Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, (December 1912 – January 15, 1966) was a Nigerian politician, and the only prime minister of an independent Nigeria. Originally a trained teacher, he became a vocal leader for Northern interest as one of the few educated Nigerians of his time. He was also an international statesman, widely respected across the African continent as one of the leaders who encouraged the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Nicknamed the Golden Voice of Africa because of his oratory, he stands one of the only three National Heroes of the Nigerian Nation.
In contrast with the largely aristocratic ruling elite in the north, many of whose ancestry derives from royal lineage, Balewa had very humble origins. His father was a slave who rose in service of the Madaki of Bauchi and became a district head. According to family oral history, Balewa’s paternal grandfather Isa was murdered in front of his family by his rival’s agents. Isa’s widow then took her infant son to Bauchi, where the Madaki of Bauchi took her in. Abubakar was born in December 1912 in the village of Tafawa Balewa, in modern day Bauchi state. He was his father’s only child. The name of his birthplace was appended to Abubakar’s name (Abubakar Tafawa Balewa). Tafawa Balewa village takes its name from two corrupted Fulani words: “Tafari” (rock) and Baleri (black). This may have contributed to the “Black Rock” nickname he acquired in later life. Although it is widely (incorrectly) presumed that he was Hausa, Balewa’s father Yakubu Dan Zala was in fact of Bageri ethnicity, and his mother Fatima Inna was Fulani.
He attended Quaranic school and learnt the first chapter of the Qur’an by heart. For his Western education he attended Bauchi Provincial School. According to his teacher and classmates he was a shy, quiet and not outstanding student. Although reserved by nature, he did commit a disciplinary infraction when he was caught outside school without permission, and smoking with his friends to boot. He was whipped as punishment. One of his juniors at school was Nuhu Bamalli (later Foreign Minister). He later attended Katsina Teacher Training College (1928-1933) and graduated with a third class certificate. His best subject was unsurprisingly, English. He became a teacher and irritated by a friend’s remark that no Northerner had ever passed the exam for a Senior Teacher’s Certificate, Balewa duly sat the exam, and obtained the Certificate. He became headmaster of the Bauchi Middle School. He reported that the first white woman he ever set eyes on was Dame Margery Perham (a renowned academic on African affairs) when she visited Nigeria on an investigation of native administration.
In 1945 he and other northerners (including Aminu Kano) obtained a scholarship to study at the University of London’s Institute of Education (1945-1946), where he received a teacher’s certificate in history. When he returned to Nigeria he said he now saw the world with “new eyes”. Balewa said he:
“returned to Nigeria with new eyes, because I had seen people who lived without fear, who obeyed the law as part of their nature, who knew individual liberty”
He returned to Nigeria as a Native Authority Education Officer. He was elected in 1946, to the colony’s Northern House of Assembly, and to the Legislative Assembly in 1947. As a legislator, he was a vocal advocate of the rights of northern Nigeria, and together with Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, who held the hereditary title of Sardauna of Sokoto, he founded the Northern People’s Congress (NPC).
Balewa was no firebrand political radical. He may have remained a teacher for the rest of his life had southern politicians such as the flamboyant intellectual Nnamdi Azikiwe not pushed for Nigerian independence. Although not overtly political he founded an organisation named the “Bauchi Discussion Circle” in 1943, and was elected vice president of the Northern Teacher’s Association (the first trade union in Northern Nigeria) in 1948. Anxious not to be politically upstaged by the southerners, Northern leaders sought educated Northerners to serve in political posts. Balewa helped found the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which was originally intended as a cultural organisation but by 1951 morphed into a political party due to the need to present a Northern response to the rapid and sophisticated political groupings emerging in the south. Balewa was called into political service as the Bauchi Native Authority’s representative to the Northern House of Assembly. The House of Assembly also selected him to become a member of the Nigerian Legislative Council.
Despite political involvement, Balewa remained suspicious of Nigerian unification and feared that the Northern Region would be dominated by the better educated and dynamic south. He said that “the southern tribes who are now pouring into the north in ever increasing numbers…do not mix with the northern people in social matters and we…look upon them as invaders. Since 1914 the British government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs, and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite. So what it comes to is that Nigerian unity is only a British intention in the country.”
Balewa entered the government in 1952 as Minister of Works, and later served as Minister of Transport. In 1957, he was elected Chief Minister, forming a coalition government between the NPC and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. He retained the post as Prime Minister when Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and was re-elected in 1964.
