How Aba Women Riot split Igboland

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By Uduma Kalu

Perhaps, this year’s new yam festival in Obowu, one of the largest communities in Igbo heartland, was the grandest. The festival which began on August 16 with an intellectual feast ended on the 17th with the new yam cut and eaten by all in the large square.

New yam festival is important to the Igbo. It celebrates their lives. They use it as a thanksgiving to God for a good harvest, and for articulating their people’s lives and realities.

Held at Otoko Obowu, the two -day event organized by the Obowo Development Association (ODA Federated), a sociocultural umbrella body of all Obowu citizens in Imo state and elsewhere, was attended by the Imo state governor, Rochas Okorocha represented by Speaker of the Imo State House of Assembly, Mrs Victoria Mbakwe, wife of the late charismatic governor of old Imo state, Sam Mbakwe, members of the National Assembly such as Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Emeka Ihedioha, Senator Matthew Nwagwu, Prof. Chudi Uwazurike, immediate past senator of the Okigwe zone, Chief. SN Anyanwu, former secretary to the Imo state government, Chris Okewulonu, Celestine Ngaobiwu, Deacon Okafor, Prof. Anthony Anwuka, SSG to the Imo government, political leaders, scholars, monarchs, hundreds of cultural and political groups, among many others.

But what caught the attention of the over 5000 delegates to the venue was the event’s lecture topic: Igbo identity crises. This did not only point at the reason why denials of origins and identity problems persist in Igboland, it explained in detail how the well known Aba Women’s Riots split Obowu and Igboland

The topic was timely, coinciding with the Igbo women’s national meetings known as August meetings. August Meetings are held in all Igbo towns and villages by the women for the development of their land. Incidentally,late Chief Sam Mbakwe’s wife, Victoria, leads the women of Obowu in that capability. And she was present.

Two scholars were picked to talk on this topic. Prince Keke C. Chima of Ihitte, a former Permanent Secretary and Prof. Chidi Osuagwu of Obowu of the Federal university of technology were asked to discuss the Ikenga and Ihitte Factors in the Archeology of Obowu Cultural Displays, Iwaji by Autonomous Communities.

The Igbo identity crisis began in I929, Osuagwu began. The British had just introduced the warrant chief system to enhance their colonial administration in Eastern Nigeria. In the North and West, the monarchs made the system work. But the East had no monarchy with such overwhelming powers as in the other two. They therefore created warrant chiefs for that purpose. This is the root of the presence of many traditional rulers and autonomous communities in Igboland, with their attendant boundary and chieftaincy violence as Chima noted.

This was what led to one of the biggest protests against colonial rule, The Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 in Nigeria and the British Empire in general.

But the Aba Women’s Riot played a major role in the Igbo identity crisis, he alleged. The revolt began when a woman named Nwanyereuwa confronted one Mark Emereuwa, a census official in Oloko, in Bende area controlled by a Warrant chief, Okugo on taxation. The women there mobilised nearly 10,000 women who protested at the office of Warrants across Igboland, Calabar and Opobo . During the two months “war” at least 25,000 Igbo women were involved in protests against British officials. About 50 were killed.

The policy was dropped. But the set up panels in Eastern Nigeria on the cause of the riots. Assistant District Officer NAPG Mackenzie studied Obowu. With maps, historical details and Igbo philosophy, Osuagwu identified three reasons why the Obowu clans split. The first was the demand for a separate court by the Ihitte chiefs in order to have more warrant-chiefs. The next was the struggle to fill the warrant chief stool of Onwunali Obasi of Amuzi deposed by the women. The process polarized support along the sub-clan lines,” Hence the vehemence with which Ihitte demanded a separate court three years later.”

The third, Osuagwu said, was the banditry of the Obowu against colonialism. The people, in reaction to Britain’s punitive measures, attacked government establishments, bringing embarrassment to Obowu youth abroad. Then, the Methodist Church established a Bookshop at Umuahia, and this news stirred the region. But an Ihitte-Obowu young man went into the Bookshop and stole some. The Zik Group of Newspapers carried the story, saying the man could not read and did not know what to do with the books. This story embarrassed Obowu youth, who were jeered at, in the colonial townships. They decided to act.

“Obowu youth decided that Ikenga-Obowu should excise Obowu from the name and answer Ikenga; Ihitte was to do same and answer Ihitte. In desperation, Obowu youth had decided to abolish their proper names and answer adjectives.

Richard Onyeneho, of Umuariam, led the youth to inform Ikenga-Obowu of the new development in clan nomenclature, while David Epeagba led the youth to inform Ihitte-Obowu. The warrant-chiefs having created the framework for an easy-sale in Ihitte, the idea was adopted. It failed in Ikenga because of the intervention of a patriot Obowu people had better come to know better; Biringa Odiotu of Umunachi Obowu,” Osuagwu told the perplexed gathering.

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