Top 10 Heroines in Nigeria

Please share with others.

As a rejoinder to a line of Nigeria’s National Anthem — “the labours our Heroes past shall never be in vain” — we want to contribute to bringing back to our memory Nigerian heroines who have strived hard in the fight for a patriotic cause, or those who in their glory days strove to put Nigeria’s name at the forefront.

From the outset, women have played a huge role in Nigeria’s development. From renowned women’s rights nationalists, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, to recent names such as Madam Ngozi Okonji Iweala — we highlight here an inclusive list of the top 10 heroines in Nigeria across diverse fields.

Happy Reading!

Heroines in Nigeria

Here’s the list of our female national heroines whose efforts have helped sustain and advance the gains of independence (in no order).

  1. Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti
  2. Margaret Ekpo
  3. Flora Nwapa
  4. Hajiya Gambo Sawaba
  5. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala
  6. Grace Alele-Williams
  7. Dr Dora Akunyili
  8. Ameyo Adadevoh
  9. Ladi Kwali
  10. Virginia Etiaba
  11. Tobi Amusan

1. Mrs Funmilayo Ransome Kuti

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and her son, Fela Kuti.

Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was born on 25th October 1900 in Abeokuta (now in Ogun State). She was a fierce political campaigner and women’s rights advocate. Ransome-Kuti was the first female student to attend the Abeokuta Grammar School. In the 1940s, after previously working as a teacher, she established the Abeokuta Women’s Union. The union led protests of about 10,000 women against arbitrary taxation, forcing the abdication of the then-ruling Alake.

She also spearheaded the creation of the Nigerian Women’s Union and the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies — advocating for the Nigerian women’s right to vote. Ransome-Kuti would later receive the Lenin Peace Prize and was decorated as a member of the OON by the Nigerian Government. She died at the age of 77 — leaving behind legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

2. Margaret Ekpo

Margaret Ekpo
Margaret Ekpo

Margaret Ekpo was born, on 27 July 1914, in Creek Town in Cross River State. A Nigerian Women’s rights activist, Margaret is often regarded as the “female” pillar of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) — a revolutionalising political party.

Her first participation in politics was when she attended a meeting against the discriminatory practices of the colonial administration in 1945 in place of her husband who couldn’t attend because he was a civil servant. After this, she attended a political rally where she was the only woman. There she listened to spirited speeches from the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Herbert Macaulay.

Margaret Ekpo founded the Aba Township Women’s Association and went on to fight against discrimination and oppression of women by the colonialists. In the 1950s, alongside Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest killings at the Enugu coal mine. In 2001, the Calabar Airport was renamed Margaret Ekpo International Airport in support of her immense contributions to the unity and growth of Nigerian Women.

3. Flora Nwapa

Flora Nwapa
Flora Nwapa

Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa, born 13 January 1931, was a renowned Nigerian writer and author. Tagged “the mother of modern African Literature,” she pioneered a new generation of African women writers. Flora Nwapa was one of the first-generation writers in Nigeria.

In 1953, a young Nwapa gained admission to the University College, Ibadan. Upon graduation in 1957, she headed to Edinburgh University where she earned a diploma in Education. She returned and began teaching at the Queens College Enugu while writing short stories on the side. Flora sent one of her short novels to Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s literary icon, who returned her positive feedback and some money to assist her in publication.

In 1966, at age 30, Nwapa’s first novel, Efuru spotlighted her internationally. She was widely recognised as the Igbo woman who told stories from her tribe’s narrative. Her later books, especially Ogbuefi (released in 1978), lent strength to the women’s weak voices under extreme patriarchy.

4. Hajiya Gambo Sawaba

Hajia Gambo Sawaba
Hajia Gambo Sawaba

Hajia Gambo Sawaba, born 15 February 1933, was a Nigerian women’s rights activist, philanthropist and politician. She was known for speaking up for gender-based equality.

Fun fact: Gambo in Hausa means a child born after twins. Hajia Gambo was born after her parents had a twin.

She had her elementary education at the Native Authority School in Tudun Wada, Kaduna. However, she couldn’t complete her education due to the loss of her father. She was married off at age 13 to a World War II veteran who abandoned her after her first pregnancy. Her following marriage didn’t last long due to household violence.

