The riots/ war led by women in the Calabar and Owerri provinces of southeastern Nigeria in November and December of 1929 became known as the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929 in British colonial history and Aba Women’s War in Igbo history.
Thousands of Igbo women organized a massive revolt against the policies imposed by British colonial administrators in southeastern Nigeria. This riot is one of the most serious challenges to British rule in the history of Nigeria.
It took the colonial government two months to suppress the Aba women’s riots which became a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest.
Causes of the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929
The roots of the riots evolved from January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria.
Under the indirect rule system, British administrators ruled locally through warrant chiefs – Igbo individuals appointed by the colonial governor. Within a few years, the appointed warrant chiefs became increasingly oppressive.
They seized properties, imposed draconian local regulations, and jailed anyone who openly criticized them. Although much of the anger was directed against the warrant chiefs, most Nigerians knew the source of their power, British colonial administrators.
Taxation of Igbo Women
Colonial administrators added to the local sense of grievance when they announced plans to impose special taxes on the Igbo market women. 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.
In November 1929, thousands of Igbo women congregated at the Native Administration centres in Calabar and Owerri as well as smaller towns to protest both the warrant chiefs and the taxes on the market women.
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 to release 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 months war, at least 25,000 Igbo women were involved in protests against British officials.
The Aba women’s riots of 1929 prompted colonial authorities to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women and to curb the power of the warrant chiefs. The women’s uprising is seen as the first major challenge to British authority in Nigeria and West Africa during the colonial period.
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- Judith Van Allen, “Aba Riots” or “Women’s War”?: British Ideology and Eastern Nigerian Women’s Political Activism (Waltham, MA.: African Studies Association, 1971);
- D. C. Dorward, ed., The Igbo “Women’s War” of 1929: Documents Relating to the Aba Riots in Eastern Nigeria (Wakefield, England: East Ardsley, 1983);
- Omipidan, T.eslim O. (2014). Colonial Rule in Nigeria and Nigeria’s Struggle for Independence. highlifextra. https://oldnaija.com/2014/11/05/colonial-rule-in-nigeria-and-nigerias-struggle-for-independence/
- Nina Emma Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900-1965(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982);
- Evans, M. (2009, March 27) Aba Women’s Riots (November-December 1929). Black Past