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Nigeria’s Heroes and Heroines of Democracy  

They remain unforgettable. They inscribed their names in gold in the history of Nigeria. Resolute and committed, in unison they embarked on political journeys that eventually liberated Nigeria from her political colony 63 years ago.  Educated and politically savvy, they became the bedrock and powerhouse of Nigerian politics. Even though they and many others have all passed away, their names have continued to resonate on 1st October every year for their monumental contributions. To mark this year’s Independence, Funke Olaode in this piece, profiles some of the heroes and heroines, whose efforts have continued to vibrate six decades after.

Herbert Macaulay

Regarded as the father of Nigerian nationalism, Herbert Macaulay was one of the key figures who laid the foundation of modern Nigeria.

During the 1920s when Nigeria started to witness the political agitation for self-rule, Macaulay was among the first generation of Nigerian Nationalists who protested against some policies introduced by the British colonial rule, including water rates, land issues, and management of railway finances.

In 1923, he founded the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), Nigeria’s first political party whose members were the first to sit in the legislative council and which held sway in Nigeria’s political theatre until the late 1930s when it joined forces with the Nigerian Youth Movement to form the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a nationalist organization designed to advocate for Nigeria’s independence.

Nnamdi Azikiwe

Known  as ‘Zik of Africa,’ Nnamdi Azikiwe,  who was the first President of Nigeria from 1963 to 1966 was considered a driving force behind the nation’s independence. He even earned the nickname “Father of Nigerian Nationalism,” for the active role he played. Born Nnamdi Benjamin Azikiwe to Igbo parents from Anambra State in Eastern Nigeria, the renowned politician, publisher and Pan Africanist attended Storer College, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and Howard University, all in the United States  of  America. He returned to Africa in 1934, where he began work as a journalist in the Gold Coast. In British West Africa, he advocated Nigerian and African nationalism as a journalist and a political leader. The founder of West African Pilot Newspaper born on November 16, 1904 died May 11, 1996.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was known as the ‘Sage’ was a lawyer and politician. In 1927, he  enrolled at the University of London as an External Student and graduated with a degree of Bachelor of Commerce. He went to the United Kingdom in 1944 to study law at the University of London and was called to the Bar by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple on 19 November 1946.

In 1949 Awolowo founded the Nigerian Tribune, a private Nigerian newspaper, which he used to spread nationalist consciousness among Nigerians. He played a key role in Nigeria’s independence movement in the First and Second Republics and the Nigerian Civil WarAwolowo formed Action Group (AG), where he led demands for a federal constitution, which was introduced in the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution, following primarily the model proposed by the Western Region delegation he led.

Ahmadu Bello

Sir Ahmadu Bello was one of the earliest politicians to have emerged from the North. Powerful and commanding respect among the Northern elite, he built Northern Nigeria and served as its First and only Premier from 1954 until his assassination in 1966 during the first military coup. The late politician was also a leader of the Northern Peoples Congress, (NPC), the ruling party at the time, consisting of the Hausa-Fulani elite.

Bello was instrumental to the creation of Northern Nigeria Development Corporation (NNDC), Bank of the North, and Northern Nigeria Investments Ltd (NNIL). Bello also spearheaded plans to modernise traditional Koranic education in Northern Nigeria. But his greatest legacy till this day was the modernisation and unification of the diverse people of Northern Nigeria. To preserve his memories, the renowned Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, is a monument named after him and his portrait adorns the N200 banknote.

Tafawa Balewa

Tafawa Balewa was the First Prime Minister of Nigeria upon independence in 1960. In 1957, his Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) won the plurality of votes in the Federal House of Representatives and Balewa became the Chief Minister and designated Prime Minister. As part of his plans to unify the country towards the move for independence in 1960, he formed a coalition government between the NPC and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Nnamdi Azikiwe.

In furtherance of Chief Anthony Enahoro’s original motion, a further motion was proposed to the parliament by Balewa in  1959, and it was passed. As a consequence of the sustained pressure, the colonial governor announced the decision of the British government to grant independence in 1960. Nigeria was granted independence on October  1, 1960.

 Anthony Enahoro

Anthony Enahoro became the editor of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s newspaper, Southern Nigerian Defender, Ibadan, in 1944 at the age of 21, thus becoming Nigeria’s youngest editor ever. He later became the editor of Zik’s Comet, Kano, 1945–49, associate editor of West African Pilot, Lagos, and Editor-in-Chief of Morning Star from 1950 to 1953. He was actively involved in the movement for Nigeria’s independence.

