British rulers of Nigeria had hoped that Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti could be an emblem of their “benevolent imperialism”.
Instead she numbered among their most feared opponents—and was popularly known as the “Lioness of Lisabi”.
As the daughter of a wealthy chief, she had been packed off to finishing school in Cheshire in 1919.
It was expected that she’d return home and take a place among the native elite.
At school she was taught “British values”, alongside the “crucial’ skills” of elocution and domestic management.
But once back on Nigerian soil she turned her back on those values and instead battled for the rights of women and workers.
In the 1940s, she transformed the Abeokuta Women’s Union from a group focused on charity work into a political campaign.
The union’s first big fight was over a tax levied by the British and local rulers upon women market traders.
The police then banned protests. But Ransome-Kuti organised what she called a “picnic” at the palace that drew more than 10,000 women.
When police attacked with tear gas, she trained her supporters in how to deal with the canisters.
Finally, the government gave in, the tax was abolished and Ademola was forced to abdicate—at least temporarily. Next she helped start a similarly victorious movement over water taxes.
Ransome-Kuti learned from the movements.
She said “The true position of Nigerian women had to be judged from the women who carried babies on their backs and farmed from sunrise to sunset, not women who used tea, sugar, and flour for breakfast”.
Instead of using her well-learned English to endear herself to the elites, she insisted on addressing meetings and negotiations in Yoruba.
Ransome-Kuti was the only woman on a national delegation to London to demand freedom for Nigeria.
While there she scandalised the establishment by writing a column in the British Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker.
It was headlined, “We had equality till Britain came”.
The article was an attack on colonialism for pushing women into second class citizenship.
And, instead of hob-knobbing with the rich, she told the press at home that a highlight of her visit was meeting with British factory workers.
Ransome-Kuti declared herself to be an “African socialist” and aligned herself with the Communist bloc in the growing Cold War.
So when the military launched a coup in 1966 she supported it.
The governments that followed hoped to neutralise her politically by showering her with titles and positions.
But both she, and her son, the musician and activist Fela Kuti, remained a threat to the new orders—civilian and military.
The Kuti family had a connection to Nigeria’s poor that few politicians had.
When over 1,000 police raided Fela’s home compound in 1977, Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second floor window and would soon die from her injuries.
Those in power had once felt the lash of her tongue.
Now they rushed to praise her spirit in the vain hope that the radicalism she represented would lie with her in the grave.