It’s easy to forget the unsung heroes and invisible engines
driving our great nation, but today, we invite you to celebrate
those who have fought to put Nigeria on the map in unique ways.
Click on a hero and learn more about them.
Novelist, Flora Nwapa, was born in Oguta, in present-day Imo State, on January 13, 1931. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University College, Ibadan, in 1957 before she proceeded to Scotland for further studies.
In 1966, Nwapa published Efuru, her first novel, which was the first novel by a Nigerian woman to appear in the English language and one of the first of such by an African woman. Nwapa worked in the Nigerian education sector until the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970. After the war, she served as a minister in the South East, moving from public service to literature in 1974.
In 1976, Nwapa founded a publishing house where she published many of her books. Subsequently, she deepened her engagement in academia, becoming the visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Maiduguri in 1989. On October 16, 1993, Nwapa died in Enugu at the age of 62.
Musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, on October 15, 1938. Son to activist, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Kuti completed his secondary education in Abeokuta and moved to London where he attended a college of music.
In 1963, Kuti returned to Nigeria where he formed a band and trained as a radio producer. A pioneer of the Afrobeat genre and an advocate of pan-Africanism, Kuti’s music became increasingly political until he was considered a dissenter. In the build up to the 1979 presidential election, Kuti started a pro-citizens political party called the Movement of the People. However, his candidacy was denied.
Kuti continued making music until the 1990s but in 1997, at the age of 58, Kuti died from AIDS-related complications. Immortalized and revered by artists worldwide, the annual Felabration festival is an example of the indelible mark he left on the world.
Playwright, actor, and musician, Hubert Ogunde, was born on July 10, 1916, in Ososa, Ogun State.
Ogunde was influenced by his father’s Christianity and his maternal grandfather’s Ifa religion. His first play, ‘The Garden of Eden and the Throne of God’, was financed by an African Protestant church and featured traditional Yoruba music.
In 1945, Ogunde founded the African Music Research Party, regarded as the first professional theatrical company in Nigeria. He went on to write more than 50 stage plays with socio-political themes including ‘Yoruba Ronu’, his most controversial production.
Released in 1964, Yoruba Ronu was a critique of Ladoke Akintola, then-premier of the Western region. The play caused Ogunde and his company to be banned from performing in the Western region until after Akintola's death in 1966.
He died on April 4, 1990, at London’s Cromwell Hospital following a brief illness. Considered the father of Nigerian theatre, Ogunde's success on the stage is said to have laid the foundation for the modern Nigerian movie industry.
Nigerian doctor, Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, was born in Lagos on October 27, 1956. By 1981, she had earned a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Lagos. Dr. Adadevoh was a great-granddaughter to Nigerian nationalist, Herbert Macaulay, and great-niece to Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president.
In July 2014, Dr. Adadevoh diagnosed Nigeria’s index case of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and took responsibility for both the patient’s health and the containment of the virus. Notably, Dr Adadevoh quarantined the patient, a Liberian national, despite external and international pressure to release him to the public.
Dr Adadevoh died on August 19, 2014, from contracting EVD at the frontline of service and is remembered by numerous Nigerians as a defender of public health. In 2016, she was memorialized in the film about the Ebola outbreak, 93 Days.
Activist and nationalist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was born on October 25, 1900, in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
Growing up, Ransome-Kuti was the first female student to attend the Abeokuta Grammar School. In 1919, she travelled to England to attend a finishing school for girls, returning to Abeokuta in 1922 to work as a teacher.
As a young adult, Ransome-Kuti organized literacy classes for rural women. A founder of the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), in 1949, she led the AWU in a protest a colonial tax on women, forcing the ruling Alake to temporarily abdicate his throne.
Known as the ‘Lioness of Lisabi’, Ransome-Kuti was a member of international peace and women’s rights movements and received various honours, including the 1970 Lenin Peace Prize.
On February 18, 1977, while she was visiting her son, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, armed soldiers stormed the property. Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second-floor window and died on April 13, 1978 from sustained injuries.
Nigerian government official, Dora Nkem Akunyili was born in Makurdi, Benue State, on July 14, 1954.
Akunyili was the director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) from 2001-2008 and was the Federal Minister of Information and Communication from 2008-2010.
As the leader of NAFDAC, Akunyili gained a record as one of the most committed public servants in Nigeria. Under her leadership, counterfeit drug sales in Nigeria reportedly dropped by an estimated 80 per cent. She had a personal motivation for addressing Nigeria’s counterfeit drug problem: in 1988, she had lost her 21-year-old sister, who received fake insulin for diabetes.
Akunyili won several awards for her work, which spanned academia, human rights and public health. With over 900 local and international awards, she is said to be the most awarded person in Nigeria’s history. On June 7, 2014, Akunyili died at 60 of uterine cancer.
