Gambo Sawaba: A Symbol of Women Liberation

Despite low education and coming from the northern part of Nigeria where women are least encouraged and their education neglected, Gambo Sawaba, forced into early marriage at age 16, struggled through all these obstacles to emerge as a sweet, dynamic, independent political activist helping to educate many people.

Image of Gambo Sawaba
Hajia Hajaratu Gambo Sawaba,
(February 15, 1933–October 14, 2001).

Sawaba also came out of colonial repression and deformity refreshed and very human, and like most of her contemporaries, sowed the seed for the on-going emancipation of African women from the African tradition and the structures of the African nation-states.

Her political activities during the period earned her persecutions from both the colonial authorities and the native administration and many times it resulted in her being imprisoned.

Her biography included notes on several instances of beatings and assaults. She was one of the early members of Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) in Zaria, a party that identified with the working class and poor who became their major support base. Sawaba is also known for some of her charitable causes and also for her views on women’s liberation in the arena of politics.

Early Life and Education

Sawaba was born to the family of Fatima and Theophilus Wilcox Amarteifo, who later converted to Islam and adopted the name, Isa. Her father was of Ghanaian origin while her mother was from Nupeland. She was born on February 15, 1933 and was originally called Hajaratu but because she was born after a set of twins, she came to be known as Gambo. Her last name was supposedly given to her by Mallam Gambo Sawaba, an outstanding member of NEPU in Zaria who was twice elected to the Zaria City Council.

As a young girl, Sawaba got into fights and developed a stubborn streak while also showing affection towards her bullied peers and mentally challenged individuals. She was educated at the Native Authority Primary School in Tudun Wada; however, within a spate of a few years starting in 1943; she lost her father and then her mother which ended her education.

Personal Life and Marriage

Sabawa was married four times, the first time was to Abubakar Garba Bello when she was 16 years old. Bello was a World War II veteran but around the time of their first pregnancy and child birth, Abubakar disappeared. Both Abubakar and Sawaba had a child, Bilikisu. Her next marriage was to Hamidu Gusau and the marriage was sometimes tempestuous as the couple sometimes engaged in fighting each other. She later went through two other marriages.

“If I don’t know book, I know rights… I have not been a member of any House of Assembly. I have not held any office except that I was a member of the House of Prison. – Hajaratu Gambo Sawaba (1933–2001).

Political Career

Sawaba joined politics when she was 17. During that time, Northern Nigeria was dominated by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) which had the support of the Emirs and British Colonial Authority but Sawaba joined the opposition group. She was made the women’s leader at Kaduna, Sabon Gari branch and her party’s message was to take away power from the elites and bring together the poor.

In 1950, aged 17, she left Zaria for Abeokuta to meet Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti after reading about her exploits in Abeokuta in her struggle for women’s right in tax matters and the brief exile of Oba Samuel Ladapo Ademola as a result. She was there for three months.

Back in Zaria, Sawaba made a name for herself when at a political lecture, she climbed a podium and spoke out in a room full of men. There, she was given the name Sawabiya, meaning “redeemer”, but later shortened to the masculine, Sawaba.

Gambo campaigned against under-aged marriages and forced labour. She also advocated for western education in the North. She also met with women who were not allowed to attend political activities because of their gender.

As a result, Gambo was arrested alongside two hundred other women for not obtaining a permit before the assembly. They were sentenced to one-month imprisonment each. Meanwhile, Gambo was said to have been sent to jail 16 times in her lifetime and she was often brutalised by the police.

Truly, Gambo Sawaba was an Amazon and an enigma of the 20th century Northern Nigeria. Right from the start, the major aspects of her character emerged very boldly. To Sawaba, oppression is unbearably revolting; hence she stoutly defended the rights of the weak. She did not brook undeserved wealth and even shared every kobo of hers with the poor.

Throughout the First Republic (1963–1966), she continued with her political activities sometimes suffering humiliating punishments from oppositions thugs. She supported women’s right to vote and was elected leader of the women’s wing of NEPU.

During the Second Republic (1979–1983), Sawaba was a member of the Great Nigeria Peoples’ Party (GNPP) and served as a deputy national chairman. In the 1970s, she worked as a contractor, prior to which she was involved in small scale trading. She was a philanthropist and over the years has concentrated her efforts into providing care for homeless children and the poor.

Death and Legacy

On Sunday, October 14, 2001, around 5.00a.m., at the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH), Zaria, Hajia Hajaratu Gambo Sawaba died after a protracted illness. Survived by her daughter, Bilikisu, she was 68.

Truly, Gambo Sawaba was an Amazon and an enigma of the 20th century Northern Nigeria. Right from the start, the major aspects of her character emerged very boldly. To Sawaba, oppression is unbearably revolting; hence she stoutly defended the rights of the weak. She did not brook undeserved wealth and even shared every kobo of hers with the poor.

In 2012, the Federal Government of Nigeria honoured her by featuring her portrait on the botched 5000 naira note, which also featured Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Margaret Ekpo. Also, the Gambo Sawaba general hospital in Zaria is named after her.

Deeply nationalistic, Sawaba abhorred ethnicism, regionalism or any form of discrimination based on primordial factors. She was always humble and unassuming but prided herself of having borne the negative consequences of defending the rights of the oppressed.

You can follow the author on Twitter @AmazingAyo

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