Prior to Nigeria’s independence, a constitutional conference in 1954 had adopted a regional political framework for the country, with all regions given a considerable amount of political freedom. The three regions then were composed of diverse cultural groups. The premiers and some prominent leaders of the regions later took on a policy of guiding their regions against political encroachment from other regional leaders. Later on, this political environment influenced the Balewa administration. His term in office was turbulent, with regional factionalism constantly threatening his government.
However, as Prime Minister of Nigeria, he played important roles in the continent’s formative indigenous rule. He was an important leader in the formation of the Organization of African Unity and creating a cooperative relationship with French speaking African Countries. He was also instrumental in negotiations between Moise Tshombe and the Congolese authorities during the Congo Crisis of 1960–1964. He led a vocal protest against the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and also entered into an alliance with Commonwealth ministers who wanted South Africa to leave the Commonwealth in 1961.
However, a treason charge and conviction against one of the western region’s leaders, Obafemi Awolowo, led to protest and condemnation from many of his supporters. The 1965 election in the region later produced violent protests. Rioting and violence were soon synchronous with what was perceived as inordinate political encroachment and an over-exuberant election outcome for Awolowo’s western opponents.
As Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, from 1960 to 1961, doubled as Foreign Affairs advocate of Nigeria. In 1961, the Balewa government created an official Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations ministerial position in favour of Jaja Wachuku who became, from 1961 to 1965, the First substantive Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations, later called External Affairs.
In 1963 he gave a spellbinding eloquent speech at the Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) inaugural conference of the Organisation of African Unity. As Prime Minister he maintained a thoroughly dignified comportment. A British acquaintance called him “perhaps the perfect Victorian gentleman”. He gained several awards from the British: OBE in 1952, CBE in 1955, Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in January 1960 and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield in May 1960.
Balewa proposed an amendment to Nigeria’s constitution to give due recognition to the nation building role played by then Governor-General Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Balewa proposed that “Nnamdi Azikiwe shall be deemed to have been elected President and Commander in-Chief of the Armed Forces” because “Nigeria can never adequately reward Dr. Azikiwe” for the nationalist role he played in building Nigeria and achieving independence. Azikiwe is referred to by name in Nigeria’s 1963 constitution, and to my knowledge Azikiwe was the only living individual constitutionally enshrined by name in his democratic country’s constitution.
In January 1960, Balewa was knighted by Elizabeth II as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sheffield in May, 1960.
On January 15, 1966 he was kidnapped from his official residence by armed soldiers who were executing Nigeria’s first military coup. He was missing for several days and a search for him was ordered by the new military regime headed by Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. His family and friends continued to believe he was alive. Rumours claimed the rebel soldiers were holding him alive and that he would be released as part of a prisoner swap involving the imprisoned Chief Awolowo. However these hopes were dashed when his decomposing corpse was found a few days later, dumped in a roadside bush. His corpse was taken to Ikeja airport in the company of Police Commissioner Hamman Maiduguri, Inspector-General of Police Kam Selem, Maitama Sule and his wives Laraba and Jummai who accompanied it as it was flown to Bauchi where he was buried. His body now lies inside a tomb declared a national monument. The tomb includes a library and a mosque. The famous race course square in Lagos was renamed “Tafawa Balewa Square” in his memory. His image appears on the 5 Naira note.The Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University in Bauchi is named in his honour.
Tafawa Balewa’s Ministers
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; Prime Minister 1957-1966
Jaja Wachuku; Foreign Affairs 1961-1965
Raymond Njoku; Transportation 1957- 1960
Aja Nwachukwu; Education 1957- 1960
K.O. Mbadiwe; Commerce 1957- 1960
Samuel Ladoke Akintola; Communications 1957-1960
Festus Okotie Eboh; Finance 1957- 1960
J.M Johnson; Internal Affairs 1957-1960
Kola Balogun; Information 1957-1960
Ayo Rosiji; Health 1957-1960
Muhammadu Ribadu; Mines 1957- 1960
TODAY is Independence Day. The First of October 1960 is a date to which for two years every Nigerian has been eagerly looking forward. At last our great day has arrived, and Nigeria is now indeed an independent sovereign nation.
Words cannot adequately express my joy and pride at being the Nigerian citizen privileged to accept from Her Royal Highness these Constitutional Instruments which are the symbols of Nigeria’s independence. It is a unique privilege, which I shall remember forever, and it gives me strength and courage as I dedicate my life to the service of our country.
