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Dr Bekololari Ransome-Kuti

Nigerian doctor, bold human rights campaigner and prisoner of conscience

By Shola Adenekan

Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, who has died aged 65 from lung cancer, was a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian ruling class for many years. Among the most consistent, staunch and fearless human rights campaigners in Africa, he began this work as a concerned 23-year old doctor fighting for poor Nigerians to have access to good medical care.

Returning home in 1963 after studying at Manchester University, he immediately joined a children's hospital, where he started to persuade his colleagues that medical care should be the right of every Nigerian."When I was involved in medical politics, the army was involved in ridiculous things, such as appropriating national funds," he recalled. "I would go to doctors in very high positions and ask, why don't you do something about this?"

To many who knew him, Ransome-Kuti was following the family tradition. He was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria. His mother, Funmilayo Kuti, battled against indiscriminate taxation of women by the colonial government. She was the first Nigerian woman to drive a car and a member of the team that negotiated Nigerian independence with the British.

His father was an Anglican priest, the Rev Oladotun Ransome-Kuti, who was said to have flogged a white inspector who had flouted his directive, and that at a time when Nigerians treated their British overlords like demigods. He also founded the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

One of his brothers was the famous musician, Fela Kuti; another, Olikoye, was a global Aids campaigner. His cousin is Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate.

After Abeokuta grammar school, he spent a year at the former Coventry Technical College before studying medicine at Manchester University. From 1964 to 1977, he worked in several government hospitals in Nigeria before establishing his own private practice.

He came to prominence after soldiers under orders from Olusegun Obasanjo's military government marched into Fela's nightclub, Kalakuta Republic, in 1977: Ransome-Kuti's clinic was also razed; his mother was thrown out of a window and later died from her injuries. Suddenly, the quiet, urbane, corporately attired doctor, known to many Lagosians as the man who was always around to get Fela out of a police cell or prison, became a fervent radical, taking on the establishment along with Fela and Soyinka.

He soon became chairman of the Lagos branch of the Nigerian Medical Association and later its national deputy. His campaigns focused on the lack of functional mortuaries and of drugs in hospitals.

In 1984, Fela was arrested at the airport as he was preparing to leave for a US tour, on what Amnesty International described as spurious charges of illegally exporting foreign currency. Using the new draconian decree that allowed for indefinite detention of political opponents, the government of General Mohammed Buhari sentenced Fela to 10 years in prison.

Ransome-Kuti, using the medical association platform, began a campaign to get the decree revoked and get Fela and all those detained released. But in fact he himself was jailed and only released in 1985, when Buhari was overthrown by General Ibrahim Babangida, who freed Ransome-Kuti but did not escape the former prisoner's criticism. In subsequent years, Ransome-Kuti helped form the Campaign for Democracy, which was Nigeria's first human rights organisation.

When a return to civilian rule was aborted in June 1993, and the winner of the election, Chief Moshood Abiola, was jailed, the Campaign for Democracy was at the forefront of opposition against the new dictatorship of General Sanni Abacha.

Ransome-Kuti and others were repeatedly arrested and detained. In 1995, a military tribunal took just 15 minutes to sentence him to life imprisonment for alerting the world's media to the mock trial of Olusegun Obasanjo. The sentence was later commuted to 15 years. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.

After the death of Abacha in 1998, Ransome-Kuti was released and continued his activism, helping to ensure the return of civilian rule to Nigeria. This happened in 1999, but it did not satisfy Ransome-Kuti's idea of democracy and he continued to attack the new politicians for gambling with the principles of democracy.

As rumours spread about Obasanjo seeking to change the Nigerian constitution to allow himself a third successive term in government, Ransome-Kuti, along with Wole Soyinka and Gani Fawehinmi, campaigned against such a move. He told the Chinua Achebe Foundation that he defined good governance as less corruption in Nigeria.

A fellow of the West African College of Physicians, Ransome-Kuti was for many years a leading figure in the British Commonwealth human rights committee. He was the chairman of the Campaign for Democracy, president of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Governance.

He is survived by his wife, Bosede, three daughters and a son.

Bekololari Ransome-Kuti, doctor and human rights campaigner, born August 2 1940; died February 10 2006

Beko Ransome-Kuti: Nigeria's Pro-Democracy Activist and Physician

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