If you grew up in Nigeria, the name Herbert Macaulay will be very familiar to you. His name is on many streets and buildings and is cited by schools and local history. Knowing this makes it remarkable that, to my knowledge, there is no street or building named after Alimotu Pelewura (pronounced: Alimortoo Pelewoora), a close ally of Herbert MacCaulay during colonial rule in Nigeria.

Pelewura was leader of the Lagos Market Women’s Association; the Women’s Representative in the Ilu Committee, an advisory group; the Alaga (head) of the Ereko Market Women’s Association, and an executive member of the Nigerian Union of Young Democrats. Lagos was the capital city of Nigeria at the Ime of Pelewura’s leadership, up until 1991, and is sIll the second most populated city in Africa.

Born in 1865 into a polygamous family, Alimotu’s father is unknown but she was the oldest of her own mother’s two children and she followed in her mother’s footsteps as a fish trader in Lagos. She could neither read nor write, which makes it even more astounding that this diminutive woman was the noteworthy and long-term leader of one of the most important organisations in Lagos at the Ime: the Lagos Market Women’s Association.

Nigeria was and is a member of the British Commonwealth. The dominant patriarchal government, and the racial and gender discriminatory ethos of the Victorian mindset, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led colonial officials to ignore and discredit much that was innately Nigerian, including the collective power of female market traders.

The political power women wielded as they protested against unjust laws was considered by colonial officers to be a nuisance. British officials viewed politics as an exclusively male realm, and, to their own undoing, their gender and racial biases blinkered them from understanding the impact of women’s collective political power.

‘Waged labour’ being considered masculine, the mindset was that women’s work was designated ‘customary labour’ or the ‘informal economy’. This undermined the credibility of women traders, giving rise to all the vulnerabilities and insecurities such assigned status implied.
A price control plan was instituted, named the Pullen Scheme after its director, causing severe financial strain on the fish traders. Under Pelewura’s leadership, the traders used protests, petitions, and editorials to address Pullen’s administration, as well as intentional non-cooperation with his inspectors in controlled food markets. Both economically and politically, Lagos market women courageously defended their right to earn a living to supply for their families, as well as to trade among themselves and their communities without colonial intervention. Their protests gained support from other sectors of society and ultimately their opposition to the Pullen price control program was unanimous and successful.

The Pullen Scheme never achieved its goals of price control, nor of regulating and standardising a sector of the market which Pullen had termed ‘uneconomical, unbusinesslike and irregular’. Clearly, his real agenda was not about prices but about expanding European colonial concepts of efficiency and submission into market spheres directed by women.

Later reports make it clear that the British mindset of an effective economy was that men worked under supervised conditions to earn a wage, but that any work done by women was in a private sphere, and therefore, had no monetary value. This was an attempt by colonial officials to reproduce social conditions more common in Britain. They felt this was necessary to produce a stable workforce, despite the fact that Nigerian women had always made significant contributions to their households. The failure of the British government’s attempts to destroy gender autonomy in the marketplace was a humiliating defeat. For this, they blamed Nigeria as not being a ‘normal’ country and therefore regulations that should have worked, did not.

In truth, it was the market trading women’s courageous refusal, as epitomised by Alimotu Pelewura’s leadership, to allow the colonial government to undermine their businesses, which forced the government to abandon their plans. The colonial bureaucracy’s total inability and indifference toward creating cooperation between themselves and the traders, and the lack of competence to develop alternative options that consumers could embrace, demonstrated their inability to completely establish control. Had women like Pelewura not chosen to bravely stand up to bullying and coercion, the story would have been totally different.

In her role as head of the Ereko Market Women’s association in the 1930s, Alimotu led the protest against the relocation of the Ereko market to Oluwole, and consequently, she was arrested and detained but later released as a result of the market women rallying in protest.

During the colonial rule, taxation of working males was introduced to support Britain’s efforts in World war II. As the war raged on and more finances were required, the colonial government proposed the taxation of women earning £50 or over. As the rumours of this tax circulated, Alimotu vehemently protested, and with the support of other women, led a delegation to government house to express that life was hard enough for families without grabbing more from the limited earnings of market women. In response to this protest, the proposal was modified to taxation of earnings above £200. As a result of her leadership role in the protest, she was appointed the women’s representative in the Ilu community by the Oba of Lagos.

Night markets, as a means to combat the proposals of the colonial government, were and continue to be a popular feature of Nigeria, thanks to the spearheading efforts of the Market Women’s Association led by Pelewura. Despite the disenfranchisement of women in the Nigerian Union of Young Democrats (NUYD), Pelewura often spoke publicly on behalf of the national NNDP party candidates.

Women sIll have so many barriers to overcome in order to fulfil their leadership call; it is astonishing to imagine the difficulties that she faced, given her illiteracy, her small size, and her gender, but nothing stopped her. Her story is awe-inspiring.

Her leadership brought about cultural change in Nigeria is undeniable. The Women’s War (or Aba women’s riot of 1929 – a riot of thousands of women protesting taxation of ‘the tree that bears the fruit’) led by Mary Ogu Ndem in Eastern Nigeria is said to be inspired in part by Alimotu’s leadership in Western Nigeria.

In the 21st century, when the leadership of women and their massive historical contributions to society, social justice, and the economy are finally being recognised after every attempt to obliterate their names from the records, it is Ime we saw streets and buildings named after this small, strong, fiery and outspoken leader.

She who was not intimidated by the colonial government, refusing to allow them to disenfranchise the economic and leadership contributions of women. What a hero!

She changed Nigeria’s future. May we all be that kind of leader.


I first came across this brave and bold woman’s story on the Nellix Documentary, Journey of an African Colony.
With appreciation to Emily Kamm of Portland State University for her paper:
-Price Control, Profiteering and Public CooperaIon: The Lagos Market Women’s Association and the Limits of Colonial Control

Reflective Leadership Questions (Can be done individually or in groups)

  1. Alimotu was, by any standards, an astonishing leader. Discuss some of her personal limitations and
    how any one of them might have shaped her life so that she could only just survive.
  2. What do you think it was about her that made her able to rise above these obstacles to become a leader who changed the national thinking about women in the market place?
  3. To varying degrees, we all have impediments to functioning fully in our leadership roles. Talk about some of the barriers that you or others experience, and what it might take to conquer the impediments to lead as you’re called to.
    Pray for each other, that we may all have the guts and determination that Alimotu had, to change her personal world, and influence the world for good as an agent of change.