INTRODUCTION Nigerian feminist and political leader who was the leading advocate of women’s rights in Nigeria during the first half of the 20th century.
Mrs Ransome-Kuti meets Sir Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, first prime minister of Nigeria
She was a teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat. She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation. She was also the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car. Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria, as well as to her being regarded as “The Mother of Africa.” Early on, she was a very powerful force advocating for the Nigerian woman’s right to vote. She was described in 1947, by the West African Pilot as the “Lioness of Lisabi” for her leadership of the women of the Egba clan that she belonged to on a campaign against their arbitrary taxation. That struggle led to the abdication of the Egba high king Oba Ademola II in 1949.
EARLY LIFE AND BACKGROUND
The iron lady Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was born to Yoruba parents, Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu. She was named Francis Abigail Olufunmilayo. Her father was a son of a repatriated slave from Sierra Leone, who traced his ancestral history back to Abeokuta in what is today Ogun State, Nigeria. He became a member of the Anglican Faith, and soon returned to the homeland of his fellow Egbas, Abeokuta.
She attended the Abeokuta Grammar school for secondary education, and later went to England for further studies. She soon returned to Nigeria and became a teacher. On 20 January 1925, she married the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome Kuti. He also defended the commoners of his country, and was one of the founders of both the Nigeria Union of Teachers and of the Nigerian Union of Students.Well educated with a colonial education and a Christian background, she was radicalized through the actions of the British occupation of Nigeria: its racism, sexism and economic violence. Ransome-Kuti received the national honor of membership in the Order of Nigeria in 1965. The University of Ibadan bestowed upon her the honorary doctorate of laws in 1968. She also held a seat in the Western House of Chiefs of Nigeria as an oloye of the Yoruba people.
Traditionally, Yoruba society was divided into male and female administrative sections. Although men in Nigeria held the position of clan chiefs, women had traditionally held political authority which was shared with men, particularly concentrated in areas of trade. With the coming of formal colonial rule through the Berlin Conference of 1884, the British authorities occupying Nigeria restructured the governance of the society: establishing the position of “Warrant Chiefs” as middle men to act between the traditional authorities and those of the colonizers, elevating the traditional and largely symbolic position of clan chief to a political power broker and created the Sole Native Authority, to which only the men holding local political power were admitted.
CAREER AND HEROIC WORKS
Throughout her career, she was known as an educator and activist. She and Elizabeth Adekogbe provided dynamic leadership for women’s rights in the 1950s. She founded an organization for women in Abeokuta, with a membership tally of more than 20,000 individuals spanning both literate and illiterate women.
Ransome-Kuti launched the organization into public consciousness when she rallied women against price controls that were hurting the female merchants of the Abeokuta markets. Trading was one of the major occupations of women in the Western Nigeria at the time. In 1949, she led a protest against Native Authorities, especially against the Alake of Egbaland. She presented documents alleging abuse of authority by the Alake, who had been granted the right to collect the taxes by his colonial suzerain, the Government of the United Kingdom. He subsequently relinquished his crown for a time due to the affair. She also oversaw the successful abolishing of separate tax rates for women. In 1953, she founded the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies, which subsequently formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation.
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti campaigned for women’s votes. She was for many years a member of the ruling National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party, but was later expelled when she was not elected to a federal parliamentary seat. At the NCNC, she was the treasurer and subsequent president of the Western NCNC women’s Association. After her suspension her political voice was diminished due to the direction of national politics, as both of the more powerful members of the opposition, Awolowo and Adegbenro, had support close by. However, she never truly ended her activism. In the 1950s, she was one of the few women elected to the house of chiefs. At the time, this was one of her homeland’s most influential bodies.
