Zaria: Men’s world previously ruled by women
Thursday, September 23, 2004

• Emir of Zazzau’s Palace
Photo: Sun News Publishing

Virtually everywhere, men hold sway: From the local palace through the markets to the public service, a man is at the helm. Given the ubiquitous dominance of the men folk here, it would be hard to imagine that at various times in the past, a woman actually occupied the Zaria throne. At least twice, a queen (Amina and Zaria) ruled Zaria.

Amina, the elder of these sisters, wasn’t just a sedentary, ceremonial crowned head. She was an awe-inspiring warrior, administrator and field marshal. We’ll return to Zaria’s Amazons, later. Welcome to Zaria, whose aborigines used to be known as Zazzagawa. These inhabitants were thus called because their town’s name used to be Zag-Zag. At some other time, Zaria had also been known as Zazzau.

For various reasons, we have had to visit Zaria countless times, over the years, but some trips you simply cannot forget. Currently, the fare by bus from Kaduna to Zaria is in the region of N150 but there was a time we used to pay N30 for the 82-kilometer journey. By the late 1990s, the fare had climbed to N80 but recent raises of fuel pump prices have taken further toll on the locals and other commuters across Nigeria. But let’s relive what is probably our most memorable approach to Zaria, first.

It was in mid-1995, and the journey to Zaria couldn’t have been more entertaining. Within 30 minutes after boarding a bus at Kawo Motor Park, we were on our way. Compared to other highways in the country, the Kaduna to Zaria expressway is in very good shape. Some 30 minutes on, we had passed a motley collection of sparsely populated settlements and as the bus approached another community; two of the passengers informed the driver to drop them off, there.

Akwoi sauka! One of the passengers yelled amid the din of the rickety bus. As the vehicle came to a halt, we noticed a crowd at the bus stop. But it turned out that many of the people, gathered there, were not Zaria-bound passengers but mere onlookers. No sooner had the passengers alighted from the bus than another traveller jumped in. The man boarded with his companion, Dan Biri, a baboon. The circus animal, its cheeks hollow, possibly from overwork, malnutrition or both had a chain around its waist.

From the way it attacked the mango, which it snapped from its conductor’s hands it was obvious the poor thing was famished. In a few minutes, the mango gone, Dan Biri (the captive) regretfully tossed the stone aside, and was soon asleep. The lesson here is the attitude of the commuters. In some other parts of the country, the presence of a baboon inside a commercial bus would have triggered hysteria or pandemonium but here the Talakawas (masses) take things in their strides.

Coming from Kaduna, the traveller is likely to notice the junction leading to the International Trade Fair Complex as well as the National Teachers Institute (both to the right, shortly after departing Kawo or Mando motor parks), and the Command and Staff College, to the left, among other roadside blurs. As the vehicle zooms towards Zaria, the tourist is likely to find the beautiful landscape very refreshing. The terrain is Savannah-like, the vegetation is scanty and but for those angles covered by boulders or village settlements, you can often see as far as your eyes can carry.

Worthwhile visit
A trip to Zaria would be well worth it, especially for those who are interested in studying the counter-penetration between ancient civilization and modernization. Those who are wont to think that the ancient city of Zaria is finished had better start thinking again. Although the city bears various hallmarks of a quaint settlement, Zaria appears to be staging a comeback, from various fronts.

For centuries, Zaria has been a major centre of Islamic scholarship. On the contemporary front, the city is an important centre of modern education. For example, the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University, ABU) was established here in the mid-50s. Other major institutions in Zaria include the National Institute of Education Technology, Nigerian Institute of Aviation Technology and National Institute of Agricultural Research.

However, ABU, which hosts thousands of students and staff remains the busiest and most noticeable in this city. And what’s more? This university has had a great, albeit somewhat latent, influence on virtually all parts of Nigeria. One way of assessing the impact of the ABU is through an understanding of the influence of her alumni, who went on to found various art schools, groom succeeding generations of art students or enjoy distinguished careers in different parts of Nigeria. Roll call: Prof. Yussuf Grillo, Prof. Irein Solomon Wangboje, Prof. Uche Okeke, Prof. Sheriffdeen Abayomi Adetoro, Prof. Jimo Akolo and Prof. Okechukwu Odita, to name a few.

Other such scholars/studio artists include Mr. Demas Nwoko, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, Mr. Ben Ekanem, Christopher Ifeta, David Herbert Dale, Rukeme Noserime and Olu Amoda. Although the story of the Zaria Art School is too long to be told here, no narrative on contemporary Nigerian art could be complete without some focus on ABU because this is where degree-level art education began in Nigeria. Interestingly, the younger generation of art scholars at ABU have been holding fort creditably, in spite of observable under-funding of universities across the country.


