Abubakar Tafawa Balewa: A Prime Mover

History Zainab Sulaimon
Abubakar Tawafa Balewa
Photo: BBC

Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a friend and contemporary of Ahmadu Bello, was the first and only Prime Minister of an independent Nigeria. Because of the objection that the north and south regions were not uniform, he was also in support of the north becoming an independent region.

Abubakar was a man who favored progress, change, and improvement pertaining to the betterment of the lives of people and properties. This was evident in his lifestyle. As he was a prime progressivist and was resilient in nature. He had once been described as “a benevolent person who could be easily guided by people, for he was not really a politician and was quite gentle and honest for a political stooge”.

Life and times of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa

From very humble roots, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was born in December 1912, Bauchi state. He began his education with the Qur’an. When the Southern colonists began to push for western education in the North, Abubakar moved on to attain his. Whenever he was on holiday, during his time in college, he would trek several kilometers to his home in Bauchi. Because his college wasn’t close to any form of transportation. This journey always took him 10 days with an average of 40 kilometers a day.

After completing his education in 1933, he taught at the Bauchi Middle School. He rose to become a senior schoolmaster. In 1944, he obtained a scholarship to study at the University College London. He became an inspector of schools for the colonial administration. Later he joined politics. As the vice president of the NPC, Abubakar was elected to the Northern house of assembly. As soon as he became a member of the legislative council, he became a vocal advocate of the rights of Northern Nigeria.

His achievements

He was nominated to become a minister under the Macpherson’s constitution. He served as a minister of works and later as a minister of transport. It was the time when Nigeria considered moving towards self-government, indicating an end to colonial rule. During his tenure at the transport ministry, the marine and railway departments were transformed into corporations. The designs of a bridge over the Niger and plans for the Kainji Dam were developed.

Furthermore, when he became the prime minister, the following occurred:

  • He attempted to unify the country after independence.  Formed a coalition with the NCNC and AG to form joint guilt;
  • In the spirit of Pan-Africanism, he was a forerunner in the formation of the OAU;
  • He was instrumental during the Congo crisis. In the negotiations between Moise Tshombe and the Congolese authorities;
  • He led a vocal protest against the Sharpeville Massacre;
  • Formed an alliance with the commonwealth ministers;
  • He was a foreign affairs advocate of Nigeria;
  • Knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire;
  • He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sheffield and an honorary doctorate of laws from the New York University.

Death of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa

Due to the fact that the northern population was larger than that of the south and the east, many seats were always won by the north. It happened in most parliamentary elections. At any time it happened, it always led to an uprising from all the regions. Making it seem that the north was being feared and favored. His term in office became characterized by conflict and confusion and in order to create stability, he allotted extra power to each regional government.

He was overthrown and murdered in a military coup on 15th January 1966, the same in which his old friend, Ahmadu, was also murdered. His body was discovered at a roadside near Lagos, six days after he was expelled from office. News of his assassination led to violent riots throughout Nigeria and it eventually led to the bloody counter-coup of July 1966.

In his honour, the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University in Bauchi State, Nigeria, is named after him and his portrait is embellished on the 5 Naira Nigerian Banknote.

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