From a very young age, Hajia Gambo Sawaba “couldn’t stand by to watch a weak friend or relation being molested.” At the age of 17, she was already active in politics and was campaigning against underage marriages and forced labour in the North. Some of her political mentors included Aminu Kano and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She also advocated for Western education in the North. She was imprisoned 16 times for openly standing up against child marriage, forced and unpaid labour and exorbitant taxes

Today, she is widely known as the pioneer of the freedom of Northern women. Named after her include a general hospital in Kaduna and a hostel in Bayero Uni

5. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala

Ngozi Okonjo Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo Iweala

Ngozi Okonjo Iweala GCON, born 13 June 1954, is a renowned Nigerian economist. She is one of the few Nigerians holding international positions. Since March 2021, Okonjo-Iweala has been serving as the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). She is the first woman and the first African to hold that position. She has also served as Nigeria’s minister of Finance for two terms (2003-2006 and 2011-2015). In her first term, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was pivotal in writing off Nigeria’s foreign debt of US$30 billion.

She was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State into the royal family of Obahai. Okonjo-Iweale acquired her early education at the Queen’s School, Enugu; St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, Oyo state; and the International School, Ibadan. In 1973, she proceeded to study at Harvard University in the US where she graduated “magna cum laude” with a degree in Economics. She then attained her master’s degree in City Planning in 1978 and her PhD in regional economics and development in 1981, both from the University of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US

Today, as part of being the Director-General of WTO, she is working on empowering women and girls in Nigeria with digital trade. Indeed, Ngozi Okonjo is a powerful role model for Nigerian and African girls.

6. Grace Alele-Williams

Grace Alele Williams
Grace Alele Williams

Grace Alele-Williams (16 December 1932 – 25 March 2022) was a Nigerian professor of Mathematics Education. At a time when the Nigerian academic sphere was largely dominated by men, Alele-Williams made history as the first Nigerian woman to be awarded a doctorate. She is also the first female Vice-Chancellor in Nigeria.

She was born to Itsekiri parents in Warri (in present-day Delta State), where she attended  Government School, Warri. She later attended the Queen’s College in Lagos State and the University College in Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan). After completing her undergraduate education, she became a master in mathematics at Queen’s School, Ede Osun state, from 1954 until 1957.  Alele Williams obtained her Ph.D. in Mathematics Education at the University of Chicago in 1963. Alele also married in 1963.

In 1965, she joined the faculty at the University of Lagos where she worked until 1985, becoming the first female professor of mathematics education in 1974. During this period, she directed the Institute of Education to provide programmes that were of benefit to lecturers. In 1985 Alele-Williams became the first female Vice-Chancellor of an African university when she accepted that position at the University of Benin. When asked about it in a 2004 interview, she said:

The excitement I felt on receiving the news from Professor Jubril Aminu (the then Minister of Education) had more to do with seeing it in terms of opening up the field for women than anything else. I saw it as an opportunity to show that women too could rise to the occasion. Also, I knew what the weight of the expectations of the women were. They were eager to see how things would go and I was not going to let them down.

7. Dr. Dora Akunyili

Dora Akunyili
Dora Akunyili

Dr. Dora Akunyili (14 July 1954 – 7 June 2014) served as the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) from 2001 to 2008. She made a phenomenal impact on Nigeria’s counterfeit/fake drug problem. As of June 2006, Akunyili had convicted 45 counterfeiters with 56 cases in court, pending. She was fighting against influential and powerful counterfeit drug traders who could have otherwise easily bribed their way through.

Dora Edemobi Akunyili was born in Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria. The Anambra-indigene won both the Eastern Nigerian Government Post Primary Scholarship and the Federal Government of Nigeria Undergraduate Scholarship. She later went on to study Pharmacology at the University of Nigeria, graduating in 1978 and receiving her PhD in Ethnopharmacology in 1985.

The renowned pharmacist and pharmacologist served on numerous State Government Boards, worked as a pharmacist at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu State, and in 1996 (to mention a little) as a Consultant Pharmacologist at the College of Medicine. It was not until 2001 before President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed her the Director-General of NAFDAC.

Under her leadership, NAFDAC recorded massive success by using broadcast jingles on radio and TV  to make the public aware of the dangers of substandard drugs while also publishing the name lists of counterfeit drugs in newspapers. Soon, Dr Dora Akunyili was recognized internationally and won several awards for her contributions to the field of pharmacology, human rights and public health.

8. Ameyo Adadevoh

Ameyo Adadevoh
Ameyo Adadevoh

Ameyo Stella Adadevoh (27 October 1956 – 19 August 2014) was a Nigerian physician who is known for curbing the wider spread of the Ebola virus epidemic in Nigeria. When Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian (index) Ebola patient landed in Lagos, it was Ameyo Stella Adedavoh who placed him in quarantine despite pressure and threats from the Liberian government. She said, “It was for the greater public good.”

