Hajiya Gambo Sawaba: Activist, Philantropist and the Most Jailed Politician in Nigeria
The Spotlight

Hajiya Gambo Sawaba: Activist, Philanthropist and the Most Imprisoned Politician in Nigeria

“The Spotlight” brings to light the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. In this instalment, we tell the story of Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, the fierce woman who fought for the rights of women in ultra-conservative Northern Nigeria.

This Essay on Hajiya Gambo Sawaba is the third in a series of essays celebrating ‘Black Muslim Excellence’ in the month of February

By society’s standards, she was not a good woman. She was married off at age 13 to a World War II veteran, who left and never returned after her first pregnancy. She had three more failed marriages after her first one due to domestic violence. She thereafter became a fierce advocate of women’s rights in ultra-conservative Northern Nigeria. She was publicly flogged, had her hair shaved off with a broken bottle and was imprisoned 16 times. This woman was no other than Hajia Gambo Sawaba, one of Northern Nigeria’s most important political activists.

Her Early Years

Blunt, non-conformist and outspoken, the story of Gambo Sawaba began on 15th February 1933 when she was born to her mother, Fatima Amarteifio, a Nupe woman from Lavun Local Government, Niger State, Nigeria and her father, Isa Amartey Amarteifio, a Ghanian immigrant to Nigeria. Gambo Sawaba came from a lineage of warriors. According to Kwekum Rima Shawulu, in his book, “The Gambo Sawaba Story“, “Her mother, Fatima’s great grand-father was a blacksmith as well as a warrior who gave birth to Mamman Dazu, their grandfather. Mamman Dazu is said to have been a great warrior who was widely consulted.”

Gambo Sawaba’s father, Isa Amartey Amarteifio was originally named Theophilus Wilcox. He converted to Islam upon migrating to Zaria, in Nigeria. He met Fatima who at that time was a widow and a mother to three children fathered by her deceased husband, Mohammadu Alao. Isa got married to Fatima three years after his migration to Nigeria and they were blessed with 6 children.. Gambo Sawaba was the fifth child. She was called “Hajaratu” but according to the Hausa naming custom, any child born after the birth of twins was called Gambo.

Gambo was a fiery little girl. Her fighting spirit was evident when, as a young girl growing up in northern Nigeria in the 1930s and 40s, she would always intervene in other children’s fights, standing on the side of the weaker party and telling them: “I have bought this fight from you”, and taking over from them. She was once quoted to have said, “I could not stand by to watch a weak friend or relation being molested.” 

In 1943, when Gambo was just 10 years old, she lost her father. Her mother died three years later, and the extended family decided to give her out in marriage immediately. At the age of 13, Gambo, who had been attending the Native Authority Primary School in Tudun Wada area of Zaria was married off to a second world war veteran named Abubakar Dan Sarkin. This marriage marked the end of her formal education. But more unfortunately, her husband left her three years after their marriage, when Gambo was only 16 years old and pregnant with their only child, Bilikisu.

The Political Activism of Hajiya Gambo Sawaba

Her child marriage experience and denial of the right to education motivated her lifetime of political activism and fight for women’s rights. The following year, in 1947, seventeen-year-old Gambo Sawaba began her activism. At the time, the British ruled over Nigeria using a system of Indirect Rule, whereby Native Authorities (NA) administered colonial policies in the 12 northern provinces through local emirs and district leaders. The Northern Region was ruled by the conservative Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC). But in 1950, Malam Aminu Kano, a school teacher in Kano, formed a new political party; Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU).

According to Al-Jazeera, NEPU supported “women’s education in both religious and secular spheres and gave women equal space in the political and economic world”. This was in sharp contrast to the NPC, which controlled the Native Authorities and whose leadership was quoted as saying:

“We in the north are happy, our women are happy about their condition. There is not a single Northern woman who has told anyone that she is unhappy. We know what is right for women and our men know what is right for themselves.”

NEPU’s messages resonated with Gambo’s sense of justice and she became an early member of the party’s women’s wing. At the time, there were already calls for women’s voting rights in other parts of Nigeria – by the likes of the renowned feminists, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti of South-West Nigeria and Margaret Ekpo of South Eastern Nigeria. Gambo Sawaba would soon lend her voice to theirs.

