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Tafawa Balewa’s Electrifying 1961 American Visit

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi  A couple of days ago, I watched an enchanting 27-minute video of the July 1961 U....

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi 

A couple of days ago, I watched an enchanting 27-minute video of the July 1961 U.S. visit of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and couldn’t help feeling a surge of spine-tingling emotion. The video not only took me on an exciting time travel to the 1960s when the enormous hopes invested in Nigeria by the world caused it to be deeply respected everywhere; it also took me on an excursion into the mind and character of some of our immediate post-independence leaders.

I stumbled on the video on the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and immediately shared it with my friends on Facebook. (Watch the video here).

Between July 25 and July 28, the late Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and his modest entourage of about 10 key government officials (in contrast to the unwieldy herds of indolent hangers-on that accompany Nigerian presidents on foreign visits these days) visited the United States at the invitation of the late President John F. Kennedy during which Tafawa Balewa visited major historical landmarks in representative parts of the United States and addressed a special joint session of the United States Congress that was convened in his honor.
Only a select few are accorded the honor of addressing a joint session of the United States Congress. Certainly no Nigerian head of state has been accorded this honor since Tafawa Balewa, as far as I am aware. According to the website of the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, since 1874 when the King of Hawaii first addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, there have been only 112 such privileges granted to foreign leaders and dignitaries.

Tafawa Balewa’s powerfully delivered speech to the joint session was punctuated many times by loud, sustained standing ovations. That’s not a regular occurrence, either.

And in all the cities he and his entourage visited, exultant crowds of Americans came out to wave at them hospitably, and U.S. government officials bowed reverently when they shook hands with the Prime Minister. Such was the depth of respect Nigeria inspired in 1960s America. Perhaps it also had something to do with the personality of the Prime Minister.

He exuded infectious grandeur. He was supremely self-assured, deliberate, measured, and spoke with perfect aplomb. Although he spoke off the cuff most of the time, his words were carefully chosen and brilliantly delivered. His golden, ringing voice inspired awe (no wonder he was dubbed the “Golden Voice of Africa”) and his self-confidence was contagious.

When I compare the Tafawa Balewa I saw in the 27-minute video with the Nigerian leaders that have visited America since I’ve lived here, the contrast couldn’t be starker.

When the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua visited America in September 2007, for instance, he was swept away. As I wrote in a December 28, 2008 article titled “What Yar’adua is learning and NOT learning from America,” the late president was “so overawed by the grandeur of the White House—and the ‘honor’ of shaking the hands of President Bush— that he declared the visit ‘a rare opportunity’ and a ‘moment that I will never forget in my life.’”

President Goodluck Jonathan was also intimidated by America in his two major visits here. (Read my April 16, 2010 article titled “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing” for my account of then acting President Goodluck Jonathan’s first official visit to America). The man was thoroughly overwhelmed, and his countless gaucheries throughout the visit gave the outward manifestation of a man who was held hostage by a profound lack of self-confidence.

 To be clear, rhetorical brilliance and self-confidence in and of themselves don’t make good leaders. In fact, if I am given a choice between a suave, urbane, and cosmopolitan leader who is ineffective and a rustic, diffident, tongue-tied, and barely educated leader who is effective I would choose the latter without the slightest hesitation. I’m sure that’s true for most Nigerians. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, Nigeria’s post-First Republic leaders are not only rustic, diffident, tongue-tied, and functionally illiterate, they are also notoriously ineffective, not to talk of insanely corrupt. That is why I can’t help celebrating the grace, verbal elegance, and grandeur of a leader whose generation got a bad rap for being inadequately educated.

The comment of a London-based Nigerian lawyer by the name of Chukwuemeka Reuben Okala who watched the video and shared his thoughts on a listserv captured the sentiments of many Nigerians on cyberspace.

“Abubakar was very articulate, well composed, confident and had a very good command of English language,” he wrote on a Nigerian Internet discussion forum called TalkNigeria. “From his body language, one could see that he knew whom he was— the head of a government of an independent state. Yet Nigeria was barely 1 year old at that time. Hitherto, I had dismissed Abubakar as a naive, semi-illiterate primary school teacher, based on what (wrong articles) I read about him. I now realise that, that impression was fraught with flaws and totally unfair to a man who had a very good grasp of his position. Abubakar was indeed solid.  I'm more than impressed!”

