Comrades, let us be clear: there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. In Africa, the contribution of women in the fight against imperialism must be acknowledged for its crucial role in our revolutionary journey. In this article, we tell the story of the 1929 women’s revolution in Southeastern Nigeria.
What were they revolting against?
Women were protesting against the exploitative and oppressive rule by warrant chiefs, unjust court systems, and taxes imposed on market women. All of this is rooted in British colonial rule. Warrant chiefs were the result of British colonialism, with British imperialists appointing chief-status to some of the indigenous elite. This resulted in some holding unprecedented levels of individual authority over many colonies; for example, prior to colonialism, the Igbo people made decisions through debate or through general consensus, not through the declaration of chiefs or kings. Warrant chiefs became increasingly exploitative, accumulating wealth at the expense of their subjects. Further, this colonialist intervention worsened (or in some cases, created) patriarchal systems of oppression, as only men were allowed to be warrant chiefs.
Much of this exploitation occured through the court and taxation systems, which had now become corrupted thanks to colonial influence on the political system through the elevated status of warrant chiefs and the presence of British officials. For example, warrant chiefs began seizing property from their subjects, and they would imprison anyone who spoke out against them. Later, colonial administrators announced intentions to impose a special taxes on the Igbo market women, which would of course lead to the disproportionate success of the new European-owned stores:
“These women were responsible for supplying the food to the growing urban populations in Calabar, Owerri, and other Nigerian cities. They feared the taxes would drive many of the market women out of business and seriously disrupt the supply of food and non-perishable goods available to the populace.”ㅡ Aba Women’s Riots, Marissa Evans, Black Past
Forced economic reliance is a persistent tactic seen in colonial expansion, especially in current, “post-colonial” imperialism. For example, if you check out our other article Capitalism in Nigeria, and a call for unity of the proletariat!, we go over the environmental degradation caused primarily by western oil companies. This imperialist resource extraction destroys local soils and waterways, making it impossible for Nigerians to rely on farming and fishing.
Thus, they’re forced to rely on imports into the country, fostering this economic reliance on the imperialist powers exploiting them. This is also why the myth that technological development can “fix” the poverty of so-called undeveloped countries is so dangerous. It’s literally saying that addressing poverty in these countries can be solved only by more imperialist intervention…it’s masking the true cause of the problem, and it’s often framing the “helpers” as those seeking to profit further off economic exploitation. This is often nothing more than a reshuffling of exploitation meant to manufacture the consent of the exploited parties involved, and redirect anger towards the parties that aren’t really responsible. The misdirection of anger is very likely why local warrant chiefs were granted control of colonies. This masks the true source of systemic power. Thankfully, the Igbo women were not fooled by this: “Although much of the anger was directed against the warrant chiefs, most Nigerians knew the source of their power, British colonial administrators.”
In November 1929, thousands of Igbo women took to the streets in protest. This revolutionary action was led by rural women in the Owerri and Carlaba provinces, as well as in smaller nearby towns.
“Using the traditional practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule (often called ‘sitting on a man’), the women chanted and danced, and in some locations forced warrant chiefs to resign their positions. The women also attacked European owned stores and Barclays Bank and broke into prisons and released [political] prisoners. They also attacked Native Courts run by colonial officials, burning many of them to the ground. Colonial Police and troops were called in. They fired into the crowds that had gathered at Calabar and Owerri, killing more than 50 women and wounding over 50 others. During the two month “war” at least 25,000 Igbo women were involved in protests against British officials.”ㅡ Aba Women’s Riots, Marissa Evans, Black Past
This gathering of women was compromised of women from six different ehthnic groupsㅡlbibio, andoni, ogoni, bonny, opobo, and Igbo. These women came together in solidarity to fight colonialism and Patriarchal systems of oppression, despite the emerging ethnic and religious tensions (which were ultimately rooted in colonial rule). This event marked the first major anti-colonial revolt led by women in west Africa, and many anti-colonial movements in Africa calling for independence from imperialist forces were built around this very revolt.
Did it work?
Indeed the purpose of the revolt was achieved! During this time, many warrant chiefs were forced to resign, and sixteen courts were destroyed. Colonial authorities were forced to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women, and the power of warrant chiefs was significantly weakened. In 1930, the colonial government was even forced to abolish the system of warrant chiefs altogether, and several women were appointed to the native court systems.
Currently, Nigeria is facing severe oppression. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing more Nigerians dying of security officers than increasingly violent policing than the virus itself. With ports closing down, many are more fearful of starvation than coronavirus:
Njoku and her husband relied on their eldest son, who is into furniture work, for their daily meals. Unfortunately, that source of income has been put on hold since the state was on lockdown about four weeks ago. […]
The grey-haired woman has heard of government palliatives, food and a sum of N20,000 the Federal Government is giving out to vulnerable people like her to cushion the effect of lockdown but none has yet to come her way. ‘I have not received any palliatives from government,’ she disclosed.
“‘I have become sick because of hunger. If not for God and help from some generous people, maybe I would have died by now,’ the grandmother bemoaned as she began to share her ongoing excruciating moments.ㅡ We’re old, poor and hungry, yet we’ve received no cash from FG –Lagos’ vulnerable persons, Punch News
This reliance on imports is explicitly linked to environmental degradation decreasing the viability of farming and fishing. This environmental degradation, in turn, is directly connected to western oil corporations, such as Shell and Exon-Mobile.
This forced reliance on imports is now resulting in widespread hunger throughout the country. Beyond this, as the above article indicates, help is not being sent to the families most in need of assistance. Instead, they’re met with harsh policing under the guise of safety, as if people aren’t starving, they’re just willingly disregarding quarantine. They’re not, they are hungry and in need of support. This is the same government that turned away during violent, forced evictions in waterfront communities. This is beyond corruption, this is a slow genocide.
To help out comrades in Unite4Action-Nigeria, consider contributing to the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Fund (GoFundMe). We appreciate any help you can give!
For more on the history of feminism, check out our related article:
Pop feminism in the United States. Taking a look at the US, there is an undeniable link between gender and class, with women throughout the US not getting the right to vote until 1920. While women can now participate in electoral politics, their economic position has hardly budged since the suffrage movement. Prior to the … More