This is a wonderful day, and it is all the more wonderful because we have awaited it with increasing impatience compelled to watch one country after another overtaking us on the road when we had so nearly reached our goal. But now we have acquired our rightful status and I feel sure that history will show that the building of our nation proceeded at the wisest pace: It has been thorough, and Nigeria now stands well built upon firm foundations.
Today’s ceremony marks the culmination of a process which began fifteen years ago and has now reached a happy and successful conclusion. It is with justifiable pride that we claim the achievement of our Independence to be unparalleled in the annals of history. Each step of our constitutional advance has been purposefully and peacefully planned with full and open consultation between representatives of all the various interests in Nigeria but in harmonious co-operation with the administering power which has today relinquished its authority.
At the time when our constitutional development entered upon its final phase, the emphasis was largely upon self-government. We, the elected representatives of the people of Nigeria, concentrated on proving that we were fully capable of managing our own affairs both internally and as a nation. However, we were not to be allowed the selfish luxury of focusing our own interest on our own homes. In these days of rapid communications we cannot live in isolation apart from the rest of the world, even if we wished to do so. All too soon it has become evident that for us Independence implies a great deal more than self-government. This great country, which has now emerged without bitterness or bloodshed, finds that she must at once be ready to deal with grave international issues.
This fact has of recent months been unhappily emphasised by the startling events which have occurred in this continent. I shall not labour the point but it would be unrealistic not to draw attention first to the awe-inspiring task confronting us at the very start of our nationhood. When this day in October 1960 was chosen for our independence it seemed that we were destined to move with quiet dignity to our place on the world stage. Recent events have changed the scene beyond recognition. So that we find ourselves today being tested to the utmost, We were called upon immediately to show that our claims to responsible government are well-founded, and having been accepted as an independent state we must at once play an active part in maintaining the peace of the world and in preserving civilisation. I promise you, we shall not fail for want of determination.
And we come to this task better-equipped than many. For this, I pay tribute to the manner in which successive British governments have gradually transferred the burden of responsibility to our shoulders. The assistance and unfailing encouragement which we have received from each secretary of state for the colonies and their intense personal interest in our development has immeasurably lightened that burden.
All our friends in the colonial office must today be proud of their handiwork and in the knowledge that they have helped to lay the foundations of a lasting friendship between our two nations. I have indeed every confidence that based on the happy experience of successful partnership, our future relations with the United Kingdom will be more cordial than ever, bound together, as we shall be in the Commonwealth, by a common allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, whom today we proudly acclaim as Queen of Nigeria and Head of the Commonwealth.
Time will not permit the individual mention of all those friends, many of them Nigerians, whose selfless labour has contributed to our independence. Some have not lived to see the fulfilment of their hopes – on them be peace – but nevertheless they are remembered here, and the names of buildings and streets and roads and bridges throughout the country recall to our minds their achievements, some of them on a national scale.
Others confined, perhaps, to a small area in one division, are more humble but of equal value in the sum total. Today, we have with us representatives of those who have made Nigeria. Representatives of the Regional governments, of former Central Governments, of the Missionary Societies, and of the banking and commercial enterprises, and members, both past and present, of the public service. We welcome you, and we rejoice that you have been able to come and share in our celebrations. We wish that it could have been possible for all of those whom you represent to be here today. Many, I know, will be disappointed to be absent, but if they are listening to me now, I say to them: Thank you on behalf of my countrymen.
Thank you for your devoted service, which helped to build up Nigeria into a nation. Today we are reaping the harvest, which you have sowed, and the quality of the harvest is equalled only by our gratitude to you. May God bless you all.
This is an occasion when our hearts are filled with conflicting emotions: we are, indeed, proud to have achieved our independence, and proud that our efforts should have contributed to this happy event. But do not mistake our pride for arrogance. It is tempered by feelings of sincere gratitude to all who have shared in the task of developing Nigeria politically, socially, and economically. We are grateful to the British officers whom we have known, first as masters, and then as leaders, and finally as partners, but always as friends. And there have been countless missionaries who have laboured unceasingly in the cause of education and to whom we owe many of our medical services. We are grateful also to those who have brought modern methods of banking and of commerce, and new industries. I wish to pay tribute to all of these people and to declare our everlasting admiration of their devotion to duty.
And finally, I must express our gratitude to her Royal Highness the Princess Alexandra of Kent for personally bringing to us these symbols of our freedom, and especially for delivering the gracious message from her Majesty, The Queen. And so, with God save our Queen, I open a new chapter in the history of Nigeria, and of the Commonwealth, and indeed of the world.
What is missing here?