I am a critic of chronocentricity and reverse chronocentricity, but I can’t resist valorizing our past and lamenting the diminution of our social and symbolic capital as a nation over the years. (Chronocentricity, which you’re unlikely to find in a regular dictionary, denotes the tendency for people to think that their generation is superior to the generations that preceded it, and reverse chronocentricity, which is my coinage by the way, is the tendency for people to unduly celebrate and sentimentalize the past and inaugurate it as superior to their present).

My reverse chronocentricity has basis in facts. As another commenter on TalkNigeria who goes by the handle Nebukadineze wrote, “Indeed, Nigeria don pafuka [is finished] for real. PM Balewa was invited to address a joint session of the US Congress (a seminal honor… accorded not just anybody) and he received numerous rounds of thunderous applause. Today, if any Nigerian leader mistakenly walks into Capitol Hill, it is almost a certainty that the Capitol Hill police will arrest him and hand him over to the US Marshals.”

This is obviously an intentional exaggeration, but the writer’s point is that no Nigerian leader, certainly not the present one, has come even remotely close to living up to the standards of regal splendor and verbal dexterity that the late Tafawa Balewa set. May his soul rest in peace.

Related Articles:
What Yar'adua is Learning and NOT Learning from America
Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was Embarrassing!


  1. Truly, Balewa is a leader with a powerful confidence and dexterity. He is not only a man who has an immense grammatical knowledge, but also a possessor of incredible ideas. We must therefore, pray and yearn leaders such as Balewa in the whole generations!

  2. Remember that leaders are not those with the credentials but those with the concern. Hitler, Churchill, etc. Were great and had made a difference to their people not by display of Ph.Ds but by their unwavering committent and deep passion for the best for their own

  3. Nigeria & Africa Renaissance Initiative IncApril 7, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    .....the video of this historic visit has been playing & replaying in my mind since I watched it a few weeks ago!
    I woke up thinking about this same video & telling myself that President John F Kennedy must have fallen in love with the "graceful ebony men from Nigeria waltzing all over town in their colorful robes"! 
    ....& I'm now reading a note based on this same video!

    Yours in the quest for a better Nigerian Nation, African Continent & Global Community;
    'Gbolahan 'Gbolaga Olubowale MSW,
    President & CEO,
    Nigeria & Africa Renaissance Initiative Inc,

  4. Nebukadineze could not have said it better.Its no exaggeration!It could happen,unfortunately.I have totally lost hope in shameless 'leader' after another.

  5. Haba, Prof. Farouq, every rightly minded fellow know how far our generation leaders are from being at par with their predecessors. Tafawa Balewa to many victims of chauvinistic media reporting, is but a diminished regional champion, far from being nationalist. But in actual sense when we keep sentiment aside, we would surely have no excuse for not celebrating the excellencies of our past heroes, especially the first and only Nigerian Prime minister, Late Tafawa Balewa.

  6. Khadija Zubairu UmarApril 9, 2012 at 1:09 AM

    Indeed shameless leaders one after another....truth is we missed likes of the past leaders who can go anywhere with a full of confidence to show how nigeria

  7. Just read your article online. Interesting and lamentable, indeed. I could remember a decade or so ago the Voice of America played the Tafawa Balewa's speech in the middle of one of their programmes and if memory serves me right Balewa visited during Roosevelt's presidency. It is hard to distinguish between the English intonation of Balewa and that of the US's president. No wonder Sir Balewa was nicknamed, "The golden voice of Africa." To add to your write-up, I should say no one thinks like a good writer (or a poet) and writing produced Sir Balewa; I still have and often read his book, Shaihu Umar for its aesthetic prose, literary style, theme and the plot is superb or rather second to none in the history of Hausa novels! A leader who could put pen to a paper to write Shaihu Umar will no doubt carry the day at any joint US Congress. It is we (Nigerians) that will continue to regret missing Sir Balewa most especially the generations of Nigeria living in this trying period we are in.

    Allah ya jikan Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, amin!

    Attahiru KB


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