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Lapido Solanke - was a political activist and founder of the influential WASU

Updated: Apr 28

Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with West African heritage

Chief Lapido Solanke was born Oladipo Felix Solanke in the Yoruba town of Abeokuta, in southwest Nigeria around 1886. He was the second child and only son of Adeyola Ejiwunmi and her husband, who had adopted the name of Paley from the Scottish missionary who had raised him. He was educated at St Andrew’s Training Institution in Oyo, Nigeria, and then later went to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone to obtain a bachelor’s degree in 1922. Later that year he travelled to England, to complete his legal studies at University College London (1923-8) and subsequently qualified as a barrister.

Colonial Britain was not a very welcoming place for students from African and Caribbean nations. Students often faced racism, harassment, and various other forms of discrimination daily. Consequentially, some students sort to culturally adapt to their new and hostile environment.

A proud Yoruba from Western Nigeria, Solanke was shocked by the lack of interest his fellow Nigerian students displayed towards their heritage whilst in London. He took up teaching the Yoruba language to raise additional funds and for a time he worked as a teacher of Yoruba at London University. He also performed Yoruba poetry and in June 1924, he became the first person to broadcast on the radio in Yoruba. Under the moniker, Omo Lisabi, he made some of the first Yoruba records for Zonophone in 1926.

His voice was popular on the radio, where he utilised the Yoruba language to dish out propaganda against colonial rule. He produced and distributed leaflets, written in English and Yoruba, which caused panic within the ranks of the British colonial establishment. But he felt that a greater effort was needed to tackle the racism and discrimination his fellow West African students experienced.

Spurred on by his experiences of poverty and racism, he and twelve other students founded the Nigerian Progress Union the next month in July 1924. With the encouragement and help of Amy Ashwood Garvey (the first wife of Marcus Garvey and leading Pan-Africanist) to promote the welfare of Nigerian students.

Solanke’s career as an activist and political organiser began after he successfully launched a public complaint against the 1924 Empire Exhibition in Wembley. The £20 million exhibition was created to strengthen ties within its “Empire”, stimulate trade and demonstrate “Britain’s greatness at home and abroad after WW1” by displaying the “exotic cultures of the British Empire.” It was a very popular event, attracting 27 million visitors over six months. One display, incredibly, presented a model African village with West Africans on display as curios. Offensive press coverage of the village implied the participants were “cannibals”, with an article in the Evening News (today’s Evening Standard) even claiming that “cannibalism and black magic” had been common in Nigeria until recent years. He wrote to the weekly news magazine 'West Africa' to complain and his close friend Amy Ashwood Garvey backed his protest too.