Tayo Agunbiade – Uncovering histories of women’s activism in West Africa.

In this month’s installment of Paper Trails, MBC’s Andrea Potts spoke with researcher Tayo Agunbiade about uncovering histories of women’s activism in West Africa. Tayo is an independent scholar and author of the forthcoming book “Untold Histories of Nigerian Women: Emerging from the Margins.” She is an associate fellow of the Royal Historical Society and serves as Newsletter Editor for the Women’s History Network.

Andrea: What do you research?

Tayo: I research women’s history. I have focused particularly on the era of colonial rule in Nigeria, and recently I have broadened this to look at the former British colonies in West Africa.

A: And why did you want to research this? What is your research journey?

T: Well, I am a graduate of History and also of Women’s Development Studies. But I didn’t start this work until 2019. I was in Nigeria at the time and there was an election. I started looking at the number of women who were involved in contesting elections and I started counting the number of women who won seats to state and national parliaments. I gathered a lot of data, and I published a series of newsletters because I felt that this data was important to share, so we are aware of the extent of the gender imbalance in our parliaments. And from there, after the elections, I began to think well, why don’t I write about this in greater detail? So, I began going to the National Archives across Nigeria, including the main one at University of Ibadan, which is in southwest Nigeria.

And when I was there, I asked for documents that dated back to 1922 because this was when Nigeria was introduced to the principle of elective representation when a new constitution was introduced in that year. I decided, let me trace constitution drafting and review exercises up to the present day and see the involvement of women. And so, on one of my visits to the archive, I asked someone there if they had any old newspapers I could search through. And they said no because they were in too bad a state, so they don’t give them out to anyone. But when I was waiting for the official material that I ordered, I looked across the table, and lo and behold, I see a stack of newspapers! So, I started to look at them. I got to the front page of a newspaper and the headline was saying something like “Lagos Women Revolt Against Old Africa.” And I’m thinking, wow. I have to see what this is about. So, when I read the story, I saw that a group of ladies got together in Lagos and formed a political party.

I was so shocked, because I did history from primary school, secondary school, including A-Levels, and up to university. I was never told that women did anything. And I thought, I’m going to have to put aside looking at constitutions. I’m going to focus on finding out about Nigerian women and politics . We do not talk about this history. You know, we used to memorise what Churchill said after the Second World War that an “Iron Curtain has descended upon Europe”. We used to do all of that, but we were not told that Nigerian women did anything.

Newspaper headline from 1978 declaring ‘Lagos Women Revolt Against Old Africa And Organise Their Own Political Party’

So that’s the start of my journey. From there, I started going to other branches of the archives in Nigeria: in Kaduna, Enugu, Abeokuta, and in Lagos. I also went to local libraries in several states, as well as at the National Assembly in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.  And I was just gathering information. And I was doing this on my own, I wasn’t supported by anybody. I just had the love of my children because they know I have a passion for researching and writing. And it’s just amazing what women have done. I spent the lockdown period of COVID putting all of this material into an e-book. It has been hard to find interested publishers, but I eventually found one in Britain and so the hard copy of the book is coming out this year. You know, we have a lot of history books, and women are too often just mentioned in passing. My mission is to fill the gap in our knowledge. 

Women are too often just mentioned in passing. My mission is to fill the gap in our knowledge. 

A: And what was your experience of using archives?

T: You know, it has been a lot of really hard work. First of all, the newspapers are in a really bad condition. They are so fragile and there are often whole pages that have crumbled into pieces. Documents are faded and frayed at the edges and in some cases not very legible.  But I have persevered. And I got so much information about women. Secondly, substantial parts of the newspapers are missing or frayed. But also, more broadly, we don’t have a proper home-grown archive in Nigeria, I now realise this. We have the documents such as letters, memos, reports etc. that were written, compiled and left behind by the colonial rulers. And that is what we rely on for our history. But we haven’t built up through our own eyes an archive of what is important to us.  And the archives that were left behind are from the perspective of the colonial rulers. Still, this is important though, because it gives an insight into their thinking and what drove some of their ordinances and policies. One of the interesting things I discovered during my research was about a young Nigerian woman who wrote a letter in 1922 seeking employment in the civil service. And that letter set off a whole discussion between the colonial officers across West Africa about whether it was time to employ “African ladies” as they put it. So, all of these memos went out, just based on that single letter. They were saying things like, oh, we don’t want women to sit in the same room as men and so on.

