Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti And The Abeokuta Women Riots

Source: Engr Rotimi Fabiyi, [email protected]
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The Egba Women Riots were a series of nonviolent mass protests that started in November 1947 in Abeokuta, Nigeria and led to the eventual dethronement of the king of Abeokuta in 1949 (Akinlaja:2016 A). The protests are variously called Egba Women Riots or Abeokuta Women’s Revolt in some quarters (Olusola:2013, Wikipedia:2016, Ola:2010) but the fact that the whole series of mass protests were completely nonviolent made it wrong to describe the occurrences as riots or revolt especially because revolt is defined as “ violent action against a ruler or government “ (Merriam –Webster:2016 A) while riot is defined as “ a situation in which a large group of people behave in violent and uncontrolled way” (Merriam- Webster:2016 B). In other words, what happened in Abeokuta, Nigeria from 1947 to 1949 was not a riot or revolt but protests because it was completely nonviolent

The Egbas And The Founding Of Abeokuta
The Egba people are part of the Yoruba ethnic group of West Africa (Johnson: 2010). The Yorubas were the overlord in the Oyo Empire which at its zenith spanned over 150,000 square kilometers (Thornton: 1998), stretched westwards from Benin city in Nigeria to the eastern parts of Ghana (Fabiyi: 2015) and was confirmed as being one of the largest West African States and also the most politically important state in the West Africa region from 1650 to 1896 (Wikipedia: 2016 B). As far back as 1748, the Yoruba soldiers of the Oyo Empire defeated and subjugated the Kingdom of Dahomey in present day Republic of Benin (Alpern: 1998) and the same soldiers of Oyo Empire soundly defeated the army of the Asante Empire of Ghana in 1764, forced the Asante king Kusi Oboadum to abdicate, subjugated the Asante people to Yoruba rule and made the Asante Empire a vassal of the Oyo Empire (Thornton: 1999, Wikipedia: 2016 C).

Due to the vastness of the Oyo Empire, it was organized into 4 layers defined by the relation to the core of the empire primarily to enable better management (Oliver and Atmore: 2001). The first layer was the Metropolitan Oyo which was itself divided into 6 provinces, was the hub of the empire, and was where the Yorubas spoke the Oyo dialect (Stride and Ifeka: 1971), the second layer was the Central Yorubaland which was to the southern part of the metropolitan Oyo, whose inhabitants spoke versions of the Yoruba language different from the Oyo dialect, and were ruled by their own kings that were subject to confirmation by the king of Oyo (Stride and Ifeka: 1971); the third layer was the Egbado Corridor which was located in southern Yorubaland, was inhabited by the Egba and Egbado, was responsible for Oyo’s trade with the coast, and consisted of towns that were allowed to rule themselves under the supervision of agents appointed by the king of Oyo to oversee his interests and monitor commerce (Oliver and Atmore: 2001); the fourth layer was the Ajaland which extended from the non-Yoruba areas west of the Egbado Corridor far into the eastern parts of Ghana (Stride and Ifeka: 1971) and having towns that were granted fair degree of autonomy as long as taxes

were paid, the orders from Oyo were strictly followed, and access to local markets were provided to Oyo merchants (Stride and Ifeka: 1971).

In 1795, intense power tussle started among the senior military and civilian chiefs in the Metropolitan Oyo which led to the loss of regard for the office of the king of the Empire and which led over the years to armed conflicts among the military chiefs, the overall result being the loss of Ilorin Province to the Sokoto Caliphate (Clapperton: 1829), the loss of the Egbado Corridor due to the unilateral declaration of independence by the Egbas after they massacred the king’s appointed supervisory agents and successfully defeated a punitive force sent by Metropolitan Oyo (Stride and Ifeka: 1971, Smith: 1988, Proudly Yoruba: 2012), and also the loss of Ajaland from Dahomey down to Asante in Ghana when they unilaterally declared their independence from Oyo and decisively defeated a punitive expedition sent against them from Metropolitan Oyo (Alpern: 1998). Apart from all these losses of its vassal states, the Oyo Empire was in addition bedeviled by expansionistic tendencies of the Fulanis of Ilorin which came in the form of razing of several towns in the north of Metropolitan Oyo, a cataclysm that in 1825 prompted King Majotu of Oyo Empire to tell a visiting British Navy Captain Hugh Clapperton to help tell British King George IV to help put down the rebellion in his (King Majotu’s) shattering empire (Clapperton: 1829).

The achievement of independence of the Egbas from Oyo Empire led to fresh troubles for them (the Egbas) because of the endless slave raids and even slave wars of the Dahomeans of the present day Republic of Benin on the Egbas and their territories but the Egbas were usually victorious partly due to the natural protection of the many rocks on the Egba territory (Dash: 2011, Biobaku: 1957, Proudly Yoruba: 2012). Abeokuta (which means “the refuge under the rock”) would later be founded as a town in 1825 as a safe place of refuge both during the Dahomean invasions and also for people fleeing from some parts of Metropolitan Oyo during the many internecine wars that continuously erupted in Yorubaland among the many military chiefs due to the fierce power tussle among them (Biobaku and Yemitan: 2011, Wikipedia: 2015 D , Tunbosun: 2014, Wikisource: 2013).

