Book Review: THE LIONESS OF LISABI – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti – "Nigerian feminist and activist who fought for suffrage and equal rights for her countrywomen"
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was born on 25th October, 1900 in Abeokuta, Egbaland. The Egba branch of Yoruba (one of many politically autonomous groups each with its own mutually intelligible dialects) lived in an area between Ijebu in the east, Eko (Lagos) in the south and the Ogun river in the west. By 1900 the Egba like other Yoruba had a highly sophisticated social hierarchy and socio-political system and in fact the had been in the south-west of Nigeria for over a millennium. Although women were excluded in all but one of the four branches of government they did have access to the political system through the female only IYALODE society (meaning “Mother of the Town”) which enabled them to be represented in decision making and administration.
The settling of the Egbas in Abeokuta was a result of inter Yoruba wars in the early 19C when thousands of Egbas were killed and 1000s more sold into slavery. Once Abeokuta was secured the Egbas then returned to their traditional economic activity which consisted of a gendered division of labour where the men specialised in agriculture (unusual as most of sub-Saharan Africa this was the women’s role) hunting and warfare and the women cloth production, marketing and trading. The colonial presence in nearby Eko (Lagos) provided the Egbas with a ready market for both agricultural produce and the women’s trading businesses.
By 1892 the colonial government had expanded into Egbaland and created the Egba United Government (EUG) and by 1917, Egba was part of the Southern Nigerian Protectorate. The then Governor, Lord Lugard introduced first a system of direct taxation and secondly created the Sole Native Authority which was a form of indirect rule whereby the Obas (High traditional rulers) acted as agents for the colonial government. The SNA led to an even greater erosion of women’s access to political power as the Alake rarely if at all consulted women in his decision making. Nonetheless the education of girls was seen as essential to the progress of the Egba people. The diminishing status and power of women in Egba was reinforced by the “prejudices and assumptions of the British colonial administration officers who worked for a government in which there were scarcely any women and who therefore did not expect or wish to find women involved in Southern Nigeria” (p11)
The direct taxation system which included women was the one issue that catapulted FRK into the political spotlight first in Abeokuta and then in Nigeria. In fact the issue of colonial FRK was an Afrocentric feminist who recognised that women faced multiple oppressions of race, gender and class and that the way to challenging these oppressions was through the empowering of women. Secondly, although FRK actively fought for equality and justice for women, she was also a nationalist which meant that she fought for the end to colonisation and all forms of domination whether at a local or a national level. Thirdly she was a social democrat and was committed to the reorganisation of Nigerian society in such a way as to promote self-development over and above capitalism and materialism. Taxation of women was a highly contentious one which was taken up not only in Egba but also in other parts of the country and most notably in Igboland.
FRK had no interest in the material trappings of her class and status and although she shunned western dress and refused to speak in English in the public forum, she was a nationalist that had no time for ethnocentrism. Neither did she believe in sticking to tradition for traditions sake. She challenged those aspects of Yoruba culture which she felt were in conflict with her egalitarian worldview such as kneeling or prostrating to an elder, spouse or titled person. Both her and her husband refused to do so and taught their children not to do so.
In 1923 FRK was head teacher of Abeokuta Grammar school (girls branch) and it is here that she organised a group of young girls and women into the Abeokuta Ladies Club. The group made up of western educated middle class and most Christian women concentrated on learning handicrafts and social etiquette. When FRK moved to Ijebu-Ode with her husband she against founded a similar ladies club and again when she moved back to Abeokuta this time the activities including civic projects and organising a range of activities for teenagers of both sexes.
In 1944 FRK was approached by a friend and former student who introduced her to a market women who told FRK that she wanted to learn to read. The ALC regrouped itself and expanded its membership to include market women. Women who were generally poor, Muslim and not educated. It was at this point that FRK truly began her career as a political activist. Listed amongst its aims were “to help in raising the standard of womanhood in Abeokuta… to help in encouraging learning among the adults and thereby wipe out illiteracy”. Members of the extended Ransom-Kuti family were recruited as tutors including Wole Soyinka and his mother, cousins of FRK.
FRK husband had meanwhile founded with others, the National Union of Teachers and these two organisations often went on to work together in their push for women’s rights. In 1945 the issue of price controls of foodstuff sold by the market women was brought to the notice of FRK and the ALC. The ALC sent a number of delegations to the District officer and the Egba Native Administration council — to no avail. However the Daily Service newspaper published an article about the matter and within a week the confiscation of rice ceased.
FRK began to listen to the market women and was horrified to hear of the level of their exploitation by the colonial and ENA. For example, conditional sales, which forced women to buy slow moving goods together with fast moving ones which placed a heavy burden on the women who lived with very low profit margins. Another example was the imposition of quotas of food to be sold to the government, harassment by police and representatives of the Alake (Oba of Abeokuta). All of this came as a great surprise to FRK and she is quoted as saying “ we educated women were living outside the daily life of the people”. It was at this point that she forever abandoned western dress and started wearing the traditional Yoruba wrapper “in order to make the women feel and know I was one of them”.
