Daughters of Africa: Women's War 1929, Nigeria (Igbo: Ogu Ndem or Ogu Umunwaanyi)

The Aba Women's Riot, also known as the Women's War (Igbo: Ogu Ndem or Ogu Umunwaanyi), was an insurrection in British Nigeria which occurred in November 1929. The revolt broke out when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria travelled to the town of Oloko to protest against the Warrant Chiefs, whom they accused of restricting the role of women in the government. The Aba Women's Riot of 1929, as it was named in British colonial records, is more aptly considered a stratefically executed anti-colonial revolt organised by women to redress social, political, and econmic grievances. The protest encompassed women from six ethnic groups (Ibibio, Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo, and Igbo) [1] It was organised and led by the rural women of Owerri and Calabar provinces. During the events, many Warrant Chiefs were forced to resign and sixteen Native Courts were attacked, most of which were destroyed.

Events and causes

In actuality, the emergence of the Women's War was long in the making. In April 1927, the British colonial government in Nigeria took measures to enforce the Native Revenue (Amendment) Ordinance. A colonial resident, W. E. Hunt was commissioned by the lieutenant governor of Nigeria to explain the provisions and objects of the new ordinance to the people throughout the five provinces in the Eastern Region. This was to prepare the ground for the introduction of direct taxation due to take effect in April 1928. Direct taxation on men was introduced in 1928 without major incidents, thanks to the careful propaganda during the preceding twelve months. In September 1929, Captain J. Cook, an assistant district officer, was sent to take over the Bende division temporarily from the district officer, Mr. Weir, until the arrival of Captain Hill from leave in November. Upon taking over, Cook found the original nominal rolls for taxation purposes inadequate because they did not include details of the number of wives, children, and livestock in each household. He set about to revise the nominal roll. This exercise was to bring the colonial authority in direct conflict with women in Eastern Nigeria and the catalyst for fundamental change in the local administration.

The announcement of his intent to revise the nominal roll was made by Cook to a few chiefs in Oloko Native Court and the counting began about October 14, 1929. The women of Oloko suspected that the enumeration exercise was a prelude to the extension of direct taxation, which was imposed on the men the previous year. On December 2, 1929, more than ten thousand women demonstrated at Oloko, Bende division against the enumeration of men, women, and livestock by colonial officials. This event at Oloko was to spread to most parts of the Eastern Region within the next four weeks in the Ogu Umunwanyi or Women's War of 1929.


The Women's War was sparked by a dispute between a woman named Nwanyereuwa and a man, Mark Emereuwa, who was helping to make a census of the people living in the town controlled by the Warrant, Okugo. Nwanyeruwa was of Ngwa ancestry, and had been married in the town of Oloko. In Oloko, the census was related to taxation, and women in the area were worried about who would tax them, especially during the period of hyperinflation in the late 1920s.

On the morning of November 18, Emereuwa arrived at Nwanyereuwa's house and approached Nwanyereuwa, since her husband Ojim, had already died. He told the widow to "count her goats, sheep and people." Since Nwanyereuwa understood this to mean, "How many of these things do you have so we can tax you based on them", she was angry. She replied by saying "Was your widowed mother counted?," meaning "that women don't pay tax in traditional Igbo society."[1] The two exchanged angry words, and Nwanyeruwa went to the town square to discuss the incident with other women who happened to be holding a meeting to discuss the issue of taxing women. Believing they would be taxed, based on Nwanyeruwa's account, the Oloko women invited other women (by sending leaves of palm-oil trees) from other areas in the Bende District, as well as from Umuahia and Ngwa. They gathered nearly 10,000 women who protested at the office of Warrant Chief Okugo, demanding his resignation and calling for a trial.[2]

The Oloko Trio

The leaders of the protest in Oloko are known as the Oloko Trio: Ikonnia, Mwannedia and Nwugo. The three were known for their skills in speaking, their intelligence and their passion. When protests became tense, it was often these three who were able to deescalate the situation, preventing violence. However, after two women were killed while blocking colonial roads as a form of protest, the trio was not able to calm the situation there, the police and army were sent to the town.

