#YNaijaEssays: These four Nigerian women have defied the odds

Nina Simone’s life and legacy looms across the world, and indeed Africa, to which she returned when she was at her lowest, disillusioned by racism and classism and misogynoir. Reports suggest Simone was at her happiest during her time in West Africa and there are pictures of her on the beach in Lagos, jiving away. But Simone’s life wasn’t always about joy, it was also about pain and struggle and how important it was to document that struggle and to document the women, from each generation who embody the struggle and triumph. Inspired by Nina Simone’s Four Women this week, easily Simone’s most enduring composition, we highlight four Nigerian women across four generations who have challenged the status quo in Nigeria’s history and helped move the country forward. We merely offer them as avatars of the struggles and triumphs of their times and how the struggles might change but the resilience and sticktoitiveness of Nigerian women prevails, no matter who they are and what they face.

These are our four women.


Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Chief Kuti is one of the most important twentieth century Nigerian historical figures, prominent leader of her generation and an inspiration to others in Africa who served with distinction as a teacher, women’s rights activist, political campaigner and human rights activist, leading her to be honoured with names as “The Mother of Africa”, “The Voice of Women” , “The Defender of Women’s Rights”, “The Mother of Women movements in Nigeria” and “Lioness of Lisabi” as well as awards as Member of the Order of the Niger in 1965 for her contribution to the nation as an elder stateswoman in the political arena, Honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Ibadan in 1968 and the Lenin Peace Prize (the Soviet Union’s equivalent of the Nobel peace prize) in 1970, amongst others.

Born on 25 October 1900, she got married at 24 to Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti who was one of the founders of the Nigeria Union of Teachers as well as the Nigerian Union of Students, with whom they together defended the commoners. Although widely known by many as the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria and an advocate for women’s rights, she dedicated most of her life to both local and international causes, in the forms of anti-sexist issues (such as women liberation, suffrage and representation in government), anti-racist struggles (which she commenced by dropping her Christian name, Frances Abigail in 1922 and following the example of her son, her surname to Anikulapo-Kuti in the early 1970s) as well as anti-imperialist struggles evident in the active role in politics she played, especially in the pre-independence constitutional negotiations of 1946.

Ransome-Kuti is considered a pioneer in the articulation and practice of African feminism and an important figure in the rise of Nigerian radical political philosophy with her activities spanning across organising workshops for illiterate market women, launching into public consciousness the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) with a membership tally of more than 20,000 individuals, spanning both literate and illiterate women which rallied women in protests and campaigns against price controls and arbitrary taxation (hurting market women in Western Nigeria at the time), a development that oversaw the successful abolition of separate tax rates for women in April 1948 and the abdication of Oba Ademola II, the Alake of Egbaland on 03 January, 1949. Many say that she indeed paved the way for women in Nigeria to have better lives.

She held a number of leadership positions in the country which included; serving as an Oloye of the Yoruba people, being one of the few women appointed to the native Western House of Chiefs, Leader of Abeokuta Women’s Union (later renamed Nigeria Women’s Union in 1949), and with her resolute opposition to the ethnic politics of division spawned by colonialism, she helped in forming the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944, a political party in which she occupied several positions including being its Treasurer and President of its Western Women Association until she later founded before independence, the Commoners Peoples Party in an attempt to challenge the ruling NCNC, ultimately denying them victory in her area.

Under Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the AWU became a model organisation for the struggle for women’s rights across Nigeria and expanded their objectives and initiatives with the intention of raising living standards for women and ultimately eliminating the causes of poverty such as greater educational opportunities for women and girls, the enforcement of sanitary regulations, provision of healthcare and other social services for women as well as supporting any organisation fighting for the economic and political independence of the Nigerian people, or of any oppressed group of people, as they understood that their liberation as women was as connected to issues of imperialism and racism as to sexism.

These successes led her (alongside some others) to found the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies in 1953 with branches in Calabar, Aba, Benin, Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Kano and thus becoming a model for women’s organisations in West Africa (Ghana and Sierra Leone), Asia (China) and Europe (the Soviet Union), and culminating into an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation.

