Among the Yorubas of southwestern Nigeria, women are held in very high esteem. There is virtually no role that Yoruba women cannot achieve or aspire to. The women place the crown on the heads of the new kings, they determine who will be kings and give the new king the heart of the deceased predecessor to consume before ascending the throne. Because women in Yorubaland are believed to be the source of all fertility and power, they are given various names that denote the incredible extent of their mystical powers. One of these names is Awon Iyami Oshoronga and this story is about one of such Iya Oshorongas and how she removed a king who stepped on the graceful robes of the Iyas.
Called the Lioness of Lisabi, the late Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti was by all means sheer fire and a sparkling bolt of passion. Extremely bold and terrifyingly courageous, she was a woman far ahead her generations. At a time when precolonial Nigeria was considered the ultimate bastion of patriarchy, she singlehandedly disrupted the entire system and even gave birth to children who will later continue her works of shaping not only Nigeria but Africa as a whole. This is the story of how a scorned woman dethroned a monarch with 89 crowns. So how did it happen? Let us travel back in time.
Before the Abeokuta’s Women Revolt in the late 1940s, the family of Reverend Dotun Ransome-Kuti and his wife, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK) was in good terms with Oba Sir Ladapo Ademola (Ademola II) the Alake of Egbaland. The monarch was the grand patron of the Abeokuta Ladies Club which had Mrs. Kuti as one of its members. Ademola II became the king of the Egbas in 1920, two years after the devastating Adubi War in which 30,000 Egba soldiers fought against the European imperialists over taxation destroying everything from railway tracks to telegraph lines and even murdering a senior Egba chief and a European merchant. It was a perilous time but the British colonialists had enough confidence in Ademola II and his headship of the Native Authority. When the colonial soldiers stationed in Abeokuta after the Adubi War were withdrawn in 1922, the control of the police, prison and other departments of authority fell into the hands of Alake Ademola II.
At about the same time, Mrs. Kuti’s husband, Reverend Dotun Ransome-Kuti opened a complaints office to receive grievances from the public against the police and native authorities. But remember that these two bodies were under the control of the Alake of Egbaland. A clash was imminent. On the other side, Funmilayo Kuti also co-established a new women’s union in Abeokuta and it soon became very powerful indeed. It was called the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and is considered by many to be the one of the very first proto-nationalist feminist activist groups in Nigeria (remember the Aba women groups too).
THE STRUGGLE OF THE WOMEN
Under the leadership of Funmilayo Kuti, the women demanded the exclusion of direct female taxation of the women of Abeokuta. That was not all. They also demanded for representation of women in local politics and governance. As far as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was concerned, there was no way important decisions were going to be made without the women being involved. It is important to state at this stage that before the British colonialists came with their policy of indirect rule, no one taxed the women of Abeokuta directly and they were solidly represented in government. They even had a women leader called the Iyalode, this very powerful position became diluted with the implementation of indirect rule which concentrated all the powers in the hands of the Alake and his foreign enablers. Mrs. Kuti was not going to have any of that.
When she started her protests and agitations, even the Alake did not take her seriously. The king and his chiefs thought it was just the typical ranting of a woman who belonged to the kitchen. But that was the undoing of many of the enemies of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti – they underestimated her. They felt she was nothing more than a hysteria-filled woman best at her job of teaching domestic science subjects to Abeokuta kids but they gravely miscalculated for this lioness had ambitions far greater than eating grass. She was going to be directly involved in how the affairs of her hometown and country are run.
Starting from 1946 all through to 1948, she led the AWU on protests against the taxation of women, the lack of female representation in the Native Authority and war-era policies such as quotas which did not favour women. She even went ahead to lead protests against some of the business interests of the Alake. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a genius of organization and with a snap of her fingers; she could rally 20,000 women to join any of her fiery crusades. A sheer force of nature, she was very persistent with her demands for more rights for the women. Kuti and her fellow amazons also wrote several petitions to the Alake demanding for a replacement on the flat rate tax and other forms of financial exploitation. They also called for taxation on expatriate companies, abolition of the Sole Native Authority (to be replaced by a representative government that included women) and investment in infrastructural projects that benefitted the masses like health, education and transport facilities. The AWU women were exceptionally organized and refused to pay the tax.
