RETROSPECT: 1929 Women Riot: How Lepers In Itu Local Government Defeated An Army

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By Substance Nature

Maybe there is the need to stress that part of the focus of this page, Retrospect, is that of taking us a bit into the near or remote past with the aim of helping us recall or appreciate certain personalities and events we may have heard about in shallow details or never heard of, but which can help us appreciate how our past is linked to our present and how certain persons and events – great and minor – have affected the course of history. Hence, you would be right to say that Retrospect is historical in content but refreshingly mnemonic in essence and thrust. That is perhaps why I have been receiving calls from readers expressing sweet shock at certain revelations, asking more and more questions, or arguing out an aspect of my presentation. These are all welcome.

So when and how did lepers in Itu Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State become soldiers and had to fire bullets at war fronts against their perceived enemies? The answer to this question, coincidentally, is linked to a piece I had earlier treated on this page, viz: The infamous Women Riot of 1929. Whereas attempt was made to harness the history, the captial question I raised then was: Where did the Women Riot of 1929 actually take place? Though I had tried to answer that question previuosly, arguments still abound even among scholars because majority seem to tilt to the claim that it took place in Aba; while the opposing school of thought complacently domiciles the incident at Ikot Abasi. But I have not rested on the tossing waves of these arguments and claims. I keep digging by the day to thrill or surprise even myself. Accordingly, later findings have emerged on this puzzle. But that, for that is the way they connect, shall link us midway back to the above title of today’s episode. This again explains why most subjects on this page are treated in series of parts and sequels – part 1, 2, 3…

Nigerian women seemed to have lost their charm, rhythm and mysterious audacity since after the Tax War of 1929 as they are now merely heard and rarely seen with a dare in topical issues of contemporary times. But the actresses and heroines in the 1929 event proved a sharp contrast.

The build-up to the 1929 event actually dates back to 1926 when the colonial authorities insisted on introducing direct tax to be paid by all male adults in the South Eastern Region of Nigeria. This, the women considered obnoxious, oppressive and untenable on grounds that the world by now was in depression and the price of palm produce from Nigeria, the South as it were, had dropped drastically; high prices for imported goods; high rate of unemployment amongst First School Leaving Certificate holders; and related questionable extortions by the authorities. But the authorities refused to rescind their decision but rather ordered a census of all male adults in the region with a view to ascertaining how much money was expected.

In 1927, the Native Revenue Ordinance was promulgated and from 1928 it became a legal obligation on all male adults to pay taxes whether or not they were working. Danger began to loom in November 1929 when the District Officer (D/O) in Aba went on leave and his assistant, Captain John Cook assumed acting capacity until such a time Captain Hill, the eventual substantive D/O had arrived. But, possibly to carry praise from the Queen, Captain Cook was mad with power as he once again ordered for a census based on nominal roll call from compound to compound, including number of wives, children and livestock in a household. In principle and practice, it implied that henceforth, both men and women must pay tax and the information spread like wildfire throughout the region. This expectedly brought about discontent amonsgt women. Subsequently, Warrant Chiefs, like Chief Okugo of Oloko, was assigned the duty of the headcount. But because he was in repressed solidarity with the masses, instead of going, Chief Okugo is said to have delegated his aide, Emeruwa for the assignment. Unfortunately, as the story goes, it was Emeruwa who would spark up what today remains in history as the Women Riot of 1929.

Emeruwa is said to have mercilessly beaten up an old woman whom he claimed insulted and defied his orders. And before anybody could tell, a crowd of irate and militant women had rounded up the village in response to the old woman’s outcry. A war blueprint was quickly developed: the women marched in war steps and songs to the house of the Warrant Chief and invaded it; next, they marched to the Divisional Headquarters at Bende where the District Officer, Captain Hill, lived and were set to bring it down but not for a quick discretional move that saw Captain Hill handed over the Crown Cap of Office of the offending Warrant Chief to the women. But that was far from pacifying the women.

