Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was born in Bauchi, Northern Nigeria. Unlike the majority of Northern Nigerian political leaders, he was of humble background, his father having been a client to a district head. After attending Katsina Teacher Training College (1928-1933), he was a teacher and later headmaster of the Bauchi Middle School. He studied at the London University Institute of Education (1945-1946), where he received a teacher’s certificate in history.
During World War II Tafawa Balewa had become interested in political activities. In 1943 he founded the Bauchi Discussion Circle, an organization interested in political reform. In 1948 he was elected vice president of the Northern Teacher’s Association, the first trade union in Northern Nigeria. In 1949 he helped organize the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), originally conceived as a cultural organization but by 1951 a political party.
In 1946 Tafawa Balewa had been selected by the Bauchi Native Authority 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 1951, in the North’s first elections, 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.
In 1952 he became Nigerian Minister of Works and in 1954 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.
As prime minister, Tafawa Balewa developed a favorable 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 white supremacist 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 which ultimately led to independence. Nevertheless, Tafawa Balewa often seemed limited in his own personal power, because as vice president of the NPC he was answerable theoretically to Sir Ahmadu Bello, premier of the Northern Region and president of the NPC.Some observers have concluded that this relationship with Bello hindered Tafawa Balewa in handling the major crises which arose in the first years of Nigeria’s independence.
It was one of these crises, the Western Region elections of 1965, which led to chaos in the Western Region and was the immediate cause of the downfall of Tafawa Balewa’s government.
In January 1966 a discontent segment of the army attempted a coup d’etat in which Tafawa Balewa was kidnapped and murdered.
Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s image graces the five naira note.
Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos’ commercial heart is named after him.
He received several awards from the British: an OBE in 1952, a CBE in 1955 and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in January 1960.
The University of Sheffield also conferrred him with an honorary degree in May 1960.