Though very active in Nigerian politics, she considered herself foremost a human rights activist (and not solely women’s rights), and so she constantly articulated a philosophy and engaged in actions for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised of both sexes, and around the world which over time, shaped her political philosophy, facilitated her international activity and formed her legacy.

A well known contemporary of Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Mabel Dove Danquah and Constance Cummings-John, she espoused a global perspective and as such travelled extensively across the African continent, to Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia), Denmark, England, Germany, Poland, Switzerland and during the Cold War to the Soviet Union and China where she met Mao Zedong (Chinese communist revolutionary and founding father of the People’s Republic of China), a move that angered the Nigerian as well as British and American governments prompting the government not to renew her passport in 1956 and her being denied a United States visa in 1958 on grounds of her alleged communist connections.

In old age, her activism was overshadowed by that of her three sons, who provided effective opposition to various Nigerian military juntas. On her death in 1978 a major Nigerian newspaper hailed her as “…a progressive revolutionary whose immense contribution to the continued crusade for the educational emancipation of the country will never be forgotten”.


Buchi Emecheta

When renowned writer Buchi Emecheta died in 2017, after a battle with illness, a new generation of Nigerian women simultaneously lost and gained something valuable. Her death unearthed her phenomenal history, distinguished by her resilience, preternatural intelligence and her willingness to fight for the rights of all women, reintroducing her to these new generation of millennial and generation Z women who had only read the Joys of Motherhood as required reading in secondary school literature classes, but never for pleasure or instruction or inspiration. But on the flip-side it was a stark reminder of how Nigeria and the world at large chooses to treat women when they are alive; with neglect and indifference, minimizing their achievements.

When Emecheta was born in 1944, in Lagos Nigeria, she was part of the first generation of women who benefitted from the agitations for the inclusion of women in government and public spaces, defying the stultifying practices of British colonialists. This at least allowed her gain some formal education and allowed her navigate the world more easily. But there were still many patriarchal practices that had survived the British cleansing, and one of them was underaged marriage. Seen as a way to rescue women from poverty, or cement interfamily marriages, underaged marriage was par the course in the 1940’s. In 1960, the very cusp of Nigerian independence, Emecheta was married off at 16 to an older man. Two years later, she emigrated with her husband to the United Kingdom, toddler in tow.

Emigrating to the United Kingdom brought its own freedoms for Emecheta but it also brought its own unique challenges. She was finally free of the restrictive cultural practices of Independence era Nigeria, but it seemed she had replaced one kind of repression for another. London in the 60’s was painfully racist, and while its women had some rights, they were also expected not to overstep cultural boundaries or overshadow men. Emecheta also had personal problems. Her husband, disillusioned by life in the United Kingdom took out his frustrations on her, blaming her for the children they had in quick succession and meting out violence on her every chance he got. Removed from the familiar culture in which she had grown up and isolated by the very different life in London, Emecheta began to look inwards and document her life in a series of autobiographical novels. She had always had a keen understanding of the world around her and was gifted at honestly transcribing this life into fiction. Emecheta’s writing revolved around certain themes, the inequality that women faced in traditional African societies, and how that inequality was transplanted and magnified in immigrant communities like the one in which she lived. She also explored in detail, the struggle between tradition and progressiveness, especially in her own personal life.

However, things were changing in the UK and the West as a whole. In 1958, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had been published to international acclaim, challenging what the West thought of African literature. A year later, Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel set in Yoruba land, expanded the canon of African literature set in Nigeria and free of the Western gaze. By 1966, Flora Nwapa’s Efuru was published and was lauded, widely regarded as the first full-length novel published by an African woman. Working as a librarian, Emecheta was able to see first hand how the achievements of these Nigerians were changing expectations around African literature and that perhaps, her own stories could find a place in the canon. She began secretly selling these stories while she studied at the London University in 1970, and in 1972, these stories were compiled into her first book In the Ditch, published in 1972. It is said that before Emecheta could truly become a writer, she had to leave her troubled marriage, which ended after she showed her husband the manuscript for In The Ditch and in rage, he burned it. Emecheta somehow managed to raise five children as a single mother while working as an accomplished novelist and important figure in African Literature and women’s rights and liberation.

