10 Unsung Heroes of the Struggle for Nigeria’s Independence

This has nothing to do with the heroes of the Nigerian independence movement whose faces appear on the Naira banknotes and who are constantly discussed on Nigerian television. This is not about the pioneers who were the first to hold particular offices in the country. This is about the people who played crucial roles in Nigeria’s independence in 1960 but aren’t widely recognized for it.

But first, let’s start by recognizing some of the heroes that Nigerians love to talk about! Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s prime minister in the 1960s; Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto whose image appears on the 200 Naira note; Nnamdi Azikiwe, the “Zik of Africa;” and Obafemi Awolowo, the Asiwaju of the Odua People. The likes of Moshood Kashimawo Abiola and Akintola Williams, amongst others.

Hajia Gambo Sawaba
Politician, philanthropist, and women’s rights champion. Sawaba’s parents died within three years of each other, in 1943 and 1946; as a result, she was unable to finish her education and was instead married off to Abubakar Garbo Bello, a World War II veteran when she was just thirteen. She was deputy chairman of the Great Nigeria People’s Party and leader of the Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU) – women’s wing. Emirs and the British Colonial Government supported her. She battled for northern children’s access to western education. She fought against child marriage and forced labor. Gambo made headlines when she spoke out at a political seminar as a Northern professional. She championed northern women’s equality and freedom. Sawaba was imprisoned sixteen times as a result of her advocacy for equal rights and Western education, and the police frequently tortured her while she was in jail.

Mallam Aminu Kano
Mallam Aminu Kano (April 17, 1983) attended the University of London’s Institute of Education after graduating from Katsina College in the 1920s. Aminu Kano joined Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) to resist the Northern Government’s autocratic policies. Emirs and other leaders were his main focus. He was notably one of the few Nigerian politicians that supported equal rights for women. On the morning of Sunday, April 17, 1983, Mallam Aminu Kano was found dead, by his wife Shatu. He had suffered a stroke as a result of cerebral malaria. He died at age 62.

Chief Anthony Eromosele Enahoro
As an Anti-colonial and pro-democracy activist in Nigeria, Enahoro’s career covered media, politics, public service, and the pro-democracy movement. Enahoro led the Mid-West delegation to the 1966 Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference in Lagos. He was General Yakubu Gowon’s Federal Commissioner for Information and Labor from 1967 to 1974 and Federal Commissioner for Special Duties in 1975. He later joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) from 1978–1983. He led the World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture from 1972 to 1975. Enahoro was the first to move the motion for Nigeria’s independence in 1953. After multiple political setbacks and defeats in parliament, Nigeria’s independence was granted in 1960, and   Scholars and many Nigerians alike consider Enahoro to be the “Father of Nigeria State.”

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Eyo Ita
Eyo Ita was Nigeria’s Eastern Governor in 1951. In 1934, he organized the young people of Nigeria into the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) and inspired them to take up the cause of nationalism. The movement was a driving force in the fight for Nigerian freedom from British rule. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was vice president of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC). Ita founded the West African People’s Institute in Calabar. After Sir Herbert Macaulay’s death, he became the Vice President of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC). Ita later resigned from the NCNC and founded the National Independence Party (NIP); which sent delegates to the London Conference on the Nigerian Constitution on 27th July 1953.

Prof. Wole Soyinka
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, popularly called Professor Wole Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, Ogun State. His career as an essayist, playwright, and poet peaked with his 1986 Nobel Laureate award. He attempted to avert civil war in Nigeria by meeting with military ruler Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the southeastern town of Enugu in August 1967. As the civil war started between the Federal government of Nigeria and the Biafrans, he was imprisoned for 22 months. He composed a substantial body of poetry and notes criticising the Nigerian government. A general amnesty was declared in October 1969, at the end of the civil war, and Soyinka and other political prisoners were released. Soyinka, the first African to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature, has continuously used his skills to effect and change the course of leadership and government in Nigeria and Africa.

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Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti
Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a teacher and activist in Nigeria. She was Abeokuta Grammar School’s first female student. As a young lady, she taught low-income women to read and write and founded early pre-schools. Ransome-Kuti founded Abeokuta Ladies Club in 1932. Early club members were middle-class, Christian, Western-educated women interested in charity work and adult education. She led a 1944 campaign to stop regulators from illegally collecting rice from market women. Ransome-Kuti proposed establishing the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) in May 1949 to advocate for women’s rights and voting rights throughout Nigeria. She was 77 years old when she passed away from wounds sustained during a military raid on the family property. Her children included the legendary musician and activist Fela Kuti, doctor and activist Beko Ransome-Kuti, and former Health Minister, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti.

Taslim Olawale Elias
Nigerian jurist, Taslim Olawale Elias attended the 1958 Nigerian Constitutional Conference in London in his capacity as constitutional and legal counsel to the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons.  He played a key role in crafting Nigeria’s Independence constitution that provided the basis for Nigeria’s fledgling democracy after it gained independence. Elias became Nigeria’s Attorney General and Justice Minister in 1960. After being dismissed following the January 1966 coup d’état, he was reinstated in November of the same year. In October 1975, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council appointed him to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Justices voted him Vice President in 1979. In 1982, he became the first African to serve as President of the Court.

Prof. Grace Alele-Williams
Born on December 16, 1932, Professor Grace Alele-Williams is a renowned educator who led the University of Benin as Africa’s first female Vice-Chancellor. She also holds the distinction of being the first female doctoral graduate from Nigeria. She was particularly invested in the training of female teachers. During her time directing the institute of education, she created novel non-degree programs that gave primary school teachers in their 50s and 60s the opportunity to earn certification. Alele-Williams was on numerous boards and committees, where she made significant contributions to advancing Nigeria’s educational system. She died on 25 March 2022, aged 89.

Chief Margaret Ekpo
Nigerian activist and feminist Chief Margaret Ekpo was a pioneer among traditional Nigerian women activists and the first female politician in Nigeria’s First Republic. She joined the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun to advocate for under-represented communities. She and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti raised awareness about the 1950s murders of Enugu coal mine opponents. NCNC nominated Ekpo to the regional House of Chiefs in 1953. In 1954, she created the Aba Township Women’s Association. As the group’s leader, she garnered many women’s support, allowing them to influence politics. Aba had more women voters than men in 1955. In 1961, she was elected to the Eastern Regional House of Assembly where she could advocate for women’s rights. During the Nigerian Civil War,  she was arrested and spent three years in a Biafran prison. She died on September 21, 2006.

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Chief Gani Fawhehinmi
Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawhehinmi was an activist and lawyer in Nigeria. Because of his free-thinking approach to litigation against the powers that be, Gani was denied elevation to the prestigious Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) status. This did not stop him from taking pro bono cases involving indigent members of society, earning him the title of Senior Advocate of the Masses. From 1969 until 1996, under the then Federal Military Government Regimes, Chief Gani Fawehinmi was repeatedly imprisoned, incarcerated, attacked with seizures of his Passport, confiscation of literature, and charged to court as a result of his human and civil rights fight. On the 26th of August, 1995, he was deported from Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, to Lagos State, both inside the territory of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, by the then Abacha’s Regime.

These are just ten of the countless unsung heroes and heroines whose efforts and sacrifices will never be forgotten. May the labours of our heroes and heroines past never be in vain.


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