Nigeria's Forgotten Heroes: Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Part 1)

by Max Siollun

Nigeria’s 49th Independence anniversary was last week. What do we remember of October 1st 1960? Do we remember the man who received the instruments of independence on behalf of Nigeria? Other countries keep libraries full of books and archives about their first leaders. All Americans know chapter and verse about George Washington. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah is an icon. What of Nigeria’s case? Are we accurately recording our history for our children and descendants? The only book on Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was written by a foreigner. Little is known about Balewa. In the first of a new series of articles on “Nigeria’s forgotten heroes”, I chronicle and attempt to release a little more information about Nigeria’s first Prime Minister.

Birth and Origins

According to family oral history, Balewa’s paternal grandfather Isa was murdered in front of his family by his rival’s agents. Isa’s widow then took her infant son to Bauchi, where the Madaki of Bauchi took her in. Abubakar was born in December 1912 in the village of Tafawa Balewa, in modern day Bauchi state. He was his father’s only child. The name of his birthplace was appended to Abubakar’s name (Abubakar Tafawa Balewa). Tafawa Balewa village takes its name from two corrupted Fulani words: “Tafari” (rock) and Baleri (black). This may have contributed to the “Black Rock” nickname he acquired in later life. Although it is widely (incorrectly) presumed that he was Hausa, Balewa’s father Yakubu Dan Zala was in fact of Bageri ethnicity, and his mother Fatima Inna was Fulani. In contrast with the largely aristocratic ruling elite in the north, many of whose ancestry derives from royal lineage, Balewa had very humble origins. His father was a slave who rose in service of the Madaki of Bauchi.


He attended Quaranic school and learnt the first chapter of the Qur’an by heart. For his Western education he attended Bauchi Provincial School. According to his teacher and classmates he was a shy, quiet and not outstanding student. Although reserved by nature, he did commit a disciplinary infraction when he was caught outside school without permission, and smoking with his friends to boot. He was whipped as punishment. One of his juniors at school was Nuhu Bamalli (later Foreign Minister). He later attended Katsina Teacher Training College (1928-1933) and graduated with a third class certificate. His best subject was unsurprisingly, English. He became a teacher and irritated by a friend’s remark that no Northerner had ever passed the exam for a Senior Teacher’s Certificate, Balewa duly sat the exam, and obtained the Certificate. He became headmaster of the Bauchi Middle School. He reported that the first white woman he ever set eyes on was Dame Margery Perham (a renowned academic on African affairs) when she visited Nigeria on an investigation of native administration.

To Her Majesty’s Land

In 1945 he and other Northerners (including Aminu Kano) obtained a scholarship to study at the University of London’s Institute of Education (1945-1946), where he received a teacher’s certificate in history. While in London he went for practice teaching at schools in Wessex Gardens, Battersea and Peckham. The turbaned and robed black man was a source of much curiosity for the white students and other teachers alike. On one occasion a girl student asked him “Why do you wear a funny hat?” to which he replied “It is my custom. Why do you wear none?” The girl then asked “Why is your skin black like that?” To which he replied “Why is your face white? God made it, and all my countrymen. He made you people different. It is God” (Trevor Clark)

When he sought to attend supplemental lessons to improve his English, he was told that he was not in need of any such improvement. Balewa became known for his impeccable English and articulation which later earned him the nickname “The Golden Voice of the North”. No doubt, his golden immaculate voice, poise and polished oratory was a factor in the BBC’s choice of him to read Nigeria’s 1946 constitution on its overseas service. The journey to England was an eye opener for him. He said he “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”. He returned to Bauchi as a Native Authority Education Officer.

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