Wondering where to stay, if you had to come here? Modern Zaria boasts a number of satisfactory lodges at affordable prices. There is the ABU Guest House, within the university complex, which is probably the best place to stay, if you have business or some conference to attend on campus. This guest house stands a wall or two away from the Senior Staff Club, just the place to wind-up the day, provided you know a member, which is necessary to facilitate admission.

Another highly recommended tourist stop is Zaria Club but you also need a member’s company to gain access here. Located in the local GRA, Zaria Club offers chilled drinks, delicious bites and a welcome vernal ambience, just like the ABU staff club. But you are likely to prefer the former for its architecture, among other pluses.
Apart from the university guesthouse, the tourist may also enjoy decent accommodation at Kongo Conference, Zaria Hotel or Kuta Hotel, aside dozens of other inns across this north central city.


But, what’s the root of the natives of Zaria? According to Peoples and Empires of West Africa by G.T. Stride and Caroline Ifeka: "All Hausas claim descent from Bayajidda (Abuyazida), reputedly a refugee prince from Baghdad, who married a daughter of the town’s overlord or Mai. However, a dispute with his father-in-law led to Bayajidda’s flight to Biram-ta-Gabas, where he abandoned his wife.

Subsequently, the man met a community of skilled blacksmiths at Gaya. It was from here, Bayajidda procured a special sword with which he killed a menacing snake called Sarki. So evil was this reptile that it allowed villagers of Daura to fetch water on Fridays only. In gratitude, Bayajidda was allowed to marry the town’s queen, and consequently became ruler of that state. Bayajidda’s offspring by Queen Daura eventually went on to found seven states called Hausa Bokwoi. Zaria was one of these so called legitimate seven. The rest were Biran, Daura, Katsina, Kano, Rano and Gobir

Stride and Ifeka add that each of the septets was given a special task. Gobir, the youngest, was field marshal; Kano and Rano were appointed Chief of Industry while Zaria was ordained Chief of slaves. Ironically, the chief of slaves would prove more famous or notorious as warmonger, going by the military prowess and expansionist zeal of some of Zaria’s rulers.

Stride and Ifeka, again: "One of the peculiarities of the Zaria constitution was that even after it became a Habe State, it was occasionally ruled by women, two of whom are among its most famous rulers". These historians state further that Zaria’s first Habe (Hausa) ruler is said to have been Gunguma, grandson of Bayajidda and that Islam was introduced by Mohammad Abu (who ruled from 1505 to1530). It is thought likely that "Islam did not take root in Zaria so firmly or so rapidly as it did in Kano and Katsina Stride and Ifeka opined".

The same historians again: "The rise of Zaria’s military power is associated with the reigns of two formidable women rulers. The first was Bakwa Turunku, a woman of commanding personality and astute brain. She is reputed to have repulsed the Jukun and to have moved the capital city to roughly its present site around 1536".

Her reason: The former capital had insufficient water to meet "the needs of a growing commercial centre". About 1566, when Bakwa Turunku passed on, a male named Karama succeeded her. However, this ruler, described as "a doughty warrior" used to be accompanied to military expedition by Princess Amina, the eldest daughter of Bakwa Turunku.

Around 1576, Amina was enthroned Queen of Zaria. Although she received a proposal from then ruler of Kano, Amina was never married because "for her, war was more interesting than life as a royal housewife", wrote Stride and Ifeka who added that "Amina commanded her troops in the field and for over a period of 34 years her armies won victory after victory"

Corroborating Mr. C.O.O. Ugowe, author of Nigeria: Her cities, towns and peoples, states that "Zaria has a long line of famous and distinguished rulers, some of whom were women. Among these were the famous Queen Amina of Zazzau, who enlarged her domain by numerous conquests…"

However, Elizabeth Isichei’s West African History has it that "The first city states of Zazzau were Turunku, south of Zaria, and Kufena, a hill near Zaria. Mohammed Rabbo (late 15th century), the 17th Sarkin Zazzau, was the first Muslim king. He reigned at the same time as Mohammad Rumfa of Kano and Mahammad Korau, the first Muslim king of Katsina. Soon after this, a man called Bakwa from Turunku, seized power at Kufena" and built a new walled city, which he named after his daughter, Zaria. Unlike the other Hausa kingdoms, Zazzau was very much involved in wars with non-Hausa people to the south"

It might have been noticed that while Isichei’s book calls Bakwa from Turunku, a man; Stride and Ifeka say Bakwa was "a woman".
In early 1995, during one of our visit to the Kaduna State Tourism Board, we gathered from Mr. Umaru Shuaibu, an amiable employee of the body, that one royal father of old, called Bakwa-Turunku sired tow daughters, Amina and Zaria. According to this source, Bakwa Turunku was the 22nd Habe ruler of Zaria.

In any case, there is no argument about Amina and Zaria being daughters of Bakwa. And that Bakwa’s first daughter, Amina proved a great heroine. Before her death at Atagara, near Bida, Amina’s military exploits resulted in the expansion of her domain as far as Bauchi to the east and as far south as the Niger River. Given Amina’s military prowess, it remains a mystery how the state came to be named after her younger sister, Zaria.

