Zaria: Men’s world
previously ruled by women
By MAURICE ARCHIBONG
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.