“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research” Malcolm X
The foreign IMF team flew into Abuja on November 18, 2022 for the 2022 Article IV consultation meeting with Nigerian government officials. At the end of the meeting, the IMF’s recommendations for the incoming 2023 Nigerian President on fiscal policies stated; “Policy priorities include permanent removal of fuel subsidies by mid-2023 as planned, stoppage of oil theft, improved tax compliance through automation, taxpayer segmentation, customs modernization and rationalization of tax incentives, and adoption of excise and VAT rates similar to those prevailing in peer countries in West Africa.” President Tinubu is implementing all the IMF recommendations. First, he increased petrol prices, school fees, food prices, electric tariffs, water prices, transport costs, house rent, hospital fees and burial fees. Then, he is planning to introduce high taxes on unwaged workers and market women in the informal sector.
The Tinubu government plans to tax market women and others in the informal sector through FIRS by working with the Market Traders Association of Nigeria (MATAN) in a program called the VAT Direct Initiative. MATAN members will each receive an ID card upon enumeration, which would contain their Tax Identification Number (TIN) and other personal details. Imposing taxes on market women and workers in the informal sector will reduce household income, further increase food and commodity prices and increase poverty without improving any government service. Tinubu’s strategy is to impose the Lagos model of increased taxation and revenue generation under an Iyaloja and market place touts on Nigeria. However, this strategy will fail because Lagos is not Nigeria and Nigerian market women do not have a national or state Iyaloja. History teaches us that Nigerian women will organize and resist government attempts to reduce their household income by increased taxation. We will examine the historical struggles of Nigerian women against taxation by focusing on the Aba women revolt of 1929.
The revolt of women against direct taxation in the Eastern provinces occurred between November 1929 and January 1930. In October 1929, the Acting District Officer of Bende issued an order to all warrant chiefs to count all men, women, children, and livestock during the next census for taxation purposes. The census began in Oloko. The warrant chief ordered a counter to proceed with the census when the Acting District Officer gave him a week deadline. The counter started counting at Umuobasi village in Oloko. In the first compound, he got into a fight with the farmer’s wife. The woman ran to the market where a women meeting, discussing the issue of direct taxation, was in progress. The presence of a bleeding member, claiming that the warrant chief had sent a census counter to her home to assess her property for the purpose of taxation, electrified the meeting. The meeting immediately sent messengers with palm leaves to women in all villages in Bende and beyond. The women were told to mobilize against the coming direct taxation of women.
On the next day, thousands of women from neighbouring villages gathered at Oloko. First, they went to the Niger Delta Pastorate Mission where the census counter worked. There, they sang, ate food, and demonstrated until they numbered thousands. Whereupon they moved to the home of the warrant chief. The women sacked his home, seized his properties, and attacked all his family members. Three days later, the women sent representatives to the Acting District Officer. The women representatives filed a complaint of assault against the warrant chief and the census counter. They visited the Acting District Officer again, the following day, and informed him that women from Bende, Aba and Owerri divisions have gathered at Oloko for his personal assurance that women would not pay taxes. When the Acting District Officer arrived at Oloko, he gave the women a written guarantee that they would not pay taxes. However, the women demanded the arrest of the warrant chief. The Acting District Officer arrested the chief and transported him to Bende where the native court found him guilty of “spreading news likely to create alarm and of assault” and gave him a two-year sentence. The Acting District Officer wrote, “The women numbering over 10,000 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.”
One week later, the women revolted. They burnt down the native court buildings at Nguru, Okpuala and Ngor in Bende district. In Owerri province, they also burnt the native court building at Azumiri. The next day, the women burnt down 2 more native court buildings in Owerri province. In Aba division, they burnt down 3 native court buildings. The revolt was in full swing. The women spread the revolt along trade routes with such speed that it caught the colonial government off guard. The response of the government, upon recovery, was military pacification. The colonial government sent armed troops to Aba and Port Harcourt. Aba women reacted to the troops presence by destroying many foreign stores. The women attacked and looted a French company at the Imo River. The colonial troops rushed from village to village as burning and looting of foreign shops became widespread.
In December, thousands of women invaded Owerri township and barricaded the Owerri-Aba Road. At Aba, the situation was tense. The colonial government sent troops from Owerri to Aba as reinforcements before more barricades could render the Owerri-Aba Road impassable. The mobilization of the colonial troops caused the women to change strategy. First, instead of going from village to village, they concentrated their numbers in the important towns of Aba, Calabar, Port Harcourt and Owerri. In these towns, they ransacked foreign shops and appropriated imported commodities without the mediation of money. This forced the colonial State to concentrate its troops on these few urban areas. Next, the women unleashed attacks on native court buildings in smaller towns and villages. They attacked native courts in Calabar province, Iko Ekpene, Abak, Itu and Opobo. They destroyed the properties of native court chiefs and clerks in Ngor, Okpuala and Mbawsi. The colonial government sent its troops into the hinterland with instruction to pacify the village women. At Utu-Etim-Ekpo, the colonial troops opened fire on the women, killing eighteen women and wounding nineteen others. At Abak, the troops also opened fire on the women, killing two.
The next day, the women in Calabar province opened another front in the revolt. Native court buildings were set on fire. So also, were the properties of the native administration employees and of the colonial foreign companies. At Opobo, the colonial troops opened fire on the women, killing twenty nine women and one man. Twenty-one women were wounded, and eight women drowned when the rifle fire of the troops drove the women crowd into a nearby river. The death of the women at Abak, Utu-Ekim-Ekpo and Opobo led to more ferocious attacks, especially in Calabar province. The women organized their attacks such that reinforcements from neighbouring villages gathered in one village by travelling through footpaths at night. The following day, the women would attack all institutions of colonial rule in the village and disperse before nightfall. They travelled back home, through these same footpaths which they were familiar with as palm produce retailers. Thus, many villages were attacked simultaneously despite the presence of the colonial troops. The troops could not determine which village would fall under attack. They usually arrived by road after the women attack was over. They shot the protesting women whenever they arrived at a village during an attack.
The colonial government changed tactics following the shootings at Opobo. The government sent troops to pressure the village elders and leaders, to beg the women to put an end to the revolt. The pleas from the village elders achieved the desired results. The revolt came to an end. The colonial government imposed collective fines in accordance with the Peace Preservation Ordinance on the villages where women participated in the revolt. In all, the government fined thirty-seven villages. In these villages, the government fined each adult 25% of the tax rate. In this way, the State collected approximately £5,000 following the termination of the revolt. The government burnt down villages that refused to pay collective fines and destroyed their crops and livestock. After this, the colonial government set up a commission of enquiry to investigate the causes of the women revolt.
There were many struggles against taxation before the Aba women revolt in 1929. We have told the story of the nation mass resistance against taxation in 1927 and 1928. More women struggle against taxation occurred in Nigeria after 1929. Wole Soyinka captured the struggle of the Egba women against taxation in 1947-1948 in his memoir, “Ake: The Years of Childhood”. History teaches that the Tinubu government IMF sponsored policy of reducing the household income of women and other unwaged workers in the informal sector by increased taxation will meet with strong resistance. The Tinubu increased taxation policy will fail like all the past colonial attempts to impose direct taxes on Nigerian women.
August 3, 2023.