Female Political Class in Colonial Lagos
In the 1940s, the Colony of Lagos was a hub of political activities. This was the height of nationalism, and Nigeria’s journey towards Independence from the British was in full swing. A male dominated political class and other western educated men were at the forefront of participation in the elections for both the Lagos Town Council and the Legislative Council of Nigeria. The latter administered the Southern Nigeria Protectorate, while Northern Nigeria was being legislated by the colonial government.
From 1922, when the principle of elective representation was introduced, the colonial government rolled out a set of laws which disallowed women to vote and to be voted for. The electoral regulations placed limitations on those who were allowed to contest for the four elective seats into the Legislative Council of Nigeria also known as “Legco.” Provisions for suffrage were limited to two municipal areas of Lagos and Calabar “for adult males who must be at least 21 years-old, were propertied and natives of the protectorate with a gross income of not less than 100 pounds per annum. Nominations for candidates were made by a minimum of three registered voters who must also meet the above criteria. Each nominee must deposit a sum of ten pounds for eligibility as a candidate.” Lagos had three seats, while Calabar had one.
The first elections to the Legco were held in 1923. In October 1927, as the 1928 elections to the loomed, Mr I. C Watton, Registering Officer of the Municipal Office in Lagos, quickly dispatched a public notice with his signature at the end, which said inter alia:
The qualification necessary to be registered as an elector is: Every male person who is a British subject or a native of the Protectorate of Nigeria, who is of twenty-one years or upwards and has been ordinarily resident for twelve months immediately preceding, in possession of a gross annual income of not less than one hundred pounds, shall be entitled to be registered as an Elector….
In September 1937, Mr W.M. Bridges, issued a similar notice from the Township Office in Calabar. Thus, there was a continuous political race in both cities.
Names like Herbert Macaulay, Crispin Adeniyi-Jones, Samuel Akinsanya, Ernest Ikoli, Eric Moore, and Egerton Shyngle amongst many others, were in the forefront of the scene for both Lagos and Calabar municipal areas. Their credentials matched the electoral criteria put out by the government. The early political platforms which contested the elections included the Nigerian National Democratic Party and People’s Union. Others such as Adeyemo Alakija and Essien Essien Ofiong stood as independent candidates. Above all they were all men of means.
There was no shortage of male elites vying for the four seats. In the years leading up to the 40s, the electoral guidelines reiterated time and again its preference for male electors only, though the regulation about annual income was reduced to fifty pounds, presumably to allow for less wealthy males to try their luck.
It was clear that the colonial government’s electoral policies were being driven by a gendered ideology that confined women to the domestic space to manage home affairs. Was the exclusion of women a deliberate policy? The correspondence between crown civil servants showed that women were not in their radar at all. Electoral matters apart, even the nomination and re-nomination of members to the Legislative Council was strictly a male affair. Women were consigned to their homes and feminine fancy circles. It is interesting to note, that even the colonial education policies were geared in this direction, and there were subjects such as Domestic Science and Marriage Training. This is a story for another time.
Meanwhile, British women had only secured a hard-fought limited suffrage, a few years earlier. The 1918 Representative of the People Act allowed “women who were over 30 and they or their husbands were an occupier of property,” to vote. British suffragettes held a thanks-giving church service at City Temple, during which the lesson was taken from the well-known Biblical verse in Psalm 126:1 “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion.” Still, as the 1923 elections came, an article published in the UK Guardian newspaper doubted the independent minds of British women saying: “As the husband, so the wife is, rules in politics, as in other matters.”
Well, the Colony of Lagos was about to witness a similar fundamental change, and political activities would never be the same again. First up was Mrs Oyinkan A. Abayomi, daughter of the political maestro, Sir Kitoyi Ajasa, who called a few friends including Mrs Tinuola Dedeke and Mrs S Baptist, and of course the press, to a tea party in the early evening of May 10th 1944. Abayomi was conscious of her elitist background and privileged education and did not want to alienate anyone from the very start of her political project, so she wisely invited the Chairwoman of the Araromi Market Guild, Madam Ashimowu. It proved to be a good political move. Abayomi had learnt well from her father who according to history books, sometimes applied back channel diplomacy to engage with the British colonial government.
