Abubakar Tafawa Balewa

From New World Encyclopedia

Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa

Prime Minister of Nigeria
In office
October 1, 1959 – January 15, 1966
Succeeded by None

Born 1912
Bauchi, Nigeria
Died January 15, 1966
Political party Northern People's Congress
Religion Islam

Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (He is also referred to as Alhaji, having performed the Muslim pilgrimage at Mecca.) (December 1912 - January 15, 1966) was a Nigerian politician, and the first prime minister of an independent Nigeria. Originally a trained teacher, he became a vocal leader for Northern interest as one of the few educated Nigerians of his time. He was also an international statesman, widely respected across the African continent as one of the leaders who encouraged the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) (later the African Union. He also encouraged cooperation between the former British and former French colonies. During his period in office, Balewa was faced with competing regional interests, rivalry between different political parties each of which were organized on regional as well as tribal lines representing the Hausa and Fulani north, the Yoruba south-west, and the Igbo or Ibo south-east. He also had to contend with different visions of how Nigeria should be organized. On the one hand, some wanted union with neighboring states within a larger Federation. On the other hand, some wanted regional autonomy and a weak federal government. The December 1964 election was surrounded by controversy and allegations of vote-rigging. He was assassinated in an Igno-led military coup in January 1966, the prelude to the Nigerian Civil War and to three decades of non-civilian rule, until the restoration of democracy in 1999.

Committed to the federal system, Balewa responded to the civil unrest that followed the 1964 election by devolving, on an emergency basis, more power to the regions. From the North, he defended Northern interests but also promoted national unity. However, the reality of the Nigerian situation mitigated against national unity. His assassination was followed by civil war and continued regional rivalry. If Nigerians could somehow have wiped the slate clean in 1960, founding new political associations with national unity as the dominant motif, not communitarian and regional interest, a different history may have followed. Balewa's instinct was for unity but he was too entrenched in the communitarian system to nurture this in his young nation. Nonetheless, his legacy can inspire Nigerians as they seek to knit a common national identity and to order their state so that all citizens are treated equally.

Early life and career

Abubakar Balewa was born in Bauchi, the son of a Bageri Muslim district head in the Bauchi divisional district of Lere. Unlike many other Nigerian leaders, his background was relatively humble. He started early education at the Koranic School in Bauchi and like most of his contemporaries, he studied at the Katsina College for further education and soon acquired his teaching certificate. He returned to Bauchi to teach at the Bauchi Middle School. In 1944, along with a few learned teachers from the north, he was chosen to study abroad for a year at the University of London's Institute of Education. After returning to Nigeria, he became an Inspector of Schools for the colonial administration and later entered politics. Nominated as a candidate by the Baluchi Native Authority, in 1946, he was elected to the colony's Northern House of Assembly. In 1947, the Assembly appointed him to the Legislative Council. As a legislator, he was a vocal advocate of the rights of northern Nigeria, and together with Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, who held the hereditary title of (Sardauna) of Sokoto, he founded the Northern People's Congress (NPC) becoming its Vice-President. Bello was President.

From self-government to independence

Balewa administration

Did you know?
Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was the first prime minister of an independent Nigeria

Balewa entered the government in 1952, as Minister of Works, and later served as Minister of Transport. In 1957, he was elected Chief Minister, forming a coalition government between the Northern People's Congress (NPC) and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. He retained the post as prime minister when Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and was reelected in 1964. Between 1960 and 1963, he was also foreign minister.

Prior to Nigeria's independence, a constitutional conference, in 1954, had adopted a regional political framework for the country, with all regions given a considerable amount of political freedom. Meetings were held in London in 1957 and 1958, to draft the constitution, chaired by the British colonial secretary. Belewa led the Nigerian delegation, of which Obafemi Awolowo, premier of the Western region, Nnamdi Azikiwe, premier of the Eastern region, and Bello premier of the Northern region, were members. Respectively, each represented a different party, namely the Action Group (West), the National Conference of Nigerian Citizens (East) and the Northern Peoples Congress, Independence was achieved on October 1, 1960. Although not entirely homogeneous, three regions based on the colonial divisions also represented Nigeria's different major ethnic communities, namely the Hausa and Fulani (north), Yoruba (south-west), and Igbo or Ibo (south-east).

