Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was a Nigerian politician, and the only prime minister of an independent Nigeria. Originally a trained teacher, he became a vocal representative of Northern interests 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). Nicknamed the Golden Voice of Africa because of his oratory skills, he is one of the three National Heroes of the Nigerian nation (along with Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo).
Tafawa Balewa had very humble origins. He was born on October 1, 1912 in the village of Tafawa Balewa, in modern-day Bauchi State. His father, Yakubu Dan Zala, was a slave who rose in service of the Madaki of Bauchi and became a district head. 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 been the origin of the “Black Rock” nickname he acquired in later life.
Tafawa Balewa was his father's only child. Although it is widely presumed that he was Hausa, Balewa’s father was in fact of Bageri ethnicity, and his mother Fatima Inna was Fulani. He attended Koranic 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 shy, quiet and not an outstanding student. He later enrolled at Katsina Teacher Training College (1928-1933) and graduated with a third class certificate, performing best in English. He became a teacher and having passed the Senior Teacher’s Certificate examination he would go on to become headmaster of the Bauchi Middle School. He and a handful of northern teachers obtained scholarships to study at theUniversity of London's Institute of Education from 1945 to 1946, where he received a teacher’s certificate in history. When he returned to Nigeria, Balewa said he “returned to Nigeria with new eyes, because [he] had seen people who lived without fear, who obeyed the law as part of their nature, who knew individual liberty.” Upon returning to Nigeria, he became an Inspector of Schools for the colonial administration before entering politics.
During World War II Tafawa Balewa had become interested in political activities. In 1943 he founded the Bauchi Discussion Circle, an organisation interested in political reform. In 1948 he was elected Vice President of the Northern Teacher's Association, the first trade union in Northern Nigeria. A year later, he helped organise the Northern People's Congress (NPC). The NPC was originally conceived as a cultural organisation but by 1951 it had become a political party. In 1946 the Bauchi Native Authority had selected Tafawa Balewa as their representative to the Northern House of Assembly and the House of Assembly in turn selected him to become a member of the Nigerian Legislative Council. In the North's first elections in 1951, Tafawa Balewa won seats in the Northern House of Assembly and in the House of Representatives in Lagos, where he became a minister in the Central Council. By 1952 he became Minister of Works and in 1954 was made Minister of Transport and the Senior Minister and leader of the NPC in the House of Representatives. In 1957 he became the first prime minister of Nigeria, a position he held until his death.
At first, Balewa was 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 would later change his ideology and adopt a federal outlook following a visit to America in 1955. He reminisced that “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.”
In 1957 Balewa was elected Chief Minister, forming a coalition government between the NPC and the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons – later the National Council of Nigerian Citizens), led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. He remained as Prime Minister when Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and was re-elected in 1964. 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. The three regions then were composed of diverse cultural groups. The premiers and some prominent leaders of the regions later took on a policy of guiding their regions against political encroachment from other regional leaders. This political environment had a significant influence on the Balewa administration; his term in office would be turbulent as regional factionalism constantly threatened his government.
As prime minister, Tafawa Balewa developed a favourable reputation in international circles. He was considered a pro-Western leader but was very critical of South African racial policies and of French plans to test atomic devices in the Sahara. His last public act was to convene a Commonwealth Conference in Lagos to discuss action against the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia. Throughout his career Tafawa Balewa played a leading role in national policy making. In 1950 in the Northern House of Assembly he had advocated fundamental reforms to the system of Native Authorities in the North, a proposal highly unpopular among many of the Northern leaders. Throughout the 1950s he participated with great skill in the discussions on constitutional reform that ultimately led to independence. He played important roles in the continent's formative indigenous rule 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 instrumental in negotiations between Moise Tshombe and the Congolese authorities during the Congo Crisis of 1960–1964, 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.
As Prime Minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa, from 1960 to 1961, doubled as the country’s foreign affairs advocate. In 1961, the Balewa government created an official Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations ministerial position in favour of Jaja Wachuku who became, from 1961 to 1965, the first substantive Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations (later External Affairs). Balewa proposed an amendment to Nigeria’s constitution to give due recognition to the nation-building role played by then Governor-General 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.