From August 1946 to May 1947, they kept on their protests and sent numerous petitions to the Alake. Nothing changed. On the 5th of October, 1946, a delegation of the AWU women met with the Alake himself but nothing came out of the meeting. In fact, the outcome was worse as the Alake decided to increase the flat-rate tax on the women, with active support from the British resident officer. She kept on her protests and the king held on. But at a point, the royal court blew it and pulled the trigger on its own head. The Alake issued an edict that stated that all Abeokuta women who owned property to pay income tax. She lost it at that moment. As far as she was concerned, the Alake had turned himself into a dictator by issuing such a repressive and discriminatory edict. She lashed out at the royal court and rallied her women, telling them to prepare for battle. The flummoxed king wanted to fight back but he did not know how to. In his mind, he was helping to advance the cause of democracy but Mrs. Kuti was not going to have any of that. What followed next changed the course of history in Nigeria.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s AWU started mass protests. They would march outside the Alake’s Palace and call for abolition of the direct taxes. Things were becoming really dangerous. Around the second week of October of 1946, about 1,000 women, led by Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti stormed the Aafin (Palace) of the Alake of Egbaland to protest the increase in taxes. The British colonial officers responded with utmost brutality. They teargassed the protesting women and beat them mercilessly.
The women were not deterred. In fact, the aggressive tactics from the authorities only emboldened them and toughened their already-steely spirits. In the face of the constant violence, they continued protesting and in 1947, they released a document they called the AWU’s Grievances and in it, they detailed all their accusations against the Alake of Egbaland and the Sole Native Authority. Once this was done, their next step would shock even the king and the Nigerian colonial government. From the 29th of November 1947 to the morning of 30th November, over 10,000 women held a demonstration outside the palace of the Alake of Egbaland. Leading this incredible army was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.
While the women were holding this demonstration, they decided to tap into their natural powers, especially the ones deposited on their tongues and the most sensitive parts of their bodies. They chanted and ridiculed the king:
Idowu [Alake], for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband on you… O you men, vagina’s head will seek vengeance…
At this point, the British government signaled Alake to ensure peace in his domain or else he would not like what would follow next. The government authorities also gave a false promise to the women that the taxation would be suspended and the final decisions on the issue was going to be communicated to them within 72 hours. When the women saw this was another empty promise as usual, they were back on the 8th of December, outside the palace of the Alake, over 10,000 furious women, all insisting they would not leave until all the women arrested were released. Truly, they did not leave the palace until the 10th when all the women in incarceration were released.
THE KING IS DISGRACED
But that was not the end. The AWU did not stop sending petitions to the British administration and finally they got victory. On the 3rd of January, 1949, something happened for the first time in the history of Yoruba kings, a monarch was forced from the throne by a ‘common’ woman. The Alake of Egbaland abdicated his throne, left Abeokuta to live in self-imposed exile. The Sole Native Authority was also changed and a new system of administration was put in place with four women on it. The Abeokuta Women’s Union had recorded a very significant victory after years of struggle but as stated earlier, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was far more ambitious than that, she spread her tentacles to other parts of Nigeria to liberate women in other regions of the country, she specifically set her target on the women of northern Nigeria. On this, she said in March 1959:
‘I have made up my mind to stand for election this year and to fight the government of Northern Nigeria into giving the franchise to the women of the Emiral North.’
SO WHO WAS FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI?
Called the ‘woman the government dreads’, she was already a big problem for the authorities. In 1959, this is what was said of her: ‘At the age of 58, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti is a big problem to the government of the Nigerian federation, to the powerful Alake of Abeokuta, to the powerful Alake of Abeokuta, and to all those who still think that a woman’s place is in the kitchen .’ That was in 1959.