In December 1959, elections were held for the federal House of Representatives. Seats were allotted according to regional population. The North had 174 out of 312. Azikiwe campaigned for the creation of a mid-west state and for education and health to be a federal responsibility. The Action Group favored a strong central government, weaker state-government and also favored union between Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierre Leone in what would have been a West Africa Federation. The NPC, which campaigned on issues of concern to its Northern constituency and which only nominated candidates in the North, won 142 seats. Balewa was to form a coalition government with the Eastern NCNC (Igbo), becoming Nigeria's first federal Prime Minister. Bello remained premier of Northern Nigeria. Awolowo was independent Nigeria's first official leader of the opposition. Until Nigeria became a republic in 1963, a Governor-General—Nnamdi Azikiwe—continued to represent the British monarch. In 1963, Azikiwe became Nigeria's first President.

The premiers of each region, and some prominent regional leaders, each pursued a policy of guiding their regions against political encroachment from other regional leaders. Different "regional parties worried that their rivals would intrigue with other groups to gain control of the federal government," which, effectively, was in the hands of the North. "The East and West feared the North, which" says Cooper, "was tightly controlled by an Islamic elite," of which leaders such as Balewa and Bello were part.[1] Balewa's term in office was turbulent, with regional factionalism constantly threatening his government. However, as prime minister of Nigeria, he played important roles in the continent's formative indigenous rule. He was an important leader in the formation of Organization of African Unity and creating a cooperative relationship with French speaking African Countries. He was also instrumental in negotiations between Moise Tshombe and the Congolese authorities during the Congo Crisis of 1960-1964. He led a vocal protest against the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and also entered into an alliance with Commonwealth ministers who wanted South Africa to leave the Commonwealth in 1961. That same year, Southern Cameroon opted to become part of the Republic of Cameroon, while Northern Cameroon remained within Northern Nigeria. As a result, the North's population became much larger than the South's. He maintained cordial relations with the West but condemned French plans to use the Sahara as a nuclear test zone. One of his last initiatives was convening a Commonwealth meeting in Lagos to discuss how to respond to the white government of Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence.

1964 and 1965 elections

In December 1964, Nigeria held its second general election. Two coalitions emerged to contest the election, the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) consisting of the NPC and the Nigerian National Democratic Party, which contested the Action Group in the West (broadly federalist) and the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) consisting of the NCNC and those members of the Action Group who had not defected to the NNDP. It campaigned on a platform of further sub-dividing the nation along communitarian lines, so that each ethnic group would control their own region with no group being dominated by another. Before the election, controversy about the accuracy of the electoral registers led to allegations of vote-rigging and the UPGA called a boycott. Due to the boycott and widespread dissatisfaction with the electoral process, only four out of fifteen million people eligible to vote did so. Many polling stations in the East did not open, honoring the boycott. In March, 1965 an election was held in those constituencies that had boycotted the December poll. The UPGA ended up with 108 seats, the NNA with 189 of which 162 were held by members of the NNC. Even before the supplementary election was held, Balewa was invited to form his second administration. In November, 1965 election were held in each region. The UPGA, in opposition at the federal level, was determined to consolidate its power in both the Southern regions, the East and the West and the federal territory surrounding the capital. However, these elections were won by the NNA-coalition, despite the opposition's strong campaign.

Allegations of corruption and fraud followed, as did riots and demonstrations in which about 2,000 people died mainly in the West. Politicians campaigning outside their own regions even found the hotels refused to accommodate them. Responding to this violence, Belawa delegated extraordinary powers to each regional government in an attempt to restore stability. "There were suggestions that Nigeria's armed forces should restore order" and some officers murmured about the "apparent perversion of the democratic process."[2] Throughout the election campaign, rumors of intimidation were rampant with kidnapping, harassment and murder. In October 1964, the party leaders met and agreed to "ensure that the elections would be free and fair." To facilitate this, they also agreed not to contest seats in areas dominated by their rivals. This more or less meant that the positions of each part was known before the actual election. However, given the North's population advantage, its dominance in the legislature was also assured. Nor did the "intervention" prevent "the descent into anarchy."[3] Possibly, Balewa's ability to respond to the situation was hindered by the fact that, although Prime Minister, he was Vice-President, not President, of his party. Party President, Bello, shared a desire to unify the nation but the need to at least consult him before taking a major decision may have handicapped him. Bello had chosen to remain premier of Northern Nigeria rather than accept a position at the center.

