A Reflection On Matthew Mbu’s Revelations About Tafawa Balewa’s Death And Femi Fani-Kayode’s Response

Any historian worth his craft will tell you that the pursuit of historical truth is an extremely difficult task. This is caused by many factors, including one’s perspective, the availability of sources and the simple fact that the historian is human and thus subject to many influences. In the words of the eminent Nigerian historian Peter Olisanwuche Esedebe, ‘objective history as understood by otherwise eminent German historian Leopold von Ranke and his disciples do not exist. Conventional history as it really happened is not possible for no scholar however gifted can reproduce the countless details of even a single episode.’

With this guiding principle in mind I approach the revelations by Chief Matthew Mbu, Nigeria’s first high commissioner to Britain and the First Republic’s Minister of Labour concerning the manner of death of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first Prime Minister. As published in ‘The Nation’ newspaper on Sunday, September 5, 2010, the elder statesman said that Balewa died from an asthmatic attack and not the bullets of the January 15 1966 coup plotters. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the key officer of the Lagos arm of the plot, arrested the Prime Minister. Mbu revealed that his source of information was the Igbo poet and Ifeajuna’s friend, Christopher Okigbo.

It was obvious that Mbu’s revelations were not going to sit well with some people who still retain adverse views about Nigeria’s first coup. So I was interested but not surprised when I saw Chief Femi Fani-Kayode’s article ‘Who Killed Sir Tafawa Balewa?’ published on 5 September on pointblanknews.com. Femi Fani-Kayode, an active player in the Obasanjo civilian government, is the son of late Chief Fani-Kayode, the deputy Premier of the defunct Western Region in the 1960s. Popularly known as ‘Fani-Power,’ the deputy Premier was arrested by soldiers led by Captain Emmanuel Nwora Nwobosi on January 15. I encourage all those interested in having some insights into the coup to read Fani-Kayode’s article. How I wish it can be mass-circulated in Nigerian newspapers for wider access.

However, I wish to raise some posers, views and conclusions in my capacity as a Nigerian who has always been interested in how the world stopped turning for my country between January and July 1966.

Fani-Kayode writes as an eye witness to the actions of the plotters on that day, clearly referring to his father’s arrest. He has his father’s account of the death of Chief Akintola, the Premier of the West. Is that sufficient for the historical record? I have my reservations about the recollections of a child, which Fani-Kayode undoubtedly was then By no means am I justifying how Nwobosi and his men executed the coup in the West but I doubt if Fani-Kayode, given his circumstances at that time, would be knowledgeable about what was happening on his doorstep, let alone in Lagos.

Then he declares that an autopsy was carried out on Balewa at LUTH. Such a document, if accessible to ordinary people like me, is historically significant. Dr. Moses Majekodumi, as the Prime Minister’s doctor and friend, should know about Balewa’s health. If it was not good (as implied by Mbu’s account) then a fresh insight has been revealed on the death of our first prime minister. It will be necessary to call upon the recollections of foremost journalist, Segun Osoba, being the founder of Balewa’s grave. He may be no medical doctor but his insight on the condition in which Balewa was found is important. Given the national disregard we have for documentation and preservation I shudder to ask if police reports on the discovery are still available with Nigerian Police Records. Can ordinary folk access them? Or are they still classified? It is a sad commentary on Nigeria if we must go to the British for such information.

Kayode expressed reservations about Mbu’s account because he was Biafra’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and the friendship between Okigbo and Ifeajuna. Superficially he has a point but historically such a position does not help in the quest for the truth about that troubled time. Mbu is not a ten-kobo publicity seeker. Perhaps Kayode should reread his entire interview on pages 17-18 and 56 of ‘The Nation.’ Look at Mbu’s statements when his interviewers raised the question about his memoir (which brought up the revelation): ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I think I should just go away with some of the information.’
Does that sound like a man laundering his Biafran image with false information? But then let us remember what I wrote about historical truth at the beginning of this article.

It is possible Chris Okigbo sought to clean up his friend’s image. But Okigbo died in August 1967 on the battlefield in the Nsukka sector while Ifeajuna was executed a month later so for whom did the poet do the PR? I doubt Okigbo would be lying with the extent of his involvement with Ifeajuna’s coup. Any one can do some research on what I am about to write: Ifeajuna and co. would have no strategic reason to kill Balewa if they needed him to release Awolowo and announce the military take-over. We can read the account of late Major Adewale Ademoyega ‘Why We Struck’. Ademoyega, a key insider and participant in the coup, outlined their plans for Awolowo in their proposed government. Even D.J.M Muffet’s anti-January 15 1966 account ‘Let Truth Be Told’ corroborates Mbu’s account of the respect the coup plotters accorded Balewa. Though Frederick Forsyth may be regarded as being explicitly pro-Biafra, his book ‘The Biafra Story’ reports that Balewa died of heart attack. If this is true it underscores the need for Nigerians to have physically fit people in leadership positions and their medical record known to us. What of the possibility that the exertions of that fateful day, especially when Ifeajuna and company were confronted by forces opposed to the coup, had triggered off fatal reactions in the Prime Minister’s system?

I do not make light of the deaths caused by that coup. My heart goes out to all who lost loved ones on January 15 1966 and in other coups. I respect Femi Fani-Kayode’s hurt. I guess I would feel the same way if I were in his shoes. But I opine that the socio-political circumstances of the period called for drastic measures. Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Ademoyega, etc might have gone over board with the violence. As soldiers of the Nigerian army their job was not to overthrow governments. But we must acknowledge their idealism and desire to change Nigeria.

Written by
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
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1 comment
  • Well thought out article but tainted by bias. What you did not refute was the eye witness testimonies cited by FK and when you did you dismissed them with a speculative wave of the hand. If you are relying on two pieces of anecdotal evidence, supplied *decades* after the even, *decades*, then you are building your argument on a flimsy foundation.

    As for their “idealism”, i can only scornfully amused at your interpretation, maybe born of ethnic loyalty, i do not know. Look, just because you are the same ethnic (otherwise) group with someone does not mean you have to defend them damn the context. People do bad things, i assure you the fact that these officers who murdered so many happen to be igbo does not make me hold a lower opinion of igbo people or hate igbo people. Acknowledging that a member of your group can be deeply wrong is the first step towards objectivity.

    Lastly, no dictator has ever waddled onto the stage saying all he wants is power. No. They are doing it for the people, their goals are noble, their cause is just! (i am being sarcastic). They all give sweet sounding words to the public to ease their transition. And if a book written by a coup plotter who is in all likelihood trying to rehabilitate his reputation which espouses higher ideals and noble goals, written after the event, is the best you can do, then again you are on shaky ground.

    ” Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Ademoyega, etc might have gone over board with the violence. ” Might have gone overboard with the violence??! Are you serious? That is where you lost all credibility. And the casual way which you throw this, tempering murder by describing it as “going over board with violence” is disgusting.

    Those officers (and they alone), were killers, the bloodiest in our history too, and they deserve to live in infamy forevermore.

    “But I opine that the socio-political circumstances of the period called for drastic measures.”

    You would friend, you would.