She founded the Egba or Abeokuta Women’s Union along with Eniola Soyinka (her sister-in-law and the mother of the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka). This organisation is said to have once had a membership of 20,000 women. Among other things, Funmilayo Ransom Kuti organised workshops for illiterate market women. She continued to campaign against taxes and price controls
In 1918, a colonial tax on palm oil to be paid by all men in Nigeria had caused major uprisings; in 1929 the British extended taxation to women and also goats which were usually the personal possessions of women. As soon as the rumours of such a taxation were confirmed, the women of Nigeria rose up. After an initial incident where a Warrant Chief had attacked a female householder and thousands of local women had encircled his home, singing songs, attacking the house before insisting on his resignation and dragging him to the courthouse to be tried for assault, huge gatherings of women appeared across Nigeria protesting at Warrant Chief’s offices, burning courts and European owned shops demanding an end to the tax. The Aba Women’s Rebellion eventually ended in bloodshed after two months on December 17th 2029 as 32 women were killed when the British military fired into a crowd of protesting women.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the lioness of Lisabi in spectacles
Although some compromises were made to the governance structure and methods of collection, the tax on women remained in place. By the late 1940s, the burden of taxation was becoming unbearable as the colonial authorities squeezed more and more from its protectorates in the aftermath of the Second European War. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, then the headteacher of a local school, who had previously set up several organisations bringing together middle-class women, had heard of the struggles of the market women and the fightback that they had started and established the Abeokuta Women’s Union – an explicitly political organisation uniting the working class market women with middle class women. This was designed to challenge both colonial rule and the patriarchal structure. Two hundred thousand women joined.
From the initial demands of an end to the taxation regime, the confidence and demands of the AWU grew with proposals to replace the flat rate tax on women with taxation on expatriate companies, investment in local initiatives and infrastructure including transportation, sanitation and education and the abolition of the Sole Native Authority and its replacement with a representative form of government, including women.
Mrs Ransome-Kuti addressing a gathering
The Abeokuta Women’s Union was a well organised and disciplined organisation. Mass refusal to pay the tax combined with enormous protests, organised under the guise of “picnics” or “festivals”. The response from the authorities was brutal as tear gas was deployed and beatings were administered. Anikulapo-Kuti ran training sessions on how to deal with this threat, teaching women how to protect themselves from the effects of tear gas and how long they had to throw the canisters back at the authorities.
The British colonizers teamed up with their local lackeys to subdue the women. At one protest, the “ORO” stick was brought out – a symbolic artifact of the secretive male cult of the Ogboni – supposedly imbibed with great powers, and the women were instructed to go home before evil spirits overcame them. When the women shrank back in fear, Ransome-Kuti grabbed the stick, waved it around declaring that the women now had the power before taking it with her displaying it prominently in her home. This action gave her a reputation of fearlessness and courage that led 50, 000 women to follow her to the home of Alake of Egbaland (Alake Ademola), the “pseudo-king” of Western Nigeria and a colonial stooge. As the women protested outside the king’s house, they sang in Yoruba: “Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.”
With this unified action and song they chased him out of the house, condemning him to exile on threat of castration This.actions resulted in the king’s abdication. Madam Ransome-Kuti`s’s international career began when together with her husband and their close friend Ladipo Solanke created the infamous West African Student’s Union (WASU). They provided support for West African students studying in London in 1925, WASU promoted nationalist and anti-colonial movements in British West Africa. A list of life long members of WASU reads like a WHO’s WHO of West African leaders and activists: Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief H O Davies, Aliyi Ekineh, H A Korsah of Gold Coast, Dr Taylor-Cummings of Sierra Leone, the Alake of Abeokuta, Emir of Kano and Asantehene of Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah and Joe Appiah were vice presidents in 1946. WASU was a huge influence on many West African students of the day and played a major part in the independence movements of West African countries. FRK and her husband acted as agents in Nigeria raising funds and distributing pamphlets for the union.
Mrs Anikulapo-Kuti embraced her Yoruba heritage and worked to give pride back to the colonized, insisting that children at her school were registered using their African, rather than European names. She abandoned her Western style of dress, favoured by middle class women in the late 40s, adopting the traditional wrapped cloth of the lower classed market traders, and gave speeches exclusively in Yoruba, necessitating the British to find translators to interpret her words. She also oversaw the successful abolishing of separate tax rates for women. In 1953, she founded the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies which subsequently formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation, an organisations and movements through which Kuti campaigned for women’s rights to education, employment and political participation.
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti campaigned for women’s votes’ She was for many years a member of the ruling National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party, but was later expelled when she was not elected to a federal parliamentary seat. At the NCNC, she was the treasurer and subsequent president of the Western NCNC women’s Association. After her suspension her political voice was diminished due to the direction of national politics, as both of the more powerful members of the opposition, Awolowo and Adegbenro, had support close by. However, she never truly ended her activism. She and Elizabeth Adekogbe provided dynamic leadership for women’s rights in the ’50s. In fact, in the 1950s, she was one of the few women elected to the house of chiefs. At the time, this was one of her homeland’s most influential bodies.
