Remembering Tafawa Balewa, the Right Honourable Gentleman

SIR Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was born in December 1922 and was killed on January 15, 1966. The first Prime Minister from Bauchi State was a school teacher and politician. He was a cool figure who preoccupied himself with the integration of Nigeria’s over 250 ethnic groups before and during his tenure. Tafawa Balewa was a vocal leader, a trained teacher and he was one of the most educated northerners during his lifetime. He participated in numerous international development forums.

He was nicknamed the “Golden Voice of Africa” because of his eloquence and oratorical prowess; he was indeed a man of unusual authority and having gravitas of a statesman.

Tafawa Balewa was killed in a coup in 1966, though his death remained shrouded in controversy. The late Bauchi illustrious son lived a life worthy of emulation. He sacrificed his day to beautify our today and tomorrow. He lived without tribalism, nepotism, religious bias and showed love to his subjects and the entire nation. During his lifetime, he emphasized that Nigerians should forget all kind of tribalism.

“I appeal to all my countrymen and women to cooperate with me and my colleagues to create a better understanding among our peoples, to establish mutual respect, and trust, among all our tribal groups, and to unite in working together for the common cause, the cause for which no sacrifice will be too great.

“I am convinced, and I want you also to be convinced, that the future of this vast country must depend, in the main, on the efforts of ourselves to help ourselves. This we cannot do if we do not work together in unity. Indeed, unity today is our greatest concern, and it is the duty of every one of us to work so that we may strengthen it.”

Abubakar made the above statements as part of his speech in 1966 after taking over power. Did he know that Nigeria will later in future suffer from disunity? It is apparent that Abubakar’s quest for togetherness has become a thing of concern as calls for separation sound louder as the days go by.

He is a father of politics in Nigeria, I must attest to that and the contributions he received from the late Aminu Kano, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe,  Chief Obafemi Awolowo and others kept him moving. As a teacher and a political gladiator, he left a legacy worth appreciating, but it seems the labour of our heroes past has been forgotten. He lost and sacrificed his life to cement our today and tomorrow. Their memories should be celebrated. History has begun to forget them.

In 1963, he gave a spellbinding eloquent speech in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) at the inaugural conference of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). 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.

Abubakar proposed an amendment to Nigeria’s constitution to give due recognition to the nation building role played by then Governor-General Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He 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.

Is his position without power? Though, Balewa was only the deputy leader of the NPC, the NPC leader, the Sardauna of Sokoto sent Balewa to Lagos to become the Federal Prime Minister in 1957. The Sardauna had no interest in living in the South. When Nigeria became independent in 1960, he became the newly independent country’s first Prime Minister and received the instruments of independence from Princess Alexandria (cousin of Queen Elizabeth II). Although the country’s Prime Minister, he was not the leader of his own party (the NPC) and thus remained in the paradoxical position of being a head of government that had to defer to and take instructions from his boss (the Sardauna).

Following Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, Balewa continued in his post as Prime Minister of Nigeria in a power-sharing arrangement with Nnamdi Azikiwe, the country’s first president who was from Southern Nigeria and considered a pro-British conservative, Balewa often clashed with Azikiwe. While in office, Balewa worked to develop Nigeria’s transport systems by helping to build ports, river transport systems and railways.

As Prime Minister, Balewa helped shape the early foreign policy of Nigeria. In 1960, he was instrumental in negotiating a settlement between factions in the Congo Civil War. He led his government in a vocal protest of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa and attempted unsuccessfully to persuade other British Commonwealth nations to expel South Africa because of its apartheid policies. Balewa also was one of the African leaders who encouraged the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

The Right Honourable Gentleman said: “It is the duty of all of us to work for unity and encourage members of all our communities to live together in peace and harmony. The way to do this is to create understanding, mutual respect and trust. Unity is our greatest concern, and it is the duty of every one of us to work so that we may strengthen it. The peoples of Nigeria must be united to enable this country to play a full part in shaping the destiny of mankind. On no account should we allow the selfish ambitions of individuals to jeopardise the peace of the law-abiding people of Nigeria.”

On political calling, Balewa was no firebrand political radical. He might have remained a teacher for the rest of his life had southern politicians such as the flamboyant intellectual Nnamdi Azikiwe not pushed for Nigeria’s independence. Although not overtly political, he founded an organisation named the ‘Bauchi Discussion Circle’ in 1943, and was elected vice president of the Northern Teachers’ 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.

On January 15, 1966, he was kidnapped from his official residence by armed soldiers who were executing Nigeria’s first military coup. He was declared 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. Also, his image appears on the five naira note, an attestation to his greatness.

  • Koli, a student of Mass Communication at Abubakar Tatari Ali Polytechnic Bauchi, sent this piece via mernoukoli@gmail.com.

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