Fela Kuti’s cousin propels a lonely struggle in Nigeria

2011-03-28 08:02

Lagos – The Nigerian woman with a famous last name is now 64 and could be home with her grandchildren, but she is here instead, at a dilapidated police barracks urging officers’ wives to take a stand.

“This is time to say enough is enough,” said Yemisi Ransome-Kuti, a cousin of the late Fela Kuti, the iconic Nigerian musician, and a longtime activist for democracy and women’s rights.

“It’s time for change,” she said at a campaign appearance ahead of April’s elections. “We are all tired. We don’t want Nigeria to continue the way it has been. These people are enslaving us. We want to restore dignity.”

After years of furthering her family’s tradition of activism, Ransome-Kuti has now decided to take her struggle to the campaign trail by running for senate under an opposition party banner in the economic capital Lagos.

Even though one of her rivals in the race is the wife of a highly influential politician in Lagos, she believes she still has to fight.

She vows to continue the struggle for competent leadership in a country long held back by corruption and mismanagement – a battle already waged by three generations of the famed Ransome-Kuti family into which she was born.

“Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are staring us in the face. To avert a violent change, people like me ... felt we didn’t have any choice but to stand for our people,” she said.

“We are told we might be a failed state if we don’t do something right now to correct some of the challenges we are facing.”

An only child, she grew up with Fela and another of her cousins, Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, who six months ago launched his own political party though he is not running for office.

“The fact that three generations of my family have lived, struggled and died for justice, freedom and development in Nigeria, and have not realised that dream” has forced her to stand for office, she said.

She insists she is financially comfortable and not seeking office for personal gain, vowing to fight against the huge perks that come with political positions in Africa’s leading oil producer.

“You can have free and fair elections from here till kingdom come,” she said. “If it’s the same old characters ... that we keep recycling, that have not delivered, then we are wasting our time.”

Politics in Nigeria have been dominated by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party since a return to civilian government in 1999.

Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan’s main rival is former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari in the upcoming vote.

The head of a grouping of Nigerian NGOs and an international consultant on poverty reduction, Ransome-Kuti sees shame in the fact that the majority of Nigerians must scrape for a living in one of the world’s top oil-exporting nations.

Her aunt and Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, became the doyenne of women’s rights in Nigeria after she led a fierce campaign against taxation of market women in 1949.

Yemisi also draws inspiration from Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president.

“There are times I say oh God! I am 64 years old now, I have got four children, three grandchildren, and this is a hard country to work in. I should just go and enjoy my children,” she said.

“But then I see Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia in her 70s still struggling for her people.”

With Nigeria’s elections approaching, Ransome-Kuti is pounding the campaign trail, running for the Social Democratic Mega Party.

Parliamentary elections are to be held April 2, while the presidential vote is a week later.

“What does the Ransome-Kuti name stand for? It stands for justice,” said one supporter at the police barracks, Nonye Ajayi, adding she has been disappointed by vote-buying politicians.

Pat Utomi, a respected economist and long-shot presidential candidate running under the same party banner as Ransome-Kuti, described her as “tenacious in mobilising for the oppressed, and she has done it consistently over the years”.

She does not mince her words. Speaking of women in politics, she says the politicians running Nigeria are “certainly not gender-friendly and their mind-set is not democratic ... They relate to us as overlords.”

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