British Empire Article


Abu bakr Tafawa Balewa


Abu bakr Tafawa Balewa started to teach at the Bauchi Middle School from 1933. During the next ten years Balewa rose in the ranks of the teaching staff, qualifying as a Teacher Grade I in Nigeria in 1944. He was then chosen to study abroad for a year at the University of London's Institute of Education. Upon returning to Nigeria, he became an Inspector of Schools for the colonial administration and later entered politics. This 1960 photograph shows him as Nigerian Prime Minister meeting the British Prime Minister. Image courtesy of The National Archives

An Impression of Mallam Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
Nigerian Minister of Works and Transport in 1951

by R. L. Armstrong

One afternoon early in 1951.1 found myself at the Ikeja Airport. Lagos, awaiting the arrival of Mallam Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. who had just been appointed Central Minister of Works and Tranport in the Nigerian House of Representatives, created under a new Constitution which granted Nigeria internal self-government as a step towards eventual independence.

There were twelve ministers in the Council of Ministers who. under the chairmanship of the Governor General - Sir John McPherson - formed the Cabinet. Suitably qualified Departmental Officers of the Colonial Service of whom I was one. were appointed to act as their Private Secretaries. I am a Chartered Civil Engineer and by then had seen over twelve years service with the Nigerian Public Works Department, eleven of them in the Northern Region. This had enabled me to learn something of the Hansa language.

I was born in 1912 and for the first 13 years of my life lived in Alexandria. Egypt, attending Victoria College, the pupils of which were drawn from many nationalities, only a small number being British.

Obviously I absorbed the cosmopolitan atmosphere and was taught the rudiments of reading and writing in Arabic which, incidentally. I spoke fairly fluently. Later when 1 was sent to school in England, my knowledge of the language was largely forgotten only to be revived when I eventually went to Nigeria and was fascinated to find so many Arabic roots in Hansa. I only mention this in passing as 1 believe it was an important factor in my subsequent relationship with Mallam Abubakar. I considered my appointment as Private Secretary to him as a distinct honour, the more so as I came to know him better and to recognise his outstanding qualities. Nigeria suffered a great loss when subsequently as Prime Minister he was abducted in the Coup of 1966 and suffered death by asphyxiation in the boot of a car.

I can't remember being given a specification for the job of Private Secretary apart from being told to help the Minister in any way I could. So I acted ashis A.D.C. whenever we went on tour. I arranged the catering for our journeys and for cocktail parties. I kept notes and wrote reports of meetings, underlining points of special interest for future study. I was required to undertake research and write papers and briefs for his attendances at the Council of Ministers and his appearances in the "House" . In the early days, at "Questions time" in the House of Representatives, I often accompanied him and, keeping out of sight, I scribbled replies to supplementary questions. As he grew more and more familiar with the workings of his Department, so my need to accompany him to the House declined and finally ceased.

The Minister's Office was in the headquarters building of the P.W.D. in Lagos and a part of my job was to meet visitors who had appointments and take them to the Minister. Only rarely was I asked to leave him alone with the visitor. On one occasion, however, a Lebanese gentleman called and I was asked to leave them together. When the visitor had left. Mallam Abubakar said to me "the reason I did not ask you to stay was that the subject under discussion with our visitor had nothing to do with Government business. To re-assure you. I can tell you that my answer to his request was NO!" Then he said "He will come to my house this evening I shouldn't wonder, but the answer I shall give him will still be NO!" I insert this small incident to show the complete incorruptibility of the man. He was not interested in money for its own sake. His life-style was simple and sometimes when I had to visit him at his home in the late evening, I would find him sitting on the floor and, on one occasion, sharing a meal with one of his male relatives who cooked for him. On that occasion 1 was invited to sit down and squatted on my heels beside him which was something 1 had learnt to do as a boy in Egypt. With his usual candour he said "You see Mr. Armstrong, I like to live simply." He was a Mohammedan and having made the pilgrimage to Mecca was entitled to wear the green turban and be addressed as "Alhaji".

He had been born in 1912 in the little village of Tafawa Balewa in Bauchi Province. Northern Nigeria. After primary education locally he went to Katsina Higher College in 1925 and in 1933 began his career as a teacher by joining the staff of Bauchi Middle School. His promotion was steady and in 1949 he became education Officer for Banchi Province. His talents soon led him into wider fields and after the War, when the development of Nigeria was being accelerated, he was appointed to the Northern Self-development Fund Committee.