As the correspondents wondered what the fuss was all about, Mrs Abayomi calmly announced that the Nigerian Women’s Party (NWP) had been formed in her living room. The press were witnesses to an historic event and it showed in their headlines the next day. The reasons for the audacious step were not far-fetched. Women’s interests were ignored during the legislative debates in the Lagos Town Council, as well as the Legislative Council of Nigeria, said Mrs Abayomi. Incidentally her father served on the Legislative Council as a nominated member representing Lagos in the 1920s.
She also felt that the fact that the electoral regulations – including against females who were tax payers and owned property- was an affront to womanhood. As they sipped their tea and munched on the sandwiches daintily prepared in the Abayomi Broad Street residence, the pressmen could not believe their ears, as Abayomi boldly declared that Nigerian women were suffering at the hands of the British and Nigerian men too.
The convener made sure she was not the only one who addressed the gathering. Madam Ashimowu who was pleased that as a market woman she was invited to such a sophisticated gathering of “western educated ladies,” was given the floor. She expressed satisfaction with the points raised and promised to “invite other prominent women to join the party and make it a success.” Mrs Dedeke and Mrs Baptist also made statements to the effect that the time was ripe for Nigerian women to stand up and claim their stake in the country, side-by-side with the menfolk. So it was that the Nigerian Women’s Party was born. If women were not allowed to vote or be voted for, there was no rule saying they could not form political parties!
The West African Pilot correspondents returned hastily to their 34 Commercial Avenue office in Yaba Estate, and crafted the sensational headlines to sell the next day’s edition. The following day, May 11th 1944, headlines in the newspaper screamed: “Women of Lagos Revolt Against Old Africa and Organised their own Party.”
Abayomi’s move was to trigger a round of other deft political moves. It was as if to say there was a sudden awakening to the capacity of the women in Lagos and everyone including the crown government were sitting up and paying attention. Later on that same month, a debate titled “That Women should be given Seats on the Legislative Council of Nigeria” was organised under the auspices of the Igbobi Dynamic Stars, and was chaired by one of the frontline nationalists, Mr Nnamdi Azikiwe (also known as Zik). His contributions to Nigeria’s Independence needs no explanation here. That he appears on the nation’s Five hundred Naira note, says it all. Proposing the Motion for the debate were Mrs Kofo Ademola and Mrs O.A. Ajose; while opposing the Motion were Mr O.A Alakija and Mr S.L. Akintola. Both men were well-known in the political circles. Alakija was a well-known columnist. Today, Akintola has a street named after him in Nigeria’ capital city of Abuja. The venue for the debate was Tinubu Methodist School Room and according to the report it was scheduled for 6.15p.m. The announcement of the debate which was published in the West African Pilot of Friday 26th May, 1944, did not fail to also provide the background. It was: “In view of the awakening consciousness among women which is gradually pervading the atmosphere in this country.”
The Nigerian Women’s Party and the Debate signified that change had come to Lagos and there was no stopping the women. At the grassroots level, a certain fishmonger was also making waves. Her name was Madam Alimotu Pelewura. Described as the President of the Market Women’s Guild, she demonstrated the power of her association by standing up to the colonial government over its food price control policy. She was not exactly an unknown person. Way back in the 1920s, she had led a protest against “unfair taxation.”
But she was also an ally of the nationalist Nnmadi Azikiwe and frequently received press coverage of her statements and actions in his newspaper, the West African Pilot. Sometimes on the front page too. For instance, on Wednesday 3rd May 1944, the paper informed readers that Madam Pelewura “called on workers to rally round their leaders.” This was in reference to the Labour union strike that was threatening to cripple the country. But it was over the despised food price control policy which was named the Pullen Scheme after its creator, Captain Pullen, that Madam Pelewura showed was she was made of. The Second World War was still raging in Europe and the Scheme dictated prices of foodstuffs which saw the market women forced to sell their goods at reduced prices. She led the protest, enthralled the press with her blunt response to the authorities saying for example, that the use of scales for food was “unafrican” and “collective bargaining” was the traditional practise of traders in Lagos.
Pelewura openly identified with Abayomi and the two women also presented a united front on other issues of the day, including the Children and Young Person’s Ordinance of 1943 which prevented children under the age of 14 from hawking in Lagos Township.
