Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti

Nigerian human rights campaigner
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The Independent Online

The Nigerian human rights campaigner Beko Ransome-Kuti was one of Africa's bravest freedom fighters. His quiet determination to confront arbitrary rule and grand corruption led to his jailing by a succession of military regimes.

The charges against him were usually trumped-up variants of sedition. The most ludicrous charges - faxing defendants' statements to persons unknown and "trying to manage an unmanageable society" - earned him a double life sentence under the military leader General Sani Abacha in 1995.

One of the defendants whose statements Ransome-Kuti was alleged to have faxed was General Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been accused of coup plotting by the paranoid Abacha. Tried in a kangaroo court, Ransome-Kuti was then incarcerated in Katsina, some 1,500 kilometres away from his family. After Abacha's demise in June 1998, Ransome-Kuti and Obasanjo were released: Ransome-Kuti went into grassroots activism; Obasanjo went into national politics and was elected as President.

Ransome-Kuti remained a trenchant critic of both military and civil regimes in Nigeria until his death. His last years were spent organising the Centre for Constitutional Governance, whose aim was to help citizens hold government to account at all levels and to fight corruption. But years of solitary confinement, ill-treatment and denial of medication took their toll on his health.

Softly spoken, modest and with a total lack of interest in material status, Ransome-Kuti contradicted clumsy stereotypes of Nigerians. He was born in 1940 in the south-western city of Abeokuta, into a family with a tradition of rebellion. His older brother the Afro-beat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was frequently jailed by the generals and immortalised the iniquities of military rule in such songs as "Zombie", "Authority Stealing" and "Coffin for Head of State".

Their father, the Rev Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, founded Nigeria's National Union of Teachers to petition the colonial authorities to improve the schools. And their mother, the redoubtable Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, led campaigns for female suffrage and against the arbitrary taxation of women, forcing the Alake, the traditional ruler of Abeokuta, to abdicate in 1948.

After schooling in Abeokuta, Beko Ransome-Kuti read Medicine at Manchester University, qualifying in 1963, and returned to Nigeria to practise in 1965. The family came under attack in 1977 when soldiers stormed their compound in Lagos, known as the Kalakuta Republic. Beko and Fela were hospitalised with broken limbs but their 78-year old mother Funmilayo was thrown out of a first-storey window and died a few months later. The tragedy radicalised both sons.

Olusegun Obasanjo was Nigeria's military leader at the time and set up an official inquiry which found an "unknown soldier" responsible for ordering the attack; a conclusion lampooned in Fela's song of the same name.

Fela started his own political party and ridiculed the military ever more fiercely in his music; Beko threw himself into organising the country's doctors in the Nigerian Medical Association and trying to raise the standards of public health care. That led him into conflict with both civilian and military regimes. In 1984, the military regime under General Muhammadu Buhari introduced State Security Decree Two allowing the military rulers to detain indefinitely anyone they declared to be a threat to national security. Within a year the Buhari regime had banned the medical association and jailed Ransome-Kuti.

On his release, Ransome-Kuti went into full-time activism. At the time he said doctors were divided between those who wanted to confront the military for wrecking the health service, those who preferred to lobby discreetly and collaborate, and those who took off to practise in Europe and the United States.

Appalled by the tens of thousands of Nigerians detained indefinitely without charge, Ransome-Kuti joined with a group of lawyers to set up the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in 1989. After relentless protests, the committee secured the release of thousands of innocent but usually desperately poor prisoners.

Ransome-Kuti's clinic in the Maryland district of Lagos became the headquarters for one of Nigeria's leading civil rights movements - the Campaign for Democracy - calling for the generals to give way to an elected government. Crowded with Nigerians seeking help, the clinic doubled as a legal advice bureau.

Dressed in a safari suit, his reading glasses on a cord around his neck, Beko Ransome-Kuti presided over an office crammed with medical equipment and towers of political leaflets. In between seeing relatives of civilians picked up by the security services or patients unable to afford life-saving drugs, he would brief journalists on the latest military atrocity.

As a board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative along with Richard Bourne, Ransome-Kuti pressed the organisation to take a more critical stance towards member states.

By 1992, the military regime under General Ibrahim Babangida was under pressure from its own ranks as well as millions of frustrated Nigerians. Ransome-Kuti and fellow activists started demanding a national conference to reform the federal constitution at which Nigeria's 300-odd ethnic groups would be represented.

Opponents to military rule started protests around the country, urging the soldiers to stand down. This was too much for the Babangida regime, which sent 200 soldiers to arrest Ransome-Kuti. Nigeria plunged further into crisis when the rumbunctious multi-millionaire Chief Moshood Abiola won the 1993 elections and the military annulled the vote.

Again, Ransome-Kuti was released from detention and the successor military regime under General Abacha bizarrely sent emissaries to seek his advice in late 1993. They ignored it, and two years later decided that Ransome-Kuti was too dangerous as a free man. In contrast to the military's arbitrary brutality, Ransome-Kuti had always advocated non-violent protest: demonstrations, strikes, lobbying, exposés in the press and judicial campaigns.

As the current civilian government struggled with communal violence and a dysfunctional economy, Ransome-Kuti feared that the military might shoot its way back to power, prompting a final bloody schism in the country.

Patrick Smith

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