Balewa's Ministers
Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa 1957–1966
Minister for Transportation Raymond Njoku 1957–1960
Minister for Education Jaja Wachukwu 1957–1960
Minister for Commerce K. O. Mbadiwe 1957–1960
Minister for Communication Samuel Ladoke Akintola 1957–1960
Minister for Internal Affairs J. M. Johnson 1957–1960
Minister for Information Kola Balogun 1957–1960
Minister for Health Ayo Rosiji 1957–1960
Minister for Labor Festus Okotie-Eboh 1957–1960
Minister for Lands Mines and Power Muhammadu Ribadu 1957–1960

Nigeria's colonial legacy: Background to the political parties

The task faced by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as Nigeria's first Prime Minister needs to be set in the context of Nigeria's colonial history. His assassination and the subsequent political history of Nigeria can be seen as a consequence of Nigeria's colonial legacy, even if other factors especially the discovery of oil also influenced events and policies. The British colony of Nigeria was created by a process of acquiring territory by conquest and treaty. Originally several protectorates were administered separately, two colonies were formed in 1900 which were combined in 1914. The British political ideology of dividing Nigeria during the colonial period into three regions North, West and East exacerbated the already well-developed economic political, and social competition among Nigeria’s different ethnic groups. On the other hand, while competition and rivalry certainly predated colonialism, these communities existed within separate and distinct political polities and did not coexist within one state. For the country was divided in such a way that the North had slightly more population than the other two regions combined. On this basis the Northern Region was allocated a majority of the seats in the Federal Legislature established by the colonial authorities. Within each of the three regions the dominant ethnic groups the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo respectively formed political parties that were largely regional and tribal in character: the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the North; the Action Group in the West (AG); and the National Conference of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in the East. Although these parties were not exclusively homogeneous in terms of their ethnic or regional make-up, the later disintegration of Nigeria results, largely from the fact that these parties were primarily based in one region and one tribe. To simplify matters, these can be referred to as the Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibgo-based; or Northern, Western and Eastern parties.

During the 1940s and 1950s the Ibgo and Yoruba parties were in the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain. They also wanted an independent Nigeria to be organized into several small states so that the conservative and backward North could not dominate the country. Northern leaders, however, fearful that independence would mean political and economic domination by the more Westernized elites in the South, preferred the perpetuation of British rule. As a condition for accepting independence, they demanded that the country continue to be divided into three regions with the North having a clear majority. Igbo and Yoruba leaders, anxious to obtain an independent country at all cost accepted the Northern demands. The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by an autocratic, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of some thirty-odd Emirs who, in turn, owed their allegiance to a supreme Sultan. This Sultan was regarded as the source of all political power and religious authority.

The Yoruba political system in the southwest, like that of the Hausa-Fulani, also consisted of a series of monarchs being the Obas. The Yoruba monarchs, however, were less autocratic than those in the North, and the political and social system of the Yoruba accordingly allowed for greater upward mobility based on acquired rather than inherited wealth and title.

The Igbo in the southeast, in contrast to the two other groups, lived in some six hundred autonomous, democratically-organized villages. Although there were monarchs in these villages (whether hereditary or elected), they were largely little more than figureheads. Unlike the other two regions, decisions among the Igbo were made by a general assembly in which every man could participate. Discovery of oil in the North led to concern that the revenue from this would not be fairly shared throughout all three regions but would mainly benefit the Hausa and Falani.


The daunting task faced by Balewa and his fellow politicians was to balance the interests of each region so that a national identity could be nurtured and shaped and the rights of all citizens could be honored. With various factions pulling in different directions, some favoring membership of an even larger polity, some wanting a large measure of regional autonomy, some determined to privilege their community over others, this daunting task bordered on the impossible. To his credit, in his effort to restore order Balewa did not declare a state of emergency or suspend the elected assemblies but tried to devolve power from the center. However, discontent in the Igbo dominated East, which especially feared domination by the North as well as by the Yoruba from the West, spilled over into an armed rebellion led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, on January 15, 1966. Balewa, a number of army officers from the North and other leaders, including Ahmadu Bello, were murdered. Balewa's body was discovered in a ditch by a roadside near Lagos six days after he was ousted from office.[4] The leaders of the coup pledged to end corruption, restore peace and stage new election. However, their regime was very short lived, hardly surviving 24 hours. Anti-Igbo violence erupted. On January 16, Army chief Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, stepped in, suspended the constitution and ushered in what proved to be three decades of military rule. He was toppled July 29, 1966, by a Northern led counter-coup. In May 1967, the Eastern Region declared independence as the Republic of Biafra under Lt Colonel Emeka Ojukwu and civil war broke out.