Abayomi and her party began to make waves and before long, the authorities took a bold step. On June 17th to be precise, the Lagos Town Council nominated her to serve on its board. She was the only female member and this attracted some celebration, although in some reports it was the fact that she now brought the number of Africans into a “clear majority of five members in the Council,” that was the appeal.
Women’s voices- at both the grassroots and educated levels- under the crown government, were no longer muffled by official policy. Even the newspapers that were the mouth-organs of the political parties acknowledged the capacity and competence of Lagos women.
On 3rd March 1949, the Daily Service which belonged to the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) called for women to be allowed to vote:
It is our opinion that the Movement will not be in serious difficulty to get this suggestion across to even the Government to who the injustice and un-wisdom of relegating women to the background in such matters must have become obvious. It will be the height of absurdity to suggest that a great percentage of the men who enjoy the right of the franchise, even under the present unwanted constitution, have better sense of civic responsibilities or better understanding of current events than many of our womenfolk.
Though scathing in its writing on the matter, the NYM did not exactly put into practise its professed support for women’s emancipation. From top to bottom, its party structure was populated by men! What more, in its Ten-point manifesto on how to fix Nigeria reeled out by its leader, Barrister H.O. Davies in August 1947, there was no mention of women.
Ditto for the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) which was the political party organ for the West African Pilot. The Party’s political structures were male dominant. The Zikist movement was also a predominantly male affair. Still, the paper called Abayomi’s appointment “as no cause for national joy” being that it was coming after that of The Gambia and Sierra Leone! Though prior to her appointment, one of its editorials said: “Let us give our women a chance in the Legislative Council of Nigeria.”
Anyway, in 1949 a Draft Bill for Lagos Town Council was prepared to, amongst other things, introduce a policy on Universal Adult Suffrage which will allow “every male and female over the age of twenty-one before January 24, 1950, and who has been ordinarily resident in Lagos before January 24, 1950, be entitled to vote.” Finally, female taxpayers were eligible to vote and be voted for in Lagos, and the 1950 Lagos Town Council elections would be their first outing.
Abayomi and her colleagues in the Nigerian Women’s Party stepped forward, so too did other women from the ranks of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC); while some contested from political alliances within their wards. For example, there was the Labour- Demo-NCNC-Women’s Market Guild Platform. Names like Henrietta Lawson and Mrs Adebisi Adebiyi who contested in Wards A and H respectively on the Demo-Labour Alliance, became part of female electoral HerStory.
The three female NCNC candidates won their seats. Mrs Elsie Femi-Pearse also won seat on the Council in 1955 and served as a councillor for ten years. Commenting on the male dominance in the Federal House of Representatives with the Daily Times in May 1959, Mrs Femi-Pearse said: “Our women are to blame for not being aware of their rights. What they need is more enlightenment.”
More women came out for the October 1959 Lagos Town Council elections. Mrs Keziah Fashina who was later on appointed by the NCNC to the Ad Hoc Committee on Appeals for the 1959 Federal Elections, Madam Bassie Ogamba and Mrs L.F Joseph all ran for councillorship seats from the NCNC platform, while Miss S. King contested from the United Muslim Party (UMP).
The Nigerian Women’s Party did not achieve any electoral victory, but it certainly paved the way for women to come out boldly to contest and it showed that women could campaign on social issues and trigger change. If you look at the map of Lagos today, you will see a few streets named after some of these female pioneers: Oyinkan Abayomi Drive in Ikoyi, Elsie Femi-Pearse and Bassie Ogamba Streets in Victoria Island and Surulere respectively.
About Tayo Agunbiade
Tayo Agunbiade is a Media Consultant with 30 years + of experience in Media and Communications covering
Reporter, Researcher, Writer and Editor/ Legislative Advocacy; An Alumnus of the Lagos Business School (School of Media Communication), holds a 1984 Bachelor of Arts Degree in History, University of Lagos (2:2) and a 1996 Bachelor of Science Degree in New Technology and Women Development Studies, University of East London,Barking (2:1).
She currently works as an Editorial/Research Consultant, Speech Writer, Book Content Developer, Ghost-writer, Broadcaster, Legislative Researcher/ Drafter of Bills & Motions, Gender Data Analyst (collection and collation of raw data to compile gender statistics for public presentation); Publisher, ‘Gender Perspectives’ Newsletter.