His rise to eminence in the political field was swift and sure and to list all his achievements is not the purpose of this article; they have been fully documented elsewhere. Sufficient to say, that 1948 found him in London as the Nigerian delegate to the African Conference and to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. In 1951 he came again to London, this time as the Nigerian delegate to the Festival of Britain. In that same year he was elected Deputy Leader of the Northern Peoples Congress and appointed Central Minister of Works and Transport.

It was at this juncture in his life that I first met him. In appearance he was tall and slim, of dark skin and a quiet air of dignity. Basically shy, it took some time before his reserve was breached; but those of us who came to know him, found him a warm friendly man with a great sense of humour and a keen penetrating mind. He had a beautiful speaking voice, his command of English was remarkable, his diction and the cadence of his delivery made it a pleasure to listen to him.

As I have stated previously, part of my duties was to arrange his official life. My first wife - whom I left sleeping beneath Nigerian skies - was a great help in these matters, especially with cocktail parties, for although a Moslim and a strict teetotaler, his position demanded that he should entertain many people whose religions and tastes were varied. The arrangement of the Guest list brought him more than once to our house and my wife was able-as I was not-to ask him about his wife and children. It transpired that, although a Mohammedan and therefore permitted to have up to four wives, he had in fact only one. Quite simply the Minister replied to my wife's question that his wife had been his constant friend and companion over many years and that it would hurt her deeply if he had thought of bringing another woman into the household and that, to him, was the prime consideration. This thoughtfulness for a woman's feeling was rare, but was typical of the man. Shortly after this conversation. I found myself with the pleasurable task of helping in the transfer of his children from their Banchi School to Lagos to continue their education and still be with their father.

A school-master by profession, Mallam Abubakar had no experience of engineering works or the methods by which they were conceived, designed or constructed. It was one of my duties to escort him to construction sites and offices, first preparing a brief and explaining the project in advance.

On one occasion I took him to see the replacement of a junction in the 36 inch water-main to the Lagos water supply. The operation had to be done when demand for water was at its lowest, in fact between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. When we arrived, the excavation and timbering had already been completed, the water had been shut off and the faulty section removed. The work of connecting the new section was in progress and the Minister saw it being lowered into the trench and correctly aligned. In the trench under brilliant arc-lights the operation was being directed by a British senior Inspector of Works helped by another British Inspector and his African staff and workforce.

The whole operation, well planned in advance, was completed within the timelimit and the flow of potable water to Lagos resumed.

The Minister appeared to be intensely interested in every detail as the Water Engineer who was in charge and who had been responsible for the planning explained each process as it occurred.

On the way back to Lagos in the car, he was for the most part silent. Suddenly he turned me "There were Europeans down that hole with the Africans" he said. "It happens all the time Minister" I replied - "You see it is not only a question of getting the job done, but of using the opportunity to train staff." "Do you know" he said, "I never thought that it happened like that."

I was to learn later that before his appointment as Minister of Works and Transport he had been a notable critic of the Public Works Department. By the time 1 left his service the Department could not have wished for a more understanding champion.

So that he could become acquainted with the problems of his portfolio we toured large areas of the country. The Minister and I travelled in the Ministerial car followed by a "Station Wagon" carrying his servant, my steward-boy and all the luggage and provisions. My steward-boy was a Northerner and a Mohammedan, even though he came from one of the most southerly towns in the Northern Region. His name as Abu Ogaji Ankpa and he rightly considered it a great honour to be connected with Mallam Abubakar.

On our long road journeys, the Minister and I were on our own together in the car. Protocol was then waived and we could talk as friends. He spoke of his past and of stories told to him by his parents. He recounted how his grandmother had told him of seeing her husband's throat cut by marauding tribesmen; but that once the British rule was established order was restored. We spoke of the present and plans for the future; of our different cultures and our past experiences and of Astronomy in which he and I were deeply interested.

When I returned home on leave I made a point of selecting a couple of books on Astronomy to send him and I was told that he later installed a telescope on the roof of his house and found relaxation in studying the skies.

It was on one of these tours that the Minister displayed his talents as a mimic. He was telling me about his school-days at Katsina Higher College and regaled me with tales about the idiosyncracies of some of the masters. He obviously held these past members of the Nigerian Education Department in high regard and affection as he reproduced turns of speech and mannerisms which would have equalled some of Mike Yarwood's best impressions.

His affection for his teachers and his regard for the British were exemplified by the reference he made to them in his speech as Prime Minister on Nigerian Independence Day on 20th August, 1960, when he said "We are grateful to the British Officers we have known first as masters, then as leaders and finally as partners; but always as friends."

When I left his service I handed over to Mr. E. S. Armitage, an old friend and colleague.


Journey to Yola, 1929 Article




Share