Gambo Sawaba

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Hajia Gambo Sawaba (1933-2001) was a Nigerian politician and activist who was an important women organizer for the Northern Elements Progressive Union during the Nigerian First Republic. 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 incarcerated. Her biography included notes on several instances of beatings and assaults attributed to the NPC’s Yan Mahaukita.

She was one of the early members of 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

Sawaba was born to the family of Fatima and Isa Amarteifo. Her father was of Ghanaian origin while her mother was from Nupeland. She was born in 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 Malam 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 and cut short her education.

Political career

The political environment in Northern Nigeria was dominated by the Northern peoples Congress who had the support of the leading Emirs in Northern Nigeria and the colonial authorities. The smaller political groups in the region had included: Borno Youth Movement, the United Middle Belt Congress and the Northern Element Progressive Union. These parties were mostly present in various sections of the region. Sawaba belonged to NEPU, a party she joined in Zaria when a local branch was formed. In the beginning the party held secretive meetings to shield their activities from the prying eyes of native authority officials especially the police. NEPU's early message was to rally round the Talakawa in their fight against the colonists and also for their empowerment in a region dominated by the elites or Sarakuna.

The Zaria branch held meetings at the house of Mohammed Alangade, apart from stating their goals inline with the official policies of the party as declared in a doctrine called the Sawaba doctrine of freedom and liberation, the branch also pursued a anti-corruption campaign.

After registering with the party, Sawaba was made the women's leader of the Sabon Gari branch. For about three months, she left Zaria for Abeokuta to meet Funmilayo Kuti after reading about her exploits in Abeokuta in her struggle for womens right in tax matters and the brief exile of Oba Ladapo Ademola as a result.

Back in Zaria, during a political lecture, when the fear of political victimisation abound and many males held their tongues and chose not to speak out politically, she climbed unto the rostrum to speak, challenging her male colleagues. On that same day, a speaker and NEPU member named Gambo Sawaba gave her the name Sawabiya, meaning the redeemer, the name was later shortened to the masculine, Sawaba. Her rising political profile increased when she started mobilizing b going door to door to meet with women who were prevented from going to political activities because of Purdah. She also attended NEPU classrooms taught by leaders such as Aminu Kano.

Her first political incident with the law occurred in Kano where she was sent to help NEPU with canvassing for women support. As soon as the reports of her activities reached the emir, she was arrested and tried by an Alkali court. She was convicted and sent to prison where a certain warden deemed to be a lesbian was accused of misusing her powers. Sawaba used some of her tricks to get the warden fired. After her release, she went public with the appalling prison conditions but that also got her and a a reporter arrested again. She was later asked to leave Kano by the Emir.

Through the first republic, 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.

Post-first republic

During the second republic, Sawaba was a member of the Great Nigeria Peoples Party 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 is a philanthropist and over the years has concentrated her efforts into providing care for homeless children and the poor.

Personal life

Sawaba's first marriage was to Abubakar Garba Bello when she was 13 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, the marriage was sometimes tempestuous as the couple sometimes engaged in fighting each other. She later went through two other marriages.

Further reading

  • 'Unrepentant Activist', TheWeek, Jul 13, 1998