The British Empire Library

A Right Honourable Gentleman: Abubakar From The Black Rock

by Trevor Clark

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
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.

British Empire Book
Trevor Clark
Arnold Overseas


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