After Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, a system of government called the ‘Parliamentary system’ was practised between 1963-1966 after the country became a republic. In the parliamentary system, the head of state is different from the head of government. This implies that the party with the highest representation in parliament forms the government while a Prime Minister heads the body.
When Nigeria practised the parliamentary system, the Prime Minister was the head of government, while the President was the head of state. Thus, the major role of the prime minister is to oversee the implementation of government programmes as well as to ensure the proper coordination of the government’s preparation and consideration of matters to be decided by the European Union.
Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister was Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who was elected in 1946 to the Northern House of Assembly and to the Legislative Council in 1947, and after several contributory efforts in parliament, he became recognized in the 1950s and later became Prime Minister in 1963 when Dr Nnamdi Azikwe was the head of state.
In this piece, Naijabiography narrates the early life, career, political activism, and the untold story of the death of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
Young Tafawa Balewa was born in December 1912 into the family of Yakubu Dan Zala and Fatima Inna, who lived in modern-day Bauchi in the northern part of Nigeria. Tafawa’s father was said to have come from the ethnicity, who worked at the house of the district head of Lere, a district within the Bauchi Emirate, while his mother was from both the Gere and Fulani tribes.
When southern colonial administrators started to push for western education in the northern region, Balewa was among the children sent to Tafawa Balewa Elementary School, which was built after the Qur’anic school. He started his education at a Qur’anic school in Bauchi and then made his way to Bauchi Provincial School.
Tafawa Balewa continued with his education by attending Barewa College, formerly known as Katsina College, where he was student number 145, like many of his colleagues. Abubakar Imam was a year ahead of him, while Ahmadu Rabah, subsequently known as Ahmadu Bello, was student number 87 and two years older.
At the time, history has it that Katsina College had British expatriate teachers, who were graduates of the prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. These teachers were vast in the English language, and since excellent speech is a requisite for good communication at the time, the school became a training ground for students in the northern provinces of Nigeria.
In 1933, Balewa returned to Bauchi after completing his five-year studies to work as a teacher at the middle school there. He later became a senior schoolmaster while continuing to teach at the school. He met a young Aminu Kano, who had been assigned to the school as a teacher, in 1941. Investigations into student complaints during student unrest led to the headmaster’s indictment, and Balewa was proposed as the new headmaster in 1941.
Balewa’s Political Career
Tafawa Balewa developed a political interest during World War II. At the time, he established the Bauchi Discussion Circle, a group dedicated to political reform, 1943. He was later chosen as vice president of the Northern Teachers’ Association in 1948, the region’s first labour union. He then participated in the 1949 founding of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which was first intended to be a cultural group but became a political party in 1951.
The Bauchi Native Authority chose Tafawa Balewa to represent them in the Northern House of Assembly in 1946, and the Northern House of Assembly also chose him to join the Nigerian Legislative Council. Tafawa Balewa was elected to the Northern House of Assembly and the Lagos House of Representatives in 1951’s inaugural elections for the North, where he later served as a minister in the Central Council.
Tafawa was later appointed minister of Works in Nigeria in 1952, as well as the minister of Transport in 1954, and senior minister and NPC leader in the House of Representatives. He was appointed Nigeria’s first prime minister and served in that capacity until his death.
Meanwhile, when he served as a legislator at the Northern House of Assembly in 1946 and a member of the legislative council in 1947, Balewa was an active advocate of the rights of Northern Nigeria. Based on the argument that the north and south areas were not on an equal basis, he backed the north’s reluctance to become independent. Thus, he pushed for increased positions of authority and responsibility in the Native Administration for the educated citizens of the emirates in the Northern Assembly.
Due to the relationship they had in the past, both Tafawa and Ahmadu Bello proposed that the cultural group Jam’iyyar Mutanen Arewa, or Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in English, be transformed into a political platform for use as a campaign platform during the 1951 elections.
Thus, that was how Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, who held the hereditary title of Sardauna of Sokoto, became a part of this proposal. Balewa later resigned from his position as headmaster of Bauchi Middle School after being chosen as the new party’s vice president. In 1951, NPC received a majority of the votes for the regional House of Assembly.
Balewa was one of the freshmen lawmakers in Kaduna. A new constitution, the Macpherson Constitution of 1951, established an electoral college system under which some regional legislators were elected to the Federal House of Representatives in Lagos and three members from each region were designated as federal ministers with portfolios among the federal legislators.
Thus, Balewa was one of those nominated for Lagos, and he was proposed for a position as a minister together with Kashim Ibrahim and Muhammadu Ribadu.
As Nigeria moved toward self-governance, Balewa served as Minister of Transport before joining the cabinet in 1952 as Minister of Works. The Marine and Railway departments became businesses during his time at the transport ministry, and drawings for a bridge over the Niger and the Kainji Dam were created.
