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JUDITH A. BYFIELD Taxation, Women, and the Colonial State Egha Women's Tax Revolt Introduction In his moving memoir, Ake: The Years ofChildhood, WoIe Soyinka provides a dramatic account ofa women's tax revolt in his hometown, Abeokuta. This revolt, which he called "the Great Upheaval," occurred in 1947-48 when African societies were still trying to recover from the hardships imposed by the interwar depression and the Second World War (Soyinka 1981, 181). This revolt is well known in Nigerian popular history, and the leader ofthe women's organization that led the revolt, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, is known throughout Nigeria. She was one ofthe few women at the forefront ofnationalist politics in the 1940s and 1950s.1 This tax revolt had several distinctive features. First, it combined modern and traditional methods ofprotest. Women congregated in the compound ofthe traditional kingand Sole Native Authority, AlakeAdemóla, to sing abusive songs, and they sent petitions and letters to the press (Okonjo 1976; Van Allen 1976; Mba 1982). Itwas one ofthe longest sustained protests bywomen—nine months at its most intensive phase —and it relied on a multi-class and rural-urban coalition. Though it was forged out oflocal circumstances, the women did not limit themselves to the local arena; they tried to influence the broader nationalist movement in Nigeria and to organize women in other parts ofthe country. [Meridians.-Jeminism, race, transnationalism 2003, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 250-77]©2003 by Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved. 250 Yet there is no monograph-length study ofthis important event. The first biography ofMrs. Ransome-Kuti was published only in 1997 (Johnson-Odim 1992; Johnson-Odim and Mba 1997). This article is part ofa larger research project thatwill use the revolt as an entrée into an examination ofgender and nationalism in Nigeria. The aims ofthis article , however, are more circumscribed; itwill lay the foundation for a more nuanced understanding ofthe 1947 revolt by recasting the history oftaxation in Abeokuta. It will show how taxes changed the landscape ofwomen's economic lives and explain why taxation became the central focus oftheir political critique and activism in the postwar era. Abeokuta, Women, and the Economy to 1914 Abeokuta, a Yoruba town established around 1830, became the base for the Egba and Owu whose original homes were destroyed in the civil wars that followed the collapse ofthe Oyo empire (Bascom 1984, 5).* Although war continued to dominate the Yoruba landscape for most of the nineteenth century, Abeokuta became one ofthe leading political and economic centers in Yorubaland as well as a center ofmissionary activity after 1850. When the British colonial government began to extend its control beyond Lagos, literate Egba helped the chiefs in Abeokuta to negotiate a relatively favorable treaty. They guaranteed open trade routes through Egba territory in exchange for the Lagos government's recognition ofthe town's independence and its borders (Pallinder-Law 1973, 59; Gailey 1982, 28). This agreement in theory retained Egba control over its political economy. Nonetheless, the town's political independence was soon compromised when in 1897 a political crisis paved the way for the Lagos government to intervene. The then-governor ofLagos, Sir Henry McCallum, threatened to interfere actively in the town's affairs ifit did not reorganize its political structure (Gailey 1982, 31). From this reorganization the Egba United Government (eug) was created. Under the eug, the multiple councils and kings who ruled each township in Abeokuta were streamlined into one dominant council headed by the Alake, the senior oba (king) ofAke quarter (Pallinder-Law 1973, 65). The town's Christian and Muslim communities were also represented in this council, butwomen were excluded even though a number ofwomen held important political titles. TAXATION, WOMEN, AND THE COLONIAL STATE 251 The eug, often at the encouragement ofthe Lagos government, developed Abeokuta's political and economic infrastructure to mirror the developments taking place across Nigeria as Britain consolidated its rule. It invested heavily in the construction ofroads and markets especially in the villages and hamlets that extended beyond the town's metropolitan center.3 Abeokuta was a producer ofseveral major export items for the international economy: palm oil, palm kernels, cocoa—and the regional economy: kola...


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