By Wale Akinola
A former external affairs minister,Chief M.T .Mbu, sparked off a controversy recently when he claimed that the Nigerian prime minister in the first republic, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa,died of asthma. The claim was disputed by those who held on to the view that Balewa had been shot dead by coup plotters who had abducted him ,among other political leaders of the country, on January 15, 1966. Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, a former minister of state in the ministry of transportation, did a two-part article on the controversy on the side of those who believed Balewa was killed by the coup plotters and his body dumped at a spot along Lagos-Abeokuta Road .
Chief Olusegun Osoba, a former governor of Ogun State, came into the picture courtesy of a report he did as a young reporter and published in the Daily Times Of January 23,1966 after providentially seeing the corpse of the late Nigerian leader where it had been dumped alongside that of Chief Okotie Eboh, the then finance minister. Osoba speaks, in this interview, on his experience of January 21, 1966 when he saw the corpses and other issues surrounding the death of Balewa.
Forty-four years after, a fresh controversy is brewing over the death of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first and last prime minister …
The British intelligence that was in charge of Nigeria’s security then fell flat at the critical time and had no clue whatsoever on the situation in Nigeria. Their intelligence situation was totally flawed.
I could not imagine, even as a young reporter, that a well grounded and well informed security network would allow world leaders to assemble in Nigeria for the Commonwealth conference few hours to a major political upheaval and a military intervention, the first in the history of the country, would be in the offing and they didn’t know. We had heads of government of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and others from all over the Commonwealth gathered in Nigeria, yet the British intelligence didn’t know. It shows you that any reference to the British archives on this issue, especially by those who claimed that Balewa had been shot by the coup plotters, would be a fruitless exercise.
That means one cannot rely on such source for information on what actually happened.
No, because the then prime minister of Britain himself, Harold Wilson, was still in this country 24hours to the coup. I was at the airport at about 11 p.m., on Friday, 14th of January 1966 when Tafawa Balewa saw off Harold Wilson on his journey back to the UK. That was just 24 hours to the time the coup took place. Would any serious government have risked the head of their government in a country where the military was about to strike? Supposing he was trapped in the crossfire just like the then head of government of Cyprus was caught up in the coup because he was in Enugu on a tour of the country and a guest of Michael Okpara when the coup took place?
Your report of January 23,1966 has become a reference point on the death of Balewa. As someone who saw the body of the late prime minister and reported it, what do you say?
Sam Omatseye, in his column, made a profound statement that there was a failure of intellectualism. Nobody among the writers or those making claims about Tafawa Balewa made adequate research. The newspapers of that time are all in the archives and they are important sources of information or record of what happened.
All those who are talking are basing their information on hearsay, third party, from one person to another. The New Nigerian which was a major newspaper then was just founded at that time. The Daily Times, the leading paper in the country then, was there and The Pilot. These newspapers were all owned by government. Nobody has bothered to go and search for them and read the reports of these papers. Instead, some of them are quoting British archives when already I said the British intelligence on the coup in Nigeria at that time was a total failure; so you cannot rely on such or use a failed report of failed people and intelligence as history, that is my argument.
That means some of the things said, for instance, by Chief Femi Fani- Kayode, who is raising issues on the circumstances surrounding Balewa’s death, cannot be relied upon if his facts are based on the British archives.
I would not say Tafawa Balewa died of asthma for the fact that I am not a medical doctor. But as an eye witness, the body (of Balewa) that I saw was a fresh body. Fani- Kayode, I can understand his emotions, but I think he is getting too emotional and indirectly politicizing history. The first cliche they teach in journalism is facts are sacred. The first thing my editor told me about the story as I got to the office that day was that,’ don’t embellish your report, don’t be flamboyant ,just be factual ,’and the facts I stated in my story have never ever been denied, debunked, controverted in 44 years. Why now? Fani- Kayode had many mistakes and flaws in his argument.
What are the flaws?
First of all, he claimed an autopsy was held on the body(of Balewa) in LUTH before it was taken away. That cannot be true because the late Professor Odunjo, the brother of Soji Odunjo, was in LUTH then when I wrote the story and I remember that Soji and I saw him that same Sunday that my report was published and we talked extensively on the matter .So, if there had been autopsy, he would have told me in the course of our discussion. That was the first error on the part of Fani- Kayode.
In the second article, he now changed ,saying the autopsy was done on the spot where the body was found. That is an impossible thing scientifically, because the body (of Okotie Eboh) I saw close by was already being infested by maggots and ants such that you had to be careful so that the ants would not get into your body. You can imagine if the ants got into your body, you had to strip naked. It was not an environment that you could ever carry out autopsy.
The last error he made was that it was done right there in the bush. As at the time I wrote my story, the body was already being flown out of Lagos to the north but I guess they had to take it first to Kaduna because I was not sure there were landing facilities in Bauchi where it was buried; they probably had to take the body in the morning to Bauchi and I stated in my report the Indian pilot and the co-pilot that accompanied the body. All this happened within fours hours after I saw the body.