In 1953, Enahoro became the first to move the motion for Nigeria’s independence which was eventually granted in 1960, after several political setbacks and defeats in the parliament. Enahoro has been regarded by academics and many Nigerians, as the “Father of Nigeria State.”

His initial motion for Nigeria’s Independence suffered a setback in the parliament, with the northern members of the parliament staging a walkout as a consequence of the motion. Notwithstanding the defeat in the parliament, a popular movement was started on account of this motion and the pressure was now mounted against colonialism and there were agitations for independence of Nigeria, or at least, self-governance.

Remi Fani-Kayode

Chief Remi Fani-Kayode was a leading lawyer, nationalist, politician and statesman who played a major role in Nigeria’s legal history and politics from the late 1940s until 1995. He was elected deputy premier of the Western Region in 1963.

In July 1958, he successfully moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence in the House of Representatives in Lagos. He argued that independence should take place on  April 2, 1960.

Joseph Sarwuan Tarka

Senator Joseph Sarwuan Tarka was a Nigerian politician from Benue State whose contributions to Nigeria’s independence cannot be over-emphasised. He was former Minister for Transport and later Communications under General Yakubu Gowon. Tarka was a nominated member to the Nigerian Constitutional Conference of 1957 and was also the representative of the Middle Belt zone to the Henry Willinks Commission of 1958. In 1958, he was appointed as a shadow Minister of Commerce. Tarka was an advocate of state creation to give political and economical power to minority groups.

Michael Imoudu

The renowned Labour Union Leader popularly known as Pa Imoudu who hailed from Edo State was thronged into national consciousness through his agitation for the welfare of workers.

From 1947 to 1958, Imoudu was leader of various trade unions. He was president  of All Nigeria Trade Union Federation who facilitated the unification of various labour unions in the country. The federation enjoyed initial success, incorporating 45 out of the 57 registered unions at the time. In 1986, Imoudu was honoured with the establishment of Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), which is one of its kind in West Africa.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Another individual who popularly stood against the British colonial rule, demanding for the rights of citizens in the pre-independence era was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. As a  revolutionist, she was known to have used her influence to mobilise women and organise resistance against colonialism at the time, earning her the moniker “Lioness of Lisabi”.

One of such moments was when the colonial officers refused to give permits for demonstrations in parts of Nigeria. This did not deter Ransome-Kuti who at the time had been outspoken about some of the policies of the colonial masters, such as taxation and shutting out women in the decision-making process.

She mobilised market women for events such as picnics and festivals, and, in 1953, organised a conference in Abeokuta to discuss women’s welfare. The gathering gave birth to a women’s group known as the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS), which set out to fight for women’s rights against all odds. Mrs. Ransome-Kuti equally had renowned offspring such as Prof. Olikoye Ransome Kuti, Prof. Beko Ransome Kuti, Afro Beat Super Star, Fela Anikulapo Kuti who were all activists.

Margret Ekpo

In the pre-independence Nigeria and beyond, Margaret Ekpo stood out as as a political icon who lived her life fighting for women’s rights and the recognition of the place of women in politics. Aside from being a women’s rights activist, Ekpo was also a social mobiliser and grassroots politician who was never intimidated by the men who dominated the politician scene at the time.

In the 1940s, she was known to attend political and activists’ meetings to discuss the colonial master’s maladministration in place of John Ekpo, her husband, who, like other Nigerian medical doctors, detested how they were being treated, but could not attend such gatherings because of his work as a civil servant.

In fighting for the right of women and their unjust treatment by the colonial masters, Ekpo registered with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and, in the years that followed, joined forces with the likes of Ransome-Kuti in mobilising women to become more involved in politics. In 1953, she was nominated by the NCNC to the regional house of chiefs and in the following year, established a pressure group known as the Aba Township Women’s Association.

 Hajia Gambo Sawaba

She was from Northern Nigeria whose fame rose as a women’s rights activist, politician and philanthropist. Enveloped with a spirit of activism, she was mentored by Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and travelled to meet her in Abeokuta years later. She was  widely regarded as the pioneer of fighting for the liberation of northern women.  During her political journey, Hajia Sambo served as the deputy chairman of Great Nigeria People’s Party and elected leader of the national women’s wing of Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU). Gambo had the support of the traditional rulers (the Emirs and British Colonial Authority). She was a campaigner against under-aged marriages, forced labour and an advocated for western education in the north. Gambo made a name for herself when at a political lecture during her career in the North, she climbed up and spoke out in a room full of men.