The Egbas And British Colonisation In Nigeria

Apart from slave raids and slave wars, the Dahomeans were in addition bent on capturing and annexing Abeokuta into their kingdom because Abeokuta was a key location for the then very lucrative palm oil trade (Wikipedia: 2016 D, Alpern: 1998 B). A particularly large force of the Dahomey army attacked Abeokuta in 1851 but were completely defeated by the Egbas mainly due to the superior firearms supplied by the British and the technical assistance of the Christian missionaries based in Abeokuta (Britannica: 2016). It was around this time that the hitherto underground political entity known as Egba United Government (which was initially known as Egba United Board Of Management) started becoming prominent on the societal scene of Abeokuta and other surrounding Egba towns (Wikipedia: 2015, Pallinder-Law: 1973, Pallinder-Law: 1974). This prominence on the societal scene would later in 1893 make the king of Abeokuta sign a Treaty Of Independence with the British Government through Sir Gilbert Carter who was the British Governor and Commander-In-Chief of the Colony Of Lagos. The main part of the Treaty stated that “… no annexation on any portion of Egba Nation shall be made by Her Majesty’s Government without the consent of the lawful authorities of the [Egba] nation, no aggressive action shall be taken against the said nation and its independence shall be fully recognized … ” (Lagos State Government: 2015, Wikipedia: 2016 E). This Treaty of Independence technically meant that the area of Abeokuta and other Egba towns as recognized by United Kingdom was a country on its own and therefore was not part of any country nor were the Egbas colonial subjects of the British like all other Nigerians at that time.

This independence of the Egbas however did not last very long because when Lord Frederick Lugard (who was a military man compared with Sir Gilbert Carter who was a civilian) became the Governor of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate in 1912 and later Governor-General of Nigeria in 1914, he stylishly started undermining the British-Egba Treaty Of Independence of 1893 with the intention of making the whole of Nigeria (including the independent Egbas) a single colonial entity under British rule (Wikipedia: 2016 F). Lord Lugard’s direct cancellation of Egba Independence and introduction of direct taxation on the Egbas in 1918 would immediately provoke them to an uprising in which 30,000 Egba men bore arms and fought against British soldiers who easily defeated the Egba fighters (Omipidan: 2015, Wikipedia: 2016 F). The hitherto independent Abeokuta and other Egba towns then fully became part of the British-governed colonial Nigeria.

Prelude To The Egba Women Riots
Lord Lugard’s system of indirect rule in Nigeria led to a system of direct taxation through a Sole Native Authority headed by a traditional ruler acting as an agent of the Colonial Government (Akinlaja: 2016 A). This means that all the tax collected in a town were submitted to the traditional ruler of the town for onward delivery to the British Colonial Government, an arrangement that made the traditional rulers extremely powerful because they were answerable only to the British Colonial Government.

From 1918 when the Egbas lost their independence to the British, the system of taxation adopted by the Abeokuta Sole Native Authority under the leadership of the king of Abeokuta Alake Ladipo Ademola was particularly strict and stifling (Ajasa: 2016). Girls were expected to pay tax from 5 years of age, boys were to pay tax at 16 years of age while wives were separately taxed from their husbands irrespective of the incomes of the aforementioned groups of persons (Akinlaja: 2016 A). Tax defaulters (especially females) were usually beaten up, stripped naked, detained and jailed after seizing their personal properties. Allegations were also rife about molestation of women and girls detained for defaulting on their tax payments

The Abeokuta Women Union Protests And The Dethronement Of The King Of Abeokuta

By the late 1940s, the burden of taxation on women in Abeokuta and its environs was becoming unbearable so the social group Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (which was for middle class women and which was headed by the well-educated and well-travelled Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti) changed its name to Abeokuta Women Union and opened its membership to lower class Egba females (like market women and artisans) to make the organization more broad-based and to devote the activity of the movement to peacefully challenging the Colonial Government through its detested agent the Sole Native Authority Of Abeokuta (Akinlaja: 2016 A, Ola: 2010, Wikipedia: 2016A). Two hundred thousand Egba women joined the Abeokuta Women Union almost immediately it was formed by Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (with the assistance of her sister-in-law Mrs. Eniola Soyinka) in 1946 (Akinlaja: 2016 A).

The Abeokuta Women Union openly and loudly demanded the immediate abrogation of taxes on women and suggested that the flat tax rate imposed on Abeokuta women should be replaced with taxation on expatriate companies and the tax so gathered should be invested on local initiatives and infrastructure including transportation and sanitation (Olusola: 2013, Akinlaja: 2016 A). The Abeokuta Women Union also demanded an end to the Abeokuta Sole Native Authority’s notorious price control of food items which was of negative ramifications to the policies of the women group.

