Tales from the lifetime of Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, one among northern Nigeria’s most essential feminine political activists, who was born on this present day in 1933, have grow to be the stuff of folklore.

In line with one, her preventing spirit was evident when, as a younger lady rising up in northern Nigeria within the Nineteen Thirties and 40s, she would at all times intervene in different youngsters’s fights on the aspect of the loser, telling them: “I’ve purchased this struggle from you”, earlier than carrying on the scuffle.

The fights got here incessantly, and her garments would inevitably get torn. So, the story goes, in an effort to minimise the frequency with which she must change her daughter’s broken clothes, Sawaba’s mom, Malama Fatima, resorted to creating them out of tarpaulin.

Whether or not or not this specific story was true, there was no denying that all through her life, Sawaba by no means shied away from a struggle, significantly when it was on the aspect of the downtrodden.

A teenage activist

Her story started on February 15, 1933.

In 1943, when she was 10 years outdated, her father died. Her mom died three years later and, quickly after, on the age of 13, Sawaba was married to a second world warfare veteran named Abubakar Dan Sarkin. At 16, she gave beginning to her solely baby, Bilikisu.

By the next yr, her political activism had begun.

On the time, the British dominated over Nigeria utilizing a system of Oblique Rule, whereby Native Authorities (NA) administered colonial insurance policies within the 12 northern provinces by means of native emirs and district and village leaders.

The Northern Area was dominated by the conservative Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC). However in 1950, a college instructor in Kano Metropolis referred to as Malam Aminu Kano fashioned a brand new political celebration, Northern Components Progressive Union (NEPU).

NEPU supported “girls’s training in each spiritual and secular spheres and their being given sufficient house – politically and economically”.

It was in sharp distinction to the NPC, which managed the Native Authorities and whose management was quoted as saying: “We within the north are completely satisfied, our girls are completely satisfied about their situation. There may be not a single Northern lady who has advised anybody that she is sad. We all know what is true for ladies and our males know what is true for themselves.”

NEPU’s messages resonated with Sawaba’s sense of justice and she or he grew to become an early member of the celebration’s girls’s wing.

By this time, there have been already calls for ladies’s voting rights in different elements of Nigeria – by the likes of the famend feminists, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Margaret Ekpo within the western and jap areas of Nigeria, respectively. Sawaba would quickly lend her voice to theirs.

‘Freedom and redemption’

Sawaba was not her beginning identify. Which means freedom or redemption, it was given to her by her political mentor, Malam Aminu Kano, after she had been elected president-general of NEPU’s girls’s wing.

Though folklore offers another model of how she got here by the identify. In line with this, she grew to become referred to as Sawaba after attending a political rally at Jakara Market in Zaria. As the gang waited for the official speaker, a male Zaria council member referred to as Alhaji Gambo Sawaba, she took to the stage to speak about voting and training rights for ladies.

When Alhaji Gambo Sawaba arrived, he introduced to the viewers that as she had been the primary lady to handle a political rally within the north, she would henceforth be referred to as Gambo Sawabiya – the female model of Sawaba.

If this model of the story is right, Sawaba clearly most popular the male model as that’s the one she caught to. From then on, in Zaria’s political circles, individuals differentiated between the 2 politicians by saying: “Gambo Sawaba [male]; Gambo Sawaba [female].”

Regardless of the fact behind her identify, Sawaba grew to become synonymous with the politics of freedom and emancipation in northern Nigeria, particularly for ladies.


She brazenly advocated towards baby marriage, pressured and unpaid labour and unfair taxes, and canvassed for jobs for ladies, training for women and full voting rights.

Her husband’s household, nevertheless, have been sad along with her efforts to merge motherhood and political activism and an amicable separation quickly adopted. As was the customized on the time, her child daughter was handed over to her in-laws.

However she had additionally attracted the ire of the authorities. As many ladies within the north adopted the follow of purdah, a type of social seclusion, Sawaba went from house-to-house to talk to them. This displeased the Native Authority in Kano and, in 1952, she was hauled earlier than the conservative Alkali (Magistrates) Courtroom, on expenses of “drawing out girls who have been in purdah”. The court docket sentenced her to a few months in jail.

It was the primary of 16 jail sentences she would serve throughout her lifetime. She was arrested so usually, actually, that she at all times stored a blanket with the phrases ‘Jail Yard’ inscribed on it close by in order that she may take it along with her every time the police got here for her.

Later that yr, the authorities in Kano ordered her to depart the town. To ensure she complied with the order, native legislation enforcement brokers escorted her again to Zaria.

However she continued her political activism – and durations of imprisonment – in her hometown. In addition to Zaira and Kano, she was additionally imprisoned in Kaduna and Jos.

Gambo Sawaba [Nigerian Citizen, August 22, 1964]

In line with the Every day Belief newspaper: “Each time she was on trial, the courtroom was stuffed along with her supporters.”

But it surely was not simply jail time she endured.

The Every day Belief reported, “On two events she was stripped bare and given eighty lashes in Zaria Central Jail. She additionally endured the indignity and ache of getting her hair shaved off with a damaged bottle.”

In 1990, Sawaba’s political compatriot, the late Malama Ladi Shehu, advised the First Nation Journal in regards to the abuses feminine political activists confronted: “Gambo and another NEPU girls, very a lot of them who have been imprisoned, had their hair shaven and have been crushed up; and a few of our members have been even killed. Fairly a variety of them.”

