The first Nigerian woman to drive a car and better known to many as the mother of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, born 25 October 1900, served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation.
The daughter of Chief Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas (a returned slave) and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu of the Jibolu-Taiwo family, she received a Western education up to secondary school level, before pursuing further education in England from 1919 to 1923, when she discovered socialism and anti-colonialism.
Upon her return to Nigeria, Ransome-Kuti organised literacy classes for women in the early 1920s and founded a nursery school in the 1930s. She went on to found the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (ALC) along with Eniola Soyinka (her sister-in-law and the mother of the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka) for educated women involved in charitable work in 1942. In 1944, the club expanded to include the market women and, in 1945, defended them when the government began taking their rice without compensation.
This marked the turn of the club, which steadily became more politicised, subsequently changing its name to the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) in 1946. According to African Feminist Forum, the union was used to organise women in Abeokuta in protest of colonial taxation and other unfavourable, foreign and excessive policies under the slogan, “No taxation without representation”. As with the Igbo women in 1929, the Egba women of Abeokuta focused their opposition on a local representative of British power rather than on British power itself.
Protest against Ademola II, the king of the town
One of the AWU’s most memorable protest was that against Ademola II, who became the “alake”, or king, of the town in the 1920s. He took advantage of his position and British support to steal land and embezzle taxes, especially from the women who, in paying both their own taxes and some of their husbands’, were essentially providing at least half of the district’s revenue.
As the AWU was unable to gain permits to protest against the alake’s mistreatment, Ransome-Kuti is said to have led training sessions for their demonstrations, which they referred to as “picnics” or “festivals”. During this long and protracted campaign against unjust treatment and taxation, many women were put on trial as individuals. Ransome-Kuti herself was imprisoned in 1947 for her refusal to pay taxes. African Feminist Forum states that the movement was “not deterred and entered a radical phase, with increasing sit-ins, demonstrations and market closures, including using songs and the ridicule of male power.”
Although a mass demonstration took place on 29 and 30 November 1947, which drew more than 10 000 women and saw men finally joining their struggle, the alake held out until 3 January 1949, when the pressure became too much and he abdicated. “It had taken the women nearly three years of continuous struggle to win, during which they had remained cohesive, organised and determined, and had not resorted to violence,” African Feminist Forum states.
The AWU continued to act as a pressure group whenever the interests of Egba women were threatened. It went on to expand into a trans-regional, trans-ethnic structure and became the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU), then later the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Society (FNWS) with the mandate of articulating women’s position in Nigerian society.
Ransome-Kuti took part in the pre-independence conferences that laid the groundwork for Nigeria’s First Republic. She was also one of the women appointed to the native House of Chiefs, serving as an Oloye of the Yoruba people. She was also the only woman to hold an executive position in the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC).
Ransome-Kuti was honoured with a doctorate degree, the Order of the Niger and the Lenin Peace Prize. “Ransome-Kuti has been described as an ‘eloquent and compelling speaker’ who efficiently used ‘expressive, idiomatic language and very sharp wit.’ She also extended support to Margaret Ekpo, who had commenced an independent resistance to colonial policies in eastern Nigeria,” according to African Feminist Forum.
In February 1978, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown out of a window by Nigerian soldiers ransacking the home of her son, renowned Afrobeat musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. She died of her injuries in April that year.