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Africa’s Heroine: Alimotu Pelewura ,The Uneducated Fish Seller Who Fought For Women’s Right To Vote And Against Taxation

Alimotu Pelewura was a political activist and leader of women in the anticolonial struggle in Nigeria. A Muslim fish trader of humble origins who could not read or write, Pelewura became head of one of the most important women’s organizations in the capital city (Lagos) of the most populated country in sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria). For more than half a century she led the Lagos Market Women’s Association in its struggles against women’s taxation and for woman suffrage.

By the 1930s the organization had collected money to pay clerks to write letters on its behalf and to hire lawyers to represent it in its struggles with the British-run colonial government. In colonial-government documents, officials often lamented the extent of the power that Pelewura and the market women wielded in controlling the local economy and in political affairs.

On behalf of the Lagos Market Women’s Association, Pelewura represented eighty-four market women’s local organizations in sixteen markets on the Ilu Committee, a component of the traditional Yoruba government of Lagos under the king. Pelewura worked with several of the nationalist parties of the early twentieth century, including the Nigerian National Democratic Party (founded 1923) and, in 1938, the Nigerian Union of Young Democrats, on whose executive committee she served.

Once, addressing a crowd at a political rally, she said, “I am she who is called Pelewura. We wonder why your womenfolk did not show up here today. Tell me that thing which men can undertake alone without the help of the womenfolk.”

Yoruba market women traditionally exercised a great deal of control over the markets, deciding on locations, fixing prices, providing for upkeep, and making loans to members. Women were not taxed as individuals, though. In the 1930s and 1940s the colonial government hatched several schemes to tax market women in Lagos, and under Pelewura’s leadership the women resisted.

At a mass rally she excoriated the government on the grounds that it was taxing women without giving them either the right to vote or political representation, and she demanded female suffrage.

During World War II the colonial government sought to control the pricing and selling of food. Pelewura led the women in their resistance to what became known as the Pullen Price Control Scheme, which took its name from A. P. Pullen , the government official who proposed it. At one point Pullen even attempted to bribe Pelewura to get the women to accept government control of markets. She refused and accused him of seeking to “break and starve” the country of her birth.

Although the market women refused to cooperate with the colonial government in the scheme to control prices during the war years, in 1945, when a major general strike erupted in Nigeria, they voluntarily suppressed prices in solidarity with the striking workers.

In 1947 Pelewura was given the traditional title of Erelu, which meant that she represented the interests of women before the king. She died in 1951, and twenty-five thousand people attended her burial. Her leadership is an example of strong indigenous female leadership in the anticolonial struggle.

Even though Pelewura was an uneducated fish seller, she greatly influenced decisions to the favor of her fellow market women. During the colonial era, she paid clerks and hired lawyers to represent them in their struggles. She wielded so much power that she became a source of concern to the British officials.

As a result of her influence, market women exercised a great deal of control over the markets, decided on locations, fixed prices, provided for upkeep, and gave loans to members.

Pelewura, together with other market women strongly protested the price control plan popularly known as the Pullen scheme named after its director, Captain A.P. Pullen.

She also worked with several nationalist parties as well as the Nigerian National Democratic Party and, in 1938, she served in the Nigerian Union of Young Democrats. In 1945, during a major general strike, market women in support of the striking worker reduced the prices of goods.

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