Nigeria @ 50: What about the women?
Earlier this year I was at a workshop on Gender and Militarization. We were working through ideas around ‘feminist methodology’ when one of the participants asked for clarification on the term ‘feminist’. From the ensuing discussion it became clear that many of those present were reluctant to use the term. They associated it with ‘lesbianism’ or ‘man-hating’ – which were ‘un-African’ – and said that feminism was a Western idea and not something they wished to be a part of.
Bearing this in mind, instead of focusing on Nigerian feminism over the past 50 years (my original idea for this blog) I am going to focus on some of the women who have taken action towards achieving justice and social, economic, environmental and political change. Women who have challenged and resisted oppressive conditions or laws by taking action, either individually or collectively. The women here largely remain nameless but their actions have not been forgotten. They have much to teach us with their courage and tenacity.
It would be impossible and inappropriate not to mention two important acts of resistance in Nigeria’s history, albeit before independence: the Women’s War of 1929 [also known as the Aba Women’s Riots] and the Abeokuta market women protests of the early 1940s. Both were centred around the colonial imposition of unfair taxation and indirect rule in southern Nigeria. In the Women’s War, which lasted nearly two months, market women gathered at the ‘Native Administration’ centres in Owerri, Calabar and towns across south-eastern Nigeria to protest against taxes imposed by Warrant Chiefs, who were seen as bullies on the payroll the colonial masters. The women, some 25,000 strong in places, attacked the colonial system – prisons, courts, European-owned shops and the Warrant Officers themselves. They were able to force the colonial authorities to drop the taxes in the first notable challenge to colonial authority and this must have impacted on the movement for independence which was largely led by men. [For more on the Aba Women’s Riot see Igbo Kwenw].
The Abeokuta market women protests came almost a decade later. Again, the women revolted against colonial taxes and the failure of the traditional rulers to defend their demands or challenge the colonial masters.
Taxation was a particularly sore issue for the women of Abeokuta: they were amongst the first females to be subjected to tax by the colonial government. Girls were taxed at age 15 (boys at 16) and wives were taxed separately from their husbands, irrespective of their income. The women considered the tax ‘foreign, unfair and excessive’ but they also objected to the method of collection. The educator Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti learned of the women’s struggle and formed the Abeokuta Women’s Union [AWU] .
The AWU became a huge due-paying organization with some 20,000 women as members. It was a highly disciplined organization and they were able to organize huge demonstrations. The anti-tax protest action was a long and protracted one consisting of mass demonstrations and refusals to pay the tax. Ransome-Kuti apparently led training sessions for these demonstrations, showing women how to cover their eyes, noses and mouths with cloth when tear gas was thrown. She also instructed them to pick up the canisters of tear gas and throw them back at the police. The demonstrations were called ‘picnics’ or ‘festivals’ by the women, as they were unable to get permits to protest. The anti-tax protests took a large toll on the women but they stuck with it and eventually had their demands met.
There have been very few such protests post-independence, other than those by women of the Niger Delta. (although a number of individual ‘women of action have made a difference in the struggle for social justice).
Apart from periodic protests by market women in major urban areas such as Lagos, the women of the Niger Delta have been the most visible in their struggle against the multinational oil companies and the Nigerian military occupation of their lands. Beginning in the early 1990s, during the height of the Ogoni Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People [MOSOP], Ogoni women individually and collectively – through the Federation of Ogoni Women [FOWA] – were at the forefront of the struggle. The troubles in Ogoniland came to a head in November 1993, when the Nigerian military government began a three-year campaign of violence, murder, rape, burning, looting, beatings and torture against the Ogoni people. For the Ogoni women, resistance was incorporated into every part of their daily life. They faced harassment on their farms, on the way to market, in their villages, minding their homes, and at night when they were asleep. In this way, their very existence became part of their resistance. They insisted on being visible and thus became more and more politicized, engaging with elders and youths in the struggle.
Together with the youth branch, FOWA was given voting rights within MOSOP and were able to use a strategy of collective action as an act of resistance in their struggle, and coordinate their activities with men in the community. They used their status as mothers to work with the youths who were, in effect, their sons or the age of their sons. Similar tactics have been used by other women in the Niger Delta. Women from the Egi community in Rivers State organized with youths to protest against the environmental damage caused by Elf Oil, as well as demanding jobs for their husbands and sons.
Between 2002 and 2004 thousands of women from the Ijaw, Itsekiri and Iljae nationalities organized a series of unprecedented protests and occupations of oil facilities belonging to Chevron and Shell, including Chevron’s main facility at Escravos in Delta State. Young and elderly women, with the support of their families and communities, held firm until their demands for development in their communities was agreed upon.
The Escravos facility was the focus of more demonstrations by women in 2007 and also last August, when Itsekiri in Warri South-West took over the gas pipeline in frustration at the continued lack of development and the erosion of lands in their community. Whilst the region’s men have engaged in militancy and kidnappings, the women have continued with a nonviolent struggle against the occupation and the presence of the Nigerian military.
Nonetheless, an examination of the past 20 years of protests reveals that despite their actions, results have been limited. This is partly because of a lack of solidarity between different interest groups – workers, youths, women and traditional rulers – and also between the many nationalities in the region. Further, there has been a tendency to react to crisis rather than develop medium- to long-term strategies and work towards movement building. At times when alliances were built, it was clear that the protests were stronger and sustained for a longer period. Once the alliances broke up, the protests became weak.