Born at a time when women were least encouraged to get educated or even participate in politics and their rights often neglected, Hajia Gambo Sawaba (born Hajaratu Gambo Amarteifo) was an activist and politician who despite her low education and other cultural barriers at that time fought for women’s inclusion in politics as we know it today. To celebrate this year’s International women’s day, we at Raising New Voices Initiative celebrate this amazon.
HER EARLY LIFE
Hajaratu Gambo Sawaba was born on 13th February 1933 to the family of Fatima and Theophilus Amarteifo who later converted to Islam and took the name of Isa. Her father was a Ghanaian and her mum Nupe. She attended “The Native Authority Primary School in Tudun Wada” In 1943 when she was 10 years old, her father died. Her mother died three years later and, soon after, at the age of 13, Sawaba was married to a Second World War veteran named Abubakar Dan Sarkin. At 16, she gave birth to her only child, Bilikisu.
There are different versions of the story of how she came about her name “Sawaba”. One side said it was given to her by her political mentor Malam Aminu Kano after she elected as the president-general of NEPU’s women wing. The other side said she got the name after attending a political rally at Jakara Market in Zaria. As the crowd waited for the official speaker, a male Zaria council member known as Alhaji Gambo Sawaba, she took to the stage to talk about voting and education rights for women.
When Alhaji Gambo Sawaba arrived, he announced to the audience that as she had been the first woman to address a political rally in the north, she would henceforth be known as Gambo Sawabiya – the feminine version of Sawaba.
INTRODUCTION TO ACTIVISM AND POLITICS
Her political activism officially started at the age of 17. At that time, northern Nigeria was dominated by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which had the support of the Emirs and British Colonial Authority and who generally don’t believe in the emancipation of women but in 1950, a school teacher in Kano City named Malam Aminu Kano formed a new political party, Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU).
NEPU supported “women’s education in both religious and secular spheres and they being given enough space – politically and economically” which was in sharp contrast to the NPC, which controlled the Native Authorities. NEPU’s messages resonated with Sawaba’s sense of justice and she became an early member of the party’s women’s wing.
Sawaba’s earliest contribution to politics will be her call for the enfranchisement of northern Nigerian women. Following in the footsteps of her contemporaries in other parts of the country, who were already calling for women’s voting rights. Women like the renowned feminists, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Margaret Ekpo held the agitation for the western and eastern regions of Nigeria, respectively. Sawaba would soon lend her voice to theirs for northern women.
In 1956, she led a march to the office of the then regional premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, in Kaduna to demand that women in northern Nigeria should be allowed to vote and be voted for in future parliamentary elections. The premier gave his word to see to this but did not put any action into it.
Women in southern Nigeria had been granted a limited franchise in 1951. In 1954, the Eastern Region followed suit and the Western Region in 1959 but it was until 1976, about 17 years later than women in northern Nigeria were given the right to vote.
Sawaba’s political activism did not come without enormous challenges and retributions for daring to speak and “bring women out” in a very conservative north; she suffered a lot of dehumanizing encounters. Some people even described her as the most jailed Nigeria’s female political activist. This is not far from the truth as she was reported to have been jailed about 16 times during her lifetime. She also suffered other physical abuses like shaving off her hair with broken bottles, stripping her naked in public and even lashing. But all this didn’t deter her in her demand for women’s rights.
Apart from her political activism, Sawaba was also at the fore of fighting for girls’ education and fighting against early marriage for young girls in northern Nigeria. She was also an advocate for those with mental health issues and provided help against the stigma these people face in society and her home was filled with children who she adopted and raised as her own.
Sawaba died on the 14th October 2001 and was no doubt an amazon in 20th century northern Nigeria. The Gambo Sawaba General Hospital, Zaria is named after her and in 2012 she was to be featured on the jettisoned 5000 naira note alongside Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Margaret Ekpo.
For us, however, one of her biggest legacies will be that young girls today have a deeply nationalistic figure in Hajia Gambo Sawaba to draw hope, strength and inspiration from and following this year’s IWD theme we celebrate a woman who #choosetochallenge the status quo in her time.