Women on the Left: Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti

Categories: Features Guest articles

Mhairi Mcalpine looks at the inspirational life of the Nigerian anti-colonialist, womanist and revolutionary Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti.

Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, born in 1900, was the Nigerian daughter of a returned slave who lived in the Yuroba Region. Well educated with a colonial education and a Christian background, she was radicalised through the actions of the British occupation of Nigeria: its racism, sexism and economic violence.

Traditionally, Yuroba society was divided into male and female administrative sections. Although men in Nigeria held the position of clan chiefs, women had traditionally held political authority which was shared with men, particularly concentrated in areas of trade. With the coming of formal colonial rule through the Berlin Conference of 1884, the British authorities occupying Nigeria restructured the governance of the society: establishing the position of “Warrent Chiefs” as middle men to act between the traditional authorities and those of the colonisers, elevating the traditional and largely symbolic position of clan chief to a political power broker and created the Sole Native Authority, to which only the men holding local political power were admitted.

In 1918, a colonial tax on palm oil to be paid by all men in Nigeria had caused major uprisings; in 1929 the British extended taxation to women and also goats which were usually the personal possessions of women. As soon as the rumours of such a taxation were confirmed, the women of Nigeria rose up. After an initial incident where a Warrent Chief had attacked a female householder and thousands of local women had encircled his home, singing songs, attacking the house before insisting on his resignation and dragging him to the courthouse to be tried for assault, huge gatherings of women appeared across Nigeria protesting at Warrent Chief’s offices, burning courts and european owned shops demanding an end to the tax. The Aba Women’s Rebellion eventually ended in bloodshed after two months on December 17th 2029 as 32 women were killed when the British military fired into a crowd of protesting women.

Although some compromises were made to the governance structure and methods of collection, the tax on women remained in place. By the late 1940s, the burden of taxation was becoming unbearable as the colonial authorities squeezed more and more from its protectorates in the aftermath of the Second European War. Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, then the headteacher of a local school, who had previously set up several organisations bringing together middle-class women, had heard of the struggles of the market women and the fightback that they had started and established the Abeokuta Women’s Union – an explicitly political organisation uniting the working class market women with middle class women. This was designed to challenge both colonial rule and the patriarchal structure. Two hundred thousand women joined.

From the initial demands of an end to the taxation regime, the confidence and demands of the AWU grew with proposals to replace the flat rate tax on women with taxation on expatriate companies, investment in local initiatives and infrastructure including transportation, sanitation and education and the abolition of the Sole Native Authority and its replacement with a representative form of government, including women.

The Abeokuta Women’s Union was a well organised and disciplined organisation. Mass refusal to pay the tax combined with enormous protests, organised under the guise of “picnics” or “festivals”. The response from the authorities was brutal as tear gas was deployed and beatings were administered. Anikulapo-Kuti ran training sessions on how to deal with this threat, teaching women how to protect themselves from the effects of tear gas and how long they had to throw the canisters back at the authorities.

The British colonisers teamed up with their local lackies to subdue the women. At one protest, the “ORO” stick was brought out – a symbolic artifact of the secretive male cult of the Ogboni – supposedly imbibed with great powers, and the women were instructed to go home before evil spirits overcame them. When the women shrank back in fear, Anikulapo-Kuti grabbed the stick, waved it around declaring that the women now had the power before taking it with her displaying it prominently in her home. This action gave her a reputation of fearlessness and courage that led 50, 000 women to follow her to the home of Alake, the “pseudo-king” of Nigeria and a colonial stooge, who chased him out of the house, condemning him to exile on threat of castration.

From her upbringing in a privilaged household, her colonial education and Christian religion, in her later years Anikulapo-Kuti embraced her Yuroba heritage and worked to give pride back to the colonised, insisting that children at her school were registered using their African, rather than European names. She abandoned her Western style of dress, favoured by middle class women in the late 40s, adopting the traditional wrapped cloth of the lower classed market traders, and gave speeches exclusively in Yuroba, necessiting the British to find translators to interpret her words.

She bore four sons, one dying shortly after birth, all three who survived carried on her
legacy of political activism. Olikote, became an AIDS activist speaking out for the Africans abandoned to the ravages of the disease; Fela (pictured), became a musician writing songs inspiring a generation and Beko founded the first Nigerian human rights organisation.

In 1978 she was assassinated by the Nigerian Authorities at the Kalakuta Republic – a commune established by her son Fela, after it was raided by over a thousand Nigerian soldiers acting under orders from General Obasanjo. Obasanjo was angered by Fela’s criticism of the military as “zombies” who intimidated ordinary Nigerians while allowing the corruption and exploitation of communities to go unchecked. She was thrown from a window and spent eight weeks in a coma before passing away. Her coffin was sent to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence together with a newly written song “Coffin for a Head of State”.

An anti-colonialist, womanist and revolutionary to the end, it is what she would have wanted.

Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti (1900-1978)

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