This is the story of how the British government attempted to impose Tax on women in the defunct Eastern Nigeria was heavily resisted. Aba women will not take it. They asserted that only Men paid Tax and Tax Payment by women was a taboo. To show their seriousness, they came out forcefully in a large-scale riot that had all the elements of insurrection. The protest, which lasted for more than two months swept through out the defunct eastern region, claimed lives of 51 women and one man.
Its ferociousity left ugly marks of destruction on more than 36 native courts and other government office structures in charred rubble, while warrant chiefs, who were tax collectors and their errand boys suffered physical attack and relegation in the scheme of things. It all started with expansion of tax net to capture more people and items to generate more money for the colonialists.
Imposition of taxes on every item in a household, which included, goats, dogs and even agricultural produce, not to talk of women were mooted to boost revenue generation for the home government in the face of stagflation inflicted by Great Depression that was ravaging Europe and the entire world for more than six years at the time. It started in 1929. The colonial masters were yawning for more money to foot their bills, but never knew they were about to step on cobra’s tail if women were taxed. They did and the cobra fiercely fought back, spitting poisonous fury.
In 1928, the colonial administration had introduced poll tax for men and there was no trouble or protest. Payment of tax by men was not strange to pre-colonial Africa. It was the rule. To, however, call on women to pay tax in Africa was strange, not to talk of imposing taxes on goats, sheep, rams, dogs and agricultural produce, which the people regarded impoverishing, demeaning and wicked. That exactly was what an assistant District Officer, Captain J. Cook, who was appointed at that time to run the administration of Bende Division in the defunct Eastern region for a while, did. He ruffled the nest of an eagle and the bird attempted to devour him and his principal.
Taxes were then collected by warrant chiefs. The colonial masters-appointed warrant chiefs were strange to the socio-political setting of Bende division and by extension the whole of eastern region. No wonder, they were despised and regarded as whitemen servants which they really were. There was no central traditional authority in the eastern region as were the case in the northern region and western region of Nigeria. The two regions had traditional ruler-structures which were absent in the eastern region. The eastern region was largely republican, with clan heads as the only recognised and respected traditional authorities. To fill the void and make running of administration smooth and easy, the colonial masters created and introduced warrant chiefs . They were to collect taxes and do other related duties for the white masters. They were, however, sneered at by the people who looked on them with contempt because of their high-handedness and condescending attitude. The warrant chiefs mostly had their noses in the air whenever they were among the people..
On 18 November, 1929, a warrant chief, Okugo Nwanyereuwa, sent out one of his aides, Mark Emereuwa, on tax assessment raid at Oloto neighbourhood. Emereuwa entered a household of a widow, Nwanyereuwa, and saw the woman processing palm fruits for oil. After exchanging greeting that was not complimentary, the tax raider told the widow the purpose of his visit. Immediately, hostility was in the air. Mr. Emereuwa ordered the woman to count people living with her, lives stocks and agricultural produce. The woman who was trying vigorously to hide her pent-up frustration and sadness over the death of her husband was literally boiling.
She turned away from the palm fruits processing she was doing and faced her visitor. In contemptuous voice, she asked: Was your widowed mother counted for tax? Literally she was just telling Emereuwa that women don’t pay tax in Igboland. The exchange of words became heated. Out of anger, the taxman snatched the processed oil in a container on the ground and poured its contents on the woman. Hell was let loose. The row degenerated into shouting bout laced with imprecation. The commotion attracted nearby neighbours who came to douse the ragging anger and prevent physical combat. At that point, the woman ran out of the yard and headed for the market square where many other women were buying and selling their wares. The shouting of the woman attracted attention of the traders as they hurdled round her to hear the cause of her shouting. That was how all the women present at the market square vehemently declared their opposition to women taxation. Unknown to Emereuwa, he never knew that the visit to the widow’s household would consume the privileged position of his principal and brought unexpected disgrace, socio-ecnomic and political change to the whole region of the East.
The riot was not spontaneous, it was well planned, organised and executed. That was why it recorded a resounding success. It was not only Igbo women who\protested. Women from other areas of the region participated. Efik and Ibibio women from the Cross River area, Ogoni and Ijaw women from the Niger Delta and even Adoni women participated in saying ‘No’ to woman taxation and high-handedness of the warrant chiefs. The women who accused the warrant chiefs of relegating women”s role in district council administration in their various areas, trooped to the street with palm fronds in their hands, saying uncomplimentary things about British overlords and their puppet warrant chiefs
More than 10,000 women trooped to Oloko to protest what they described as maladministration of the colonial masters.This did not go down well with the Britons because they were not unaware of the presence of Germany that was equally interested in administering the area. Constabularies alone could not douse the protest and soldiers were also brought out to stop the women in their track. 51 women and a man were killed. From whatever perspective the riot was viewed, it was a costly price to pay, considering the lives that were lost.
The scale, vehemence and strength of the rioters forced the British government to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the immediate and remote causes of the protest. The colonial masters could not ignore a protest that was fast toeing the path of rebellion. Britons were not unaware of the German interest in trading in the Niger Delta. It was not hidden that the efforts of Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor to worm his way into the Niger Delta were frustrated by the British diplomacy.
In the heat of the crisis, after lives were lost, the Oloko trio as they called came in to douse the ragging fire of the protest. They were: Ikonna, Mwannedia and Nwugo. To top the trio’s efforts. A primary school teacher, Madam Mary Okezia submitted a memo of grievance the AQba Commission of inquiry in 1030, which paved way into understanding of the protesters. The commission later appointed women into the administration of district councils, they were also appointed to suprentend ao native courts.
– Tajudeen Adigun