In January 1960, Balewa was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sheffield in May 1960.

The Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, founded in 1980, in Bauchi is named in his honor.


Belewa may have had to deal with problems which many see as a result of the colonial legacy but he was ever bitter about Britain's role, accepting a knighthood from the Queen and using the title "Sir." In his independence address, he "spoke warmly of Britain's colonial contribution, 'first as masters, then as leaders, finally as partners, but always as friends.'"[5] The 1964 election fell short of being fair by any standard. Yet the way in which the political landscape had been constructed made the result a more or less foregone conclusion. This almost makes the violence seem superfluous. Belewa himself is generally regarded as a sincere democrat. His relatively humble origins meant that his own rise to power had to be via the ballot box. He was not, as such—unlike his friend Ahmadu Bello—a member of the tradition Northern elite. On the other hand, he depended on the support of the elite to remain in power and knew that he had to champion Northern interests. He appears, however, to have genuinely wanted to nurture national unity, beyond which he was also concerned with pan-African unity. Within the constraints imposed by the political reality, he tried to balance regional interests. His instinct towards pacification is indicated by his response to the post election crises, when, instead of using the military or the power of the central government to clamp down on civil unrest, he delegated the task of establishing order to the regions.

Negatively, Nigeria's degeneration into regional and ethnic conflict appears to confirm how some view and interpret the African reality in the post-colonial space. Ngugi wa Thiong’o has written of how:

The study of the African realities has for too long been seen in terms of tribes. Whatever happens in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi is because of Tribe A versus Tribe B. Whatever erupts in Zaire, Nigeria, Liberia, Zambia is because of the traditional enmity between Tribe D and Tribe C. A variation of the same stock interpretation is Moslem versus Christian or Catholic versus Protestant where a people does not easily fall into "tribes."[6]

At issue is whether the reality in which tribal interests do clash, with which Balewa had to deal and which resulted in his murder, are deeply rooted in ancient animosities and hostilities or were write large and exacerbated by colonial policy. This is not to suggest that rivalries were absent prior to colonialism but they may have been encouraged to justify the claim that without colonial supervision, Africa would degenerate into a blood-bath. The nation-state of Nigeria, with the world's eighth largest population, may not represent a workable entity. The decision to allocate seats in the legislature proportionate to population ensured Northern domination. Northern participation in the federation, of course, may have depended upon this concession. What Belewa was unable to explore because the party system was already firmly established, and rival agendas mapped out, was a power-sharing arrangement, more like a government of national unity, in which each region and ethnic group had representation. Had Nigerians wiped the slate clean in 1960, founding new political associations with national unity as the dominant motif, not communitarian and regional interest, a different history may have followed. Balewa's instinct was for unity, though he was too entrenched in the communitarian system to nurture this in his young nation. Nonetheless, here is a legacy that can inspire Nigerians as they seek to knit a common national identity and to order their state so that all citizens are treated equally.

Preceded by:
Foreign Minister of Nigeria
1960 – 1963
Succeeded by:
Jaja Wachukwu


  1. Frederick Cooper, Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0521772419), 172.
  2. Global Security, 1964-65 elections. Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  3. Olayiwola Abegunrin, Nigerian Foreign Policy Under Military Rule, 1966-1999 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003, ISBN 978-0313051760), 23.
  4. John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998, ISBN 978-0679409793), 668.
  5. Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (New York: Public Affairs, 2005, ISBN 978-1586482466), 92.
  6. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind. Retrieved April 28, 2018.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abegunrin, Olayiwola. Nigerian Foreign Policy Under Military Rule, 1966-1999. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. ISBN 978-0313051760.
  • Cooper, Frederick. Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0521772419.
  • Clark, Trevor. A Right Honourable Gentleman: Abubakar from the Black Rock: A Narrative Chronicle of the Life and Times of Nigeria's Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. London: Edward Arnold, 1991. ISBN 978-0340561898.
  • Ezera, Kalu. Constitutional Developments in Nigeria: An Analytical Study of Nigeria's Constitution-Making Developments and the Historical and Political Factors That Affected Constitutional Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.
  • Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. New York: Public Affairs, 2005. ISBN 978-1586482466.
  • Olson, James S. and Robert S. Shadle. Historical Dictionary of the British Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0313279171.
  • Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of the Continent. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998. ISBN 978-0679409793.


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