Emecheta was the first writer of African descent to truly explore the concept of Misogynoir, long before the term was even coined. She wrote at length, exploring the ways in which women of colour, especially African women of colour are treated as ‘second-hand citizens’ in their own communities, their lives forfeited for their husbands and children and their worth tied to their productivity and fertility. She also explored the grim realities of black immigrant communities in racist and classist societies, and how they became the de-facto scapegoat at the slightest sign of political and social upheaval. But Emecheta’s greatest achievement was introducing new generations of women to the realities of womanhood in Nigeria, showing them how the cards are stacked against them and inspiring them to persevere and excel anyway. The Joys of Motherhood and Second Hand Citizen are critical darlings, passed from generation to generation with the reverence of a holy book.

Emecheta’s canon includes plays, essays and children books, a testament to her versatility and productivity. She might have emigrated to the UK and lived there the rest of her life, but her heart remained in Ibusa and with the Nigerian girl, for whom she wished a better childhood than the one she had been dealt.

The woman from Ibusa, who wrote about her village so fondly and immortalised it, became a member of the Order of the British Empire, stood toe to toe with Achebe, Nigeria’s most deified writer and persisted. Through her work and life, she persists still.


Dora Akunyili

It is easy to fall to the preconception that no Nigerian put in a position of influence within Nigeria’s government or public service can resist the lure of ill-gotten wealth and corruption. This is a preconception that is easy to make if you look at the entire roster of public servants that Nigeria has had, how they enrich their children and extended families while impoverishing the rest of the country, how they hoard wealth with no regard for anyone else. But that preconception has never been more challenged by the life and legacy of public servant Dora Akunyili.

A list of the most outstanding public officers in the history of Nigeria will be incomplete without former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili.

Akunyili was born in Makurdi, Benue on the 14th of July 1954. An internationally renowned Pharmacist, Pharmacologist, Erudite Scholar and Seasoned Administrator, she served Nigeria in different capacities. Prominent among them are as Director-General of NAFDAC and Federal Minister of Information and Communication.

Her educational career started with passing the First School Leaving Certificate with Distinction in 1966, and the West African School Certificate (W.A.S.C.) with Grade I Distinction in 1973. Her stellar educational performances earned her the Eastern Nigerian Government Post Primary Scholarship and the Federal Government of Nigeria Undergraduate Scholarship respectively.

In 1978, Akunyili bagged her Bachelor Degree in Pharmacy and Doctor of Philosophy in 1985, both from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Akunyili started her working career as a Hospital Pharmacist from 1978 to 1981, in the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu. Due to her passion for academics, she became a Graduate Assistant (Research Fellow) in Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, UNN from 1982 to 1986. In the University system, she made a steady progress from Lecturer I in 1986 until she was made Senior Lecturer in 1990. She held the position of a Consultant Pharmacologist at the College of Medicine, UNN from 1996 till 12 April 2001.

Akunyili was also Zonal Secretary of Petroleum Special Trust Fund (PTF), coordinating all projects in the five south-eastern states of Nigeria (Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo) for 4 years. Her most important appointment was then handed to her in 2001, – Director General of NAFDAC, a post she held till 2008.

Prior to her appointment, there was unrestricted and unfettered circulation of adulterated, fake and substandard food and drugs in the country. Fake drugs producers made a fortune from circulating harmful and unregistered products. The agency had been in existence 7 years before Professor Akunyili came on board in 2001, but Nigerians barely knew NAFDAC existed. Nigeria had the world record in counterfeit drugs and expired drugs which stood at about 70%. West African countries loathed and banned made in Nigeria products, due to the country’s known notoriety of producing fake drugs.

By 2006 – five years after she came on board, the incidence of fake drugs fell to 10%, as well as a sharp decline in the number of unregistered drugs in the market. Nigerian drugs became accepted in neighbouring countries, even as regulatory officials from those countries came to learn from NAFDAC.