She openly advocated against child marriage, forced and unpaid labour and unfair taxes. She canvassed for jobs for women, education for girls and full voting rights. Her ex-husband’s family, however, were unhappy with her efforts to merge motherhood and political activism and an amicable separation soon followed. As was the customary at the time, her baby daughter was handed over to her ex-in-laws.

Hajiya Gambo Sawaba

Humiliated and Imprisoned – The Price of Activism

In the early years of her activism, many women in northern Nigeria observed purdah, a form of social seclusion, Gambo went from house-to-house to speak to them. This displeased the Native Authority in Kano and, in 1952, she was hauled before the conservative Alkali (Magistrates) Court, on charges of “drawing out women who were in purdah”. The court sentenced her to three months in prison; the first of 16 prison sentences she would serve during her lifetime.

She was arrested so often, in fact, that she always kept a blanket with the words ‘Prison Yard’ inscribed on it nearby so that she could take it with her whenever the police came for her. Later that year, the authorities in Kano ordered her to leave the city. To make sure she complied with the order, local law enforcement agents escorted her back to Zaria. But this did not deter her. She continued her activism in Zaria where she was also imprisoned and humiliated. According to the Daily Trust, “On two occasions she was stripped naked and given eighty lashes in Zaria Central Prison. She also endured the indignity and pain of having her hair shaved off with a broken bottle.

“There is no opening in my body – mouth, nostrils, eyes or anywhere else – from which blood did not gush out from because of torture. My front teeth are artificial. The originals were broken and pulled out.”

She also confirmed that as a result of torture she had endured in prison in 1957, she had needed surgery to remove her womb to save her life. However, her passion to secure rights and freedom for women was greater than the humiliation she persevered. In 1956, she led some of her political compatriots to the office of the regional premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, in Kaduna to demand franchise for women in the north in future parliamentary elections. The premier promised to do something about it, but it turned our that his promise had no weight to it. The ruling NPC in the Northern Region issued a statement saying: “Women would be given franchise, only in God’s time.

Gambo did not forget the regional premier’s failure to grant women the right to vote and once declared that were it not “for the fact that women in the North were not allowed to vote or be voted for.” she would have stood against him and made sure that he lost his seat in his own constituency. Northern Nigerian women would eventually get the right to vote in 1976.

Hajiya Gambo Sawaba; The Philantropist

Gambo Sawaba got married and divorced three more times after her teenage marriage. Her second husband was a railway worker, her third; a Cameroonian boxer, who was regularly threatened with deportation by her political opponents, and her fourth a businessman. After her last marriage ended, Gambo channelled her energy into taking care of the children she had taken in.

An excerpt from the Daily Trust Newspapers states that “Gambo Sawaba took on herself the task of training other people’s children. She relished the job of taking care of helpless kids. Apart from dozens of her sister’s children that she brought up and trained, she adopted many from the street ….

Her only child and daughter, Bilikisu also stated that “Throughout her life, she maintained an open-door policy that saw friends, associates and ordinary members of the public come to the house. Our home was never free of adopted children, house guests and visitors. My mother never stopped hoping for a better society and remained optimistic that Nigerians, especially women, would be free from tyranny and dictatorial leadership in governance”.

Well-behaved women seldom make history. Hajiya Gambo Sawaba was a legend. Barely literate, she took on an ultra-conservative, male-dominated African society and persevered until settlements were made. If this isn’t black excellence, what then is it? Women like her have been ill adequately documented or erased from history. It is time to rectify that.


  1. “A Brief History Of Hajiya Gambo Sawaba -The Fearless Politician Who Fought For The Freedom Of Northern Women In Spite Of Several Imprisonments”Women.ng. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  2. Hajiya Gambo Sawaba: ‘The most jailed Nigerian female politician’ | Women News | Al Jazeera
  3. Gambo Sawaba – Wikipedia
  4. The Gambo Sawaba Story by Kwekum Rima Shawulu

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