“She’s the only mother of Nigeria.” That is how Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s son describes her in one of his songs.
Affectionately called ‘Mama Fela’, Late Chief Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti is popularly remembered as the mother of Nigerian music legend and pioneer of the Afrobeat genre, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela’s creative ingenuity was a thorn in the flesh of politicians and oppressors who took advantage of their positions and power to dictate the way people should live and die.
Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti was not in any way different from her son. She was a doyenne of women’s rights in Nigeria during the first half of the 20th Century, ensuring a rise in the standard of living of women while advocating for their involvement in the decision-making process.
Being one of the few women in Nigeria during the early part of the 20th Century to receive secondary education, Ransome-Kuti grew up to become an educator and essentially the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria. Most importantly, she was one of the few women who led the fight against colonialism and gender inequality.
In 2019, she was recognized by Google with a Google Doodle, and this was how the tech giant described her early beginnings:
“She was born in Abeokuta, the current capital of Nigeria’s Ogun state, the former Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas grew up witnessing Great Britain consolidating control over Nigeria. As the grandchild of a slave, she became one of the first girls to enroll in Abeokuta Grammar School, before traveling to Cheshire in England to continue her education. By the time she returned home, she’d dropped her birth names and preferred to speak Yoruba.”
Ransome-Kuti began teaching at Abeokuta and in 1925, she got married to Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican clergyman and teacher.
Her activism soon began when her husband became the principal of the Abeokuta school in 1932. Ransome-Kuti first helped organize the Abeokuta Ladies Club (ALC), set up mainly as a a civic and charitable group made up of mostly Western-educated christian women.
But the organization shifted its attention to feminism and politics to the extent that by the 1940s, it had a large number of market women, mostly from Abeokuta, who were being exploited by the British colonizers and local rulers who served as their representatives.
From 1914, areas in southern Nigeria had the system of indirect rule, where British administrators ruled locally through “warrant chiefs” appointed by the governor.
Soon after, these appointed warrant chiefs started oppressing the people, seizing the property of their subjects at will and imposing ridiculous fines and charges, as well as, imprisoning anyone who dared to criticize them.
That was the situation in Abeokuta which Ransome-Kuti’s organization that changed its name to Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) fought against.
Campaigning against price controls and the unfair treatment of market women, Ransome-Kuti and her AWU are widely remembered for protesting against a special tax on women imposed by the local ruler, Sir Ladapo Ademola II in the 1940s.
“The women’s protest was long and protracted. Ransome-Kuti is said to have led training sessions for their demonstrations, which they referred to as ‘picnics’ or ‘festivals’ as they were unable to get official permits. The campaign against the alake publicly started with a petition, which resulted only in an increase of taxation on women. When thousands of women converged in protest at the palace, they were told to individually state their cases, as they had no collective economic interest.
“Women were then put on trial as individuals for refusal to pay taxes. Using all means available, the AWU continued its activities and mobilization, with its leaders refusing to pay taxes as well. Ransome-Kuti was imprisoned in 1947 for this very reason, but 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,” writes African Feminist Forum.
Just as the Igbo women did in 1929, women in Abeokuta waged war against the exploitative tax policy on them. For three years, Ransome-Kuti and the women staged large demonstrations against Ademola’s rule, which led to his abdication in 1949. The tax on women was also abolished while the one on men was increased.
Ransome-Kuti’s organization continued to campaign for more educational opportunities, health, and social services for women and girls.
AWU later became national, changing its name to the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) in 1949 and the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS) in 1953. Its members also joined in the struggle for independence with political parties.
Ransome-Kuti also became a member of the National Council if Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), which she helped found in 1944. At the time, she became the only woman to hold an executive position.
Becoming famous in the British press and public, Ransome-Kuti traveled the world speaking on the conditions of women in Nigeria. She was ultimately honored with a doctorate degree, the Order of the Niger, and the Lenin Peace Prize.
By the 1970s, Ransome-Kuti, as her son Fela, decided to live up to an adopted middle name “Anikulapo” which means “He who carries death in his pouch”, with the interpretation: “I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me”.
During this period, her son had also become a fierce critic of Nigeria’s military dictators such that in February 1978, some 1,000 soldiers stormed his home which he had transformed into a commune called the Kalakuta Republic. In the midst of the struggle, the soldiers “dragged Funmilayo by her hair and threw her out of a second-storey window.”
She died as a result of her injuries that same year but her legacy lives on through her activism that shaped Nigeria into what it is today.