Balewa was the first and only Nigerian Prime-Minister. His official residence was the house facing the Island Club at Onikan, Lagos. It is now the Lagos office of the Economic Commission for West Africa, ECOWAS. After his assassination in 1966, one writer described Balewa as “a man of peace overtaken by violence.”
Oftentimes, the Prime-Minister would ride in his Roll Royce official car to the Cabinet Office about half-a-kilometer away.
Sometimes, he would walk the distance while his police orderly trail him. During the yuletide season, the Prime-Minister residence would be decorated with Christmas trees and blinking lights. Those were the era when the world was simple and a Nigerian was not defined by his religion and money but by his character. Today Nigeria has been overwhelmed by pervasive religiosity and shocking godlessness.
One of the unending debates of historians is whether events rather than personalities are the more important shapers of national destinies. I sometimes wonder, ruminating over the events of the First Republic, whether our leaders have not had far more influence on the contours of our nation’s history than we thought especially since the coups of 1966. Yet leaders too are not as powerful as they imagine for the angel of happenstance is always on the prowl.
In December 1965, Balewa was at the height of his game but the angel of happenstance was abroad. He was 53 and there was no reason for him to believe that his life journey was coming into a terminus.
His party, the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, had won the 1964 Federal election in alliance with its allies and after that he had formed a broad base national government that incorporated almost every section of the country.
The NPC formed the Nigerian National Alliance, NNA, with the Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP of Chief Ladoke Akintola for the election.
The opposition Action Group, AG, of Chief Obafemi Awolowo also formed an alliance with the National Council for Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, known as the United Progressive Grand Alliance, UPGA. The UPGA lost, partly because its leaders asked for the boycott of the elections. The boycott was total in the West but it was not obeyed in the Eastern Region.
Events during the colonial period had thrown up Balewa as the leader of emerging Nigeria. Balewa was born in Tafawa-Balewa, in the present Bauchi State, December 1912, two years before Nigeria was proclaimed a country in 1914 by the arch-imperialist, Frederick Lugard, at the Lagos Race Course which is now known as the Tarawa Balewa Square. Like most Northern leaders of his time, Balewa attended Barewa College, Zaria, and after graduation was employed as a teacher at the Bauchi Middle School in 1944.
Balewa was one of the few teachers chosen to take a year course at the University of London’s Institute of Education where he spent one year. When he returned, he became an inspector of education. It was at this period of anti-colonial ferment that Belewa became interested in politics.
By 1949, he became one of the founders of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, the political party that was to dominate Nigeria until 1966. Its leader was the Fulani prince, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto.
When Nigeria became a federation, Balewa was one of the first members of the House of Representatives. At 40, he was made Minister of Works in 1952 and later Minister of Transport. Following the constitutional crisis of 1953, he emerged on the national stage as one of most important leaders from the North.
Chief Anthony Enahoro, an Action Group back bencher from Ishan-West, had moved a motion in the House of Representatives, asking the colonial government to grant Nigeria self-government by 1956. Ahmadu Bello, who was the leader of the NPC, moved a counter motion stating that self-government should be granted “as soon as possible.”
The NCNC members supported the AG, but the NPC were in the majority. When both the AG and the NCNC walked out of parliament, in a moment of short-lived romance, the NPC found itself isolated. The fragile structure of the new Nigeria was under threat. Bello led his phalanx out of Lagos. He was never to return to the Federal Parliament.
In 1957, when Balewa became the Chief Minister of Nigeria at 45, it was because Bello was not interested in the job. Balewa was now the deputy leader of the NPC where other powerful figures were also emerging in the wing including the equally capable Mohammadu Ribadu.
Nigeria had adopted the British model of parliamentary democracy and the NPC had come into alliance with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, NCNC, led by the great journalist, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, then the Premier of the Eastern Region. When Southern Cameroon, which had been part of Nigeria since 1919, opted to join the rest of Cameroon, the NCNC changed its name to National Council for Nigerian Citizens. The NPC-NCNC alliance was to endure, but it was no longer strong by 1965.
The 1959 election was to have far-reaching repercussions on the future of Nigeria. The NPC had won 134 seats in the House of Representatives. The NCNC and its ally, the Northern Element’s Progressive Union, NEPU, led by Mallam Aminu Kano, won 89 seats. The AG, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, won only 73 seats.
