Nwanyeruwa is the woman who instigated a short war that is often referred to as the first major challenge to British authority in West Africa during the colonial period. Some call it the Aba women’s riots and some call it the Women’s War.
Before the introduction of the new political system of governance in the Igbo land, women had a significant role in Igbo political life as they participated in village meetings, and had very strong solidarity groups.
Through women’s kinship networks and market networks, political decisions were often boycotted with strikes.
However, this changed when in 1914, the British decided to put in place a new political system. Under the new system, the Igbo people were at the mercy of the Warrant Chiefs who, over the years, became oppressive.
In 1925, the British administration conducted a census of all men and their possessions and then a placed a tax on them. Although, only the men were taxed, the women were affected as they had to contribute to help their husbands because the taxes were high.
However, in 1929, despite the economic depression in the country, rumours began to spread that women would start paying tax but the women’s associations decided to wait to be sure before they campaigned against it.
In late October 1929, an elderly woman, Nwanyeruwa was approached by a census taker, Mark Emereuwa who demanded that she counted her animals and family members. Nwanyeruwa who in anger asked if his mother was counted went to tell the women’s network in her city of Oloko.
Agitated by this act of insensitivity, other women were invited from neighbouring villages to come out and protest the taxation.
In early November, the highly successful protest took place, with over 10,000 women gathered outside the district administration office, they demanded that the warrant chief of Oloko give them a written assurance that they would not be taxed.
Surprised, the warrant Chief of Oloko handed a written assurance to the women after he had been ordered by the British officials as the women sat outside the district offices for several days.
However, the warrant chief made a show off of his power by taking several women protesters hostage and harassing them. With this, the campaigners decided to continue their protest outside the district office, now demanding that the Warrant Chief be removed.
Two days later, the British not only removed the Warrant Chief, he was also sentenced to two years imprisonment.
As news of both the written tax assurance and the removal of the Warrant Chief spread, women all across Igbo land started organising to make the same demands.
The protest grew from one women’s network in Oloko to a protest that spanned across two provinces and over six thousand square miles.
The goal had also grown as the women also demanded that corrupt Warrant Chiefs be removed, apart from demanding written guaranties not to be taxed.
The campaign which was called the ‘ogu umunwanye,’ or “the Women’s War,” referred to women ‘making war on the men,’ or sanctioning men who had been disrespectful.
This practice, which was also called ‘sitting on a man’, was a traditional form of protest among Igbo women.
When a man had done something disrespectful, he would be followed everywhere and forced to think on what he had done, with his hut burnt as a punishment and this pattern was followed in each village.
Ignorant of the reason behind the protests by the women, the British administrators called in police officers and troops to deal with the situation.
Although the women had been non-violent as they made use of songs and dance, police were ordered to shoot into crowds. Over 50 women were killed, and 50 more were wounded.
With a warning that more violence would be used if the protests did not end, the campaign was forced to come to a close. Yet the women had managed to gain significant victories.
During the long protest, several Warrant Chiefs stepped down and some removed.
The women’s war forced the British to reconsider the Warrant Chief system, and in 1933 a new political system was put in place.
Under the new system, Warrant Chiefs were replaced by ‘massed benches,’ with several judges assembling to make decisions.
Here, villagers chose how many judges they wanted on their ‘bench’, and also selected the people they wanted as judges.
The Igbo people regained some of their power to self-govern as the Women’s War led by Nwanyeruwa sparked the change.