Feminist Hero Friday: Nwanyereuwa, leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial "Women's War"

by Abaki Beck

Nwanyereuwa is a name you perhaps don’t associate with revolution. But in 1929, Nwanyereuwa helped leads protests against British rule in Nigeria, that eventually more than 10,000 Nigerian women took part in. Women from six different ethnic groups - the Ibibio, Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo, and Igbo - joined to resist Warrant Chiefs and the social, political, and economic oppression of women in British Nigerian society. The Women’s War - known as the Aba Women’s Riots in British colonial records - broke out in November of 1929 when Igbo women traveled to the tow of Oloko in South Eastern Nigeria to protest Warrant Chiefs. At that time, women were not required to pay taxes, which the British government was trying to impose. The protests were in part in resistance to these new taxes. By December 1929, more than ten thousand women across the country organized and protested.

Nwanyeruwa was one of the major women leading the revolts, and is considered one of the reasons that the revolts remained mostly non-violent. She advised women protesters to use protest song, dance, and sit-ins, which eventually resulted in many Warrant Chiefs resigning. Because of her success, other groups followed this format throughout Nigeria.

In colonizing Nigeria, the British attempted to have total control. Limited local rule was given to Nigerian men, but women were ignored. In 1928, the British government began taxing men, because you know, the process of colonization and total control hadn’t taken enough yet (sarcasm). The year preceding the British implemented a strong propaganda campaign, and the taxes were imposed with little incident. This did not occur, however, when they tried to tax women in 1929. When Nwanyeruwa, a widow, was approached by a census worker asking her to count the people, sheep and goats at her house, she was suspicious that the census was trying to figure out how to tax her. Her and the census worker fought, and she argued that women traditionally did not pay taxes in Igbo society; it was only occurring because of colonialism. Soon after, she discussed the issue of taxation with other women in town. They decided to organize a protest - attracting thousands of women from the area - and called for the resignation of the Warrant Chief who controlled the region.  

This was the first time a protest against a colonial state of this size had happened in Africa. In addition to sit ins and protest song and dance, women released prisoners, destroyed homes of Warrant Chiefs and other men in power, and attacked courts. The impacts of the protests were far reaching. In some parts, women were able to gain political power and replace Warrant Chiefs. Other protest movements spread throughout Nigeria against colonial rule.

Nwanyeruwa was a freedom fighter  and revolutionary who advocated for women’s rights under an oppressive colonial regime. This Friday, we celebrate her as one of the leaders of this movement, which ignited protests and change led by women across the country of Nigeria and the region.