‘THE LIONESS OF LISABI’
Born Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti was born and raised in Lagos State Nigeria. She was a feminist and political leader who was the leading advocate of women’s rights in her country during the first half of the 20th century.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a leading activist during Nigerian women’s anti-colonial struggles. She founded one of the most impressive women’s organizations of the twentieth century with a membership estimated to have reached up to 20,000 women which fought to protect and further entrench the rights of women. She was a teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist, traditional aristocrat and was one of the most prominent leaders of her generation and the first woman in the country to drive a car.
Following her doggedness, she was described as the doyen of female rights and the mother of Africa. She was a very powerful force advocating for the Nigerian woman’s right to vote and fought for women’s recognition in government.
Her father, Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, was the son of a returned slave from Sierra Leone who traced his ancestral history back to Abeokuta, became a member of the Anglican Faith and soon returned to the homeland of his fellow Egbas.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti attended St John’s Primary School, Igbe in Abeokuta from 1906 to 1913; and in 1914 became the first female student of the Abeokuta Girls’ Grammar School, a Christian missionary school founded in 1908. She took her Preceptor’s Examination at the Grammar School and taught there until May 1919 when she was sponsored by the Church Missionary Society and her father’s cousin, an agent of the UAC to study in England.
Ransome-Kuti enrolled at Wincham Hall College where she studied domestic sciences, education, French and music.
And it was then that she decided to drop the names Frances and Abigail and to be known only by her shortened third name, Funmilayo. Upon receiving her teaching credentials, she returned to Nigeria in 1922 and taught at the Abeokuta Girls’ Grammar School from 1923 to 1924. There, she met Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister who was the school’s principal at the time and the two got married on January 20, 1925. They had four children: three sons – Fela, Beko and Olikoye – and one daughter, Dolu.
Her Husband Reverend Ransome-Kuti became the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) from 1931 to 1954 which was the first multi-ethnic and nationalist association in the country. He was also a human rights activist; and both he and his wife worked to end colonialism in Nigeria.
In the 1970s, decades after the death of her husband, she (along with her youngest son Fela) changed their last name to Anikulapo-Kuti; Anikulapo is a Yoruba word that roughly translates to “warrior who carries powerful protection” or “he who carries death in his pouch.”
Ransome-Kuti was known throughout her career as an educator and activist. She organized literacy classes for women in the 1920s and founded a nursery school in the 1930s. In 1942, she founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (ALC) for educated women involved in charitable work. She also started the Social Welfare for Market Women club to help educate market women (the first adult education program for women in Nigeria).
Along with Eniola Soyinka (her sister-in-law and the mother of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka), she merged the ALC and the market women’s club to form the Egba or Abeokuta Women’s Union, which had a membership of over 20,000 women. The core objective of the organisation was fighting against the arbitrary exercise of colonial power by the British-supported puppet king of Egbaland, the imposition of taxes on women without granting them the right to vote and the attempt by the British to control markets run by women (trading was one of the major occupations of women in Western Nigeria of the time). Through this project, she also supported Nigeria’s independence movement.
The women were displeased with various actions of Oba Samuel Ladapo Ademola (1872-1962) the 7th Alake of Egbaland; some of which were the introduction of taxation on women’s produce and non-representation in the sole native authority.
Funmi Ransome-Kuti She led a massive protest against the Alake and the native authorities which spanned a period of almost four years culminating in the self-exile of the monarch in January 1949.
She presented documents alleging abuse of authority by the Alake who had been granted the right to collect the taxes by the British colonial government. Through a series of marches involving tens of thousands of women, a refusal to pay taxes, strikes and a wide spectrum of measures of civilian disobedience, the Abeokuta Women’s Union forced the Alake to abdicate his throne.
This eventually drove the administration of the Egba kingdom, which was under the authority of Great Britain, to the brink of collapse. These protests (which caused a sensation across the nation and internationally) are often referred to historically as the ‘Egba Women’s War’ or the ‘Nigerian Women’s Struggle’.
After days, months and years of protest, the Alake, who was regarded as a stooge of the colonial master, was removed and forced out of office and had to move to Ogbomoso (other records say Oshogbo) where he stayed till December 1950 before things came back to normal.
Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her being called the doyen of female rights in Nigeria as well as ‘The Mother of Africa’. She also oversaw the successful abolition of separate tax rates for women.
In 1953, the Egba Women’s Union became the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies, which subsequently formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation and Ransome-Kuti was made World Vice-President in the same year. She also 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.
In 1947, the Nigerian Union of Students led by Reverend Ransome-Kuti’s became the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the party of the first Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe. She became a key member of the NCNC as a result of her close association with its roots and led the women’s wing of the party. Azikiwe selected her as the representative of the women of Nigeria as well as of the Western Region for the NCNC delegation that travelled to London in 1947. She was elected treasurer of the Egba division of the party in 1956.
However, Ransome-Kuti was often in conflict with Azikiwe and the rest of the party leadership because she felt women were not as well-represented as men. She was eventually expelled from the party when she failed to win a federal parliamentary seat in the 1959 elections.
However, her political activism never truly ended. Prior to independence, she founded the Commoners Peoples Party (CPP) in an attempt to challenge the ruling NCNC, ultimately denying them victory in her area: her party earned 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.
In the 1950s, she was one of the few women elected to the house of chiefs, becoming an Oloye of the Yoruba people. At the time, the house of chiefs was one of her homeland’s most influential bodies.
Ransome-Kuti served several terms on the local council of Abeokuta between 1949 and 1960. In 1951 she ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the regional assembly as the candidate of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), which she had helped found in 1944. In 1953 the FNWS became affiliated with the Women’s International Democratic Federation, and Ransome-Kuti was elected vice president of the organization.
She subsequently lectured in several countries on the conditions of Nigerian women. After the NCNC rejected her bid for a second candidacy for the assembly in 1959, she ran as an independent candidate which split the NCNC vote and ensured the opposing party’s victory. She was subsequently expelled from the NCNC and formed her own party, the Commoners’ People’s Party, which was disbanded a year later; and by this time her political influence in Nigeria and her following among women in Abeokuta had declined significantly.
During the Cold War, Ransome-Kuti travelled widely owing to her status as the world vice-president of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, angering the Nigerian as well as British and American governments by establishing contacts within the Eastern Bloc during visits to the USSR, Hungary and China (where she met Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China). In 1956, her passport was not renewed as it was feared that she could influence other women with her allegedly communist ideas and policies. She was also refused a US visa by the American government on the same grounds.
Ransome-Kuti was the first Nigerian women to drive a car and ride a motorcycle. She was Nigeria’s first ever representative at a women’s international conference (in the USSR in 1963). She was one of the founders of the Nigeria Union of Teachers and the Nigerian Students Union.
The University of Ibadan awarded her an honorary doctorate in law in 1968 and in 1970 she was declared the winner of the Lenin Peace Prize.
In old age, her activism was overshadowed by that of her three sons who provided effective opposition to various military regimes. In 1978, Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second-floor window when her son Fela’s compound (a commune known as the Kalakuta Republic) was stormed by a thousand armed military personnel. She lapsed into a coma in February of that year and died on April 13 in Lagos as a result of injuries sustained during the assault. She was buried in Abeokuta on May 5, 1978.