer bravery at a time when the men had tired out fighting the colonial invaders.

May the ebullient and towering spirits of these great Opobo, Igbo, and Ibibio Women continue to live within us and sire greater species of Igbo, Opobo and Ibibio persons.

Research Carried Out And Written By Chijioke Ngobili


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