Nigeria’s Human Rights Activists in History

Nigeria has been blessed with men and women, that have over the years kept sterling records in the pursuit of social justice, equity and fair play in their quest to ensure the entrenchment of an egalitarian society in which the fundamental rights of all and sundry especially the downtrodden are protected.

In the pursuit of these noble ideals, some of these activists have been made to go through harrowing experiences in the hands of government officials including incarceration, dehumanisation and other heart rending travails. ANDREW ESSIEN in this piece, highlights some of them and their various contributions towards ensuring equal rights for all.


Aminu Kano was born into the family of an Islamic scholar, Mallam Yusuf of the scholarly Gyanawa Fulani clan. His father also doubles as a mufti at the Alkali court in Kano. Aminu Kano obtained his middle school education at Katsina College and later went to the University of London Institute of Education, alongside Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He earned his teaching certificate after completing his studies at Katsina College and subsequently became a teacher; he started teaching at the Bauchi training College.

While in Bauchi, the seed of activism was sown in him as he spoke freely on political issues and extended his educational horizon by engaging in some various political and educational activities beyond his formal teaching duties. He wrote a pamphlet, ‘Kano, Under the Hammer of the Native Administration, and along with Balewa, was a member of the ‘Bauchi General Improvement Union’.

Aminu Kano co-founded the Northern Elements Progressive Union as a political platform to challenge what he felt was the autocratic and feudalistic actions of the Native Northern Government. He geared his attack on the ruling elite including the emirs, who were mostly Fulanis. The potency of his platform was strengthened partly because of his background. His father was an acting Alkali in Kano who came from a lineage of Islamic clerics. Aminu Kano also brought up Islamic ideas on equity in his campaign trails during the first republic. Many talakawas (commoners) in Kano lined up behind his message leading to the phenomenal growth of his political standing while enlisting the support of the Kano commoners and migratory petty traders in the north. Many of the tradesmen later manned the offices of NEPU. He also sought to use politics to create an egalitarian Northern Nigerian society.

Another major idea of his, in the build up to the first republic was the breakup of ethnic inclined political parties. The idea was well received by his emerging support base of petty traders and craftsmen in towns along the rail track. The men and women were mostly migratory individuals searching for trade opportunities and had little ethnic similarities with their host communities. He also proposed a fiscal system that favours heavy taxation on the rich in the region and was notably one of the few leading Nigerian politicians that supported equal rights for women.

Malam Aminu Kano is highly respected for his selfless services in Northern Nigeria. He symbolised democratisation, women’s empowerment and freedom of speech. An airport, a college and also a major street are named after him in Kano. His house where he lived, died and buried has been converted to Centre for Democratic Research and Training under the Bayero University, Kano.

Chief Abdul-Ganiyu “Gani” Oyesola Fawehinmi

Fawehinmi, popularly called Gani, was born into the family of Saheed and Munirat Fawehinmi in Ondo State on 22nd April, 1938.

His father, Chief Saheed Tugbobo Fawehinmi, the Seriki Musulumi of Ondo, was a successful timber trader, philanthropist, civic activist and a Muslim chieftain of the Yoruba people. He was said to be one of the companions of Ajao, who brought Islam to Ondo Town, South Western Nigeria.

Fawehinmi gained prominence when he took on the case of a factory worker, Bala Abashe who alleged that the Secretary to the then government of Benue-Plateau State, Andrew Obeya had an affair with his wife.

Abashe then sued Obeya for assault and damages for adultery. Fawehinmi took on the case as a pro bono lawyer for Abashe while the state government stood behind their official. Efforts were made to force Fawehinmi to capitulate on the case, but when that move failed, Obeya was forced to resign. However, Fawehinmi was detained for nine months. The publicity of the case improved the exposure of his law practice.

With his boundless energy, he tenaciously and uncompromisingly pursued his beliefs, principles and ideals for the untrammelled rule of law, undiluted democracy, all embracing and expansive social justice, protection of fundamental human rights and respect for the hopes and aspirations of the masses who are victims of maladministration.

As a result of his activities, Chief Gani Fawehinmi had been arrested, detained and charged to court several times. His international passport was seized on many occasions and his residence and Chambers were searched several times. He was beaten up time after time and was taken from one part of the country to another to prevent him from being able to effectively reach out to the masses among whom he was popular.

In order to dim his crusades, Babangida’s Military Junta at a point ordered the confiscation of his books while his library at Surulere, a suburb of Lagos, was set ablaze. His law Chambers at Anthony Village, Lagos State, were invaded by persons suspected to be agents of the government which turned violent leading to two of his guards sustaining gun shots wounds.

