By PAUL JATAU
“In less than 200 years, this great country (America) was welded together by people of so many different backgrounds. They built a mighty nation and had forgotten where they came from and who their ancestors were. They had prided themselves in only one thing-their American citizenship… I am a changed man today. Until now I never really believed Nigeria could be one united country. but if the Americans could do it, so can we.”
THESE, indeed, were the words of Tafawa Balewa, who saw great promise in the country and made up his mind to work towards uniting the disparate groups that were brought together to form the federation. But this dream of carving a great nation out of the hurriedly hewn regions was not to be. Tafawa Balewa and his co-travelers were plucked down in their prime as they were deemed to have deviated from the task of building a strong, virile nation. But what has changed since that first coup that brought to an end the First Republic?
Nothing in my opinion. We have as a matter of fact, descended down the ladder of development and have not met the needs of the populace. We have been bogged down by corruption, which the planners and executors of the January 1966 coup set out to deal with. We have not been able to develop to the level where countries that we attained independence with at the same time have reached. Transparency International (TI) has rated our country as one of the most corrupt on earth. Considering the resources that Nigeria is endowed with, we have no business being where we are.
But as we celebrate yet another independence, do Nigerians really remember who Tafawa Balewa was? And have we, as a country striven to attend those ideals for which he stood? Have the leaderships that spanned all these years been able to see Nigeria in the same context as he and other leaders of his time did?
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was born in December, 1912 to Yakubu Dan Zala and Fatima Inna. His father, Yakubu was of the Bageri ethnic stock while his mother, Fatima was Fulani. He had his early education at the Bauchi Provincial School and was described by his teachers and contemporaries as a shy, quiet and not outstanding student. From here he attended Katsina Teachers Training College, between 1928 and 1933, graduating with a third class certificate with his favourite subject as English. He took to the teaching profession and irked by a colleague’s remark that no Northerner had ever passed the examination for a senior teacher’s certificate, sat for the examination and passed. And he went on to become the headmaster of the Bauchi Middle School. Balewa and other Northerners, including Aminu Kano, secured scholarships to study at the University of London’s Institute of Education between 1945 and 1946, receiving a certificate in History.
On his return from London, Balewa did not hide his admiration for the British when he said “I 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.” This though did nothing to remove his fears about the unification of Nigeria especially domination of Northern Nigeria by the Southerners. He had said “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 signs of willingness to unite. So what it comes to is that Nigeria’s unity is only a British intention in the country.”
Balewa’s political involvement began when he formed the “Bauchi discussion circle” in 1943 and was elected vice president of the Northern Teachers Union in 1948. He helped found the Northern People’s Congress in 1951 as a response to the struggle for Nigeria’s independence. He subsequently became Bauchi native authority’s representative to the Northern House of Assembly which in turn selected him to become a member of Nigeria’s Legislative Council. His conversion to a pan Nigerian came after he was made Minister of Works and later Minister of Transports and the leader of the NPC after having the opportunity to experience first hand America’s democracy.
Because the Sarduana, who was the leader of the NPC had no interest in living in the South, he sent his deputy, Tafawa Balewa in 1957 to become federal Prime Minister. And when Nigeria became independent in 1960, he naturally became the country’s first Prime Minister and received the instrument of Nigeria’s independence from Princess Alexandria, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1963, he was said to have given a spellbinding eloquent speech at Addis Ababa at the inaugural conference of the Organization of African Unity.
As Prime Minister, he maintained a thoroughly dignified comportment. According to his biographer, Trevor Clark, Balewa was a man of “unusual authority and possessed of the gravitas of a statesman.” He could have been said to have seen tomorrow when he predicted that “an independent Nigeria would likely be founded on tribal differences and on corruption,” and was doubtful whether the British style West Minister democracy would be suitable to an ethnically divided Nigeria. He never underestimated Nigeria’s political weaknesses and was quick to admit Nigeria’s cross road status in the pursuit of political relevance: “The trouble is that the Nigerian Member of Parliament wants to criticize the government and be in it at the same time. Democracy, democracy, what is it? There is American democracy, British democracy. Why not Nigerian democracy? I wish we could find that.” Till date that has eluded us as we find ourselves at a crossroad just as he foretold with Nigerian politicians going for each other’s jugular because of politics, and, in the process overheating the polity all in the pursuit of their interest.
Known as the man with the golden voice because of his oratory power, Balewa spoke convincingly, meaningfully and truthfully with regards to matters of transparent honesty and justice. According to Sir Ademola Adetokumbo, who was Chief Justice of Nigeria, “I remember one of his sayings to me from time to time, ‘CJ, if I do something wrong and I am brought before you, deal with me; and if necessary send me to jail….” And as a measure of his sincerity in the task of building a new nation, he often put himself on the spot saying “if this people do not want me anymore, all they need do is to give me about two hours’ notice, and this is enough for me to pack my few belongings here and leave.: The coup plotters thought otherwise.
On January 15,1966 he was kidnapped at his official residence by armed soldiers executing Nigeria’s first military coup. He went missing for several days before his decomposing body alongside those of others were found along Abeokuta road. He was survived by four wives and nineteen children. His mother, Hajia Inna died less than a year after his demise.
Indeed, Tafawa Balewa was a rear politician who put the interest of the country above any other. He never went overseas when on leave like our present day politicians do. He would rather return to his native Tafawa Balewa and in the company of his family spend his leave attending to family issues and tending to his farm. His modest home was a testimony to the fact that unlike politicians of this generation who find p leasure amassing stupendous wealth at the expense of those that they were elected to serve. He had few earthly belongings.
For Nigeria to get it right, we must return to those ideals which the founding fathers worked to achieve. We must begin to work at wielding all the disparate groups that make up this country together. We must again begin to emphasize those things that bind us rather than those that divide us. Perhaps after that, we can return to the path of greatness and aspire to develop to enviable heights.