Akunyili’s recognition during her days as NAFDAC DG, however, was as a result of previous work and performance. While she was Zonal Secretary (South-east) of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund in 1998, Akunyili was told she had a growth and needed surgery. The pharmacist who was 44 at the time travelled to the United States to undergo the prescribed surgery.

The bill for the medical trip was $17,000, including $12,000 for the surgery. However, doctors in the US said Nigerian doctors had made a wrong diagnosis, so she didn’t need any surgery. Akunyili then said she would return the money meant for the surgery, a very rare occurrence at the time. The hospital informed Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who wrote a letter to Akunyili commending her honesty. Due to her brilliance and excellence, Professor Akunyili received 600 awards and recognition, both locally and globally during the course of her career.

As it is widely known that Nigeria is patriarchal in nature, where it is generally believed that the best place for women is in the ‘Kitchen’. Men are expected to dominate women, who are seen as ‘second-class citizen’. Despite the limit placed on Nigerian women, especially in the workplace and career, Akunyili stood out and challenged the status quo.



Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Thanks to the social media and the rapid spread of information, movements like #MeToo have encouraged victims of sexual abuse to raise their voices and probably leave no room for perpetrators to continue in the crime, especially as groups and organisations have taken the mantle to fight sexual crimes, help individuals in their mental healing process and even go as far as making sure justice is served. It is hard to overlook how important it is to have structures that are created and geared towards supporting the victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape, to provide safe spaces and create the kind of awareness needed to challenge the status quo.

Sometime in 2011, Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, a graduate of Development Studies from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and a Master’s Degree holder in International Relations with specialisation in Gender Studies from Swansea University, UK experienced first hand just how pervasive rape culture is in Nigeria and how the prevailing hierarchies protect people who sexually assault and rape others during her mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). She was raped by a youth in the village where she served. She was sexually abused because she refused to accept bribe to register underage voters – as an INEC official – and as she said, “the village and community members…. set a trap for (her) to be raped by one of the village boys.

In an interview with Guardian she said, “when I was raped, I was devastated. I was shattered because I had been raped as a virgin. I had broken the family tradition of girls from my household marrying as virgins. I was angry that society didn’t protect me when all I desired was for the society to be better through credible elections. I was infuriated by the negligence of the Nigeria Police Force towards getting justice for a poor rape victim like myself. I was the shadow of myself, a mirror broken that couldn’t reflect the beauty it saw”.

Just as said, she was left frustrated. But she eventually put that behind her and proceeded to live her life helping others – she decided to provide relief to victims of rape through social services following her mother’s counsel and that birthed Stand to End Rape (STER).

STER is a non-profit organisation that strongly stands against sexual violence, providing survivors with psychosocial services and ways to prevent such incidents. Their ultimate aim is to get the world to a stage where rape will just be history – which is the premium target of the organisation.

STER uses various platforms and the social media optimally to carry out its campaigns as well as provide first-hand support to victims of sexual abuse; providing a range of prevention and treatment services.

Awareness seminars are organised which focus on engaging people on the roles everyone is supposed to play in preventing incidents of sexual abuse, risk factors in the community and where to go when such unexpectedly happens. One of such events is STER’s participation in an African Women in Power (AWP) panel, to discuss “Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Workplace: How to Protect Yourself” in April 2017.

The organisation has also partnered with other institutions (private and public) to enlighten and engage local communities on sexual violence. A good instance is when the team visited Alimosho Senior Secondary Schoolto hold an interactive session aimed at educating the boys on positive masculinity, Rape and the Law, while we discussed on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights with the females”.

Through these, Osowobi has got several awards including The Future of Women Award where she also got ad-credit and individual support from Facebook as well as advice on how to connect to the office of Nigeria’s First Lady.

These women are only four of cross-generational and cross-ideological movement made up of women who strive for a better life for themselves and all women, either in personal enterprise or public service, government or activism. They are an inspiration and telling their stories, reminding us that it only takes one woman to start a movement is important in these perilous times.

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