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Immortalising the departed

Albatan Yerima Balla lived in interesting times. And that was what Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar tried to capture in his book about the late nationalist, political…

Albatan Yerima Balla lived in interesting times. And that was what Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar tried to capture in his book about the late nationalist, political icon and World War II hero.
Tasiu traces Balla’s story from his royal lineage, given in some details, and his auspicious birth on 31 December, 1923, through his childhood, schooling, and his soldiering days during World War II and his long involvement with politics, which eventually defined who he was and how he would be regarded in the history of Nigeria as one of the early nationalists.
A huge chunk of the book is dedicated to Balla’s political adventures with the radical NEPU group that challenged the aristocratic NPC for control of the northern region and was a thorn that constantly niggled the colonial administration of Nigeria. At a point, it seems the story veers away from Balla, as the focus of the book, and dwells on NEPU and its struggle to exist, to contest in elections and to make an impact in the country which was being birthed at the time.
While this may seem to be a lapse, it may be excused as an indication of the extent to which Balla’s life was intertwined with his politics and world view and his dedication to a cause, that of fighting all sorts of class domination.
In this book, Tasiu paints Balla as a calm gentleman with a fiery desire to level the playing field for all nationalities, all too glad to take on the British colonialists and then the local aristocrats who were being primed to take over from them. This in itself is an irony considering that Balla himself is a prince of Pella, his birth place.
In researching this story, Tasiu relied on journals by the late Balla himself, (some of these are included in the appendix of the book)  interviews with family members and documents from Balla’s political associates.
For those looking for tear-jerking moments from the life of a great man, you won’t find it here. The author glazed over the personal life of Balla in such a way that though you know Yerima Balla better and understand the motives for some his life’s choices, you still don’t know him that intimately. The focus seemed to be on his public life.
Students of politics and history will find this an interesting read. How Balla became one of the first persons in that region to be educated by the missionaries, even if some members of his family thought sending him to school was a really bad idea, how he used this knowledge to organise his people and spread his influence far beyond what his royal background could have afforded him, his struggle to rally his people and gradually expanding his political influence to the centre and his principled stand, even at moments when he could have gutted his comrades for more significant positions would be interesting lessons for contemporary politicians to peruse.
For instance, Tasiu notes on page 159 that “It was remarkable to see how he managed to combine his deep involvement in politics with his high level of honesty. Perhaps that was why he was more successful in NEPU – which was more of a straightforward mass movement than a political party.”
This was when Balla, as the deputy leader of NEPU was approached by some conspirators, informing him of their plans to oust then NEPU leader Aminu Kano and replace him with Balla.
Other politicians would have jumped at the opportunity, but not Balla. He turned down the offer and remained a loyal deputy to Aminu Kano. The duo failed together.
His philanthropic works and his ties to the Soviet Union were also explained. And here, Balla’s humility comes into focus. He could have boasted of saving the life of a prominent Soviet general in WW II, but he never did and it was much later that the story emerged, not from Balla, but from the Soviets.
He also comes across as an altruist, a dedicated family man and a man dedicated to the abolition of tyranny of all kind.
Unsung Revolutionary is slim book and in it, Tasiu has succeeded in immortalising the legacies of a man who history seems in a hurry to forget, the sort that comes once in a generation.

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