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Dateline Lagos 17th December 1940: The protest against female taxation

It was a Tuesday like no other weekday anyone could remember in Lagos. There was drama on the Marina. Passers-by stood at the roadside to watch the spectacle.

All markets were closed – on the order of Animotu Pelewura, the Iyaloja of Lagos.

A new Income Tax Ordnance had just been promulgated by government.  Henceforth women whose income was fifty pounds and above annually would be required to pay Income Tax.

The announcement set the womenfolk agog. The Oyinbo, they proclaimed angrily, could not claim ignorance of the Yoruba taboo on taxation of women.

Their predecessors in office had given the women of Lagos assurance they would never be taxed. In 1932 when they first got wind of an impending move to tax women, market women from Faji, Ereko, Araromi, Oko Awo, Ebute Ero and Ebute Metta markets had descended on the office of the Commissioner of Police, RE Foulger at Central Police Station. The Commissioner, hearing their chanting and sensing their warlike mood, was fearful of a public incident. He consulted with the authorities and they agreed that there should be a meeting the following day at the office of the Administrator of the Colony.

When the women arrived at the meeting, they were led to the office of the Administrator, where some prominent Lagos citizens – Chief Obanikoro, Chief Oluwa, Chief Yesufu Owo and Kadiri Oluwa were already seated. In the presence of the Police Commissioner and several European Officers, the Administrator tried to mollify the aggrieved women. He urged them to ignore the rumours that were going about. Lagos women would never be taxed by any colonial government, now or in the future.

Animotu Pelewura had taken the precaution of bringing Akowe – her clerk and general handyman at Ereko market along to the meeting with the Administrator. Throughout the proceedings he was busy taking notes.

Again, as this day’s protest gathered momentum, Pelewura had Akowe with her, and his hand-written record of the 1932 meeting was wedged in her armpit.

A hundred women dressed in their market clothes were gathered on the Marina, heading towards the office of the Commissioner of the Colony. Out in front was Pelewura, flanked by Rabiatu Alaso Oke, Iyalode of Lagos.

The Commissioner came out to meet them.

Rabiatu, a woman of ample proportions, ambled forward and waved a “Return of Income” form under his nose. Several women had received this obnoxious form in the past few days and been asked to fill it, she screamed. What did he have to say on the matter?

Meanwhile, she continued, times were hard and many of their husbands were jobless. Pelewura thrust Akowe’s 1932 report into the Commissioner’s reluctant hands to show that they had a standing promise the vexatious demand for tax would never happen again.

The Commissioner cleared his throat and tried to sound conciliatory. Things were hard for the Colonial government because of the ongoing World War, and they did not want the colony to suffer neglect. Only women whose income exceeded fifty pounds would be taxed.

The women realised they were making no headway with him. In any case, the intention from the beginning had been to march on to Government House further down the Marina to see the Governor himself.

“Bourdillon!” – someone shouted.

Other voices took up the cry.

“Bourdillon! Bourdillon!”

Someone composed a war song spontaneously, and many voices took it up.

They had come with a petition, prepared by Akowe, supervised by Oged – Herbert Macaulay’s son. They had taken the precaution of getting two hundred market-women to affix their thumbprints.

Suddenly in front they saw that the Marina highway was barred to movement by a detachment of Hausa soldiers, guns at the ready.

The women continued their march, chanting the name of the Governor.

The women realised they were making no headway with him. In any case, the intention from the beginning had been to march on to Government House further down the Marina to see the Governor himself.

Just as they reached the line of the soldiers, an official came from the other side and singled out Pelewura and Rabiatu. They were conducted straight into the presence of the Governor.

He welcomed them in his usual genial manner, shaking hands with them and making them sit in comfortable chairs. He received their petition.

Would they like a drink? Tea? Water? He apologized that Lady Bourdillon was not around to receive them properly.

Pelewura assured him they could not be drinking tea while their sisters were under the sun outside.

Bourdillon told them earnestly that he understood their problems, but he also wanted them to understand his plight. The War effort was sapping he resources of Great Britain. The Colony had to fend for itself. He promised to reflect on their request. Perhaps he would raise the taxable income level.

The meeting ended on a note that was, if not cordial, at least hopeful.

As they regained the street, their colleagues standing on the tarmac of the Marina raised a loud cheer.

Pelewura decided to lead the march away from the Marina, towards “Kirsten Hall”, Herbert Macaulay’s house at Faji. He, their staunch supporter, would be expecting feedback on the day’s proceedings.

All the markets of Lagos would remain closed for one more day, on Pelewura’s order.

One thousand women gathered at Glover Hall the next day to further press their case.

Again, the Commissioner for the Colony argued that women in England also paid tax.

Pelewura replied, to rousing cheers, that Lagos women “not only feed and clothe unemployed husbands and relatives but also pay their income tax for them, lest they be sent to prison for defaulting…”. In any case, she said, in Yoruba, with Akowe translating for the Europeans, Lagos women were not even allowed vote. Perhaps their next battle cry would be “No taxation without representation” she quipped, in her lightly accented Awori dialect.

In the end, Governor Bourdillon decided to raise the level of taxable income for women to two hundred pounds, a level which would technically exclude almost every woman in Lagos. The women of Lagos had won the tax battle – for the moment.


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