Writer and lecturer, Wole Soyinka, was born in Abeokuta on July 13, 1934. His father was a headmaster and preacher while his mother was a shopkeeper and local activist.
In 1958, Soyinka graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Leeds. Afterwards, he taught literature and drama at several schools including the federal universities in Ife, Ibadan and Lagos.
In 1963, Soyinka published what many have described as his first important play. A Dance of the Forest was a political satire, he wrote for the Nigerian Independence Day celebrations. Active in both political and literary spheres, in 1986, Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first African laureate in that category.
Soyinka’s notable works include Death and the King's Horseman, The Lion and the Jewel, Madmen and Specialists, and Kongi's Harvest. He continues to write and remains a vocal social and political critic till this day.
Journalist, Dele Giwa, was born on March 16, 1947, in Ile-Ife, Osun State.
Giwa began his education in Ile-Ife before moving to the United States where he studied at Brooklyn College and at Fordham University, and later worked as a news assistant with the New York Times. In 1979, Giwa returned to Nigeria to work with the Daily Times.
In 1984, Giwa co-founded the magazine, Newswatch, with fellow journalists. The magazine was said to have changed the ‘format of print journalism in Nigeria and introduce bold, investigative formats to news reporting.’ Due to the routine maltreatment journalists suffered at the hands of Nigeria’s then-military rulers, Giwa’s work saw him arrested and detained multiple times.
On October 19, 1986, Giwa was killed by a parcel bomb. However, he left behind a legacy of quality, impactful journalism and unwavering attention to political and social injustice.
Businessman, publisher, and politician, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale ‘MKO’ Abiola, was born to the family of a cocoa merchant, in Abeokuta, on August 24, 1937.
A successful businessman, Abiola ran for the presidency on June 12, 1993. Considered by many to be the freest and fairest election in the history of Nigerian democracy, the June 12 election was annulled by the incumbent military president, Ibrahim Babangida, paving the way for Sani Abacha to seize power.
Abiola declared himself president in 1994 and was jailed for treason. He died on July 7, 1998, aged 60, the day he was due out of jail.
Abiola was a philanthropist and for an unflinching belief in the democratic ethos he is still considered by many to be a symbol of Nigerian democracy.
In 2018, the Nigerian government announced June 12, the anniversary of Abiola's election victory, as the new Democracy Day.
Economist and technocrat, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was born in Delta State, Nigeria, on June 13, 1954. In 1976, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in Economics. Additionally, in 1981, she earned her PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As a student, Okonjo-Iweala interned with the World Bank. After graduating, she worked at the bank for 25 years, rising through the ranks to become managing director in 2007.
An international development expert, Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2015. She also served as foreign minister in 2006, becoming the first woman in Nigeria to hold either position.
Okonjo-Iweala is credited with developing reform programmes that helped stabilize the Nigerian economy. Notably, as finance minister, she negotiated a foreign debt write-off of $18 billion for Nigeria, and a further $30 billion reduction of Nigeria’s external debt.
Author and activist, Tai Solarin, was born in Ogun State, on August 20, 1922. He joined Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II and studied in Britain before he returned to Nigeria to work as a teacher. He established Mayflower School in 1956.
When Nigeria was newly independent and led by military dictators, Solarin was one of a few distinguished critics and activists who stood between the government and the total breakdown of human rights.
Notably, in 1974, when General Yakubu Gowon withdrew his promise to restore Nigeria’s democracy, Solarin published ‘The Beginning of the End’, criticism of Gowon that landed him in jail. His other writings include: ‘I Will Bomb Lagos’, A Message for Young Nigerians, and Thinking with You.
Solarin died on July 27, 1994, and the Tai Solarin University of Education in Ogun State is named after him.
Nationalist and political organizer, Margaret Ekpo, was born in Calabar on June 27, 1914. She became involved in politics in the 1940s after she got married to John Udo Ekpo and moved to Aba. By 1947, she had formed the Market Women Association to unionize Aba women. She mobilized them, beyond ethnic and class lines, to fight for their economic and political rights.
By 1953, Ekpo had joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the party that led Nigeria to independence. In 1961, she became an elected official in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly and was the first woman in Aba to hold such an office.
Ekpo served in the House of Assembly until 1967 when the Nigeria-Biafra civil war broke out. In 2001, the Calabar Airport was renamed in her honour, becoming the Margaret Ekpo International Airport. In 2006, Ekpo died in Calabar at the age of 92.
Filmmaker, Kenneth Nnebue, is of Igbo descent. He is credited as being the father of Nollywood, Nigeria's movie industry. He had limited education but made up for this with practicality.