The Abeokuta Women Union were initially successful in peacefully forcing the king of Abeokuta to rescind the notorious price control system of the Sole Native Authority when the women used the services of a Lagos-based lawyer W.N.A. Greary in concomitance with intense press campaigns within and outside Nigeria (Akinlaja: 2016). The Abeokuta Women Union next wrote a petition in the same 1946 to the King of Abeokuta to demand the inclusion of women into the Abeokuta Sole Native Authority because since the Egba Women paid taxes, they should by right have a say in the management of the Egba nation and in addition have a voice in the spending of the taxes (Wikipedia: 2016A).

The petition and its confrontational tone angered the King of Abeokuta so much so that he decided to increase the tax rate for Egba women as a retaliation against the women’s protests. This retaliation simply led to more peaceful protests by the Abeokuta Women Union and even a court case against the Sole Native Authority. The Abeokuta Women Union lost the case in court but immediately proceeded to hire an accountant to audit the account of the Sole Native Authority (Akinlaja: 2016 A), all in the effort of exposing King Ladipo Ademola and his Sole Native Authority as financially corrupt to the marrow

By 1947, it was becoming clear to the Abeokuta Women Union that their methods of petitions, court cases, and publicity in the press were having no effect on King Ademola and his exploitative Sole Native Authority so it was decided that the Union should embrace a more militant but nonviolent approach (Akinlaja: 2016 B). One of such approach was the 2-month sojourn of the Abeokuta Women Union leader Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in London in mid-1947. She used this her stay in London to grant many interviews to the British press about the exploitation by the British Colonial government of its colonial subjects of Egba extraction through a decadent institution called Sole Native Authority, and she also wrote extensively about the exploitative taxation in Abeokuta in many British newspapers including the Communist Party newspaper Daily Worker (Akinlaja: 2016 B) while still creating time to meet with the British Secretary of State For The Colonies Sir Arthur Creech Jones and informing him of what was going on in Abeokuta.

Emboldened by her numerous interactions in London, United Kingdom, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti on return to Nigeria directed the Abeokuta Women Union to stage a protest of 10,000 women to the palace of King Ladipo Ademola of Abeokuta. The protest lasted 2 days and was noticeably peaceful mainly because the Abeokuta Women Union did not want a repeat of the disastrous violence that speedily led to an equally disastrous retaliation by the British Army during and after the bloody 1929 Aba Women Riots in Nigeria (Wikipedia 2016H: Akinlaja: 2016 B).

Few days after this, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti led 50,000 Abeokuta Women Union members to the palace of the King of Abeokuta to stage another 2-day peaceful protest. When a third protest was again staged by another 50,000 women for 3 days in December 1947 against the same King Ladipo Ademola, he was forced to reconsider his position by trying to invite the Abeokuta Women Union to dialogue and negotiate an end to the huge demonstrations against him but instead of negotiating with him, the Abeokuta Women Union continued to daily stage massive protests requesting not just the abrogation of his ruinous tax regime and the appointment of women into his Sole Native Authority, but now also the complete abdication of the king from the rulership of Abeokuta (Akinlaja: 2016 B).

The peaceful protests continued for many more months so much so that the Egba chiefs under the Abeokuta king later came to reason with the demands of the Abeokuta Women Union and openly defied the king by passing a resolution that led to the suspension of taxation for women, an arrangement for women to be represented in the Egba Central Council, an open accusation of King Ladipo Ademola as being financially corrupt and an abuser of power and, finally, a civil rejection of Ladipo Ademola as the king of Abeokuta (Ajasa: 2016, Akinlaja: 2016 B), thus King Ladipo Ademola had no option but to abdicate his throne, something which he choicelessly did in February 1949

The Social Objectives Achieved By The Egba Women Protests

Apart from forcing the abdication of the tyrannical King Ladipo Ademola, the Egba Women Protests also achieved the abolition of women’s taxation and the increase in the flat tax rate for men. The Egba Women protests in addition achieved representation of women in the governing council of the Egbas while it also proved that it was possible to peacefully generate a limited degree of change in the British colonial policy (Akinlaja: 2016 B, Olusola: 2013, Ola: 2010, Ajasa: 2016).

In addition to these, this success of Abeokuta Women Union would later make Mrs Ransome-Kuti decide to expand the organizational structure of the Union to transcend ethnic and regional basis by changing the name Abeokuta Women Union to Nigerian Women Union and opening branches in important cities across Nigeria (Olubunmi: 2012)

The policy of indirect rule adopted by the British Colonial Government to govern Nigeria was beneficial to the British but it gave too much power and authority to paramount traditional rulers that were the agents of the British Colonial Government. The power and authority the British Colonial Government invested in traditional rulers made many of them inordinately tyrannous and this was what made a human rights organization like the Abeokuta Women Union stage so many peaceful protests against the dastard policies of the Abeokuta king and even succeeded in dethroning him.

The whole episode proved that unreasonably heavy taxation of a group of people that could not afford to pay the tax has its demerits while massive but peaceful demonstrations against the authorities have their merits


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