30 Abisi Money and Taxes

Naira note. Herbert Macaulay. Introduced 1973 from facts.ng

Introduction of Money

Before imposing their currency, coins and notes, the British planned a whole process of monetization which is the introduction of money in places where barter was the main mean of exchange of goods.


From the very beginning of the colonization of Zaria, in 1901, the colonial administration changed the tribute given to the Emirate for a kind of money object: the cowries:

« Pagan towns which had previously paid slaves were ordered to pay cowries instead » (Arnett, 1920, pp. 16-17).

Abisi call them /ikurdiand San Gari said they were introduced by Europeans.
This shell money was mostly imported from the Indian Ocean or East Africa and introduced in West Africa by Europeans and in North, by Arab merchants.
It was used in Kano at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and in the south during the slave trade.
Its value was based on its rarity in the Plateau region where it was used as a body ornamentation.
This is corroborated by Abisi who claim that cowries were not used as a medium of exchange before colonization and, even with the Emirate, the tribute required were captives, horses and grain.
Without an evaluation of the number of cowries Abisi had to pay it was probably proportional to their population and was counted in bags. For example, Arnett says that the Katab under Sarkin Kauru paid to the Emir 100 slaves and a hundred bags of 20,000 cowries each.
The use of cowries was not innocent, it aimed to introduce the use of the more mobile English currencies which could be obtained under their exclusive control.


The first move was to devalue the cowries.
According Arnett, in 1900, 200 to 400 cowries were exchanged for 1 shilling but they were devalued by 50% in 1901, in 1903, 1908 and 1917 to be completely excluded from trade in 1919.
In twenty years, Northern Nigeria was embedded into the British currency value system.


The second step was to introduce coins.
The first coin that the Abisi knew was the Farthing or Anini in Hausa, worth quarter of a penny.
Its value was relatively high, some older Abisi noted that 5 Anini could feed ten people at a public market.
Muslims rejected the first coins because they did not have any design in reference to Islamic history. The colonial administration had thus a hole bored in the middle of some coins instead of a figure. It became practical, they could be tied in a string or, otherwise, stitched as decorations on various objects.
Currency was a rare commodity if used at all (Withers Gill Dec 1936 Zaria Prof 30-04-1909)

Following upon his delimitation of the boundary between this province and Bauchi, Mr Edgar also re-assessed the town of Pitti and its subsidiary Rukuba villages for 1909-10 at 2 pounds per compound or its equivalent in horses.

Currency is little known here and the Rukuba are pagans of a low grade. The main industry is horse-breeding and their external trade is confined to barter of salt chiefly.


Taxation in colonial currency began to be applied in 1907 and was intended to symbolize the colonial domination.
The expansion of market relations was sometimes explicitly formulated as with this local colonial officer:

« Backward pagan communities pay a nominal rate of sometimes ½ pence per adult male. … Because they have no markets, no currency and possess nothing to pay taxes. … this seems an acknowledgement of their submission to government law » (Arnett, 1908, p. 47).

As it is also clearly stated in this report (Progress in Pagan District by Assistant resident Brown in charge of Southern Division ) monetization was an important objective.

« Mr. Brown is instituting markets and encouraging the spread of money currency and is insisting on the payment of taxes with a firm hand, but not unfairly »

All kinds of prejudices were used to justify the colonials actions (Zaria prof ref: 360 /1909 30/04/1909 Resident Office). It would be easy to say the same things of colonial whisky drinkers shooting adversaries and destroying prperty of those who resisted.

“They must be classed with that low order of Pagans who derive their recreation from the beer calabash and poisoned arrow. Bestial drunkenness at seed time and harvest, road breaking (occasionally head-hunting) at other interval are the main pastime of this class.”


The third step was to pass from a collective taxation to an individual one, a capitation i.e. per head.
In 1909-1910, Abisi had to pay 2 shillings per house:

« The tax is small but it is the first time that these pagans have been taxed on an individual basis. A fixed tax on the compound seemed to appeal to their understanding»

(Resident Office, 1909 KNA 360).
Taxes were collected by the three traditional leaders: San Gari collected taxes from his Agiram section and the Agurasin, the Sarkin Dutse collected the Ekantin and Igallik, the Mogaji, the Nigertin.
Each household head brought them the taxes which they handed over to the Sarkin Piti who in turn gave them to the colonial administration.
Tax collectors, Mai Aŋgwa, hamlet in Hausa, were sometimes also introduced in the social local hamlets. For example, during chief Poma time, people started to go downhill to settle in their bush farms.
The first one to do this started /okↄrↄ/ hamlet and became a Mai Aŋgwa where Poma slept on his way up to the hill In 1929 (Drummond-Hay, Garu district Reassessment KNA no 2940) records that Piti had paid 5 shilling per househead for the last 7 years. He estimated that Abisi had 140 horses valued at 7 pound each and farmer income to 5 pound 14 shillings and 3 pence.
In 1935, Abisi paid a total of 91 pounds, 5 shillings (J. Withers-Gill, op. Cit.) It consisted of contributions of 5 shillings per household head.
The administration anticipated an increase of 1 shilling or 20% up to 6 shillings. These tax increases were made on the recommendation of the evaluation their production capacity by the local British “political officers”.
Sarkin Piti then had to go with the District Head (D. H.) to see the Emir who told him how much he had to deliver.
Periodic census counting of taxable persons was used to increase and justify the total of taxes to be paid.
The total annual income of Abisi farmers was assessed in 1929 at 3 pounds, 8 shillings. These earnings were the lower in the District; Hausa being evaluated to 7.9.9 per person, Kurama at 8.18.7 and Amo at 6.9.0.
In this new market economy, the Abisi were the poorest community in the area. This means that they were not yet integrated into the money system.
In 1935, five years later, their taxable income was evaluated nearly the double to 5 pounds, 14 shillings and 3 pence. The income of specialists was mentioned for the first time by J.C. Drummond-Hay:
  • 7 butchers with 12.10.0,
  • 4 blacksmiths with 9.15.0,
  • 1 musician with 8.15. 0 and
  • 7 merchants with 9.0.0
These specialists had to pay a tax of 9 shilling each, almost the double of other taxpayers and possibly only the blacksmiths were Abisi, the others being Hausas living amongst them.
As Abisi said about this money:

“We did not have to work in the mines of the plateau, we only had to sell sorghum to Rukuba and Irigwe.”

If Abisi had a difficult access to currency their performance as farmers was enough to escape forced labor in mines.
Women did not pay these taxes but they contributed indirectly. Their own grain had to feed the family during dry season but they could make beer sold in markets. Men would borrow tax money from their wives in case they could not gather the money.
However, tin being a central resource during the Second World War, an aging Sarkin Piti said he remembered that about 20 young men were requisitioned to work in the mines for two weeks in the 1940 but never returned afterward.
But forced labor was used periodically for mending roads. They were generally not paid but threaten of imprisonment and when they did get money, it did not suffice to feed themselves. (Lere District : K.N.A., no 393)

“It is recommended that all the major foot paths i.e. those connecting the big markets should be made up this year by compulsory labor in the dry season (…) a practice which has fallen into disuse, although it is supposed to be done every year.”

Using money for commerce and the obligation to pay taxes with currency has brought many changes in Abisi Cultural History.
Money infiltrated the social relations between people, used to buy work, pay bridewealth, gifts in ceremonies, in fact, in all sphere of life .
Abisi were themselves penetrating into the market economy.

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