Nwanyeruwa was an Igbo woman who lived in the village of Oloko in South-Eastern Nigeria. She is remembered for organising a women’s revolt against the taxation system imposed by the British colonial administration.
Having asserted their presence in Nigeria throughout the best part of the nineteenth century, by the start of the 1900s the British had tightened their grip through indirect rule, whereby the colonies’ indigenous inhabitants were governed not directly by British officials but rather by local representatives appointed by the British. While the strategy underpinning indirect ruling was to use pre-existing indigenous structures to better control the colonies’ inhabitants, in reality local traditions and history were largely ignored and British models were imposed.
In the area then known as Southern Nigerian Protectorate, the British introduced the Warrant Chiefs System, whereby local men were appointed by the colonisers to exercise authority on their fellow villagers and the Native Courts, where disputes were settled according to British law. Both systems excluded women, who had been active in the political life of precolonial times.
Resentment increased among women and men alike with the introduction of direct taxation in the 1920s, which was not only financially burdensome, but also considered unethical and a symbol of the submission to a foreign power. Locals were so impoverished that some resorted to mortgaging and selling their children. To make things worse, taxation was implemented by those Warrant Chiefs who were supposed to be on the side of their fellow countrymen but who in fact aligned themselves with the oppressors. For the indigenous inhabitants, the last straw was the introduction of a census which was perceived as a symbol of their objectification into white men’s property. Despite the seething discontent, in 1928, both census and taxation were implemented with few obstacles. But in 1929, when a rumour spread that women were going to be taxed as well, things turned.
Indigenous women had carried on exercising power in their traditional domains: market networks, meetings and kinship groups. During their meetings, the women in the Oloko Native Court had resolved to revolt if taxation was extended to them, which would have brought households to their knees and made life impossible. They agreed to wait until a move was made towards imposing further tax.
This happened in November 1929 when a Captain John Cook ordered for a new census to take into account each man’s number of wives, children, and animals. Okugo, the Warrant Chief of Oloko, sent an agent to count the members of each household. On 23 November 1929, the agent, Mark Emeruwa, approached a compound where he found Nwanyeruwa, an elder woman, preparing palm oil. When Emeruwa asked her to count her household’s livestock and family members, Nwanyeruwa took it as a sign that women were going to be taxed. She verbally attacked Emeruwa before running to a women’s assembly to announce that the wheels had been set in motion to start taxing women. This was the signal the women of Oloko had been waiting for: they sent out palm leaves, which symbolised a request for help, to the women of the neighbouring villages who in turn sent more palm leaves further out. Women were called on to revolt against the Warrant Chiefs and thus against British rule. This started with “sitting on” Oloko: a practice which entailed making noise and threats outside the Warrant Chief’s house while wearing war attire and make-up. For the following few weeks, over 10,000 women targeted Warrant Chiefs, Native Courts and European factories in their villages, destroying buildings and looting them. A particularly destructive accident took place in the city of Aba, hence the naming of the revolt as Aba Women’s riots, or Ogu Umunwanyi (Women’s War). Women demanded the abolition of taxation and the dismantling of the Warrant Chiefs system, as well as the chiefs’ prosecution. They asked that “all white men go to their country” so that the land could heal and return to what it had been before their arrival.
The revolt was quelled in January 1930. Between fifty and sixty women were killed, with several more wounded. However, the British agreed to reform both Native Courts and the Warrant Chief systems, taking women into account when it came to legislative decisions. The riots also delayed by some years the taxation of women.
As for Nwanyeruwa, she is only cited on another occasion when, called to testify against Warrant Chief Okugo in March 1930, she answered simply: “We had no money to pay tax. […]I was once a rich woman, but as [Okugo] had been taking money away from me I had now no money.” This sparked the riots.
Even though not much is known about Nwanyeruwa apart from her role in the Aba Women’s War, her voice was fundamental for the construction of the anti-colonial movement, which extended to all of Nigeria and culminated with the country’s independence in 1960.
©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include “Continuities, Changes and Challenges: Women’s Role in Nigerian Society” by Christie Achebe // “Perceiving Women as Catalysts” by Felix Ekechi // Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel by Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw.