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Nigerian Leaders 1960–2010

A long journey to finally achieving a stable democracy

Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe
1 Oct. 1960 – 16 Jan.1966

Nnamdi Azikiwe, known as ‘Zik of Africa’, was the first President of Nigeria and one of the most important nationalist voices of twentieth-century Africa. American-educated Azikiwe was a newspaper owner and journalist in colonial Nigeria; in 1944, he founded the country’s first political party with a nationwide following, the NCNC. Through his newspapers and the NCNC, he argued for Nigerian independence from Britain for more than a decade, until in 1957 he joined the Nigerian delegation to London to help draw up a federal constitution for an independent Nigeria. In 1959, following federal elections, he led the NCNC into a temporary government with the Northern Peoples Congress.
On 1 October 1960, Nigeria became an independent country within the British Commonwealth, and Azikiwe was named its first indigenous Governor General. In 1963, Nigeria cut its remaining ties with the colonial power and declared itself a republic. Azikiwe became the first President of Nigeria on 1 October 1963. He remained President until the military coup of January 1966. Azikiwe’s writings gave rise to an African liberation philosophy known as Zikism, and his contribution to Nigerian independence through his leadership and his writings is commemorated by his portrait on today’s five hundred naira banknote.


Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
1 Oct. 1960 – 15 Jan. 1966

Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was independent Nigeria’s only Prime Minister. Trained as a teacher, Balewa co-founded the Northern People’s Congress in June 1949 with Ahmadu Bello. In 1957, he became Chief Minister of a coalition government with Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC, and following elections in 1959, he retained his role as head of government in independent Nigeria, when he was named the country’s first Prime Minister.

As Prime Minister, Balewa was concerned with creating relationships with other African countries. He advocated strongly for the formation of the forerunner of the African Union, the Organisation of African Unity, which sought to serve as a common voice for Africa and to eradicate the vestiges of colonialism throughout its duration from 1963 to 2002. He tried to help negotiate a settlement to the Congo Crisis between 1960 and 1964 and he led a protest against the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when South African police opened fire on a crowd of black protestors, killing 64.  

The years following independence were marked by divisions between Nigeria’s regions and the peoples that lived there, the Hausa-Fulani North, the Igbo East and the Yoruba West, and the growing instability culminated in a military coup in January 1966. Abubakar Balewa was murdered on 15 January 1966. He is buried in his hometown of Bauchi in Northern Nigeria, and the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University at Bauchi was named after the former Prime Minister in 1984.

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