Rough guide

According to West Africa: The rough guide by Jim Hudgens and Richard Trillo, "The Friday mosque, disappointingly hidden behind a modern façade, dominates one side of the square" opposite Kofar Fada, the main entrance to the palace, which lies south of the market.

"The architect, who designed it (the Friday mosque) was put to death so he would never create a more beautiful building elsewhere," states The rough guide, whose co-authors go on to say that this fable "surely indicates how far from traditional, retributive religion the rumour-mongers have strayed" Hudgens and Trillo, again: "The (Friday Mosque’s) architecture is outstanding and an exact replica of this mosque exists in Jos…

From a community of traditional worshippers, Zaria evolved into a respectable religious stronghold after the Sarkin converted to Islam. However, this ancient city has her share of Christians too. A lot of northern Nigeria’s early Christian elite had their training in Wusasa. Ugowe names the Russel and Gowon families as clans that produced notable Christian elites of Northern Nigerian extraction.

Shrunken but not shriveled

In contrast with the vast domain of ancient Zaria, the city currently stands around Latitude 11 degrees North and Longitude 70 degrees East. During the 1967 state creation exercise, two provinces, Katsina and Zaria, were merged to form Kaduna State with Kaduna city (a former seat of they government of the British protectorate of Northern Niger), later Northern Nigeria, chosen as capital. However, in 1987 each of these two former provinces (Zaria and Katsina) was made a full-fledged state. But if Zaria City, a former emirate headquarters, has shrunken to a mere local government area headquarters, its importance has not diminished.

Located close to River Kubanni, a tributary of the Kaduna River, Zaria may not be a state capital but it is nonetheless an important city and not just because of its being a transit point between such major towns as Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto among others.

With an airport barely eight kilometers north-west, the town’s growth may have been facilitated in the last few decades by the plenitude of Federal Government institutions established here; but as is popularly known, Zaria’s fame dates back many centuries. The old city, ensconced in the 15 kilometer-perimeter fence known as the Queen Amina Wall, is said to be several centuries old.

Today’s Zaria encompasses the ancient walled city, the GRA, Tudu Wada, Sabon Gari (New Town) to the north, the junction of the Nguru and Lagos rail tracks, Samaru (where ABU stands) and even places farther flung. Sabon Gari, which lies roughly three kilometers north of Birnin Zazzau (the walled city) across River Kubanni, was built after the arrival of British colonialists. The main motor park stands near the railway station in the heart of town.

However, the importance of the train station has dwindled considerably since the Nigerian rail services became rather dysfunctional. Nearby, is the main market of Sabon Gari in close proximity to a number of banks and other commercial ventures. Where in doubt, ask direction to Park Road or Hospital Road. The latter leads to a bridge, south of town, which opens into Tudun Wada. Many of Zaria’s public institutions - schools, hospitals etc - are to be found in Tudu Wada.

A major collection centre for cotton, tobacco peanuts and a few other cash crops, during colonial times, the rail-link was probably made to facilitate evacuation of these produce. Another factor, which promoted Zaria ahead of other northern Nigerian cities, was the launch here, in 1939, of Gaskiya Ta-fi Kwabo, a Hausa language newspaper, whose name roughly translates to "the truth is worth more than gold".

However, it is not only because of the launch of "Gaskiya" that 1939 remains an historic year in the annals of Zaria. The town scored a double that year because Zaria’s water scheme was commissioned in 1939, too. As the city’s population continued to grow, that water scheme would prove inadequate, which prompted the construction of a new water project in 1974.

Six years later, this addition was further expanded. In spite of these efforts, Zaria (like many settlements in Kaduna State) suffers from a 37 per cent short fall in supply against demand. However, this is not to say that successive governments of Kaduna have not been working hard to arrest water insufficiency in that state. In the area of roads, the network has generally improved considerably over the state of affairs here, a decade ago. But this is not to say that the authorities couldn’t do more.

Modern-day Amazon
Although Zaria was ruled and expanded by an Amazon (Queen Amina) in the 15th Century, not much is known of any other female politician who, in recent history, gave the men folk here a good run for their money like Hajia Gambo Sawaba, who died two years ago. Born in 1933 in Zaria, she joined the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), an opposition party in the defunct Northern Region. Because of her popularity, NEPU candidates usually won elections in Zaria.

For this, she was to pay dearly. Undaunted, even after being jailed over a dozen times, Hajia Gambo remained a die-hard loyalist of Aminu Kano, then NEPU leader. Her faithfulness to the populist ideology of her party, and her refusal to be bought over with money ostensibly left her political opponents so frustrated that she was once brutalized, internally. Although Hajia Gambo never ruled like Queen Amina, she distinguished herself, nonetheless, for being the most pains-taking, steadfast and principled female politician in an area where women were not to be seen, not to talk of being heard, those days.






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