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Women’s Day: Nigerian women contributions to liberation

By Owei Lakemfa

TODAY is International Women Day, a day dedicated to the liberation of women, and by extension, the emancipation of all humanity from discrimination and repression. Its observance is based on the 1910  motion by German liberation fighter, Clara Zetkin, at the Second International Conference of Working Women. The 2019 Women’s Day coincides with the 90th Anniversary of the greatest women revolt in African history, the 1929 Aba Women Uprising which the British colonialists sought to denigrate by officially referring to it as a ‘riot’.

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Britain had commenced its final take over and colonisation of what is today, Nigeria with its 1851 invasion of Lagos under the guise of stopping the slave trade. Ten years later, it formally colonised Lagos. In 1897, Britain invaded one of the largest empires in African history, the Benin Empire, burnt down Benin City and looted its treasures. In 1903, it overran the largest cities in the North: Kano, Yola, Hadejia and the Sokoto Caliphate. In 1914, it amalgamated the Lagos Crown Colony, the Southern and Northern Protectorates and named it the Niger Area (Nigeria). With that it was certain it had conquered the entire country and overcome all resistance. But resistance against colonialism came from the most unexpected source: women!

The British colonialists had created courts and Warrant Chiefs without consulting the colonised. The Chiefs who relegated the traditional rulers and elders to the background, also ruled as colonial overlords loyal only to the British. In April 1927, the colonialists began  implementing  the Native Revenue (Amendment) Ordinance. The taxation of men in Eastern Nigeria began in 1928 without resistance. But on October 14, 1929, Captain J. Cook, an Assistant District Officer in the Oloko Area, began a detailed census of all males, wives, children, and livestock in each household obviously in order to widen the tax base.

Clara Zetkin in moving the motion for the International Women’s Day  had argued: “When the men are silent, it is our duty to raise our voices on behalf of our ideals”. That was what happened. When the enumerator got to the compound of Ojim, one of his wives, Nwanyeruwa, an elderly native nurse, resisted and  engaged the enumerator sent by Warrant Chief Okougbo in a physical combat. She then ran to a meeting of women that was holding to inform them about the incidence. The women marched on the house of the Warrant Chief and demanded his cap which was the symbol of his authority. Clashes occurred with his staff and servants.

On November 25, women from various villages and towns marched into Oloko to solidify the siege on the Warrant Chief’s compound.  To avert an uprising, the colonialists sacrificed Okougbo by trying him for injuring some of the women. On December 4, 1929, he was convicted and the British Colonial District Officer, DO, sent the Warrant Chief’s cap to the women. Rather than assuage them, the women declared  Ogu Umunwanyi (Igbo) or Ekong Iban (Ibibio) which meant ‘Women War’ on all Warrant Chiefs and the colonialists. Within days, women had burnt down 16 courts and sent a number of the British DOs and Warrant Chiefs  fleeing.

The women moved from their initial demands of no taxation for themselves, to no payment of tax by even males, end of the Warrant Chief system and of colonialism itself. They demanded that: “ All the White men should go to their country so that the land in this area might remain as it was many years ago before the advent of the Whiteman”. The Oloko women who began the uprising elected three middle aged women: Nwannedie, Ikonnia and Nwugo, who were no longer bearing children, as their spokespersons or leaders. Other towns adopted this.

Women in various towns sent delegations to Mrs. Nwanyeruwa Ojim who had triggered the uprising. She told them not to loot, but concentrate on seizing the caps of the chiefs. She gave each delegation, a letter of ‘authority’ written in Igbo which read: “Nwanyeruwa of Oloko proper …said women will not pay tax till the world ends… that Chiefs were not to exist anymore and that was the voice of all the women”. The uprising produced many courageous leaders like Mary Onumaere from Nguru who on December 14, 1929 led some three thousand women to try entering the city of Owerri.

As the uprising spread through the Ibibio, Igbo, Ogoni, Opobo, Bonny and Andoni women, the British sent in armed troops to confront the virtually unarmed women. In the clashes, 55 women were killed and 50 injured. Then the British commenced a ruthless post-war repression of the women partly to scare away more women, especially in the large towns like Onitsha and Ogoja  joining, but also to dissuade the men joining the women. Identified women were punished for their roles in the uprising. For instance, Nnete Nma who led the women of Obohie, near Azumini was sentenced to two years imprisonment. The British were worried that rather than be cowed, the women even in defeat, were making demands.

In 1947, a similar  protest occurred in Abeokuta led by the over 200,000-member  Abeokuta Women’s Union. They demanded an end to women taxation and its replacement with tax paid by expatriate companies. They also demanded women inclusion in the Native Authority  leadership and the abdication of the traditional ruler, Oba Ladipo Ademola, whom they accused of being dictatorial, pro-colonial and corrupt. The protests went on until 1949, before the women won their demands.

Today, while Nigerian women remain the backbone of our nuclei family, agriculture and informal economy, and take pride in promoting our culture, including hairstyle and dressing, there is a strand that mistakes degeneracy with modernity or Women Liberation. While  American women in the 1960s burnt the bra to protest against sexism and discrimination, there are today, Nigerian women who go braless for no understandable reason. While in our traditional society, women appearing half naked in the streets is the strongest protest possible for which even monarchs were dethroned, today some go about half naked as a warped sense of fashion.

In negation of our strong sense of womanhood, it may not be impossible to meet a Nigerian lady with bleached skin, false hair, false eye lashes, false finger nails, false toe nails, braless and without undies as a feminist statement. In reality, these are not in furtherance of the Women Liberation  which includes  lifting  society by fighting gender discrimination, exploitation and  the subjugation of women to discriminatory or harmful cultural,  religious, political and socio-economic practices. The International Women’s Day and Women Liberation is to encourage the Woman to remain standing despite all odds just as 15-year-old Leah Sharibu stood, even in captivity, against the depravity of the Boko Haram.


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