In readily agreeing to include a review of this book. I reckoned that a review of this first biography of Nigeria's first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, would be widely welcomed.
Certainly your reviewer's retirement will be enlightened by having this
volume (literally - weighing in at 3 lb 6 oz) on his bookshelf. Clark knew Abubakar
well for a whole decade from c. 1950 (the year of Abubakar's historic speech to the
Northern Legislature, a facsimile of which, in his neat handwriting, is effectively
reproduced in the text), during part of which he was an administrative officer in
Bauchi, "the happiest years of my professional life". For most of Abubakar's years as
Prime Minister the friendship was, as Clark explains, reduced to "a few social letters";
in any case, Clark soon left for Hong Kong. If, then, the Bauchi chapters are
expectedly written from the heart and the Lagos years necessarily interpreted from the
well-read mind, the whole nevertheless admirably succeeds as, to use the author's
descriptive terminology, "a narrative chronology of [ATB's] life and times". It is here,
perhaps, that its strength lies. Eschewing any claim to rank as "an alternative history"
of Nigeria, nevertheless its presentation of the Prime Minister at the centre, often
unwillingly, of the labyrinthine politics of the First Republic brings both subject and
context into sharper and more meaningful perspective.
Comparison with John Paden's 1986 biography of Abubakar's colleague, Ahmadu Bello Sardauna of Sokoto (anticipatedly
the largest entry in Clark's index) is inevitable. Both are 800-900 page
blockbusters; both are very well researched; both draw tellingly on oral history; and
both are manifestations of that conspicuous phenomenon, Nigerian scholars'
willingness to leave their political biography to expatriate writers. Clark's British
education earns him the palm in its far better literary style than Paden's clumsy and
contrived insistence on writing in the present tense. Paden, on the other hand, wins
hands down on the scholarly apparatus: a thousand footnotes to Clark's nil. As a
Nigerian Ph.D. student summed it up, with pardonable academic exaggeration, at one
of the several Right Honourable launching parties, "If you can use Paden but cannot
read it, you can read Clark but cannot use it". Both books would undoubtedly have
benefitted from firmer editing. Yet for my own part, I would not for a moment wish to
do without either on my bookshelf.
Trevor Clark is generously offering royalties (in Lagos the Head of State reportedly
ordered 10,000 copies for distribution to every educational establishment) to the
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Memorial Trust.