She got her education at Exeter College in the United Kingdom and returned to Nigeria with a first-class diploma in domestic science. She got married to Mr. Dotun Ransome-Kuti and became a teacher at the Abeokuta Grammar School. During the Second World War, she observed that food control system in Abeokuta was a mess and she took control saying:
‘So we gave a hell of a time to the chiefs, the government, to all those who were responsible for the systemic pauperization of the mass of the people.’
It was during that period that she organized the Abeokuta Great Weep of 1943. How did she do this? She mobilized women all over Abeokuta and everywhere, from the streets to the palace of the Alake, women went about shedding tears and there was absolutely nothing the Alake and the authorities could do to stop the mass ululations.
When the Alake approved the taxing of Abeokuta women, she defied the king and insisted on not paying a dime. She was arrested on the orders of the king for non-payment of her tax and slammed with a fine of five pounds or three months in prison. She refused to pay and they dared not jail her. She said of this:
‘…when the authorities saw the belligerent air of my women followers, they panicked and ordered my release.’
After that, she commenced another campaign to remove the king. It was an unprecedented move, it had never happened before but she did it, she was able to get thousands of people to write letters calling for the removal and dethronement of the Alake of Egbaland. Utterly stung with shock and confusion, the king voluntarily decided to abdicate the throne of his forefathers and went into exile. He would remain that exile for one year until he returned to his throne but by the time he was back as king, he did not make the mistake of challenging the women of Egbaland or their fearsome leader, Olufunmilayo.
In the year 1956, she visited communist China to attend a meeting and she said of the conference:
‘It had nothing else to do than discuss the rights of women.’
But the suspicious Nigerian government was not convinced that it was only women’s rights that she went to discuss in China and so when she returned, her international passport was confiscated and of this she said:
‘ I was shocked and amused. Why should I be suspected of being pink or red?’
As for the king, when he returned to his throne, he said of the incident:
‘ I could not hate Mrs. Ransome-Kuti then, and I cannot hate her now, although she continues to cause me a great deal of trouble – because, I suppose, I admire her guts. My only regret is that she is using her guts wrongly. With a bit of more levelheadedness, there is nothing the little woman couldn’t do for Abeokuta and for Nigeria…Quite apart from the fact that Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, like any other woman in Abeokuta, is my daughter, I do not just see how I can do battle with a woman. Such a battle won’t sound too heroic. I have my dignity to consider!’
But all the ‘ranting’ of the Alake was none of her business. Even when he was reinstated, she withheld her recognition and support which made many to draw parallels with her and the first Iyalode of Egbaland, the incredibly-powerful and wealthy Madam Tinubu who also incidentally was a proud Egba nationalist who rejected Christianity and did not support Ademola II’s father’s attempt to become Alake. When Ademola I won, Iyalode Tinubu also withheld her support from the new king.
And that was it. The first woman to drive a car in Nigeria would never be ‘level-headed’ and continued her struggle until she was killed after over 1,000 armed troops of the Nigerian government stormed the Kalakuta Republic commune of her son, Fela’s compound and threw her from the third-floor window in 1978. At that time, she was old and her sons had taken over the fire of activism from her. In February of that year, she slipped into a coma and died from the injuries she sustained from the fall. Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti nee Thomas was 77. The AWU she founded later became the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) in 1949 and the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS) in 1953.
Small-minded people always fear what they do not understand but history will forever be favourable to the brave.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
- For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria by Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba.
- Fela: From West African to West Broadway by Trevor Schoonmaker
- Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress by Jean Allman, pages 32 – 49.
- Feminist Writings from Ancient Times to the Modern World: A Global Sourcebook and History by Tiffany K. Wayne
- Gender and Power Relations in Nigeria by Ronke I Ako-Nai
- Abeokuta Women’s Revolt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abeokuta_Women%27s_Revolt