Time and the 1947 Abeokuta Women’s Revolt

Through reading Walter Johnson’s essay, ‘Time and Revolution in African America: temporality and the history of the Atlantic Slavery’, I learnt why reading temporality matters. In the essay, Johnson argues that “every narrative of slavery represents a way of being in time–a temporality” according to which different historical actors – European traders, American buyers and African enslaved people – made sense of Atlantic Slavery. His essay points out that “historians have often overlooked the way that the slaves themselves imagined themselves into time.” History for them stretched back beyond their slave status in America, and their ideas of a redemptive future scaled beyond the physical and spiritual borders of the Americas.

Johnson’s enslaved actors’ understanding of time, reveals what the sociologist Helga Nowotny means when she says  “Everyone is a practitioner and theoretician of time,” not just historians, not just the powerful. Christians believe we are all on an escalator belt to the day of judgement. In the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, time is understood as a cyclical phenomenon. My favourite practitioner and theoretician of time right now is the rapper and TikToker Tmiz Taiwo whose viral Tik-Tok video shows him declaring “Any little money wey I get like this, na enjoyment […] Don’t worry about my future, my future no dey go anywhere, I go dey think about my future next year.”

For Tmiz Taiwo the immediate pressures and hardships of the moment obscure any view of the future. Our theories and practices of time matter because they influence our actions: if only because they help us visualise the end to which our means are directed.

Let us imagine that you can identify peoples’ theory of time from their actions: This is how I would map a theory of time from the women of Abeokuta (known as Egbaland). Judith Byfield and others have written extensively on how taxation changed the landscape of the Abeokuta women’s lives and on the revolt as one of the landmark events of colonial rebellion in Nigeria. In revisiting the history of the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) 1947 protest, I found that women’s anti-colonial actions were motivated by an understanding of time as a continuum of ruptures. This temporal analysis assists us in understanding the future the women hoped for through their actions. This article explores what counter-stories these women told about themselves under a colonial regime marked by a belief that Africans were in the ‘waiting room of history’, waiting to be enjoined with European civilisations in their march of progress through colonial rule and education.

These women believed in the potential of their protest to change things. However, they understood that independence and decolonisation would not necessarily break with the oppressions of the past. They showed no illusional hopes in independence as a panacea. This is because the future beyond independence had a power system that marginalised them, in favour of other indigenous people who were black and Nigerian, just like them. Judith Byfields body of work on women’s labour in South-West Nigeria shows that women workers, especially those in rural informal settings, were particularly marginalised by the collaborative relationship between indigenous rulers and the British administration which guaranteed cultural penetration and labour for the colonial administration and increased political and economic power for the rulers. So, in the eyes of the Abeokuta women, the European colonisers were not the only enemy.

Abeokuta Women’s Union. [Women in African History: an E-Learning Tool; CC-BY-SA UNESCO.]

Background to the Abeokuta Women’s Revolt 

In the early days of British colonial rule, the colonial government in Southern Nigeria was financed mainly through import duties on commodities such as textiles, alcoholic spirits and gunpowder. In the 1890s, the total revenue gained by the Crown Colony of Lagos government was £64,000, £56,000 of which came from import duties. World War I threatened that source of revenue and so while the Colonial Office in London debated whether to implement direct taxation in the colonies, local colonial officials in the provinces used their initiative. In the Abeokuta province, which had emerged in previous decades as an economic centre, the interim solution to generate revenue was sanitation fines. Charges were imposed for such matters as leaving out pots of water in which it was thought mosquito larvae could breed, and not sweeping the front of one’s house: women’s responsibilities. And so, the deployment of sanitation fines in Abeokuta established these women as indispensable sources of tax revenue.

Eventually, in 1918, direct income taxation was imposed in Abeokuta and the new tax scheme resulted in a war between Egba people and colonial soldiers. Unlike in other parts of the country, only women in Abeokuta (and Ijebu, another town in the South-West of Nigeria) were taxed independently of men and so women’s concerns were also voiced in the war. This history would repeat itself 28 years later when the officials proposed further tax increases. In August 1946, the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) congregated in the palace of the Alake (the paramount king of Egbaland) to protest both tax increases and the fact that women were taxed without having seats in the government nor the right to vote. The AWU was formed earlier that year, out of an alliance between market women’s associations and the elite Christian-educated women of the Abeokuta Ladies Club. The suffragist, writer and teacher, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, presided over club, and later over the union. The 1946 revolt involved about 10,000 women and lasted for nine months.

As Judith Byfield explores, women used a mix of new methods, such as sending petitions to the British crown and letters to the press about the new colonial tax policy, and old methods such as congregating in the Alake’s compound to sing abusive songs to ridicule the Alake and to threaten the British.

One such a song included the lines: “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.”

Their demands expanded to include a reform of power relations in colonial Nigeria, particularly they sought to reform those that gave the Alake the latitude to exercise power arbitrarily.

Visions of the Future

From their intimacy with the failures of leadership from native Nigerian rulers who were in collaboration with the colonial state, it is evident that the Abeokuta women did not necessarily believe that Nigeria’s independence would be a break from the past of colonial exploitation. Their sense of temporality can be deduced from their actions: they did not think everything would change through decolonisation because they knew gendered, labour and class oppression would remain. However, their protests were also an enactment of a belief that revolt could disrupt existing gender, colonial and economic orders. The results of their protests—temporary abdication of the Alake, tax reform, political positions given to four women, and an inspiration to the wider independence movement—fractured pre-existing patterns. By their actions, the women also made their vision of the future clear. They insisted that they would not wait for their political and economic rights to be bestowed on them through independence. Instead, in demanding those rights, they called the future—promised by independence—to the present.

After the protests, the AWU published a campaign pamphlet, “The Fall of a Ruler or The Freedom of Egbaland,” referring directly to the abdication of the Alake. It was introduced with three quotes emblematic of their protests’ ethos. The first came from Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence (from British rule too): “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal […] But when a long train of abuses, […] evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government.” The second quote was from a speech made by the prominent British statesman, Charles James Fox condemning the activities of the East India Company: “What are we to think of a government whose good fortune is supposed to spring from the calamities of its subjects, whose aggrandisement grows out of the miseries of mankind?” The third was from the prominent English intellectual, Lord Acton: “Power always corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It may seem that by using these thinkers whose politics excluded African women, the women were enjoining themselves into the same Western political legacy from which the colonial state emerged. However, by appropriating those quotes, the women inserted themselves into the political future of Nigeria, correcting the ways it currently rendered them invisible by denying them the right to vote. The content of the quotes they chose emphasised their belief that the rule of a government that does not represent its people should not be permanent.

But this was no naïve call to pre-colonial hey-days. With their protests against the Alake, the AWU showed they were not interested either in the resurrection of old political titles, nor were they under the illusion that the Africanisation of the government would be the victory to end all struggles. From lived experience, women saw that the journey from living under colonial European leaders to indigenous African leaders was one of continual resistance against oppression, rather than a rupture.  These women were not banking on independence as their source of redemption, given the way that they had been oppressed by their fellow Nigerians. Instead, they insisted that the future and its promise of redemption be brought to the present, with full rights and obligations of citizenship for women like them.

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