There´s no better time to celebrate an icon, a true feminist, a woman who against all odds fought for the right of women in Nigeria than this Women’s Month.
Our special woman of the week is acclaimed to be the greatest Nigerian woman right activist who ever lived. And she’s no other than “the Lioness of Lisabi” Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, a mother, a teacher, a political campaigner, a traditional aristocrat, a tenacious woman, and a woman who in the face of death stood firm in the fight for women’s rights.
Funmilayo was born on the 25th of October 1900 in Abeokuta, Southern Nigeria and was named Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas. She was the first female student at the Abeokuta Grammar school.
Funmilayo was married to Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti and was blessed with four children ( Dolapo , Olukoye, Fela and Beko).
In 1932, Funmilayo helped establish the Abeokuta ladies club, which focused on helping women to be self-dependent and educated. The emphasis of the club was mainly on charity work, sewing, catering and adult education. The pioneer members were western educated women, mostly Christians. She also started organizing classes and workshops for lower class and market women, and as at that time hers was one of the very first pre-school classes in the country.
This gave her an insight into what the lower class and market women were facing. In 1944, she developed a successful campaign to stop local authorities who seized rice from market women under false pretence.
In 1946, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Grace Eniola Soyinka (her sister in-law and the mother of the Noble laureate, Wole), established an organization called the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), to fight for the rights of women legally. This organization was open to all women in Abeokuta. The organization grew very fast with 20,000 official members and up to 100,000 official supporters. They fought for an improved representation of women in local government bodies and the end of unfair taxes on market women. They did so, by leading matches and protests.
One of Funmilayo’s greatest achievements was her leading of up to 10,000 women on a protest, forcing the ruling Alake to abdicate temporarily in 1949.
The Alake Ademola II, was a traditional ruler of Abeokuta who helped to enforce the rules of the colonial masters over his people and by so doing imposed taxes on women. Funmilayo and the AWU fought a lot, by first appealing to British authorities to remove the Alake from power, circulation of petitions and contacting media houses, but to no avail. So they decided to stage long vigils outside the Alake’s palace and arranged an audit of the Sole Native Authority´s (SNA) finance records. They demanded for him to end the taxing of women and also put a representative of women in the SAN´s executive council.
This agitated the Alake, making him compare the AWU women to “vipers that could not be tamed” and banned Funmilayo from entering the palace, which caused the AWU women to block the palace and deny the entrance of the district officer into the palace.
After about a year of continued protests and fighting, the AWU succeeded by having the tax laws suspended and few months later, the Alake temporarily abdicated his throne.
This news went all over the globe; the West African Pilot described Funmilayo as the “Lioness of Lisabi”. But she was only just getting started, because she didn’t stop with Abeokuta. She also created the Nigerian Women’s Union and the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies, this prompted her to travel a lot both nationally and internationally to create awareness and advocate for Nigerian women’s right to vote.
These great deeds were appreciated far and wide, as the University of Ibadan even bestowed upon her an honorary Doctorate of Law, she was also awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and membership of the Order of the Niger.
She was appointed chairman of the Advisory Board of Education by the Western Nigeria state government and she served as a consultant to the Federal Ministry of Education on the recruitment of teachers from other countries.
Funmilayo was also granted the position of Oloye in the western house of chiefs, and she was a board member of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.
Funmilayo´s son, Fela is a chip of the old block, impressing Funmilayo when he altered his surname because he didn’t want his name to have anything to do with the colonial masters. This prompted Funmilayo to change her surname to “Anikulapo-Kuti” which means a strong and well protected warrior.
Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, even in her old age continued to support her son Fela in his vocal fight against the Nigerian military government. On the 18th of February 1977, on one of Funmilayo´s visits to her Fela ’s home which he named “the Kalakuta Republic”, the premises was raided by soldiers and Funmilayo was thrown from a second floor window, which put her in a coma.
Unfortunately, she never recovered from the accident and died on the 13th of April 1979.
However, Funmilayo remains a force to be reckoned with as she has laid a foundation for women, especially in Africa to fight for their rights.
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