Another thing that I have noticed is that there’s no place where information relating to women has been categorised. You have to go in there and search for it. I think that the perspective of the person compiling the records matters. They may not think that this is an important subject. So, the perspective and the bias of the archivist comes into play here. At the National Archives, London, I could key in ‘women in West Africa’ and not a lot comes up. So, it tells me that the people who gathered and compiled and collected these records have not thought that this is a particular subject that is important. And that is why a lot of the historiography of say, for instance, the nationalist period in Nigeria is so focused on a male perspective. Historians go into the archives and pull out what they see. Thus, even in writing of history books, the roles that women played are not included or at best are diminished and marginalised. Despite all of this, it’s worth writing about women’s experiences and the foundations that they laid for women activists today. We need to take care of our archives. At the moment, I am in the UK to continue my research.

It’s worth writing about women’s experiences and the foundations that they laid for women activists today.

A: So how were women active in politics?

T: I found out that women were activists from different backgrounds. Some women were educated, and others were not, but they all recognised that their rights were being encroached upon and wanted to do something about it. They found ways to make themselves heard. For instance, Charlotte Obasa led a group called the Lagos Women’s League. And at one point in October 1931, she led a deputation of 600 women to the Office of the Chief Secretary to say plans to close parts of a cemetery is an infringement on the rights of the citizens and submitted a petition to on this. On another occasion, when the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Britain, put together a peace petition towards the 1932 Disarmament Conference, Charlotte also co-ordinated a petition from Nigerian women.

I also discovered information women who are known as ‘market women’. They are called so because of their vocation: they buy and sell goods at the markets, and they were quite active under their different trade associations and guilds. There were instances when the Lagos Town Council came up with policies that these market women felt were unfair, such as market fees or short notice demolitions and relocations. In the early 1940s, under their leader Madam Alimotu Pelewura, they protested against tax ordinances in Lagos and also wrote a petition against the food price control policy. They put together petitions and went in their hundreds to the Office of the Commissioner. They would get somebody to draft the petition for them and they would thumbprint the document and submit it in triplicates to the different administrative offices. The women were constantly in the newspapers such as the Lagos Daily News and the West African Pilot. In 1943, they did not agree with the control of prices of local foodstuff and said if the British colonial rulers insist on the policy, it needed to change in certain ways, so that they won’t be at a disadvantage. They argued that the authorities needed their input because they were the ones in the forefront of dealing with customers in the markets and understood the native practices of buying and selling of goods. Though the policy was not rescinded, their actions were reported in the newspapers which I researched.

A newspaper headline from April 1948 that states: Mrs Kuti Leads Thousands Of Women To Demand Immediate Abolition Of Poll Tax.

A: What is the value of learning about these women today? Can this work be a force for change?

T: It shows that we can celebrate and learn from their activism and bravery. These women were so clear in their demands. They were determined and demonstrated resilience. And they were clear in their minds about what is right and what is wrong. They protested against British colonial policies that negatively affected their lives. We now know the extent of what they did and this can inspire today’s generation of girls and women. It also fills the gaps in historical knowledge about the country during that era. There has not been much awareness about these events because such facts are largely missing from history books. Yes, I think it can be a force for change in attitudes towards women. It can promote an appreciation of what women did in those years and create and sustain interest to further research. Women were not silent and passive during those years. I think this is really important.  Generally-speaking there’s so much more to find out about women and to share with the world.

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