In the process of his crusades for the rule of law, the hopes and aspirations of the poor and the oppressed, he fought many battles against military dictatorship as a result of which he was arrested several times by the military governments and their numerous security agents. He was dumped in many police cells and detained in several prisons between 1969 and 1996.

His supporters, who were fond of his human rights achievements at a point christened him “the scourge of irresponsible governments, the veritable conscience of the nation and the champion of the interests and causes of the masses”. Many Nigerians also took to calling him the people’s president.

Gani Fawehinmi was elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the highest legal title in Nigeria, in September 2001. In 2008, Mr Gani Fawehinmi rejected one of the highest national honours that can be bestowed on a citizen by the Nigerian government – Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) – in protest of the many years of misrule since Nigeria’s independence.


Sumonu Oladele “Baines” Giwa was born on 16 March, 1947 to a poor family working in the palace of Oba Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife. He attended local Authority Modern School in Lagere, Ile-lfe. When his father moved to Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife as a laundry man, he gained admission to that school. Dele Giwa travelled to the USA for his higher education, earning a BA in English from Brooklyn College in 1977 and enrolled in a Graduate program at Fordham University. He worked with the New York Times as a news assistant for four years after which he relocated to Nigeria to work with Daily Times.

Dele Giwa and fellow journalists, Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed founded Newswatch in 1984. A 1989 description of the magazine said it “changed the format of print journalism in Nigeria [and] introduced bold, investigative formats to news reporting in Nigeria”. The paper would also be very critical of the policies and programmes of the Babangida administration.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

Some Nigerians came to know her after she became the First Lady of Ekiti in the south west of Nigeria. But before then, she had carved a niche for herself as a Nigerian activist, writer and fundraiser in feminist and human rights movements.

Adeleye-Fayemi was given the ‘Changing the Face of Philanthropy’ award by the Women’s Funding Network in 2007, and was named one of the 20 most influential African women in 2009 by the New African magazine. In 2011, Women Deliver listed her as one of the top 100 people in the world, advancing the rights of women and girls.

In 2001, Adeleye-Fayemi with Hilda M Tardia and Joana Foster, founded the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), the first Africa-wide grant making organisation supporting the women’s movement in Africa. She was appointed its first Executive Director. Between 1991 and 2001, Adeleye-Fayemi was director of Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), an international development organisation for African women, based in the United Kingdom and with offices in Uganda and Nigeria. During her time at AMwA, she set up the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) which has helped train over 3,000 women leaders in Africa.

Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, delivered Adeleye-Fayemi’s 50th birthday lecture in 2013. Titled Leading the Change: The Journey of an African Woman, the lecture detailed how Adeleye-Fayemi’s support was foundational to Gbowee’s work in Liberia, eventually leading to her Nobel Prize. Gbowee talked about how Adeleye-Fayemi, as head of AWDF, had supported the women’s peace movement in Liberia at infancy.

Adeleye-Fayemi has been associated with a number of international women’s rights and philanthropy organisations, including serving as Co-chair of the International Network of Women’s Funds, president of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), and Chair of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). She has also served as a member of the Board of Trustees for Comic Relief (UK).


Bamidele was born on 16 October, 1957 in Ogbagi Ondo State, Nigeria to the family of Aturu. He studied physics at Adeyemi College of Education in Ondo State, Nigeria. He proceeded to Obafemi Awolowo University in 1989, to study law and graduated with LL.B in 1994. He later attended Nigerian Law School and was called to the Bar in 1995. He obtained a master’s degree in law (LL.M) from the prestigious, University of Lagos in 1996.

In 2010, he dragged the Council for Legal Education to court, demanding for the reduction in the cut-throat fees that reduced the chances of indigent Law students to make it to the Law School. Also in 2012, he wrote to the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, asking him to disclose his salary, allowances and other entitlements. He was committed to representing the oppressed individuals and groups.

He was the author of several law books, including a Handbook of Nigerian Labour Laws, Elections and the Law. He turned down his nomination, as a representative of the civil society, in the National Conference on the basis that the conference, could not meet the expectations of Nigerians. He died in Lagos in July 2014, and was buried in his hometown, Ogbagi Akoko, Ondo State Nigeria.