He traded in electronics and video equipment including blank videotapes. Against the practice of screening films with a projector which was popular among pioneering Yoruba filmmakers, Nnebue began recording and distributing movies as video cassettes.
In 1992, Nnebue made 'Living in Bondage', a low-budget film with which he established the commercial viability of Nigerian home videos. He went on to make other popular films such as 'Glamour Girls' and 'Lost to Lust', all of which, taken together, set the foundation for the themes and methods of today's Nollywood.
Nigerian athlete, Chioma Ajunwa was born on December 25, 1970, and was the first Nigerian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
Ajunwa played for the Nigerian women’s football team during the 1991 World Cup but quit to become a track and field athlete. She was a bronze medallist at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and a gold medallist at the 1989 African Championships and the 1991 All Africa Games.
Ajunwa competed at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where she won a gold medal after recording a leap of 23 feet 4 1/2 inches in the women’s long jump. The same year, for her achievements in sport, Ajunwa was awarded Member of the Order of Niger (MON).
Painter and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu, was born in Onitsha on July 14, 1917. He learnt his craft from his father, a traditional sculptor. However, formally, Enwonwu studied fine art through his school years at Government College, Ibadan, and Government College, Umuahia.
As a mature artist, in 1944, Enwonwu enrolled at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. He then proceeded to complete a postgraduate course in art at the University College, London. In 1954, the British government awarded him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). In 1956, he was commissioned to make a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II.
Enwonwu was a pioneer of modern African art, becoming the first professor of art in Nigeria, after an appointment from the University of Ife in 1971. He was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit in 1980 and died on February 5, 1994.
Politician, Ahmadu Bello, was born on June 12, 1910, in Rabah, present-Sokoto State. He graduated from the Katsina Training College in 1931.
Bello succeeded his brother as district head of Rabah in 1934 and became the divisional head of Gusau, present-Zamfara, in 1938. He went to England for further studies in 1948.
After representing the Sokoto province in the regional legislature, Bello was elected to the northern House of Assembly in 1952. In 1954, he became the premier of the Northern Region.
Bello was active in Nigeria's independence struggle and remained the premier of the Northern Region until he was assassinated on January 15, 1966. The Ahmadu Bello University is named after him and his picture features on the 200 naira banknote.
Aminu Kano was born in 1920, in Kano, Nigeria. He was a politician. He obtained a teaching certificate from Katsina College before he went to London to further his education.
Kano was politically outspoken and, while working as a teacher in Bauchi, in 1943, he founded an organization which is now considered the first political party in northern Nigeria. In the late 1940s, he headed a teachers' training school and served as secretary of the Northern Teachers Association.
In 1950, alongside other teachers and intellectuals, Kano formed a radical political party to challenge the autocratic ideals of the northern government. However, he failed to secure a parliamentary position until 1959 when he eventually won a Federal House of Representative seat.
After the fall of Nigeria's first republic, Kano served as a federal commissioner. He later contested and lost the 1979 presidential election.
Aminu Kano died on April 17, 1983. He is remembered for being a champion of democratization, women's empowerment and freedom of speech. An airport, a college and a major street are named after him.
Nationalist, journalist, and political activist, Herbert Macaulay, was born on November 14, 1864, in Lagos. His father, Thomas Babington Macaulay, was the first principal of CMS Grammar School in Lagos and his grandfather was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first indigenous Anglican bishop in Nigeria.
Macaulay was a critic of the British colonial administration in Nigeria. Although he was banned from running for public office because of past convictions, in 1915, he led a protest in Lagos against water tax rates. Additionally, in 1921, he helped the Eleko of Lagos win a land tenure case against the colonial government.
Considered the father of Nigerian nationalism, in 1923, Macaulay started the Nigerian National Democratic Party, Nigeria’s first political party. He died in Lagos on May 7, 1946, after falling ill and was buried at the Ikoyi cemetery. His portrait featured on the 1 naira banknote and subsequently, the 1 naira coin.
Novelist, Chinua Achebe, was born on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Anambra State and is considered the father of modern African literature.
In 1948, Achebe won a scholarship to study medicine at the University College, Ibadan, but switched to English literature. He served as editor of the University Herald, where he published his first work as a writer. In 1954 he joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS).
Achebe wrote 'Things Fall Apart' after he resumed at the NBS. It was published to international acclaim in 1958 and changed the trajectory of African literature.
In 1966, Achebe published 'A Man of the People', which featured a coup that coincided with the Nigerian coup that led to the Civil War. Post-war, Achebe taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and divided his time between Nsukka and the US, where he also held teaching appointments.
In 1990, Achebe was involved in an accident and remained in the United States for treatment. There, he accepted a professorship at Bard College in New York. He published 'There Was a Country', in 2012, and died aged 82 in Boston, United States, in 2013.