The vote

However imprisonment didn’t cease Sawaba and different members of the ladies’s wing of the celebration campaigning for enfranchisement. In 1956, they marched to the workplace of the regional premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, in Kaduna to demand the franchise for ladies within the north in future parliamentary elections.

The premier stated he would contemplate it – however his pledge got here to nothing.

Ladies in southern Nigeria had been granted a restricted franchise in 1951. In 1954, the Japanese Area adopted swimsuit and the Western Area in 1959.

However, in accordance with the ebook Imperialism and Human Rights: Colonial Discourses of Rights by Bonny Ibhawoh, in 1954, the ruling NPC within the Northern Area issued a press release saying: “Ladies can be given franchise, solely in God’s time.”

Eight years later, throughout a debate in Nigeria’s Senate on voting rights for Northern girls, Senator Wuraola Esan, one of many two girls within the Senate and a consultant from the Western Area, declared: “I daresay, God’s time could by no means come so far as franchise for ladies within the north is worried.”

Once more, in 1965, she advised the Senate: “I wish to remind my Northern brothers that … it’s time the ladies of the north had the franchise. It’s related for me to remind our Northern brothers of their promise that the ladies of the Northern Area can be given the franchise sooner or later. I’m solely interesting to them to make that ‘due course’ quickly.”

In his autobiography, Bello, who was assassinated throughout a army coup in January 1966, defined his stand on enfranchisement for Northern girls: “I dare say that we will introduce it in the long run right here, however – and that is essential – it’s so opposite to the customs and emotions of the higher a part of the lads of this Area that I might be very loth to introduce it myself. The training of girls should attain a far higher energy, and the numbers of correctly educated girls should be elevated to many occasions the current, earlier than the vote can be used to full benefit.”

Sawaba didn’t neglect his failure to grant girls the precise to vote and as soon as declared that have been it not “for the truth that girls within the North weren’t allowed to vote or be voted for” she would have stood towards him in his personal constituency.

Northern girls would finally get the vote in 1976.

Sawaba, nevertheless, by no means achieved electoral success – both with NEPU or the 2 different events she joined afterward in her profession.

In 1998, she introduced her retirement, telling the New Nigerian newspaper: “Politics within the nation has misplaced its flavour and is not a sport of ideology, however a sport of self-aggrandisement.”

A heavy worth

However she had paid a heavy worth throughout her 48 years in politics.

In an interview with the New Nigerian newspaper in 2000, the then 67-year-old Sawaba recalled one among her worst moments, describing how she “was crushed up by six males and left to die in a bush” whereas on her method to a gathering. Nobody was ever charged over the assault.

On one other event, the New Nigerian had quoted her as saying: “There isn’t a opening in my physique – mouth, nostrils, eyes or wherever else – from which blood didn’t gush out from due to torture.

“My entrance enamel are synthetic. The originals have been damaged and pulled out.”

She additionally confirmed that because of torture she had endured in jail in 1957, she had wanted surgical procedure to take away her womb to save lots of her life.

Having witnessed the emotional and bodily ache her mom endured, Bilikisu by no means contemplated following in her path. Now a 71-year-old grandmother and retired civil servant, she lives within the household dwelling in Benin Avenue the place photographs of Karl Marx, Thomas Sankara and Samora Machel had as soon as adorned the lounge partitions.

“My earliest recollections of her once I was rising up was she was totally engaged and concerned in civic politics alongside her buddies,” Bilikisu recollects. “Our dwelling was the centre of political conferences and actions.”

It was not solely political associates who have been welcomed in the home.

“All through her life, she maintained an open-door coverage that noticed buddies, associates and bizarre members of the general public come to the home,” Bilikisu explains.

“[Our] dwelling was by no means freed from adopted youngsters, home friends and guests.”

Whereas Sawaba was a political activist to the skin world, at dwelling she was somebody who liked to prepare dinner, her daughter recollects.

“[She] wouldn’t enable anybody to prepare dinner for her. She had specific favourites, the Nupe conventional dish of Dukuno, and in addition Tuwon Shinkafa or Sakwara [popular northern Nigerian dishes].”

Sawaba married – and divorced – three extra occasions after her teenage marriage. Her second husband was a railway employee, her third a Cameroonian boxer, who was commonly threatened with deportation by her political opponents, and her fourth a businessman.

After her final marriage ended, Sawaba devoted her energies to caring for the youngsters she had taken in.

Gambo Sawaba [Daily Trust, October 22, 2001]

After her demise on the age of 71 in October 2001, the Every day Belief newspaper wrote: “Gambo Sawaba took on herself the duty of coaching different individuals’s youngsters. She relished the job of taking good care of helpless children. Other than dozens of her sister’s youngsters that she introduced up and educated, she adopted many from the road … proper now there are over 30 of such adopted youngsters in her home. Amongst them is a child lower than a month outdated she had simply introduced from the hospital just a few days earlier than her demise.”

Bilikisu says that till her dying day, her mom “by no means stopped hoping for a greater society and remained optimistic that Nigerians, particularly girls, can be free from tyranny and dictatorial management in governance”.

Her political standing was maybe illustrated by the presence of two former heads of state at her funeral rites in Zaria.

In its tribute, the New Nigerian described her as: “Blunt, non-conformist and outspoken, essentially the most tortured and jailed Nigerian feminine politician.”