The Abeokuta Women's Revolt.
You probably never knew that at a point in Yoruba history, women were Obas (Kings or Queens in this case). O yes there were in fact female Oonis of Ife (this is a topic for another post. Watch out!!!). As mentioned earlier in the post on Aba women’s riot, women played significant roles in the Yoruba society before colonialism. However with the establishment of the Sole Native Authority (SNA) in South Western Nigeria, the participation of women in governance was totally scrapped. In Abeokuta, the Alake as the King was a representative of the colonial government at that time.
I will be highlighting activities of the Abeokuta Women’s Union in this post. I must note that it was preceded by the Abeokuta Ladies Club which fought against the confiscation of the goods of market women amongst other things. I will be shedding more light on the ALC’ activities in a soon-coming post about Funmilayo Kuti. (Again, Watch Out!!!)
Back to the Abeokuta Women’s Union. The ALC metamorphosed into AWC in 1945 with a vision to address some of the challenges facing women in Abeokuta such as the taxation system. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch describes the women’s discontent( in her African women: a modern history.) :
"They became more and more impatient not only with the ill-treatment to make them pay that they endured but also with the fact that, despite the obligations imposed on them, they had neither the right to vote nor any representation – merely the right to complain of having been beaten and bullied."
Well, these women got tired of being bullied so they did something about it. In 1946, the ALC was transformed into the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), with the motto: “Unity, Cooperation, Selfless Service, and Democracy”.
The AWU had the following Aims and Objectives:
i. To defend, protect, preserve and promote the social, economic, cultural and political rights and interests of the women in Egbaland.
ii. To encourage mass education among the women through teaching its members to read and write.
iii. To cooperate with all organizations seeking and fighting genuinely and selflessly for the economic and political freedom and independence of the people.
Operation “No to Taxation without representation”.
In June 1946, the AWU started a campaign with the slogan “no to taxation without representation” .Taxation was imposed on the citizens of Egbaland in 1918. From the start, the system of taxation was unfair to women. Women were forced to pay taxes from the age of 15 which was considered the marriageable age, while men did not have to pay till they were eighteen. As though this regulation was not oppressive enough, the SNA devised degrading means to force women to pay taxes. Apart from beating the women and searching their houses, the officials often stripped girls naked claiming it was the only way to determine their ages!
The AWC petitioned the Alake to put a stop to the degrading method of taxing women. The Alake in a fit of Anger? Stupidity? Arrogance? (take your pick) did not just ignore the petition, he increased the tax rate in October of the same year. They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going, well these women were tough, they did not relent, instead they intensified their efforts. They did this by engaging the press in their campaign and some of the members of AWC protested by refusing to pay the taxes.
The AWU went on to employ a certified accountant to review the SNA treasury’s books. The review revealed an unnecessary expenditure of £24,706. The AWU criticized the SNA for careless spending and advised the it to eliminate redundant personnel, invest in local industries and increase taxes on European and Syrian firms. With specific emphasis on the methods by which women were being taxed, the AWU also pushed for the removal of the sitting Alake of Egbaland, the abolition of the SNA system and a reformed system of administration that would allow for the participation of women.
The AWU kept good record of all accusations against the Alake and in 1947 released a document titled “AWU’s Grievances.” The document contained accusations against the Alake as an individual and the SNA as a whole. The Alake was accused of having sexual relations with women who sought refuge in the palace after leaving their husbands even while charging fees for the maintenance of such women. He was also accused of leasing lands that did not belong to him to foreign firms. The SNA was accused of not providing medical and educational facilities for women. AWU alleged that the SNA in Abeokuta spent only 0.52 percent of its income on education in 1936 and was supporting just one school in 1947.
On November 29 1947,AWU held a demonstration/vigil outside the Alake’s palace until the morning of November 30th . Over ten thousand women took part in the demonstration. Remember that this took place before the days of cell phones and facebook. Just imagine the effort and determination that must have gone into mobilizing such a large number of people. During the protest, the women used songs such as the one translated below to ridicule Alake:
Idowu [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.
After the protest, a promise was made to the women that taxation would be suspended and the final decisions on the issue communicated to them within three days. This turned out to be an empty promise as more assaults were committed and more arrests made. The women refused to be intimidated. They organized another protest. This one lasted from December 8 to 10. Again, over ten thousand women camped outside the palace, refusing to leave until all the women who had been arrested were released. They left the palace on the 10th when the incarcerated women were released.
In the meantime, the AWU continued to send their petitions to the British administration. By January 1949, the AWU claimed victory.In the meantime, the AWU continued to send their petitions to the British administration. By January 1949, the AWU claimed victory. On January 3rd, the Alake abdicated from the throne. Also, the SNA system was changed and four women had positions in the new system of administration. Other groups such as the Ogboni also contributed to these changes but the women of AWU were undoubtedly major players in effecting the chages.
I am sure that after reading the obviously well planned, executed and effective revolt of the Abeokuta women, you will agree with me that it should not be referred to as a riot. I doff my gele to these brave and determined women who refused to be oppressed or silenced.
Nigeria needs women and man like this today. Don't you think?