Because Nigeria’s health system at the time was not prepared for an outbreak at the time, she contracted Ebola alongside three of her colleagues. Her heroic efforts prevented what could have been a major outbreak in a 190-million-people country. Sadly, on the afternoon of 19 August 2014, Nigeria lost a heroine.

Ameyo Adadevoh was born in Lagos, Nigeria in October 1956 where she spent most of her life. Her family and lineage were distinguished humanitarians. From her paternal grandfather, Herbert Macaulay who fought for the cause of Nigeria’s Nationalism to her Father, Babatunde Kwaku Adadevoh who was known to be committed and steadfast while he was serving as the vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos.

Also, in 2012, Ameyo Adadevoh was the first to alert Nigeria’s Ministry of Health of the H1N1 Influenza Flu spread to Nigeria

9. Ladi Kwali

Ladi Kwali
Ladi Kwali

Ladi Dosei Kwali (c.1925– 12 August 1984) was a Nigerian potter, ceramicist and educator. L. Kwali is the pioneer of African ceramic art modernism. Today, her portrait can be found on every twenty Naira note, being the only woman to appear on a Nigerian currency.

She was birthed in 1925 to a family of potters in Kwali, Abuja, Nigeria. She was the coil and pinch methods of pottery by her aunt during her childhood. She later refined that into her style, fabricating ornamental pots used for cooking pots and bowls with an iconography of animals. The then Emir of Abuja (now Suleja) recognized her talents early enough and started displaying them in his palace where it struck the attention of potter Michael Cardew during his 1950 tour for a report on Nigeria’s pottery development for the colonial government.

In December 1954, Ladi Kwali became the first female trainee of M. Cardew who taught her the wheel-throwing method. However, Lady Kwali was more adept at using a free-hand modelling technique to male pots from the new materials and new firing techniques. The pots had schematised figures of scorpions, chameleons, crocodiles and lizards, fishes, birds and snakes, with white porcelain lines that glow in the dark.

Her pots had acquired a new form of art modernity and could no longer be used as water storage pots. Kwali’s pot became a symbol of art that attracted audiences internationally. Arranged by M. Cardew, her works were displayed in London exhibitions at the Berkeley Galleries in 1958, 1959 and 1962. Locally, her works were displayed during the 1960 celebration of Nigeria’s independence.

10. Virginia Etiaba

Virginia Etiaba
Virginia Etiaba

Dame Virginia Ngozi Etiaba, born on 11 November 1942, is a politician who served as Anambra State Governor. Etiaba is the first “female” governor of a state in Nigeria. Though she spent only three months in office between 3 November 2006 and 9 February 2007, Dame Etiaba had left her footprints in the sands of time.

The Amanmbra native had her primary and secondary school education in Kano state, Nigeria. Her uncle raised her in the same state. Later, in Gombe State, she attended a teachers’ training programme. Etiaba acquired an NCE and a BEd in Information Technology.

For the next 35 years, she worked as a teacher and head teacher in different schools in Anambra. Retiring in 1991, Etiaba founded the Bennet Etiaba Memorial Schools in Nnewi.

In March 2006, she resigned and assumed the position of the Deputy Governor of Anambra State. Following the impeachment of Peter Obi, the then-Anambra Governor, Etiaba was sworn in as the governor. During her tenure, she kicked off some road projects and signed into law the Anambra State’s Child Rights Bill before the reinstatement of Governor Peter Obi after the Court of Appeal nullified his impeachment.

11. Tobi Amusan

Tobi Amusan
Tobi Amusan.

Oluwatobiloba Ayomide “Tobi” Amusan OON, born on April 23, 1997, is a renowned Nigerian athlete. She specialises in the 100-metre hurdles but also competes as a sprinter.

In 2022, Amusan made history as the inaugural Nigerian world champion and world record holder in athletics by securing the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the World Championships. During the semi-finals, she left the world stunned with a record of 12.12 seconds. Tobi Amusan was later named Africa’s Best Female Athlete for the Year 2022.

Tobi Amusan is an indigene of Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, where she resides with her school-teacher parents. She received her education at Our Lady of Apostles Secondary School in her hometown. In May 2023, Amusan attained her Master of Arts degree in Leadership Studies and Sports Management at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Wrap-up

Hope this comprehensive article helped you gain more insights about Heroines in Nigeria. Is there anyone you’d like to see on the list? Let us know in the comment section below. You can also follow us on our WhatsApp Channel here.

Please share with others.

Leave a Reply