✕ CLOSE Online Special City News Entrepreneurship Environment Factcheck Everything Woman Home Front Islamic Forum Life Xtra Property Travel & Leisure Viewpoint Vox Pop Women In Business Art and Ideas Bookshelf Labour Law Letters
Click Here To Listen To Trust Radio Live

A memorial for Yerima Balla

One of the most patriotic politicians the country has ever produced, Yerima Balla was a left-wing radical who challenged British imperial rule with the same…

One of the most patriotic politicians the country has ever produced, Yerima Balla was a left-wing radical who challenged British imperial rule with the same zeal as he fought local tyranny. But he also mixed his revolutionary fervour with pragmatic politics to forge alliances and build bridges for national cohesion. Unknown to many, it was Balla’s remarkable relationship with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (then as Premier of the Eastern Region), Malam Aminu Kano (the leader of NEPU) and Sir Ahmadu Bello (then as Premier of the Northern Region) that made these leaders to reach an extraordinary accord in 1958 which helped prevent a possible balkanisation of Nigeria ahead its eventual independence in 1960.
That accord partly sowed the seed of the future alliance that saw their three parties — Ahmadu Bello’s Northern People’s Congress (NPC), Azikiwe’s National Congress of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) — forming the first coalition government in the country. It was perhaps the best political dispensation the country ever had, and when that arrangement collapsed, against the advice of Balla and his camp, the country suffered for it.
Again, had the nation listened to the warning he made in 1963 when he was a Member of Parliament against politicisation of the Army, the first military coup, which claimed the lives of several Nigerian leaders and eventually led to the civil war, might have been averted.
Born on December 31, 1923 to the Kilba royal family of Hong in present-day Adamawa State, Balla received his primary education in Pella and Numan towns of the state before proceeding to the Boys Secondary School Wusasa, Zaria, which he completed in 1940. He later studied Journalism, Political Science and Military History at the British Tutorial Institute in London, where he got a Diploma in Journalism in 1946.
But prior to getting this qualification, Balla had served in the Second World War. He joined the Army in 1942 and was sent to London for training at the British Pathological Department. He was posted to Poona Military College in India, where he spent a considerable time serving the Allied forces but also getting acquainted with the Indian nationalists who were fighting for independence from Britain, his unpublished work, made available to Sunday Trust by his first daughter Dr Uratu Balla, shows.
“When in Poona, India, I dabbled in politics through the Indian National Congress Youth in Poona with my army counterpart,” he wrote. “When (Mahatma) Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Working Committee declared British must quit in 1943, I was in Poona and we young military students secretly supported the demand. I still remember seeing Gandhi for the last time during his evening prayer in Poona on 20th November 1945: I passed through a crowd of more than 2,000 people to the nearest seat of the prayer and bowed before him”.
It was his experience in India that showed him the vulnerability of British imperialism and provided the impetus of his anti-colonial struggle in Nigeria. The war also accorded him opportunities to see the world and widen his horizon. “After full completion of the course in the military college, I was posted to a British warship and voyaged in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with the British naval medical corps,” he stated. “During the wartime I visited Bangladesh, Indo-China, Japan, Singapore, Burma, the Persian Gulf, Sicily in Italy, and Malta”.
It was also during the war that he reportedly saved the life of a Russian Army General — a gesture that put him on the good books of the then Communist Soviet Union. When they sought the way of reciprocating, he told them to provide scholarships for his people, one of his nephews, Dr Yusuf Balla, said. That gesture, plus his socialist orientation, led to an enduring relationship that helped many people from his area to acquire education in Soviet Union and other parts of Communist Eastern Europe.
After the war, Yerima Balla returned to Britain where he met many other Nigerians, including Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr Azikiwe, and fellow West Africans, including the future Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, with all of whom he worked against British colonial rule.
But he also became friends with some British politicians. “When in London I made friends with outstanding personalities, but the best that I can mention is Secretary General of the British Labour Party Morgan Phillips,” Balla said. The two shared a common socialist ideology, as Phillips was also a leading personality in international Labour movements and was the chairman of the Socialist International.
Balla became a freelance journalist when he was in London before his return to Nigeria in December 1946. He married his first wife, Hapsatu Goggo Gaji Ahiwa, on April 18, 1947. Politics was another factor that brought him back to the country and he plunged into it both at the local and national levels.
The main political party fighting for independence in Nigeria then was the NCNC led by Dr Azikiwe. And so Balla joined it in 1948 and later participated in the formation of the NPC, then as a cultural organisation initiated by Dr R A B Dikko. Ironically, Balla was to later devote his time fighting the NPC following its transformation into a conservative political party, after its progressive members (including him, Aminu Kano, Malam Sa’adu Zungur) had failed to turn it into a radical one.
Balla made one of his biggest political moves in 1950 when he teamed up with Aminu Kano, Abba Maikwaru, Bello Ijumu, Mudi Sipikin, Magaji Dambatta and others to chart the course of the NEPU. He was its deputy leader, was elected to the Federal Parliament under NEPU/NCNC alliance on 12 December 1959, and became the frontbench spokesman for foreign and military affairs. Before becoming the Member of Parliament, Balla had participated in all the pre-independence constitutional conferences in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956 and 1958.
“During the First Republic, I toured nearly all the continents with government delegation on official mission. When the military took over the administration of the country in 1966; and 12 states were created, I was appointed by the military government as a Commissioner for Land, Survey and Urban Development (in North-eastern state) from 1970 to July 1975,” he stated.
Balla was a member of the Constituent Assembly which between 1977 and 1978 drafted the 1979 Constitution ahead of the country’s return to civil rule in 1979. He also served twice on the board of the then viable Nigerian Airways between 1977 and 1983.
He was a founding member of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) which formed the national government in the Second Republic. But his political fortune in the party had never been great, perhaps because of the apparent divergence between his radical orientation and the party’s conservative ideology.
Yerima Balla was a quintessential family man who cared not only for his own biological children but also for the members of his large extended household, said Yusuf. He had 25 children and dozens of grand- and great-grandchildren. His first child, Dr Uratu Balla, believed to be the first female doctor in Northern Nigeria, and his second daughter, former Nigeria’s ambassador to Botswana Fatima Balla-Abubakar, might be among the products of his girl-child-education policy, but there are many outside his family circle who equally benefitted from it. His other children spread across different endeavours, including the academia, law and the civil service.
His achievements remain largely unrecognised partly because of his unassuming nature and partly because of Nigeria’s culture of neglecting its best. But a school hall built in his honour by one of his daughters, Dijatu Balla, and a short biography “Unsung Revolutionary: The Life and Times of Yerima Balla” which may be presented at the commissioning of the hall on what would have been his 90th birthday next Tuesday in Yola are few of the things that might remind people of him. In his foreword on the biography, former Kaduna State Governor Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa specifically acknowledged the role Balla played “in the formation and leadership of the NEPU since the fifties”. That’s exactly what Yerima Balla loved to be remembered for.

VERIFIED: It is now possible to live in Nigeria and earn salary in US Dollars with premium domains, you can earn as much as $12,000 (₦18 Million).
Click here to start.