You don’t fly a decomposed body and stay in the aircraft for one or two hours and you survive .These are some of the flaws in his claim. And he is getting emotional about it and the evidence he is producing are third party:’ General Danjuma told me,’‘ M.D, Yusuf told me’. The military too at that time were hamstrung because for communication network, they had to depend on the police communication system as they did not have signal department in the army of that time.
Are there other persons that can corroborate your claim or photographs of the scene to lay to rest the controversy concerning your claim?
So many people. As a matter of fact, some people called me from Abeokuta. Mr Iboye, one of them, said he was working at WAPCO, Ewekoro, at that time and that he saw the body. Ogunseitan of The Nation also called to say that he was going to Ibadan to interview somebody who called to say he saw the body. I interviewed people in the villages who also saw the body.
All I am saying is that Tafawa Balewa’s body that I saw was a fresh one and that, yes, the body might have odour by the time they got to Bauchi but not as strong as they put it. A body without embalming after 24 hours would, naturally, after a while….. decomposition sets in. But to say that the body was not allowed to lie- in- state, Muslims don’t lie body-in-state, Muslims detest such open display of bodies. Muslims detest marking of graves, Muslims detest having a statue on graves, they see it as paganism, they detest it.
And before the body was taken to Bauchi, they would have cleaned it up, prepared it and wrapped it up in the Islamic way and so there would be no need to expose the body. Tafawa Balewa’ s case was not the only example. When General Murtala Muhammed died after being shot in Lagos, the body that was taken to Kano was already prepared, that is the second example that I will give.
Murtala’s body was already prepared and taken straight away for burial. Even the late General Sani Abacha that died in Abuja, his body was already prepared by the time it got to Kano. Tafawa Balewa’s body was not the only Muslim head of government that would be buried. None of these other ones I said has ever been disputed ,whether Murtala Muhammed or Abacha. So why are they making an issue on whether his body was displayed or not? Do Muslims display body like Christians? So, tell me, which Muslim head of state’s body has ever been displayed?
How did you get the information about the dumping of Tafawa Balewa’s corpse on that spot and you now went for verification?
At that time, there was no SSS. What you had was called E-Branch of the Nigeria Police Intelligence Department .What you had was E- Branch and SCID. E- Branch was like today’s SSS. And someone from there phoned me and for a reporter like me who had phone , my colleagues were making jest of me that it was elitist and luxury. It was already 6 p.m. that day when I heard of the news and my immediate reaction was to get there before dark ;so the question of looking for a photographer didn’t arise and, as Chief E. A. Oshunneye, another eye witness, his wife is still around, she can easily corroborate what I am saying, her husband would have recounted the story to her ;he was coming from Abeokuta and he told me that somewhere after leaving Abeokuta, on their way to Ifo, that he stopped and that they were all peeping from the window of their vehicle to look at the place where the bodies were kept. And so that was how I took my Vespa which was like having a car then. There was no traffic because there were fewer vehicles on the road and I raced there to see the body. I spoke with a lot of the villagers on the story. If people are enterprising enough, I think they should go to Ilogbo or Iyana Ilogbo, they would find people who saw the bodies.
What was the situation of the bodies at the time you got there?
The Okotie-Eboh body had decompsed and I didn’t even see any sign of gunshots on his body. His head was mangled, I suspect he was maltreated and manhandled. I am still suspicious of the involvement of the then government in the whole saga. How Tafawa Balewa died is not something I want to talk about. M.T. Mbu didn’t say he was the source of the manner of Tafawa Balewa’s death; he said he was told by Okigbo who was told by Ifeajuna. His own story is for empathy. He didn’t make a claim of it. He just made a statement as a minister that the man died of asthma based on what he was told. The death of Tafawa Balewa may have been influenced by elements in government who wanted to cover certain things up and now had to put his body on the same spot with Okotie-Eboh so that the story would be that the coupists put the two bodies there. I have reason to believe that there are some games played by some people in government who had a hand in it.
So there were no signs of gun shots on either of the bodies?
Tafawa Balewa was highly respected by everybody whether those in government or outside. He was a gentleman, he didn’t only have an image of a gentleman nationally; internationally, he was also respected.
When the OAU was being formed which broke into factions then, the Casablanca group, the Nkrumah group and all kinds of groups, he was involved in bringing all the African countries together and, out of the respect he had worldwide for sorting out the issue of East and Southern Rhodesia then which had gone out of the British government, that Commonwealth conference hosted by Nigeria was the first to be held outside UK, it show the kind of respect and affection for Tafawa Balewa. So the coupists might not want to manhandle him. And that this is why I think there was a foul play.
In the first place, there was a coup of some majors which became very bloody in some parts of the country. It was a funny situation there was a coup where Ironsi survived. One, attempt must have been made to kill him and the federal cabinet decided to hand over to the military or the coupists and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was on a tour of the Carribean; so the acting president of the Senate joined to formally hand over government to Ironsi.
That was the situation and after that, all the heavy weights in politics took flight. They ran away. Therefore the issue that they called everybody to come and identify Tafawa Balewa’s body didn’t arise because I still have my newspaper cuttings … even politicians from Western Region ran to Cotonou, Benin Republic.
