The Balewa Saga

The Vanguard, September 24, 2010
By Vanguard’s Editorial.
Why has the manner of Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s death become a hot issue 44 years after his demise? Can something be achieved by having a correct version of the account of his death? Would it be important to know how Nigeria ’s first Prime Minister died?

It is a sad commentary on Nigeria that nobody has an authentic version of this story that would have put to rest all the speculations around the incidents of 15 January 1966 which have remained turning points in the history of Nigeria.
There was a coup on that date, Nigeria ’s first. Among those killed was Sir Balewa. This was the account until weeks ago, when Chief Matthew Mbu, lawyer, Nigeria’s first High Commissioner to London at 26, former Foreign Minister, among other high offices he has held, stated that Sir Balewa died of asthma, and not the bullets of soldiers. Mbu is two months shy of his 81st birthday.
If the Mbu version of the event is true, it challenges some of the accounts of January 1966. What else would it challenge? There would be many, depending on who is analysing the story. Mbu is not a frivolous fellow.
Expectedly, his account is being contested. The fiercest one came from former Minister of Aviation Femi Fani-Kayode, who at five in 1966 was too young to have known what happened.
He is relying on what his father, the late Fani Kayode, told him to refute Mbu’s story.
Father and son were both in Ibadan, the Prime Minister died in Lagos.We are sure that no one individual could have a complete account of January 1966.
The best that could be available to the individual would be what he witnessed or what he heard from secondary sources. The version of these accounts could have been tailored to suit the times, though they could have outlived the turbulence.
At the heat of the condemnation of the coup and its leaders, would it have been prudent to assert that the Prime Minister died under other circumstances?
Yet there is need to tell the true story of Nigeria. If Mbu is wrong, what is the correct version? Where is the autopsy that Fani-Kayode spoke about with such authority?
Is it possible there is one? Are we simply going to dismiss Fani-Kayode, resting our case on the fact that he most times throws himself into issues before realising he did not understand them?
Time and embedded interests have helped in distorting the story of, perhaps, the most profound moments of our country. The series of coup that January 1966 heralded and the Civil War left indelible marks on the country, changing us politically, administratively and economically.
Nigeria’s unity has wavered on the impact of the war. Nigerians lost innocence about their origins and the divisions have widened even as we tinker the federation ceaselessly.
The consequences of the war line our laws and our ways. Federalism, the one that emphasised competitiveness of the various components of the country, died with the war.
We only remember it. Those who witnessed contributions of regional governments to development are fading away.
In place of regions is the state structure which relies on the central government for everything. The war was a good excuse for pooling more powers to the centre. Those who supported this brand of federalism have found out that it is uneasy to dismantle particularly when power and resources now flow from the centre to all parts of the country.
Efforts at making the States and the local governments dependent on centrally generated revenue have been sustained by every Constitution since the war ended.
Recent frustrations at the centre amassing powers other components need to operate are salient calls for a return to the first Constitution that granted regions reasonable autonomy in their affairs, including foreign affairs.
As the country closes in on its 50th anniversary, there are still too many unventilated historical issues. The clouds around them are developing a putrescence that demands proper airing of our history for us and posterity.