Remembering African women’s fight against colonialism


IN the month of August every year, we remember our fallen heroes and the sacrifices they made for our freedom.
As August draws to a close, we celebrate some of the forgotten women warriors of Africa who fought against British colonialism.
Records of their fearless resistance are scarce.
But we are beginning to sift through some of the colonial records of missionaries, historians’ anthropologists and many others who wrote autobiographical novels and made real life observations. In this column, we feature Queen Lozikeyi of Matabeleland and the Aba women of Nigeria who led the war of resistance against British colonial administration.
Queen Lozikeyi was King Lobengula’s first wife and confidante. She was an intelligence officer and adviser on security issues and relationships with white colonial hunters, missionaries and settlers.
By signing the Rudd Concession, King Lobengula did not realise that he had given away the country and its wealth for 100 pounds per month, 1 000 breach-loader Martin-Henry rifles, 10 000 cartridges and a gun boat on the Zambezi River.
The British did not honour the promise.
Cecil John Rhodes’s BSAC led by Leander Starr Jameson attacked Lobengula at Bulawayo. Without enough ammunition and facing heavy machine guns, Lobengula fled, leaving Bulawayo on fire.
He was accompanied by Queen Lozikeyi and the other queens up north to Tshangane, crossing the Kana River. The BSAC hunted him down but they did not catch him.
King Lobengula tragically died of fever at Kana River leaving the war unfinished.
From then on, Queen Lozikeyi took control of the Ndebele nation. An interview of one elder in the Ndebele state, stored in the Zimbabwe National Archives noted that Lozikeyi was respected by the chiefs and “all the people including people from Zambia and Kalanga came to her. Even the whites respected her very much and saluted her as queen… They knelt in front of her and asked for peace.”
Enraged by the British settlers, Queen Lozikeyi led the troops and fought the in the 1896, Battle of the Red Axe. She led the attack at full moon on March 26 1896.
With ‘cohesion and viciousness’, the Ndebele forces attacked isolated Europeans on farms.
Among those killed were the native commissioner Bentley and the brothers Walter and William West, traders at Mambo hills.
Months of war followed, eventually leading to the defeat of the Ndebele due to the settler’s superiority of weapons and shortages of food.
Despite losing the war, Queen Lozikeyi still exercised power as leader of the Ndebele state. She demanded her own land and owned 6 000 hectares along the Bembesi River known as Queen Lozikeyi’s farm.
Her power did not wane. BSAC administrator Captain Arthur Lawley met her at the Mbembesi River in 1898.
This is what he wrote; “She is a very tall handsome woman of very ample proportions. She was one of Lobhengula’s favourite wives… A young woman still, her ambition and love of power are a thorn in the side of the government induna of the district.
Four more of Lobengula’s wives live with her but they are all insignificant personages by the side of Lozikeyi, whose quick intelligence and ready wit make her remarkable among Matabele women.”
While Queen Lozikeyi had shown courage and heroic power down here in the south, in West Africa, the Aba women mobilised to fight in a war which is known as the Aba Women’s Rebellion of 1929.
It was a revolt against the imposition of taxes by the British colonial settlers in Nigeria.
Earlier on, in 1914, the British introduced a new political system paying no attention whatsoever to the structures of traditional power.
Through ‘indirect rule’, the British controlled Nigeria through their own local officers. They replaced the traditional structures of power with a political institution of force and authority.
In 1926, the British colonial administrative system carried out a census which was then followed by the taxation system. This caused economic instability as a result of change in the pricing of goods such as palm oil and a rise in imported goods.
By 1929, the British had succeeded in introducing direct taxation into the colonised provinces of Calabar and Owerri in Igbo country.
Then they asked one chief to do a reassessment of the taxable wealth of the people. The chief sent his messengers around with his men to count the women, children and animals.
Led by one woman called Nwanyeruwa who was enraged by the officers who came to count her, the women mobilised themselves and demonstrated against the treatment of Nwanyeruwa.
In early November over 10 000 women congregated outside the district administration office demanding that the Warrant Chief of Oloko give them a written assurance that they would not be taxed.
The market women also gathered at the ‘Native Administration’ centres in Owerri, Calabar and towns across south-eastern Nigeria to protest against taxes imposed by warrant chiefs.
This was just the beginning of many months of resistance to taxation by the market women. The movement eventually became a revolt against all forms of established authority and control.
The protest grew from her village to a protest that spanned across two provinces and over six thousand square miles. Across Igboland, the campaign was called the ogu umunwanye, or, ‘the Women’s War’.
Thus Nwanyeruwa of Oloko was credited with beginning the Women’s War on November 23 1929.
The women assembled in large crowds wearing a variety of clothes as combat gear including green creepers in their hair, wreaths of grass around their necks, heads and knees.
They dug out roads, demolished cars and trucks, ransacked railroad stations and pulled down fences surrounding public areas.
The women numbered 25 000 and they attacked the prisons, courts, European-owned shops and the warrant officers themselves.
They aimed to destroy everything built by the colonialists including palm oil and foreign commodities trade houses, native court buildings, colonial administrative headquarters and jails.
Although others carried machetes, the women were generally unarmed yet they could effectively destroy buildings, loot factories, assault chiefs and administrative officials.
On December 17 1929, the British administration gave orders to shoot into crowds. More than 50 women were killed and many were wounded.
They killed non violent women in cold blood. The campaign was squashed with guns.
A major achievement of the Aba Women’s Market Rebellion of 1929 was the abolition of the warrant chief system in the Igbo region.
These were replaced by the Ezeala, or sacred authority holders’ democratic system that was inclusive of women.
An inquiry or commission was introduced after the war. The commission began its work at Aba on March 10 1930, and submitted its report on July 21.
The report recommended that government abolishes the warrant chief system, reorganisation of the native courts to include women members and the creation of village-group councils.
As a result of the war, the Igbo people regained some of their power for self governance.

This story was first published in The Patriot of August 28, 2014


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