From this period on the ALC, later to become the Abeokuta Women’s Union, (FRK was the president from inception until her death in 1978) became involved in a series of protest actions. The first was the demand to end government control of trading and for no increase in the taxation of women, the latter would lead to the most “dynamic and protracted struggles, culminating in the temporary abdication of the Alake and reform of the SNA” (p67)
The issue of taxation was a particularly sore issue for the women of Abeokuta who were amongst the first females to be subjected to tax by the colonial government. Girls were taxed at age 15 whilst boys 16 and wives were taxed separately from their husbands irrespective of their income. The women considered the tax as “foreign, unfair and excessive” but they also objected to the method of collection. “Homes were invaded, women sometimes physically assaulted, including being stripped naked …. And jailed for non-payment.” As stated earlier the British had introduced a system of indirect rule so it was the Alake who was ultimately responsible for the collection. This then put him in direct conflict with the Abeokuta women who were also disenfranchised through the process of indirect rule.
The AWU became a huge due-paying organisation with some 20,000 women as members. They were able to organise huge demonstrations. It was a highly disciplined organisation and everyone was expected to follow the rules. The anti-tax protest action was a long and protracted one in which FRK was at the head leading the women in the struggle which eventually resulted in the temporary abdication of the Alake of Abeokuta. The protest consisted of mass demonstrations, refusals to pay the tax. FRK apparently led training sessions in her compound for these demonstrations. Where she showed them how to cover their eyes, noses and mouths with cloth when tear gas was thrown. She also instructed them to pick up the canisters of tear gas and throw them back at the police. The demonstrations were called “picnics” or “festivals” by the women as they were unable to get permits. When one puts the demonstrations into a time context (1947) it becomes even more amazing as the women were utterly fearless. They even challenged the “ORO”, an entirely male “thing or ritual” said to have supernatural powers. At one point FRK seizes the ORO which is like a stick and displayed it in her home. The anti-tax protests took a large toll on FRK and the women but they stuck with it and eventually succeeded in their demands.
FRK’s next step was to organise women on a national level and to move into the international arena. “no other Nigerian woman of her period had the same international exposure.” The AWU became the Nigerian Women’s Union and began establishing autonomous branches throughout Nigeria. FRK herself was invited to talk to women’s groups across the nation. The political objectives of the NWU were getting the franchise for women, allocation of proportional representation for women and the abolition of electoral colleges. In 1953 the NWU held a two day conference, a “parliament of women of Nigeria” with 400 delegates from 15 provinces, in which a number of resolutions relating to the political objectives were passed.
At the conference FRK “propounded a feminist consciousness and ideology… acknowledging that women were victimised by their social conditioning, which led them to internalise a negative self-image and to be passive and apathetic” She went on to criticise polygamy, bride price. FRK was not only concerned with women’s issues. She was also an active member of NCNC even though that organisation tried to ban women from membership of the NWU and the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS) and used their membership with these organisations as a way to criticise the NCNC on its policy towards women and women’s issues. Eventually FRK was expelled from the NCNC for constantly criticising the party which had since become highly corrupt and its exclusion of women from the decision making process.
FRK’s international career began when together with her husband and their close friend Ladipo Solanke created the infamous West African Student’s Union (WASU). AS well as providing 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.
In 1947 FRK left for London as part of an NCNC delegation. During the two months visit, FRK was asked to give a number of talks including one about the state of women in Nigeria. She also wrote an article on the same topic which was published in the British Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker and reproduced for Nigerian papers. FRK argued that under colonial rule women had lost more than men:
“Before the British advent in Nigeria….there was a division of labour between men and women…. Women owned property, traded and exercised considerable political and social influence in society….. With the advent of the British rule…instead of women being educated and assisted… their condition has deteriorated.” She also wrote that women had lost their traditional economic and political power and that they were oppressed by the colonial system and its agents such as the Sole Native Authority in Abeokuta. Once again she clashed with the Alake when she wrote about the how in Abeokuta women were forced to pay taxes that they could not afford and in return did not get even basic amenities and that women were “poverty stricken, disease ridden and malnourished” and held the British government responsible.
The Alake of Abeokuta wrote a reply denouncing the article whilst the Lagos Market Women’s Association and the Abeokuta Women’s Union both declared their support for her arguments and FRK was given a huge reception on her return to Abeokuta.
In 1955 the Rev Ransome-Kuti died of cancer. The next 30 years saw FRK 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”.
Kalakuta was often raided by the police and armed forces as was his club “the Shrine”. 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 77, 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.