If there were founding fathers, then surely, there must have been founding mothers. The birth of a nation, I am certain, is not without the influence of those most vital to its continued lineage. Those who were critical in shaping the destiny of our nations, birthing constitutions, and willing governance to existence are, at worse, erased from its history and, at best, seen as appendages to their male colleagues.
The question is not whether women were instrumental in the founding of African nations but rather how. Diving into this rich history requires deep thinking about what it means to found a nation and an expanded view of what a nation is, or ought to be.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an activist and anticolonial educator, remains a critical figure in Nigerian history. Kuti, with sister-in-law Eniola Soyinka, established the Abeokuta Women’s Union, working to raise the quality of life for middle-class Nigerian women and eradicate rampant rates of illiteracy. A key differentiator of Kuti in comparison to her political adversaries was her commitment to cooperation, solidarity, and unity—the very pillars that played a notable role in independence constitutional negotiations of 1946, as she, the sole women involved in constitutional delineations argued for the inclusion of women’s enfranchisement.
Kuti in large part catalyzed the inclusion of women in Nigerian politics with direct initiatives and unwavering commitment to her principles. Kuti’s path converged with that of Margaret Ekpo, a women’s rights activist and nationalist, as the two rallied supporters in protests against the killing of Enugu coal miners. Ekpo is among the major players in Nigeria’s colonial liberation and the women’s liberation prior to the Nigerian civil war. Taking note of the growing demand for equal rights, particularly in her abroad counterparts in then colonial Britain, Ekpo envisioned a similar liberation for Nigerian women. Her political career is riddled with notable feats such as her 1945 establishment of the Aba townships women’s association, and nomination to the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons House of Chiefs. Kuti and Ekpo were respectively pivotal to the consideration of women in the post-colonial constitution and the progression of women in Nigeria, mirroring the growing demand for equality erupting worldwide.
A similar scene unfolded in Ghana, as Mabel Dove Danquah solidified her position as a distinguished proponent of decolonization. Danquah worked as a journalist and editor, primarily for pre-liberation newspapers. In tandem with her creative writing contributions, Danquah was a member of the Accra Evening news, partaking in a campaign to end British rule over the Gold Coast. Her political involvement furthered with her membership in the Convention People’s Party, where she become the first female member of the legislative assembly of the Gold Coast in 1954. Danquah also wrote various political works under pseudonyms, encouraging mass circulation of her poignant writings.
For Kuti, Ekpo, Danquah, and others, contrarianism became a means to an end. Post-independence, Kuti continued to condemn colonial powers for depressing her nation’s resources and oppressing her nation’s women, while cohorts entered trade deals with these very oppressors. Margaret Ekpo, in spite of her government, spoke for the underserved, while the constitution she fought for warped into an afterthought. Danquah, recognizing the emancipation of women would be a lifelong pursuit, continued to use her writing as a tool for political discourse.
These women, the founding mothers, were the purveyors of secondary liberations. A nation begins with a constitution but soon evolves into an intricate system under which its people are governed. On that fact alone, nation-building cannot stop at gaining independence, and for these women it never did. Founding was not a singular event but a constant recognition of where their nations were and where they could be.
Challenging the imagination, consider where African nations could be, or for those less inclined to prospection, look to the present. Judith Kitinga of Tanzania, took her gender advocacy to the UN headquarters in New York, as “the voice of young people from a different part of the world.” Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate justice activist, continues to actively refute the erasure of African voices in climate action. Aisha Yesufu began her advocacy as the co-convener of the Bring Back Our Girls Movement in Nigeria is 2014, and remains a poignant voice in the End SARS movement, vocally opposing the brutality of the Nigerian police force.
The intent here is not to disqualify or claim superiority of any individuals’ contributions over another’s but rather to encourage us to consider things differently. It is clear that nation-building is set to continue. Evoking the phrase “Founding fathers”, feels hallow, misses continuity, and lacks collaboration. There is unyielding power that these great nations could harness if the notion of collective progress overshadow the stark and finite individualism of the revered nation founding.