The AG opted to form an alliance with the NCNC but the NCNC preferred to ally with the NPC. Both the AG and the NCNC had fundamental disagreements over the status of Lagos and the Yoruba provinces (Now Kwara and a substantial part of Kogi States) in the North. The AG wanted them merged with the Western Region. The NCNC agreed with the status quo which tallied with the position of the North. So instead of Azikiwe becoming the first Prime-Minister of independent Nigeria, Balewa was given that honour.
The NPC, dominated by conservative Fulani aristocracy, tried to impose its cultural preferences on the country. Therefore, despite the efforts of opposition leaders like Aminu Kano and Joseph Tarka of the United Middle Belt Congress, UMBC, women were not allowed to vote in the North until General Olusegun Obasanjo changed the rules in 1979.
Of course all the 14 ministers who served in the Independence Cabinet of Balewa were men. The lucky men were Muhammadu Ribadu, Taslim Olawale Elias, Jaja Wachukwu, Festus Okotie-Eboh, Shehu Shagari, Raymond Njoku, Inua Wada, J.M Johnson, Olu Akinfosile, Maitama Sule, T.O.S. Benson, Waziri Ibrahim, Musa Yar’Adua and Zanna Bukar Dipcharima.
By Christmas of 1965, the situation had changed but not substantially. Ladoke Akintola’s NNDP, was now in alliance with the NPC and new faces like Chief Richard Akinjide, Chief Meredith Adisa Akinloye, Chief Alade Lamuye and Prince Adeleke Adedoyin were now in the Balewa Government.
By that Christmas, the four main leaders of Nigeria were in different states. Bello had remained in Kaduna as the Premier of the North. Balewa was in his official residence at Onikan.
Azikiwe was at the State House, Marina, where he lived as the country ceremonial President. Obafemi Awolowo, the Leader of the Opposition, was in Calabar Prison where he was serving his term after the Supreme Court, presided over by Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, rejected his appeal.
So at Christmas in 1965, Balewa was a satisfied man. His ally in the West, Chief Akintola, had just won a controversial re-election. The West was in revolt against Akintola and the Operation wet e was in full swing. The new House of Assembly could not reconvene because of the general insecurity in the region. But the Federal Territory of Lagos was peaceful and the Prime-Minister could still take his walk to the office or ride in his Roll Royce.
The men in charge of national security were trusted and competent. Louis Edet was the Inspector-General of Police, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was the head of the Army and Commodore Akinwale Wey was the head of the fledgling Navy. He was preparing to showcase his country to the world when Nigeria would host the summit of the Commonwealth of Nations by January 1966.
The Queen of England and the Prime Minister of India and other leaders were expected. Balewa believed he had now joined the ranks of world statesmen. He was satisfied.
But his leader, the great Sardauna felt an evil omen was in the air. He decided to leave the city of Kaduna, the capital of the Northern Region, to spend Christmas at home. He drove to Sokoto and visited his village in Rabbah to bid his relatives farewell for he would be proceeding to Mecca and Medina for the lesser Hajj. His entourage on the pilgrimage included his cousin, Sultan Siddiq Abubakar III and five emirs.
At Medina, Bello and his entourage visited the holy sites. He was morose. He told the Sultan that he wished to be left alone there to die. The Sultan dragged him out and the Sardauna burst into tears.
But Balewa faced his future with grim resolve. He achieved his aim of hosting the Commonwealth and felt triumphant. But the future came suddenly on him on January 15, 1966 the majors struck and changed the course of history.
Few days later, Olusegun Osoba, a daring young reporter of the Daily Times, was led by locals to a bush path in Otta, now in Ogun State. Under a tree, the young journalist saw the bodies of Balewa and Festus Okotie-Eboh, his Minister of Finance.
The new regime of Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi arranged to carry Balewa body home to Bauchi where he was buried according to Islamic rites. Balewa left for his family 10 pounds in his bank account, two old cars in his garage and one mud house in Makwalla, Bauchi. He also had his farm in Tafawa-Balewa, some heads of cattle and goats and a wrist watch.
1965 was the last time Nigeria had a normal Christmas when both Christians and Muslims across the country celebrated the yuletide. Now the children don’t know who Balewa was nor understand the meaning of Christmas when there would be joy to the world and the world means your neighbour no matter his or her faith. I met a member of the National Youth Service two weeks ago who knew little about Balewa beyond that a university bears that name.
How can we move forward when the youths who are leading us into the future are so ignorant of the past. Indeed when the Sardauna wept in Medina, he was not weeping for himself. He was weeping for the youths of Nigeria.