Balewa was no firebrand political radical. He may have remained a teacher for the rest of his life had southern politicians such as the flamboyant intellectual Nnamdi Azikiwe not pushed for Nigerian independence. Although not overtly political he founded an organisation named the “Bauchi Discussion Circle” in 1943, and was elected vice president of the Northern Teacher’s Association (the first trade union in Northern Nigeria) in 1948.
Anxious not to be politically upstaged by the southerners, northern leaders sought educated northerners to serve in political posts. Balewa helped found the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which was originally intended as a cultural organisation but by 1951 morphed into a political party due to the need to present a northern response to the rapid and sophisticated political groupings emerging in the south.
Balewa was called into political service as the Bauchi Native Authority’s representative to the Northern House of Assembly. The House of Assembly also selected him to become a member of the Nigerian Legislative Council.
Despite political involvement, Balewa remained suspicious of Nigerian unification and feared that the Northern Region would be dominated by the better-educated and dynamic south. He said that “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 sign of willingness to unite. So what it comes to is that Nigerian unity is only a British intention in the country.”
He later became the federal Minister of Works and in 1954 Minister of Transport and the senior minister and leader of the NPC in the House of Representatives. His conversion from regional to federal outlook came after he visited America in 1955 on a fact-finding mission. He reminisced, “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 pride in only one thing -their American citizenship… I am a changed man from today. Until now I never really believed Nigeria could be one united country. But if the Americans could do it, so can we.”
Position Without Power?
Even though Balewa was only the deputy leader of the NPC, the NPC leader the Sardauna of Sokoto sent Balewa to Lagos to become the federal Prime Minister in 1957. The Sardauna had no interest in living in the south. When Nigeria became independent in 1960, he became the newly independent country’s first Prime Minister and received the instruments of independence from Princess Alexandria (cousin of Queen Elizabeth II). Although the country’s Prime Minister, he was not the leader of his own party (the NPC) and thus remained in the paradoxical position of being a head of government that had to defer to, and take instructions from his boss (the Sardauna).
In 1963 he gave a spellbinding eloquent speech at the Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) inaugural conference of the Organisation of African Unity.As Prime Minister he maintained a thoroughly dignified comportment. A British acquaintance called him “perhaps the perfect Victorian gentleman”. He gained several awards from the British: OBE in 1952, CBE in 1955, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in January 1960 and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield in May 1960.
Balewa proposed an amendment to Nigeria’s constitution to give due recognition to the nation building role played by then Governor-General Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Balewa proposed that “Nnamdi Azikiwe shall be deemed to have been elected President and Commander in-Chief of the Armed Forces” because “Nigeria can never adequately reward Dr. Azikiwe” for the nationalist role he played in building Nigeria and achieving independence. Azikiwe is referred to by name in Nigeria’s 1963 constitution, and to my knowledge Azikiwe was the only living individual constitutionally enshrined by name in his democratic country’s constitution.
Death and Beyond
On January 15, 1966 Balewa was kidnapped from his official residence by armed soldiers who were executing Nigeria’s first military coup. He was missing for several days and a search for him was ordered by the new military regime headed by Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. His family and friends continued to believe he was alive. Rumours claimed the rebel soldiers were holding him alive and that he would be released as part of a prisoner swap involving the imprisoned Chief Awolowo. However these hopes were dashed when his decomposing corpse was found a few days later, dumped in a roadside bush.
His corpse was taken to Ikeja airport in the company of Police Commissioner Hamman Maiduguri, Inspector-General of Police Kam Selem, Maitama Sule and his wives Laraba and Jummai who accompanied it as it was flown to Bauchi where he was buried. His body now lies inside a tomb declared a national monument. The tomb includes a library and a mosque. The famous race course square in Lagos was renamed “Tafawa Balewa Square” in his memory. His image appears on the 5 Naira note.
His mother Hajiya Inna died less than a year after him. He was survived by his four wives Jummai, Umma, Zainab and Laraba, and 19 children. He married Jummai (from Sokoto) when she was 13 years old. He also had a posthumous daughter, Zainab, who was born by Jummai two weeks after his death. Although all of Balewa’s widows remarried after his death, their subsequent marriages collapsed and they returned to the Prime Minister’s house in Bauchi to live together. Balewa’s third wife Hajiya Zainab, aka “Hajiya Umma”, died earlier this year at the age of 73. His two sons in England were comforted and looked after by their headmaster Trafford Allen with the support of their guardian J.E.B. Hall, with their school fees at Epsom College being paid by the military government of General Gowon.His son at Keffi Government College did not know of his father’s death until the school caterer broke the news to him. His children include Mukhtar, Sadiq, Hajia Uwani, Umar, Ahmed, Haruna, Aminu (a journalist who has since died), Hafsat, Amina, Zainab, Yalwa, Saude, Hajia Binta, Yalwa (widowed early and became an organiser of women’s education), Rabi (resisted early marriage in favour of study), Ali (died aged 9), Jhallil and Hajia Talle Aishatu (now deceased).