She founded the Egba or Abeokuta Women’s Union along with Eniola Soyinka (her sister-in-law and the mother of the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka). This organisation is said to have once had a membership of 20,000 women. Among other things, Fumilayo Ransom Kuti organised workshops for illiterate market women. She continued to campaign against taxes and price controls.
In 1955 the Rev Ransome-Kuti died of cancer. The next 30 years saw Funmilayo Kuti struggle to build and run a series of schools with and without support from local and national government. She also became involved with a series of land litigations which cost her and her children dearly and none of which she was able to win. One of the family properties that became the center of controversy and probably the most infamous sites in Lagos was that which was located at 14 Agege Motor Road. The property had been occupied by FRK’s musician son, FELA. FELA’s music and lyrics were highly critical of Nigerian governments. Fela was a champion of traditional African culture and like his mother a Pan-Africanist. 14 Agege Motor Road had become a commune which Fela called Kalakuta Republic and had changed his name from Ransome Kuti to Anikulapo Kuti meaning “warrior who carries strong protection”.
During the Cold War and before the independence of her country, Funmilayo Kuti travelled widely and angered the Nigerian as well as British and American Governments by her contacts with the Eastern Bloc. This included her travel to the former USSR, Hungary and China where she met Mao Zedong. In 1956, her passport was not renewed by the government because it was said that “it can be assumed that it is her intention to influence … women with communist ideas and policies.” She was also refused a U.S. visa because the American government alleged that she was a communist.
Prior to independence she founded the Commoners Peoples Party in an attempt to challenge the ruling NCNC, ultimately denying them victory in her area. She got 4,665 votes to NCNC’s 9,755, thus allowing the opposition Action Group (which had 10,443 votes) to win. She was one of the delegates that negotiated Nigeria’s independence with the British government.
One of the women elected to the native House of Chiefs, serving as an Oloye of the Yoruba people
Ranking member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons
Treasurer and President Western Women Association of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons
Leader of Abeokuta Women’s Union
Leader of Commoners Peoples Party
Leader of Nigeria Women’s Union
Winner of the Lenin Peace Prize
“Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.”
In 1978 she was assassinated by the Nigerian Authorities at the Kalakuta Republic – a commune established by her son Fela, after it was raided by over a thousand Nigerian soldiers acting under orders from General Obasanjo. Kalakuta was often raided by the police and armed forces as was his club “the Shrine”. Obasanjo was angered by Fela’s criticism of the military as “zombies” who intimidated ordinary Nigerians while allowing the corruption and exploitation of communities to go unchecked. On February 18th 1977 Kalakuta Republic was surrounded by a thousand armed soldiers (The present president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo was then Supreme Commander of the military dictatorship of the day). That day, FRK together with Fela’s brother Bekolari, Fela’s many wives and Fela himself. This raid was a particularly brutal one. The soldiers armed with bayonets and clubs stormed the compound without any warning and began to beat people, destroy property and strip women naked.
FRK, then already 77years old, was pulled by the hair and literally thrown out of the window severely injuring her leg and putting her into shock. The property was then burned down by the soldiers. The raid known as “Kalakuta War” received a large amount of publicity and the government was forced to undertake an investigation. However this came to nothing and the whole incident was blamed on “over zealous unknown soldiers and to Fela”. No one including the Ransome-Kuti family have been compensated for what happened that day. The raid destroyed FRK’s physical and mental health and observers said she had lost her “fighting Spirit”. A year later the family suit for damages from the Kalakuta raid was dismissed as FRK is said to have moaned “why are they doing this to us”. She died in April that year, one of Nigeria’s truely greats and one of its very few RIGHTS activists. Her coffin was sent to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence together with a newly written song “Coffin for a Head of State”.
FRK and her son,Fela
In August 2012, one of her grandsons, musician Seun Kuti responded to questions from fans and friends on Channels Television Nigeria’s hangout via Google+. Seun Kuti said his grandmother was murdered by the Federal Government and asked the Federal Government to apologise to his family for the death of his grandmother, Funmilayo Kuti, before considering immortalising her by putting her picture on the proposed N5000 note. As of 3 September 2012, the Nigerian government has yet to respond to his request nor apologized. Several protest groups have begun to form on social media adding pressure for a government apology. The N5000 proposal was later withdrawn by the Nigerian government.