Ayodele Oluwatuminu Awojobi, also known by the nicknames “Dead Easy”, “The Akoka Giant”, and “Macbeth”, was a Nigerian academic, author, inventor, social crusader and activist. He was considered a scholarly genius by his teachers and peers alike. He quickly advanced in his field to become the youngest professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Lagos, Nigeria in 1974. Earlier the same year, he became the first African to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) in Mechanical Engineering at the then Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (now Imperial College London) – a degree only exceptionally and rarely awarded to a scholar under the age of 40.

Funmilayo Ransome Kuti

Born Francis Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas to Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu, Kuti was a teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat. She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation. She was also the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car.

Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria, as well as to her being regarded as “The Mother of Africa.” Early on, she was a very powerful force advocating for the Nigerian women’s rights to vote. She was described in 1947, by the West African Pilot as the “Lioness of Lisabi” for her leadership of the women of the Egba clan that she belonged to on a campaign against their arbitrary taxation. That struggle led to the ouster of the Egba high king, Oba Ademola II in 1949.

Kuti was the mother of the activists, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musician; Beko Ransome-Kuti, a doctor; and Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a doctor and a former health minister of Nigeria. She was also grandmother to musicians, Seun Kuti and Femi Kuti.

Throughout her career, she was known as an educator and activist. She and Elizabeth Adekogbe provided dynamic leadership for women’s rights in the 1950s. She founded an organisation for women in Abeokuta, with a membership tally of more than 20,000 individuals spanning both literate and illiterate women.

Ransome-Kuti launched the organisation into public consciousness when she rallied women against price controls that were hurting the female merchants of the Abeokuta markets. In 1949, she led a protest against Native Authorities, especially against the Alake of Egbaland. She presented documents alleging abuse of authority by the Alake, who had been granted the right to collect the taxes by his colonial suzerain, the government of the United Kingdom. He subsequently relinquished his crown for a time due to the affair. She also oversaw the successful abolishing of separate tax rates for women. In 1953, she founded the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies, which subsequently formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation.

Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin

Odumakin was born in Zaria, Kaduna on 4 July, 1966 and grew up in a Roman Catholic household. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in English Education in 1987, followed by a master’s in Guidance and Counselling and doctorate in History and Policy of Education from the University of Ilorin. She has frequently been arrested for her activism, especially during the military rule of Ibrahim Babangida, and she met her future husband, Yinka Odumakin, while in prison.

She has been involved with over two thousand cases where women’s rights had been disregarded. The cases included extrajudicial killings of women or their husbands by the police.

In 2013, Odumakin was presented an International Women of Courage Award from the United States Department of State. The award was made by Michelle Obama and John Kerry at the US State Department’s Dean Acheson Auditorium in celebration of International Women’s Day.


Gambo Sawaba was a political feminist, born in Zaria, Kaduna state, in 1933 to parents Fatima and Isa Amarteifo (a Ghanaian). Gambo belonged to opposition group the Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU), which she joined in Zaria when a local branch was formed. The party held secretive meetings to hide their activities from the police.

NEPU’s early message was to relinquish power from the elites and rally round the poor. They were anti-colonialism and anti-corruption.

Gambo was made women’s leader at Kaduna’s Sabon Gari branch. At one point she travelled to Abeokuta to meet female activist – and mother of singer Fela – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Gambo had read about her successful protest against the taxation of Egba women.

A few months later, Gambo made a name for herself when, at a political lecture in Zaria, she climbed on to a podium and spoke out in a room full of male contemporaries who were afraid to open their mouths. She continued to raise her profile by going door-to-door and meeting women who weren’t allowed to attend political activities because of their gender. She campaigned against the marriage of underage girls and the use of forced labour. She was also a great advocate of Western education in the North.

In 1953, she organised an inaugural meeting of the women’s wing in Kano city. However, she was arrested, along with two hundred other women, for not obtaining a permit. A court sentenced them each to one month in prison.


Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro Wiwa was born October 10, 1941 was a Nigerian writer, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta 1990, Saro-Wiwa began devoting most of his time to human rights and environmental causes, particularly in Ogoniland. He was one of the earliest members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which advocated for the rights of the Ogoni people.

The Ogoni Bill of Rights, written by MOSOP, set out the movement’s demands, including increased autonomy for the Ogoni people, a fair share of the proceeds of oil extraction, and remediation of environmental damage to Ogoni lands. In particular, MOSOP struggled against the degradation of Ogoni lands by Royal Dutch Shell.

In 1992, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for several months, without trial, by the Nigerian military government.

In January 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people – more than half of the Ogoni population – through four Ogoni urban centres, drawing international attention to their people’s plight. The same year the Nigerian government occupied the region militarily.

Source: Leadership