Nationalist and statesman, Obafemi Awolowo, was born on March 6, 1909, in Ikenne, Ogun state. He worked as a schoolteacher, clerk and journalist before studying law at the University of London in 1944.
Awolowo played an influential role in Nigeria’s independence movement and is credited as one of the founding figures of Nigerian nationalism. A prominent Yoruba leader, he was the opposition leader of Nigeria’s first post-independence parliament and the leader of the Action Group, a liberal political party created to further the struggle for Nigerian independence.
He served as the premier of the Western region from 1954 until independence in 1960 and ran for president twice.
In 1963, Awolowo was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the Tafawa Balewa administration. He was released in 1966.
Awolowo died at his Ikenne home on May 9, 1987 at the age of 78. He is remembered by many for his advocacy for federalism and Nigerian nationalism, and is featured on the 100 naira banknote.
Politician and statesman, Nnamdi Azikiwe, was born on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru, northern Nigeria. He left for the United States in 1925 to further his education.
A pan-Africanist, Azikiwe taught political science at Lincoln University in 1932 and, in 1934, published Liberia in World Politics, a book about Africa's first modern republic. He returned to Nigeria where he ran several newspapers that encouraged Nigerian nationalism.
In the 1940s, Azikiwe was part of several political movements. In 1946, he became president of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC).
Azikiwe held several positions in government. Post-independence in 1963, he ruled as president until he was deposed in January 1966.
Azikiwe ran for president in the elections of 1979 and 1983 and eventually retired from politics. He died on May 11, 1996, aged 91.
An airport, a stadium and a university remain named after him. He has also featured on Nigeria's ?500 banknote since its release in 2001.
Lawyer, social critic and activist, Gani Fawehinmi, was born on April 22, 1938, in Ondo State, Nigeria.
A graduate from the University of London, Fawehinmi started his legal career in Lagos in 1965. He established a reputation as ‘the people’s lawyer’, taking on controversial cases that often got him into trouble with Nigeria’s past military governments.
He contributed regularly to newspapers, believed in media freedom and often represented journalists in legal cases. Two of his most high-profile cases were the still-unresolved assassination of Dele Giwa and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s murder trial.
In 2001, Fawehinmi was made a senior advocate of Nigeria. In 2008, he declined one of Nigeria’s highest civilian honours—the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR)—in protest of decades of national misrule.
He died in 2009, at 71, after a prolonged battle with lung cancer. In 2018, Fawehinmi was posthumously awarded the GCON, Nigeria’s second-highest honour.
Businesswoman, politician and women's activist, Mary Nzimiro, was born in Oguta, Imo State, on October 16, 1898. She was educated in Oguta and Asaba before she got married in 1920.
Nzimiro entered business as early as 1921, trading first in salt and palm oil and, later, textile and cosmetics. In 1948, Nzimiro became a major United Africa Company agent in West Africa, expanding her business to Ghana and Sierra Leone. She co-founded the first secondary school in Oguta in 1949 and founded a girls-only school in 1966.
Nzimiro was also a member and financier of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons under Nnamdi Azikiwe and eventually rose to become the party's vice president in 1962.
Nzimiro died in 1993, at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that continues to be studied for lessons on life and business.
Educationist, Oyinkansola Abayomi was born in Lagos on March 6, 1897. She attended the Anglican Girls’ Seminary from 1903 to 1909 before she moved to England to continue her education before returning to Nigeria in 1920.
An advocate of women’s rights, Abayomi helped raised funds to establish Queen’s College, a girls-only secondary school in Yaba, Lagos. In 1935, Abayomi joined the Nigerian Youth Movement urging Nigerians to participate in the running of local affairs and agitate for independence.
On May 10, 1944, she co-founded Nigeria’s first women’s political party, the Nigerian Women’s Party. She served as a councillor on the Lagos City Council and, in 1954, was appointed to represent women in the Western Region’s legislature.
As of March 19, 1990, when Abayomi died, she had received the awards of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR) and Britain’s Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Social activist, Hajia Gambo Sawaba, was born on February 15, 1933, in Zaria, Nigeria.
Orphaned by the age of 13, she had to stop going to school and was married off. After her first pregnancy, Sawaba’s husband disappeared, abandoning Sawaba and their newborn child.
In 1950, at the age of 17, Sawaba became involved in politics. She joined the Northern Element Progressive Union and was an advocate for western education and the abolition of underage marriages in the North.
Her social ideals and political activities often clashed with her immediate society, leading her to be jailed and brutalized by the police multiple times. She died in October 2001, at the age of 71, and is often remembered as one of the leading female figures behind the movement for Nigeria’s independence.