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‘If I don’t know book, I know rights…’

‘If I don’t know book, I know rights…’

Gambo Sawaba

Hajiya Gambo Sawaba was a women’s rights activist, politician and philanthropist. She was born in Zaria; a major city in the Northern Nigerian state, Kaduna, on the 15th of February 1933.

As a young girl, she was known to never back down in a fight – including physical ones. At the age of 10, she had to drop out of school to support her mother after the sudden and untimely death of her father. Sadly, her mother also passed away 3 years later which led her to get married off against her will at the tender age of 13. However, she did not let this derail her ambition. 

At the age of 17, she began her political career. At the time, Northern Nigeria was controlled by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which was supported by the Emirs and the British Colonial Authority. Despite her young age and having her education cut short, she took a risk in joining and leading an opposing political party, the Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU) against the NPC. NEPU’s mission was to take power away from the rich and stop the oppression of the poor.

In 1950, she met with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (who later became her mentor) in Abeokuta, after reading about her success in the market womens’ protest. After this visit, she returned to Zaria emboldened and gained fame, earning herself the nickname Sawabiya (meaning ‘the redeemer’). At a political lecture full of men, she mounted the podium and spoke out challenging her male counterparts to support women and the promotion of their rights.

‘Despite her young age and having her education cut short, she took a risk in joining and leading an opposing political party…’

Part of what she lobbied against included child marriage (having been subjected to it earlier on in her life) as well as forced labour. She also promoted western Education in the North and organized an assembly of women who, at the time, were not allowed to participate in Politics. As a result of this assembly, she and 200 other women were arrested for not having a permit for their meeting. She continued her political activism after Nigeria gained her Independence by advocating for the right for women to vote; she also took on a few political roles.

For her activism, she faced several challenges. Throughout her life, she was the target of multiple attacks, escaped many death traps, was arrested and jailed over 16 times and was exiled from Kano at one point.

In her later years, she focused on philanthropy, supporting some of the vulnerable in society: homeless children and the elderly. Gambo Sawaba passed away in October 2001. Her determination is something to be admired as she didn’t let the challenges she faced (especially as a woman from the highly patriarchal Northern part of Nigeria) and attempts on her life get to her because she believed in the cause she was fighting for.  

Mrs Gambo Sawaba (1933 – 2001)



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