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A Stash of Gems on Women from the Nigerian National Archives – Tayo Agunbiade


Two well-known women-led events in Nigeria’s colonial era are the Aba Women’s War (1929) and Abeokuta Women’s Tax protests (1946/48). Beyond these events, historiographical accounts are mostly written from male perspectives, with women barely mentioned. For instance, the height of anti-colonial agitation and nationalism in Nigeria in the 1930s and 1940s, are widely-documented as a male-driven process. In many books on Nigeria’s colonial past, the male political class and business elites are placed at the core of the narratives. At best, women are treated superficially as micro-narratives.

But my research has shown that during this period, women across the country played vital roles as activists and advocates for political rights, women’s enfranchisement and social justice, than is acknowledged by producers of history.

A three-year dig in several branches of the Nigeria’s national archives, as well as the British Library, unearthed a treasure trove of information on women’s lives which provides compelling evidence, that women across Nigeria were indeed vocal and active during the nationalist years.

Primary sources such as newspapers, magazines, journals, as well as colonial documents revealed surprising details and correspondence about women’s agency as campaigners, educators, columnists and activists. Women wrote petitions, mobilised for processions and protests to government offices and residences. Mass meetings, market closures and even demonstrations that sometimes turned violent, were organised as part of a broader resistance to unpopular government policies on tax, trade and agriculture. Nigerian women like their male compatriots, were in the midst of the political struggles of the era, yet, their activities remain largely overlooked in the accounts of history.

My journey in Nigerian women’s history commenced when I sighted the front-page headline of an edition of the West African Pilot dated 11 May 1944 which said: “Lagos Women revolt against Old Africa…” The previous day, a group of women convened at 18, Broad Street in Lagos, Nigeria, to launch the Nigerian Women’s Party (NWP). I found this report intriguing because as a graduate of history, there was no mention about women’s political activities when the flame of nationalism spread across the colonies. European and African history was the mainstay of our courses, while in Nigerian history, only male political elites were documented as front-liners in anti-colonial agitations.

Further research showed that the party which was led by Oyinkan M. Abayomi campaigned for girls’ schools, better healthcare facilities and services and women’s voting rights. They also criticised the male central legislative council which administered the country. When universal adult suffrage was introduced to the colony of Lagos in 1948, the party presented two women candidates at the 1950 municipal elections to the Lagos Town Council.

This discovery led to my research project about Nigerian women’s experiences and perspectives from 1922, when the principle of elective representation was introduced to the country. I uncovered material related to women that was ‘buried’ in the archives from the early 1920s. It showed that as early as 1923, women wrote petitions against colonial officials and native authorities. In the 1930s, some gave public lectures about women’s freedoms and wrote published articles. For example, in November 1937, the Oxford graduate, Miss Kofo Moore delivered her lecture titled, “Emancipation of Women in Nigeria;” to a male-dominated political party known as the Nigerian Youth Movement. In February 1938, Darl John wrote an article which was published in the West African Pilot in three parts, in which she criticised the discriminatory work ethic of the multinational, the United Africa Company. The records show that women activists continued to openly criticise trade practices of these multinationals and the impact on local women traders.

The tradition of petition-writing by women continued into the 1940s and it cut across classes. Illiterate market women and traders as well as western-educated women challenged the authority of the government and achieved modest outcomes. For example, in December 1940, the different market women’s guilds mobilised under one umbrella, and wrote an eight-point petition and persuaded the government to amend tax laws for women. Three years later, the same group of women opposed a food price control policy and wrote a “monster” petition which they submitted to seat of government.

The evidence showed that women were aware of the power of the press and in the case of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Abeokuta Women’s Union, syndicated their letters and petitions in several newspapers. Indeed in one of their petitions written in September 1947 to the colonial administration, the women remarked: “We are firm, unshaken and unshakeable.” It was an indication of their mind-set to stay on course with their goal to end unfair taxation of women and secure representation of women in municipal councils. In 1949, four women won seats to the council in Abeokuta Province in South West Nigeria.

The archival records revealed that several women’s socio-welfare and community organisations were created to advocate for social justice. The Ladies’ Progressive Club, Women’s Welfare Council, Warri Women’s Centre and Ladies League of Nigeria etc., established girls clubs, organised exhibitions to promote home-made crafts and women’s capacities, and promoted women-oriented causes; others such as the Warri Women’s centre submitted a memorandum to the government in 1943 with a list of demands for social amenities including secondary schools for girls, and a mobile library etc. In 1944, women in Bonny in present-day Rivers State, made front-page news when they mobilised and complained amongst other social and health issues about the rate of infant mortality in their communities.

Some newspapers such as the Southern Nigeria Defender engaged women columnists presumably to focus on issues such as cookery and fashion. However, writing in 1943 the woman’s page editor identified only as Cassandra questioned the government on issues such as schools and scholarships for girls and women. This was the period of the Second World War, and she advocated for women to be invited to the round of male-driven global peace talks.

Not all women-led actions were received well. By1950, one editorial in the Nigerian Tribune wrote: “Women may seize power.” This was a testimony to the strength of women’s activism in society.

The research is important because it unravels unknown information about women and it brings into the public space the histories of women to dispel the view that they did not make any substantial contributions to transforming the country. These discoveries challenge the male-dominated production of history as one-sided and incomplete.

Further research of the archives will promote interest in women’s historical activities and this will continue to challenge male-centred historiography on Nigeria. This is the only way, women can claim their rightful space in the nation’s past.

Image of Oyinkan M. Abayomi from wikipedia.

Tayo Agunbiade is an independent scholar who resides in Nigeria. Her research focuses on the hidden histories of Nigerian women and her collation of archival information has been compiled into the first volume of her forthcoming women’s history book “Untold Histories of Nigerian Women: Emerging from the Margins.”