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Mining for the truth on Nasser and Balewa

By Owei Lakemfa
AS we struggle to understand  our past as Africans, two veteran nationalists have dropped bombshells with the effect of category seven earthquakes over the fate of two African leaders.

Gamal Abdel Nasser was president of Egypt when Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was Prime Minister in Nigeria.

When Balewa died in the hands of coup plotters in January 1966, he was said to have been executed. This has been the official story for 46 years. But Matthew Mbu, a friend of Balewa and a minister under him has emerged to say that this story is false.

He claimed that his late friend had an asthmatic attack while in the custody of the  coupists which killed him.

The story from Egypt is  even stronger. Nasser was a modern day god; he had so much fanatical  following that army officers in Iraq and Syria inspired by him, overthrew their respective governments.

He was instrumental in uniting the various groups in the Palestinian  resistance into the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). In September 1970, there was a war between the PLO and host nation, Jordan. Nasser got the warring parties to the peace table.

Some hours later, he was dead, allegedly from a heart attack . The probable cause was the extreme stress induced by the tough peace negotiations.

Now 30 years after,  one of the men close to him and former editor of the influential journal, al-Ahram, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal said Nasser was actually poisoned.

Heikal, one of the best known journalists in Africa and a former aide of President Anwar Sadat, on al-Jazeera international television recounted the events at the peace meeting in 1970 when Sadat was Vice President to Nasser.

He claimed that at a hotel in Cairo, Nasser had a heated argument with PLO leader, Yasser Arafat during which Sadat offered to fetch Nassser a cup of coffee. Heikel claimed that Sadat ordered Nasser’s private cook out of the kitchen and prepared the coffee himself which Nasser drank.

Three days later, Nasser collapsed and died; he implied that Sadat poisoned Nasser and took over the presidency.

This claim hit the Egyptian populace like a tornado and the shell-shocked residents of the ancient country are yet to recover. But not so for Sadat’s two daughters who on behalf of their late father have not only denied the allegation, but also threatened to sue Heikal and restore their father’s good name.

One of them, Ruqaya Sadat has a major fact she wants to present in court; that Sadat was incapable of making a cup of coffee on his own!

This reminds me of a claim during the 1979 presidential campaigns in Nigeria when a former Head of State was reported to have said that leading candidate, Shehu Shagari was so incompetent that  perhaps the only thing he could do on his own was to light his cigarette.

But how can the Sadat ladies show proof in court that their father who along with 65 other persons was sent to an early grave in a hail of bullets on October 6, 1981, was incapable of performing such a basic task as mixing hot water, coffee, sugar and probably milk?

Can it truly be said that Sadat, a general and war tactician who far back in 1946 was charged with plotting the murder of a pro-British politician, was incapable of making a cup of coffee on his own? The Sadat girls will need to weave another yarn.

The Balewa story seems less complicated; Mbu had claimed that Balewa was not shot. Unfortunately, no autopsy was conducted on the remains. Ordinarily, further investigation of Mbu’s claims need be carried out to reach some sensible conclusion.

But comments in the media have swung between two poles; investigative  and speculative journalism or  rather, insults as informed commentary.

Sam Omatseye writing in The Nation back page of September 20, 2010 said as a follow-up, he met Chief Segun Osoba, the journalist who on January  21, 1966 had seen and examined the body of Balewa and confirmed that he was not shot.

Sunday Vanguard  on page 4 of its September 26, 2010 issue made a major contribution to the issue  by reproducing the Sunday Times story of January 23, 1966 which broke the news of Balewa’s death. In it, Osoba reported: “He (Balewa) was placed by the side of a kolanut 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 (Finance Minister) badly battered.

While the body of Alhaji Balewa was still fresh, that of Chief Okotie-Eboh was swollen and in a decomposed state”. The Sunday Vanguard also conducted a detailed interview with this witness of history who went on to be twice elected governor of Ogun State.

In contrast to these, Mohammed Al-Ghazali writing on page 27 of the September 7, 2010 issue of the Daily Trust, made no investigation, provided no facts but based his ‘informed’ commentary on insults.

To him, the elderly Mbu’s claims are “deliberate falsehood shrouded in mythical statesmanship” and are the “ranting” of a discredited leader and “Lilliputian” politician.

To him, Mbu’s revelation  is “to beatify…the bloody criminals” that carried out the coup, and   “is the height of irresponsibility and  insensitivity”.

Al-Ghazali who, apart from displaying  that he has no iota of respect for the elderly or a tradition of cultured debates, boasted:  “Even before I earned my first degree, I had already read virtually all there is to read  about the two brutal coups of 1966…”.

But he did not avail readers the benefits of his wide and extensive scholarship, rather as evidence of Balewa’s assassination, his parents in Kaduna  he said were in “pain and anguish”.

He also quoted Femi Fani-Kayode who was a six-year-old boy in Ibadan when Balewa died in Lagos, as his authority!

What we need to move forward are scientific researches and verifiable claims  even when they tend to challenge our age old  beliefs, not base instincts.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.