Early life: 1925-1933
Sir Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa was born in December 1912 to Yakubu Dan Zala and Inna in Tafawa Balewa, Bauchi state. He was a Bageri, and his father was an employer of the ajiya (district head). He was his father’s only child. He will later adopt Tafawa-Balewa, his birthplace, as his surname.
At 13, the young Abubakar was selected from the village school in Tafawa Balewa to join his peers at Bauchi middle school. The selection was based on his curiosity, and love for learning. His headmaster at Katsina college, Thomas Baldwin, recalls his days at the school by saying, “In his last years, he became a leading figure. the thing about Abubakar that most associate with him, is his probing questions, always delivered with great earnestness. what does a king do? what is aristocracy?” In 1933. He graduated from Katsina College, first teachers’ college in Northern Nigeria, with a third-class certificate. He returned to Bauchi to start his career as a teacher, and got married soon after.
Fondly referred to as,”Balewa, the humble man”, “the golden voice of Africa” and “Abubakar from the black rock” Sir Abubakar was a man of utter simplicity with great oratory skills, who spoke with a clear, strong voice and genuine passion.
Alhaji Abubakar Garba, A childhood friend of Sir Abubakar describes him as a man who was selective of his friends, avoided crowds, a deep thinker, and very independent. His grandmother often spoke about him as a boy with magic. His quest for knowledge was described by his colleagues and friends as unquenchable, even as a young man, he had dignity and presence.
He spoke calmly and slowly, and his words were always measured but to the point.
He smiled a lot, his knowledge of history was enormous, he was fond of cars and airplanes. Alhaji Abubakar Garba was quoted to have said, “He is fond of driving himself at great speed. He is fond of astronomy and has a number of his own telescopes.”
Thomas Baldwin recalls his conversation with the prime minister when he called to congratulate him after winning the elections, “I asked him what he would have done if he hadn’t won the recent elections, he said, probably I shall become the station master at Balewa”
He was married to four wives and had 19 children. His last daughter Zainab, was born two weeks after his death, and his mother died less than a year after he died. Although all his wives remarried after his death, the marriages ended, and they all returned to the prime minister’s house to live together in Bauchi. He spent most of his holiday in Bauchi with his family and on his farm.
Active citizen: 1933-1946
Dr Rupert East, the publisher of his book, Shaihu Umar; which is a captivating story about slavery in Africa recalls that Sir Abubakar was only 19 when he wrote the book, and says, “it revealed a deep respect for learning, compassion for his fellow men and women, especially the unfortunate, and a clear idea of the good and bad in human nature and motives, and a serious but sensitive approach to human problems.”
As a young teacher, He taught history, geography, and English. He was games master, sports organizer, and school librarian. His friends recall that he was, “strict and authoritarian, but he was an interesting teacher, very popular with his pupils.” They described him as stern, deeply religious and a hard worker. 12 years later, at 32, he was made headmaster of Bauchi middle school.
In 1943, Utterly frustrated by governance and policy, he joined a group of friends to start the Bauchi general improvement union, one of the first recognizable nationalist movements in the North. In 1945, He was selected alongside other Northern leaders, to attend the London institute of Education, on a scholarship, where he obtained a teachers’ certificate in history upon completion in 1946. Prof John Lewis, was at the institute during that time, and he said in a documentary that, “Abubakar made few interventions during the discussions in class, but his contributions were almost invariably made when he felt someone had said something too outrageously wrong to pass over, and they were always to the point.” He described him as a man of reliability and very little complaints, except for the English weather, referring to it as cold sun. 1948, He became the vice president of northern teachers’ association. the first trade union in northern Nigeria. In 1949, he was one of the founding members of Northern Peoples Congress, and was the party’s deputy leader.
Politics and governance: 1947-1966
In January 1947, an eager and energetic Abubakar boarded the train at the Jos station to Kaduna to be Bauchi’s native authority representative to the northern house of assembly. Here, he was never afraid to speak his mind, and call for a change in the system of governance. He called for a commission of enquiry on the administration of local governments in the North, which made him largely unpopular with the Northern elites. A colleague recounts, ”He spoke forcibly with a passionate sincerity. The north he said, had it’s own leaders, and it will fight it’s own battles. but this is not a time for talking, it’s a time for doing. It was in no way a rubble rousing speech, but what he had to say was radical and outspoken, utterly honest and sincere. It was an atmosphere of innovation and change” At the house of assembly, he was made a member of the Nigerian legislative council, and will go on to be a leading figure for the changes in policy and governance that will follow in the years ahead.
In 1952, Sir Abubakar went to Lagos to represent the Northern states, and as the leader of the biggest party in the house of representatives, he became federal Minister of Works, Minister of Transport and subsequently the senior minister, and eventually elected as the federation’s first prime minister in 1960, and reelected in 1964.
In July 25-28, 1961, Sir Abubakar was in the united states on the invitation of then president John F. Kennedy to discuss issues of mutual interest and international relations, where he addressed a joint session of the US congress, the only Nigerian leader to do so, and the room was electrified with resounding applause and ovation at intervals at his brilliant delivery, eloquence and innovative approach to issues.
On the the continent, he was highly respected for his constructive contribution, and was an important leader in the formation of the Organization of African Unity and the creation of a cooperative relationship with French-speaking African countries, He was also very critical of the tensions in Congo, Liberia and South Africa.
Trevor Clark, a friend of the late prime minister and author of the book, “A right honorable man, Abubakar from the black rock” A biography about Sir Abubakar’s life, quoted him to have said, “an independent Nigeria would be likely to flounder on tribal differences and on corruption”
He was awarded the 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. He was assassinated in January 1966, in Nigeria’s first military coup, and that event has been described as, “one of Nigeria’s grave mistakes”, as the tensions and accusations that followed still linger in some quarters today.
A staunch traditionalist, who later embraced and worked for a unified Nigeria, this is the man he was to his supporters, and even his critics agree, that his legacy lives on fifty two years on.