By December 9, 1929, about 1000 women from Okpala, Nguru, Ayaba, Oloko assembled at Owerinta and re-strategized for full blown protests, beating drums, cursing, throwing stones and chanting war cries that culminated in the invasion of the native court while in session and chasing away the chiefs in the audience. By the time the protests got to the second week of December, Aba was already on fire as 10, 000 women from neighbouring villages and far-flung towns had joined the fracas. In this mood then came a most dastardly report of how one Mr. Hunter, a medical doctor had knocked down one of the protesting women in his bid to meander his way with his car through the women battalion. And this was instantly misconstrued for reprisal that saw Hunter ran for his life as the women stepped up the rampage and damaged all the European trading stores their eyes could locate, government institutions, attacked prisons and freed about 34 female inmates, then advanced to the Aba Native Court and brought it down.

The battle speedily snowballed into Abak in present-day Akwa Ibom State where the District Officer, Captain James and the chiefs, having failed to pacify the women had no option than watched them razed down to ashes the Abak Native Court building and the staff quarters in Utu Etim Ekpo on December 14, 1929. That was how Captain James, in uncontrollable anger, deployed a platoon, led by Browning, to try to calm the situation but here were more than 500 belligerent women who defied all threats. The soldiers are said to have drawn a line across the road and dared the women to cross and face the consequences. And they did. First perhaps wary of the possible casualty, the soldiers only shot into the air to scare, but the women were undeterred. At this point, Lt. Browning with his 26-man platoon had no choice than fire into the unholy crowd only to discover to their greatest shock that the bullets had only brushed against their body and passed with no ostensible painful effect as the women were said to have charmed themselves with enough supernatural powers.

Then came the third round of random bullets that, this time, had demystified Black Magic and fell down 18. In horror of the sight, the women tactically withdrawn but without surrendering, as 3000 of them then moved towards Ikot Ekpene. At Ikot Osurua, having got winds of their advance, the D/O, Captain Hanitsch had consulted with one Rev. Grooves whom the women highly respected and Mr. Udo Essien Obot, a chief with a place in the women’s heart, who incidentally and temporally deflated their angry tires.

But the 1929 Women Riot did not end on this civilian terrain of high level diplomacy. The Itu women hurriedly and surreptitiously held a meeting at Itu Hill to study strategies. And the dastardly consequence was rampage of strategic public utilities that saw the Itu District Officer, Mr. Hughes, on his toes on account of insufficient troops. But in the interval, Mr. Hughes quickly communicated to Dr. A.B. Macdonald of the Itu Leper Colony (where lepers were traditionally camped by law to prevent contact with the outside world), to dispatch a most infectious and scaring detachment of 250 lepers to tackle the warring women with their deadly diseases by blocking all link roads and making frantic advances of embrace towards them. This tactic, surprisingly, became the secret to victory as it proved to be more active than riffles, bayonets and bullets and put even the bullet-proof women on their heels. Of course, it was a taboo and extremely dangerous for the clean to have any contact with the leprous. So the women were defeated in Itu without a single bullet.

The worst record of the 1929 Women Riot was in Opobo District, Ikot Abasi. The D/O here was Whiteman. It must be stated that, like in no other places, the imposition of taxation was most active and highly successful here, long before the riots even sprang up at Aba. Warrant Chief Timothy Uranta, under the supervision of Mr. Foyer and his team of rude police officers were bent on enforcing the policy here, beating up defaulters, extorting, and forcefully impounding their goods.

The women had planned to attack on December 16, but discretion saw them shifted it to the 15th. Therefore on sensing possible attack, Mr. Foyer did not take anything for granted. He quickly placed the 3rd Battalion Nigerian Regiment, a 30-man squad in Uyo led by Lt. Hill who arrived in Ikot Abasi on strict war orders from Morris Falk. Mr Whiteman deceived the equally war-charged women to believe that he had accepted all their terms for resolution. But the killer blow came when they demanded that King Jaja of Opopo be removed, Warrant Chief Mark Pepple be handed over to them to kill, and envelopes containing all the ratifications be stamp-sealed with money without which they would stage a deadly combat as it had happened at other places.

And the bubble burst! Highly infuriated, signals passed in split seconds between Whiteman and the troops, and what followed is a sad part of today’s history. 31 women died instanta; 31 more sustained terminal injuries; and several more likely met their ends as they jumped in panic into the great Ikot Abasi river. That became known till today as The Opobo Massacre. Amongst the dead was Mma Emma Brown, mother to one of Nigeria’s cum Africa’s foremost jurist, Late Sir Egbert Udo Udoma.

Wherever they women tapped such inspiration and commando bravery from is still a subject of wonder in the cheguered history of our dear fatherland, Nigeria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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