The legacy of Nwanyeruwa

Nwanyereuwa played a major role in keeping the protests non-violent. She was advanced in age compared to many who led the protests. Under her advice, the women protested in song and dance, "sitting" on the Warrant Chiefs until they surrendered their insignia of office and resigned. As the revolt spread, other groups followed this pattern, making the women's protest a peaceful one. Other groups came to Nwanyeruwa to get in writing the inspirational results of the protests, which, as Nwanyeruwa saw them, were that, "women will not pay tax till the world ends [and] Chiefs were not to exist any more."

Madam Mary Okezie

Madam Mary Okezie (1906–1999) was the first woman from her Igbo clan to gain a Western education, and was teaching at the Anglican Mission School in Umuocham Aba in 1929 when the women's revolt broke out. Although she did not participate in the revolt, she was very sympathetic to the women's cause. She was the only woman who submitted a memo of grievance to the Aba Commission of Inquiry (sent in 1930). Today, the major primary source for studying the revolt is the Report of the Aba Commission of Inquiry. After the revolt, Madam Okezie emerged as founder and leader of the Ngwa Women's Association and working for the rest of her life to support women's rights in Nigeria.[5]

Other major figures
Mary of Ogu Ndem (Mary of the Women's War)
Ihejilemebi Ibe of Umuokirika Village


Main article: Sitting on a man

A major tactic in the protests was what is known as "sitting". Along with singing and dancing around the houses and offices of the Warrant Chiefs, the women would follow their every move, invading their space and forcing the men to pay attention. The wives of the Warrant Chiefs were often disturbed and they too put pressure on the Warrants to listen to the demands of the women. This tactic of "sitting on the Warrants," i.e. following them everywhere and anywhere, was very popular with the women in Nigeria, and used to great effect.

Aba commission of enquiry

The commission held public sittings for thirty-eight days at various locations in the Owerri and Calabar Provinces and interviewed 485 witnesses. Of this total number of witnesses, only about 103 were women. The rest consisted of local men and British administrative officials who were either called to explain their role in the revolt or why they could not stop the women.


The women's protests were carried out on a scale that the colonial state had never witnessed in any part of Africa. Until the end of December 1929, when troops restored order, ten native courts were destroyed, a number of others were damaged, houses of native court personnel were attacked, and European factories at Imo River, Aba, Mbawsi, and Amata were looted. Women 46 attacked prisons and released prisoners. But the response of the colonial authority was also decisive. By the time order was restored, about fifty-five women killed by the colonial troops. British troops left Owerri on the 27 December 1929, and the last patrol in Abak Division withdrew on 9 January 1930. By 10 January 1930, the revolt was regarded as crushed. Throughout late December 1929 and early January 1930, more than thirty collective punishment inquiries were carried out.[5] It is generally believed, according to Nina Mba, that this event marked the end of the women's activities because the new administration under Governor Donald Cameron took into account some of the women's recommendations in revising the structure of the Native Administration. Thus, the Women's War is seen as the historical dividing point in British colonial administration in Nigeria with far reaching implications.

As a result of the protests, the position of women in society was greatly improved. In some areas, women were able to replace the Warrant Chiefs. Women were also appointed to serve on the Native Courts. After the Women's war, women's movements were very strong in Ngwaland, many events in the 1930s, 40s and 50s were inspired by the Women's War, including the Tax Protests of 1938, the Oil Mill Protests of the 1940s in Owerri and Calabar Provinces and the Tax Revolt in Aba and Onitsha in 1956 [6]. On two occasions British district officers were called and security forces forced to break up protests. During these occasions, at least 50 women were shot dead and 50 more wounded. The women themselves never seriously injured anybody against whom they were protesting, nor any of the security forces who broke up those protests.