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At the end of 1929, just when the government was congratulating itself upon the success with which the difficult task of introducing direct taxation into these provinces had been accomplished, rioting of a serious and unusual kind broke out in Calabar and Owerri. In Owerri province, in the heart of the Ibo country, where a particularly dense population inhabits the palm forest, there is a place called Oloko. Here a warrant chief, Okugo, under instructions from the district officer, was making a reassessment of the taxable wealth of the people.
In this he attempted to count the women, children, and domestic animals. A rumor at once spread among the women that the recently introduced taxation of men was to be extended to them. All through this densely inhabited forest country, at intervals of a few miles, are markets where many thousands, mostly women, collect to do petty trading, sell palm-oil to the small middle-men, and gossip with each other.
The rumor thus ran all through the locality in a few days, spreading anger and dismay which were all the more intense because at this moment the price of palm-produce was falling, and new customs duties had put up the cost of several imported articles of daily use. They were seriously perturbed. “We depend upon our husbands, we cannot buy food or clothes ourselves and how shall we get money to pay tax?” They decided to combine. “We women,” as one of them stated afterwards in her evidence, “therefore held a large meeting at which we decided to wait until we heard definitely from one person that women were to be taxed, in which case we would make trouble, as we did not mind to be killed for doing so. We went to the houses of all the chiefs and each admitted counting his people.”
Okugo, continuing reluctantly to carry out his orders, sent a messenger to count some of his people. This man entered a compound and told one of the married women, Nwanyeruwa, who was pressing oil, to count her goats and sheep. She replied angrily, “Was your mother counted?” at which they closed, seizing each other by the throat.’ A meeting of women was called and Nwanyeruwa’s excited story was told as confirmation of the rumor.
A palm-leaf, which, it appears, is at once a symbol of trouble and a call for help, was sent round to all the women of the neighborhood. From the whole countryside women poured into Oloko and proceeded according to custom to “sit” upon the man who bad tried to assess Nwanyeruwa. All night they danced round his house singing a song quickly invented to meet the situation. Growing hourly more excited, they went on to Okugo’s compound where his own people tried to defend him with sticks and bird arrows. The crowd mobbed him, damaged his house, demanded his cap of office, and charged him with assault before the district officer at Bende. The latter arrested him and brought him into the station. “The women,” said this officer, “numbering over ten thousand, were shouting and yelling round the office in a frenzy.
They demanded his cap of office, which I threw to them and it met the same fate as a fox’s carcass thrown to a pack of hounds. The station between the office and the prison . . . resembled Epsom Downs on Derby Day.” The women continued to camp in thousands round the District Office until Okugo was tried and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for assault. But this was not the end. The women, for a reason which we shall consider later, refused, in spite of all the assurances of chiefs and administrative officers, to believe that women, “the trees which bear fruit,” were not to be taxed, and this even after a deputation of fifty had taken train to provincial headquarters at Port Harcourt to question the Resident.5 From Oloko women went out in all directions, beyond the boundaries of the province and even into the neighboring lbibio country, spreading the rumor, and from a wide area subscriptions began to come in to Nwanyeruwa who had become a figure of womanhood rising up against oppression. …
During the second week of December, the movement spread from the Ibo divisions of Owerri and Aba, to the Ibibio peoples of Calabar. At much the same time as the elaborate form of reassessment…