And I went to interview them and they said they would not return to Nigeria until the military handed over power. If such politicians ran away, what makes you think the other ministers would be around when they had already handed over power to the military and particularly at a time Major Nzeogwu was making serious statements on the radio that any major offence became death sentence? There was fear in everybody. My suspicion is that after the rein of government had been handed over to Ironsi, if Tafawa Balewa had been alive then, the government of the day would have wasted him because if Tafawa Balewa were alive, the handing over by the ministers would have been null and void because he was the head of government. So writers and researchers still need a lot of work to do. In 44 years, nobody has denied, whether in government or outside, nobody has said anything contrary to what I wrote in the Sunday Times of 23 January 1966.
So, no matter what anybody says ,you hold on to your story on what you saw at the spot where Balewa and Okotie Eboh’‘s bodies were found.?
Yes, Balewa’s body was a fresh one. It could be that day (January 21, 1966) or overnight that the body was put there. There were no signs of gunshots on Tafawa Balewa’s body. Fani-Kayode was just being sentimental that I should have gone with a photographer. He didn’t know that in those days, it could take three hours to develop a film. If I didn’t leave immediately as I left that day, perhaps those who evacuated the body would have done so before I got there.
What was important to me then was to confirm the story and I did confirm my story? Why is it that 44 years after, some people are now talking of their own story. Why didn’t they talk then? Tafawa Balewa was abducted and captured. Fani-Kayode’s father was abducted and captured. If the coupists didn’t kill his father, what makes him think they would kill all those they abducted?
How did his father manage not to be killed? If they didn’t kill his father who was highly controversial in the politics of that time and highly visible, what makes him now believe that Tafawa Balewa, a gentle man, a highly respected individual, somebody that was loved by Nigerians for his humility and mild disposition in his life time, would be killed?
How Sunday Times of January 23, 1966 reported the discovery of his corpse
Balewa is dead Found by roadside Buried in Bauchi
Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first and last Prime Minister of the First Republic of the Federation of Nigeria, is dead, it was officially announced in Lagos at 12 noon yesterday by the Federal Military Government.
The announcement did not say when, where and how he died.
But the announcement came exactly one week after it had been officially stated that “in the early hours of this morning, Saturday, January 15, 1966, a dissident section of the Nigerian Army kidnapped the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance and took them to an unknown destination.”
At his first news conference after he had been handed the Government of the Federation, Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi, in answer to a question on the whereabouts of Alhaji Abubakar replied, “Every attempt is being made to locate his whereabouts. At the moment, I have no information.”
But by Friday morning, villagers around reported that a body which looked like that of Alhaji Abubakar had been discovered in a nearby bush.
The body was in a sitting posture with the back rested on a tree. The body was robed in a big white agbada with a cap lying at its feet.
Alhaji Abubakar’s body was flown on a chartered plane from Lagos to Bauchi his hometown at midnight on Friday, January 21. Apart from the captain and radio officer, only soldiers were on the aircraft.
Alhaji Abubakar was buried at the Muslim cemetery in the presence of a large number of sympathizers.
Segun Osoba, Sunday Times staff reporter, reports that Alhaji Abubakar was found on the road side on Mile 27 on the Lagos-Abeokuta road.
“About 220 yards from Mile 27 on the Lagos-Abeokuta road, I saw the dead body of the former Prime Minister Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and what appeared to me to be the body of Chief Festus Okotie Eboh on Friday evening.
“I got there with a friend Titus Shokanlu about 7p.m. that Friday and saw the two bodies placed in a ditch by the road side.
“First I saw Chief Okotie-Eboh ‘s body stripped naked with face placed downwards with maggots crowding round it.
“There was a little strip of stripped pyjamas left on his right leg.
“About four yards away was Alhaji Balewa’s body. He was placed by the side of a kola nut tree in a sitting posture.
“He had a snow white toga a part of which was wrapped over his head.
No marks of bullets on both bodies. I saw the head of Chief Okotie-Eboh badly battered. “While the body of Alhaji Balewa was still fresh, that of Chief Okotie Eboh was swollen and in a decomposed state.
“Not far from the scene is Owode village. Some of the inhabitants of the village ran down to the scene to see the two bodies.
“Many motorists plying Abeokuta-Lagos road also stopped at the spot.
“Tears ran down the faces of all the people found there. And there was a general sign of grief in the villages around.
“Said one of the weeping onlookers: ‘This is pathetic and pitiful that this is the body of Alhaji Balewa is too much for me to bear,”
By yesterday morning, the corpse had been removed from the spot. Investigations later revealed that a body in a coffin was brought to the Ikeja Airport by soldiers about midnight.
Most of the tarmac of the airport where the coffin was to be loaded into the plane was condoned off by armed soldiers. Not even the officials of the Nigerian Airways were allowed to come near.
After the coffin had been taken into the plane, it took off at exactly 30 minutes after midnight. Some of the soldiers at the airport accompanied the plane on its journey.
A British captain and an Indian first officer, both employees of Airways, were the only civilian crew on the plane.