In the Federal House of Representatives in 1957, the NPC received the majority of the votes, and Balewa was elected Chief Minister and Prime Minister. He formed a coalition government between the NPC and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Nnamdi Azikiwe, as part of his plans to unify the nation in preparation for the country’s bid for independence in 1960.
Tafawa Balewa also invited the Action Group (A.G.), and the 1957 cabinet was established as an all-party cabinet. Also in the Federal House of Representatives in 1957, the NPC received the majority of the votes, and Balewa was elected Chief Minister and Prime Minister.
Tafawa Balewa, the First Nigerian Prime Minister
Prior to when Nigeria gained its independence, a constitutional conference in 1954 approved a regional political structure for the nation, granting all regions a sizable measure of political freedom. Thus, three regions were then home to a variety of cultural groupings.
Later, the premiers and other notable regional leaders adopted a strategy to protect their territories from political intrusion by other regional leaders. Later, the Balewa administration was impacted by this political climate. His administration was unstable during this time because of local factionalism that consistently threatened it. Meanwhile, Balewa had retained his position as Prime Minister in 1963, having at the time become the Chief Minister of the legislative house in 1957 and a Minister of Foreign Trade in 1960.
While serving as Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Balewa did, however, play a significant part in the early indigenous control of the continent. He played a key role in organizing the Organization of African Unity and forging friendly ties with the French-speaking nations of Africa.
During the Congo Crisis of 1960–1964, he also played a crucial role in discussions between Moise Tshombe and the Congolese government. In addition to forming an alliance with Commonwealth ministers who wanted South Africa to leave the organization in 1961, he actively protested the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. But many of his supporters protested and condemned him after one of the leaders of the western region, Obafemi Awolowo, was accused of and found guilty of treason.
Tafawa Balewa’s Death
On January 15, 1966, a military coup led to the removal and murder of numerous politicians, including Tafawa Balewa and his old friend, Sir Ahmadu Bello. History has it that during his lifetime, Tafawa was a brave man, who was never afraid of death. In fact, reports gathered revealed that he told the coup plotters to allow him to pray before they killed him.
According to the reports gathered, it was stated that Tafawa Balewa did not die of asthma as claimed, but rather he was murdered and dumped in a bush. In another report, it was said that he was not killed by soldiers, but a man called Major Emmanuel Ifejuana was alleged to have murdered him. Ifejuama was a university graduate and a Sandhurst-trained military officer. He was also the first Nigerian to scale over six feet nine inches in the high jump at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Canada.
Ifejuana was said to have led a group of soldiers to the prime minister’s residence. Balewa’s home was invaded by the military, who swiftly defeated the police officers manning the guard at the quarters and took them all into custody. Without wasting any time, Ifeajuna entered the residence and promptly rushed to the prime minister’s chamber, kicked open the door, roused Balewa, and allegedly aimed a submachine gun at him.
Following the prayers, Ifeajuna, a vengeful killer, shot the prime minister, and his body was taken to a lane where an army lorry was stationed. The deceased person was hurled into the car. As they drove on the Lagos-Abeokuta road to the location where the corpses of the coup’s victims were offloaded on a lonely pathway, where the corpses of the coup’s victims were found three days later by a search party, the soldiers quickly boarded the vehicle, drove out of the premises, and later joined their other colleagues in the city who had gone and executed similar assignments.
Following the prayers, Ifeajuna, a vengeful killer, shot the prime minister, and his body was taken to a lane where an army lorry was stationed. The deceased was carried into the military lorry. As they drove on the Lagos–Abeokuta road to the location where the corpses of the coup’s victims were offloaded on a lonely pathway, where the corpses of the coup’s victims were found three days later by a search party, the soldiers quickly boarded the vehicle, drove out of the premises, and later joined their other colleagues in the city who had gone and executed similar assignments.
Hajia Aisha’s Story
Hajia Aisha was the wife of Tafawa Balewa, and she stated that her husband was not murdered in the house, nor did he die of asthma, but rather, her husband was driven out of their residence.
Aisha claimed that one of the housekeepers tricked her husband out of the prime minister’s mansion. She claimed that is how her husband was taken into custody, put into an army waiting for a van, and driven away.
According to her story, Balewa was driven out of the compound in a military lorry into the metropolitan city of Lagos. It was stated that he was said to have been driven to meet the others and they were all shot in an open field.
Legacy of Tafawa Balewa
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, knighted Balewa as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in January 1960. In May 1960, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sheffield. In July 1961, he received an honorary doctorate in law from New York University.
The 5 naira note has a portrait of Balewa. In his honour, Bauchi now has a university called the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University.