By Joe Effiong, Uyo
Last week, men in Akwa Ibom State all stood up to salute the courage of their female ancestors who lost their lives in 1929, protesting against unfair taxation and victimization by the colonial administration in Ikot Abasi and adjourning communities in the then Eastern Region.
At Ufok Ibaan, a play staged by Duke of Shomolu Production, to tell the story of Ikot Abasi women’s uprising, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, whose grand-mother, Madam Adiaha Idem, was said to have been killed in the uprising, in his remarks, asked all the men to rise and salute all Nigerian women.
Udoma recapped the story as staged in the play, how his grandmother, on December 16, 1929, led the women to negotiate with the colonial district officer, Mr. A. R. Whitman, and present a list of seven demands – the most prominent being the commitment from government not to tax women.
“Just after the document had been typed, signed and distributed, more women arrived and a crowd surged forwards the office, breaking through the thick fence. Even though the women were unarmed, Whitman lost his nerve and ordered the soldiers to open fire.
“A Captain Hill, who commanded the troops, was the first to fire. He brought out his pistol and shot my grandmother at point-blank range. She died at the spot. The other soldiers fired their rifles straight at the women and 25 women were killed. More women were killed in the ensuing stampede. There was palpable shock that unarmed women who were simply protesting against government policy were mowed down in this manner.
“My father (the later Sir Udo Udoma), who was just 12 years old then, was invited to the scene by the British to identify the body of his dead mother. He was inconsolable and traumatized by that incident. The whole community was in shock. How could this have happened to some leading women in the community who were simply exercising their rights to protests?” Udoma asked.
He said the fatal protest, however, brought a number of administrative reforms, especially the British government beginning to undertake extensive consultations before introducing any new measures or initiatives.
Describing his grandmother in the superlatives, Udoma said Adiaha Idem was not only a successful businesswoman, “she was independent-minded. She did not mind going against local norms once she was convinced about something. That was how she was converted to Christianity after my father was born.”
Commenting on the play, the producer, Joseph Edgar, said Ufok Ibaan “is a dramatic recount of the 1929 women’s riot that positioned Eastern Nigerian women as notable forces to be reckoned with during the Nigerian colonial era.”
“This play focuses on the experiences of the Ikot Abasi women, led by Madam Adiaha Edem Abia. Through music, dance and dramatic sequences, it brings to life the brave actions of women who stood against financial oppression albeit with tragic consequences. The play is a heartfelt celebration of Ufok Ibaan – the collective strength of women.”
The executive producer of the play and Akwa Ibom State commissioner for culture and tourism, Mr. Orman Esin, expressed happiness that, finally, the story of Ikot Abasi women’s riot would be told as it happened and where and when it happened.
“The women’s riot started in Ikot Abasi. As we go telling the story, the people will know that the cradle of Nigeria’s independence is Ikot Abasi. And, please, after watching the play, take a trip to Ikot Abasi and see things for yourself,” he said.
One of those who had in the past made efforts to bring the story of Ikot Abasi women’s riot to the fore, Senator Helen Esuene, expressed the belief that with the play finally on the big national stage, a lot more revelations about the struggle by women would be made.
She said 29 women actually died in the riot the same day, while many other drowned by jumping into the Atlantic estuary in Ikot Abasi.
“But to the glory of God, the women did not die in vain. They achieved their purpose.” Esuene said.
Speaking on behalf of MTN Foundation, the company secretary, Uto Ukpanah, said the energy and power exhibited by the women in the play should propel all in the coming years with the knowledge that, 90 years ago, women paid with their blood for Nigerians to be what they are today.
“And, interestingly, one of the earliest stories I was told by my father was about the women’s protest. But he told it to me as Etim Ekpo women’s protest. And the reason why he told me that story was that, as a daughter of Etim Ekpo, I must be bold; I must be courageous; I must not be daunted by any power; I must not submit to oppression. So, the message has not only spread to our time, but also to future generation.
“Let me also say on behalf of MTN and MTNF, that we will continue to support those things that reconnect us to our past and also take us into the future because we believe that if we must make progress with your future, we must be reconnected to your past.
“We had co-operated with the Duke of Shomolu Production in the past. But it is very instructive that this play was performed in Akwa Ibom State where it happened. And to show its significance, I was mandated to fly into Akwa Ibom today to be present.
“As I sat over there, I thank both the MTN and MTN Foundation for supporting this cause.” Ukpanah said even as he thanked the cast and crew and all that had come out to make the play a success.
A governorship aspirant in the state, Mr. Akan Udofia, who made an instant cash donation to the cast, said it was his pleasure to stand on the podium and celebrate women.
He said the strength of women was deeper and more spiritual, which men, rather than disregard and discard, should work with for the betterment of the society.