Mid October 1946 in Abeokuta (now in Nigeria), thousands of women protested the increase of the taxes imposed on female merchants of the Abeokuta markets since 1918. In the aftermath of the Second Word War, the British colonial officials were trying to recover from the hardships of the war by raising more money from the colonized peoples. Women who refused to pay were often beaten or arrested. As a result of the oppressive tax conditions, the Abeokuta Women Union (AWU) emerged under the leadership of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and ten thousand women gathered for mass protests.
Head teacher of a local school born in 1900, Funmilayo Kuti initially created the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club in 1932. Although it began as a club for Western-educated, middle class women, in 1944 it extended to market women (literate and illiterate) and was renamed Abeokuta Women Union in 1946.
Committed to challenge both the colonial rule and the patriarchy structure, the AWU protested and sent petitions to the British administration until they claimed victory. In April 1948 Funmilayo oversaw the successful abolishing of separate tax rates for women. And in 1949 the Alake, the local representative of the colonial government of the United Kingdom and responsible for enforcing the gender-differentiated tax laws, abdicated from the throne.
Under Funmilayo Kuti the AWU gathered women of all classes, education and cultural backgrounds. An active policy of inclusion extended to language and appearance. Yoruba became the main language of communication, and Yoruba forms of dress, rather than European, became the rule. Funmilayo also associated with any anti-colonial organisation.
Funmilayo encouraged mass education among all women members of the AWU through literacy classes.
She herself came from a family who believed in the value of education and consequently became one of the first female students attending the Abeokuta Grammar School for secondary education. She later went to England to further her studies.
Funmilayo soon became known as an educator, nationalist and activist. Fundamental to her activism was the struggle for greater educational opportunities for girls, for suffrage and for the defense of women’s rights.
In 1949, the AWU expanded to the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU). It became a model organisation for women’s rights across Nigeria and opened various branches in the country. The organisation was later renamed the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS) in 1953. The same year, the FNWS formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation, an international organisation founded in Paris in 1945 and working for women’s anti-colonial struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
During the Cold War Funmilayo traveled widely around the world, especially to the former USSR, Hungary and China where she met Mao Zedong. Subsequently, the government refused to renew her passport in 1956 because it assumed that she intended to influence the Nigerian women with communist ideas and policies. Almost at the same time, the United States refused her visa because the American government alleged that she was a communist.
Prior to Nigeria’s independence of 1960, Funmilayo founded the Commoners Peoples Party in an attempt to challenge the ruling National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party (NCNC). This action ultimately denied the NCNC victory in her area allowing the opposition Action Group to win. She was one of the delegates who negotiated Nigeria’s independence with the British government.
In 1965 Funmilayo Kuti was named Member of the Order of the Niger by the Nigerian government for her contribution to the nation.
In old age her activism was over-shadowed by that of her three sons, who provided effective opposition to various Nigerian military juntas. One of her son, Fela, was highly critical of Nigerian governments through his music and lyrics. He was a champion of traditional African culture and, like his mother, a Pan-Africanist.
In 1978 Fela’s compound, a commune known as the Kalakuta Republic, was stormed by a thousand armed military personnel. Funmilayo Kuti was thrown from a second-floor window and lapsed into a coma in February of that year. She died on 13 April 1978, as a result of her injuries.
Due to her unique political activism, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti has been described as “the doyen of female rights in Nigeria” and “the Mother of Africa”, and has been an inspiration for many women’s organisations across the world.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons.