Women in Politics: When Nigerian Women Rebelled in Defiance

Adedoyin Shittu
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In a society where women usually play the second fiddle, it might be surprising to note that Nigeria has a proud history of women standing up to kick against oppression. Nigerian women have been a pivotal force in driving change in the society and the role of the woman cannot be undermine in the history of Nigeria

Women played a major role in social and economic activities even before colonization. Women were also central to trade and had enormous opportunities for accumulating wealth and acquiring titles. In Yoruba, the most successful female rose to the prestigious position of “Iyalode”.

Nigerian women were equally represented in politics though power is generally dominated by men. Though it might seem that Nigerian women are sidelined in Nigeria politics, the contributions taken by some few Nigerian women has contributed in no small measure in shaping the political system of the nation.

Aba Women’s Riot

The roots of the riots evolved from January 1, 1914, when the first Nigerian colonial governor under the Lordship of Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. This ruling system altered the position of women in the society as women were included in governance before colonization.

Before colonization, men and women worked together in the domestic sphere and both have important individual roles. Women could also participate in politics as a result of being married to elites, but the British saw this as “a manifestation of disorder and chaos”.  They then create policies that effectively shut out women from political power and this made the women sidelined coupled with the forced labour, increased school fees and corruption by local officers.

Within a few years the appointed warrant chiefs appointed by the Colonial rulers became increasingly oppressive because of the crumbs that fell from the table of the master. They seized property, imposed draconian local regulations, and began imprisoning anyone who openly criticized them. Colonial administrators added to the local sense of grievance when they announced plans to impose special taxes on the Igbo market women.

In the morning of November 18th, 1929, a man called Mark Emereuwa upon the directive of his boss, a warrant chief called Okugo, walked into compound of a widow called Nwanyeruwa for a census of all her livestock and household.

Nwanyeruwa knowing that this census will determine how much she will be taxed by the British colonial government shouted angrily at Emereuwa, “was your widowed mother at home counted”, meaning that women do not pay tax in the traditional Igbo culture. After an angry exchange between the two, Nwanyeruwa bitterly rushed down to the town and mobilised other angry women and with palm fronds other women were mobilised.

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.

This marked the one of the greatest rebellion against the British Colonial government in Nigeria and Africa called the Aba Women’s Riot also known as “The women who went to war”.

A massive revolt was organised effectively using song and dance as vehicles of ridicule and denunciation; they forced some of the chiefs to resign. As the protests gathered momentum, the women became more aggressive, attacking and looting European owned stores and banks as well as native courts managed by British officials, some of which they burned to the ground. The colonial police were eventually called in to intervene and fired shots into the crowds, killing several women. It is estimated that about 25,000 women participated in this revolt.

On two separate occasions, British district officers were called to break up protest. At least 50 women were shot dead during this period and more wounded though the women never seriously injured anybody whom they were protesting against.

This war compelled colonial authorities to revoke their intended imposition of taxes and to significantly clip the powers of the warrant chiefs.

This act of rebellion led by Nwanyeruwa in 1929 spread over six ethnic groups namely; Igbo, Ibibio, Opobo, Andoni, Ogoni and Bonny.

The women war brough a lot of positive impact to the society. It was instrumental in marking the rise of gender ideology and women who were not married to elites now had the opportunity to engage in social actions.

As a result of this riot, the position of women in society was greatly improved. In some areas, women were able to replace the Warrant Chiefs and were also appointed to serve on the Native Courts. The war inspired many movement in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Abeokuta Women’s Revolt

This is also known as the “Egba Women Riot”. When the Egba lost their independence to the British from 1918, the system of taxation adopted by the Abeokuta Sole Native Authority under the leadership of the king of Abeokuta Alake Ladipo Ademola was particularly strict and stifling.

Girls were expected to pay tax from 5 years of age; boys were to pay tax at 16 years of age while wives were separately taxed from their husbands irrespective of the incomes of the aforesaid groups of persons. Tax defaulters especially females were usually beaten up stripped naked, detained and jailed after seizing their personal properties. Allegations were also rife about molestation of women and girls detained for defaulting on their tax payments.

When the burden of the taxation became unbearable, under the leadership of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in the year 1946, Abeokuta women decided to speak out. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a teacher and mother of celebrated musician, Fela, who headed the “Abeokuta Ladies Club” changed the name to “Abeokuta Women’s Union” (AWU) and opened its membership to lower class women especially traders and partisans.

It was estimated that 20,000 members joined the club almost immediately. The union openly demanded the revocation of taxes on women and suggested that the flat tax rate imposed on Abeokuta women should be replaced with taxation on expatriate companies. They also demanded that the tax gathered should be invested on local initiatives and infrastructure including transportation and sanitation.

The women also demanded an end to the Abeokuta Sole Native Authority’s notorious price control of food items which was of negative ramifications to the policies of the women group.

In order to avoid the violence that preceded the Aba women riot 17 years ago, the women organised peaceful protest in their thousands to press home their demands.

In her two months sojourn in the United Kingdom Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti also granted many interviews to the British press about the exploitation by the British Colonial government of its colonial subjects of Egba extraction through a decadent institution called Sole Native Authority. She also wrote extensively about the exploitative taxation in Abeokuta in many British newspapers including the Communist Party newspaper while still creating time to meet with the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir Arthur Creech Jones, and informing him of what was going on in Abeokuta.

