Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Photo: UNESCO / CC BY-SA 3.0, license linked at bottom of article

Ransome-Kuti (1900-1978), a leading anti-colonial activist and women’s organiser, left an important radical legacy which should be remembered, argues Tayo Aluko.

Last October, shortly after Nigeria celebrated its sixtieth anniversary of independence from Britain, a massacre occurred in Lagos, when Nigerian soldiers opened fire on a large group of young protestors. The #EndSARS movement had started off as a demand to disband a rogue police force which had brutalised mostly young people all over the country for years, but soon evolved into a protest against failed governance generally.

Among the young people at the demonstration, there were bound to have been recent graduates of the Ransome-Kuti Memorial Grammar School in Lagos. It is probable that current students at that school are unaware of how their institution came into being. It occupies the site of what was once known as the Kalakuta Republic: the compound that was home and recording studio to the radical, outspoken, Pan-Africanist musician Fela Kuti and his band. Long the bane of the Nigerian government, Fela’s constant mockery of the Establishment and the armed forces finally provoked an attack by about a thousand soldiers in February 1977. Fela and some of his colleagues were severely assaulted, and the premises burned to the ground.

In the midst of it all, a 76-year-old woman was thrown down two storeys from a bedroom window. Amazingly, she only broke one foot, but, as it turns out, also broken that day was her previously indomitable spirit. She would eventually lapse into a coma and die just over a year later, after refusing to eat or take her medication in her last weeks. This was the sorry end to the remarkable life of Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK), who had been staying with him at the time of the raid. 

A life of activism and organising

Born in October 1900, Funmilayo Thomas had already become a Head Teacher at the newly formed Abeokuta Grammar School girls’ section at the age of 23, resigning two years later to marry and move to be with her new husband, Reverend I. O. Ransome-Kuti, then head of a more established school in Ijebu-Ode. Having been the first girl ever to enrol at AGS, FRK was determined to ensure that girls had as much access to education as boys, often intervening on behalf of female students in persuading reluctant fathers to send their daughters to secondary school and beyond.

In 1944, having been approached to teach a market woman in Abeokuta to read, FRK began to include market women in the previously elite group she had helped found, the Abeokuta Ladies Circle, in order to ‘help in encouraging learning among the adults and thereby wipe out illiteracy’. Interaction with market women (who bore the brunt of colonial injustice) caused her to mature politically and become increasingly radical. She subsequently led the transformation of the ALC into the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU). Her own personal transformation involved giving up Western attire for traditional dress and speaking only Yoruba in public addresses, in solidarity with ‘the common woman’.

Under her leadership, the AWU began to take on the colonial authorities with mass actions and demonstrations. They demanded an end to taxes on women, protested against corruption by the Alake (the British supported king) and his agents, and called for women’s enfranchisement. Its greatest success was achieved when, after months of sustained pressure, the Alake was forced to abdicate, albeit temporarily, in January 1949. Seen as a stooge of the British, his downfall indicated that mass non-violent action by well organised working-class women could bring down a powerful symbol of British colonial rule. 

Responding to calls for help from around Nigeria, FRK eventually helped form the Nigerian Women’s Union, of which the AWU became a branch. Abroad, she advised Kwame Nkrumah on the formation of the Ghana Women’s Association, attended women’s conferences around Africa, and became involved with the Women’s International Democratic Federation. She made contact with women’s organisations from countries as varied as India, Vietnam, Bulgaria, China, Trinidad and Korea. She also received many national and international awards, including the Lenin Peace Prize.

Post-independence marginalisation

Despite her prominence in national and international circles, FRK was confined to the fringes of formal party politics in Nigeria. In the jostling for power around independence, she was expelled from the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the nationalist party of which she had been a founder member. 

FRK’s nationalism was expressed at independence when she lamented the fact that the lyrics and music to the new national anthem had been composed by two Brits, albeit both women. Coincidentally, in the year of her passing, the country adopted a new one, which, ironically, the protestors in Lagos had been singing before the army opened fire on them. Within the lyrics to both anthems are a number of illustrations of how the country she had served so faithfully all her life had failed her.

Nigeria, referred to as the Motherland in the original version, became the Fatherland in the year of FRK’s passing. ‘The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain’ is the prayer in the contemporary version. The continued starvation of the education sector by successive governments has, however, left the country far short of fulfilling the potential FRK saw. We see some of the reasons for this as we find several Nigerian politicians’ names listed among the elite revealed by the Panama and Pandora papers to have spirited away much-needed billions in offshore tax havens.

When young Nigerians gathered to protest such criminality last year, we were left with the saddest, most poignant image – the blood-soaked flag – contrasting most vividly with the desires of FRK and the authors of the first national anthem, who hoped: ‘To hand to our children / A banner without stain.’

The soiled flag is a symbol of the failure of successive governments (entirely male) to embrace people like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Her legacy, however, is that there will always be educated girls, and there will always be organised market women. This means that we can hold on to the hope and knowledge that once again, their oppressors can and will eventually be brought down.

Suggested reading: Cheryl Johnson-Odim ad Nina Emma Mba, For Women and the Nation: Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria (University of Illinois Press 1997).

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