Home news Did Tafawa Balewa Die Of Asthma Or Gun Shot?

Did Tafawa Balewa Die Of Asthma Or Gun Shot?

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First prime minister of Nigeria, Sir Tafawa Balewa

To some, circumstances surrounding the death of premier prime minister of Nigeria still remain a mystery. What further fuelled such assumption was the the fact that his body was discovered at a roadside near Lagos six days after his ouster from office during the bloody counter-coup of July 1966. 


However Brian Oliver, a former editor of the Observer throws more highlights on this mystery. This is how he puts it in his book, The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind The Medals, published by Bloomsbury.
“The coup, codenamed Leopard, was planned in secret meetings. Major Emmauel Ifeajuna led a small group in Lagos, whose main targets were the prime minister, the army’s commander-in-chief, and a brigadier, who was Ifeajuna’s first victim. 

According to the official police report, part of which has never been made public, Ifeajuna and a few of his men broke into the prime minister’s home, kicked down his bedroom door and led out Balewa in his white robe. They allowed him to say his prayers and drove him away in Ifeajuna’s car. On the road to Abeokuta they stopped, Ifeajuna ordered the prime minister out of the car, shot him, and left his body in the bush. Others say the Prime Minister was not shot, nor was the intention ever to kill him: Balewa died of an asthma attack or a heart attack brought on by fear. There has never been conclusive evidence either way.

Ifeajuna drove on to Enugu, where it became apparent that the coup had failed, mainly because one of the key officers in Ifeajuna’s Lagos operation had “turned traitor” and had failed to arrive as planned with armoured cars. Major-General Ironsi, the main military target, was still at large and he soon took control of the military government. Ifeajuna was now a wanted man. He hid in a chemist’s shop, disguised himself as a woman, and was driven over the border by his friend Christopher Okigboa poet of great renown. Then he travelled on to Ghana, where he was welcomed.
Ifeajuna eventually agreed to return to Lagos, where he was held pending trial. Ojukwu, by now a senior officer, ensured his safety by having him transferred, in April, to a jail in the east. The Igbo people who lived in the north of Nigeria were attacked. In weeks of violent bloodshed, tens of thousands died. As the death toll increased, the outcome was a Civil War

In another account, Dr. Mathew Taiwo Mbu, Nigeria’s first High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and one of only three surviving members of the first Federal cabinet, pictured the death of the prime minister in this light:

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“Prime Minister Balewa died as a result of an asthmatic attack while he was being driven to Calabar by soldiers under the command of Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna who arrested him.

Most on-site acccounts to date, only reported that the body of the late Prime Minister was found in a seating position by a tree, in a plantation, on the road to Abeokuta, near Ifo, some 35 kilometres from his Ikoyi residence where he was arrested by soldiers on the night of January 15, 1966. The Prime Minister’s body was found beside the bullet-riddled body of Chief Okotie-Eboh, Nigeria’s first Minister of Finance.

No report of the macabre events of January 15, 1966, has been categorical that the Prime Minister was shot death; and no autopsies were carried out on the bodies discovered several days after the two had been reported kidnapped from their official residences by soldiers.

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But Dr. Mbu, who was a close confidant of the late Prime Minister, recounted a momentous encounter 44 years ago, with the late poet Christopher Okigbo, one of the last people to see the late Prime Minister alive before he was arrested by the coup plotters.

He said Christopher Okigbo, who was also a close friend of Major Ifeajuna, who led the coupists in Lagos, recounted the arrest of the Prime Minister to him first hand. Okigbo and Ifeajuna themselves were killed in action during the Nigerian civil war.
Mbu, who many also regarded as Tafawa Balewa’s de-facto foreign minister, was ironically sent out to India for a State funeral by the Prime Minister, only hours before the coup. He had warned the late Prime Minister of an impending coup just days earlier.

He said he was reliably informed that Prime Minister Balewa had been accosted by the soldiers who first gave him the salute due to a Commander-in-Chief before informing him that they were effecting a change of government. They allowed him to say his Islamic prayers before taking him in a car.

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The plans of the putschists according to Mbu’s account, did not include killing the Prime Minister. He was to be taken to Calabar and forced to release and handover power to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, then in prison for treasonable felony.

Balewa unfortunately did not make it out of Lagos. He reportedly suffered an asthmatic attack and died in the car. The announcement by the Army chief, General Aguiyi Ironsi of a failed coup, led to the dumping of the late Prime Minister’s body in the forest off the road to Abeokuta. 

This much was also corroborated by Chief Olusegun Osoba, who was then a young reporter with Daily Times. This is how he reported his version of Balewa’s death:

“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. 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, ‘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?”



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Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis is a communicator, Journalist, blogger, business coach and, of course, a prolific writer. He has Dip (Journalism) and B.A. (History & International Relations) from the Lagos State University (LASU). The self-effacing young man has worked for national, regional and local newspapers. He had worked with THISDAY covered community news for ISLAND NEWS and corresponded with P.M. NEWS (evening tabloid). Presently, he is the editor of CITYPULSE MEDIA and senior correspondent of PHARMANEWS, West Africa foremost health and pharmaceutical journal.

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