These steps strengthened her resolve to see the desired change in Abeokuta and on her return she went ahead to press her demands by staging peaceful protests with organized massive, protracted anti-tax demonstrations, some of which were held outside the palace of the Egba King (Alake of Egbaland), Oba Ademola II.

“During the protest, the women used songs such as the one translated below to ridicule the Alake: “for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband on you… O you men, vagina’s head will seek vengeance.”

The peaceful protests continued for many more months so much so that the chiefs under the King Ladipo Ademola came to reason with the demands of the Abeokuta Women Union. They therefore openly defied the king by passing a resolution that led to the suspension of taxation for women, an arrangement for women to be represented in the Egba Central Council, an open accusation of King Ladipo Ademola as being financially corrupt and an abuser of power and, finally, a civil rejection of Ladipo Ademola as the king of Abeokuta.  King Ladipo Ademola had no option but to step down from his throne in February 1949.

The success of this protest led to the formation of Nigeria Women Union and she was the leader of the union. She would go on to serve as both a political leader and a titled chieftain the twilight of the colonial era.

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Margaret Ekpo

This is another trailblazer whose contribution into the Nigerian politic cannot be overlooked. Margaret Ekpo’s was the first female direct participation in political ideas. In a male dominated influence towards Nigeria independence, she played major roles as a grass root and nationalist politician in the Eastern Nigerian city of Aba.

Her husband was angry with the British administrators’ as a result of their treatment towards indigenous Nigerian doctors at the Aba General Hospital, but as a civil servant, he could not attend meetings to discuss and fight for cultural and racial imbalance. Margaret Ekpo then attended meetings in place of her husband and she was the only woman present in the meetings.

She heard speeches by Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mazi Mbonu Ojike urging Nigerians to claim their independence from Great Britain and she took up the nationalist struggle.

She tried to get more women involved in the “Aba Market Women Association” meeting therefore she set out to devise a way to encourage Aba women membership. This led her to buy all the bags of salt in the city. During this period salt was scarce but a necessary item in the home.

During that period, husbands were reluctant to allow their wives get involved in politics but as Margaret was in charge of salt, they had no option as to let their wives register as she made it a rule that salt should be sold to only members of the association.
Her awareness of growing movements for civil rights for women around the world urged her into demanding the same for the women in Nigeria and to fight the discriminatory and oppressive political and civil role colonialism played in the subjugation of women.

She felt that women abroad were already fighting for civil rights and had more voice in political and civil matters than their counterparts in Nigeria.

By the end of the 40’s she had organised a Market Woman Association in Aba to unionise women in the city. The organisation promoted female solidarity as a way to fight for the economic rights of women and to expand their political rights.
She also joined the decolonization-leading National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NGNC), as a platform to represent a marginalized group.
In 1949, she teamed up with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest killings at an Enugu coal mine; the victims were leaders protesting colonial practices at the mine. They organised a day of mourning for the victims, and were able to draw international attention to the incident. Ekpo made a speech at the event, and was subsequently arrested and threatened with deportation. The women of Aba were outraged, and threatened to set the town ablaze, leading to Ekpo’s release. During their time together, Ekpo and Ransome-Kuti discussed the need for women’s involvement in politics, and together they went on to tour the South Eastern region to encourage women to engage with politics.

In 1953, Ekpo was nominated by the NCNC to the regional House of Chiefs, and in 1954 she established the Aba Township Women’s Association.
As leader of the new market group, she was able to gain the trust of a large amount of women in the township and turn it into a political pressure group.

By 1955, women in Aba had outnumbered men voters in a city wide election.

In 1960, Ekpo became the President of the NCNC’s women’s wing after the previous president, Flora Nnamdi Azikiwe became First Lady. Together, Ekpo and Azikiwe were responsible for the formation of the NCNC’s women’s wing.
She won a seat to the Eastern Regional House of Assembly in 1961, a position that allowed her to fight for issues affecting women at the time. Particularly issues that affect the progress of women in economic and political matters.

She was a Nigerian representative in Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference in 1964; Nigeria representative, World Women’s International Domestic Federation Conference in 1963; Member of Parliament, Nigeria, 1960 –1966 and Women’s interest representative, Nigerian Constitutional Conference in 1960.
She was also a delegate to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference 1959, 1957 and 1953, and a women’s interest representative (Eastern House of Chiefs) 1954 – 1958, and a member (Eastern House of Chiefs), 1948 – 1966.

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There are many more staged protest organised by women to press home their demands and in recent times and this has grown in recent times. One of the prominent protest led by a woman is the “Bring back our Girls” (BBOG). This gathered worldwide acknowledgement and it was led by Obiageli Ekwensili, a presidential aspirant in the February 2019 election.

Even before Nigerian men began to make impact in history and fight for human right, Nigerian women have been in the fore front in the fight for change even without any formal education. It is only recently that men due to enlightenment from education, status and gender began to resist colonial domination.

The role of women cannot be downplayed and there is no doubt that women have some potentials and rights to contribute meaningfully to the development of Nigeria. Therefore, the Nigerian government should work towards achieving gender equality in democratic governance, increase women participation and access to politics.

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