On October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain leading to an all-Nigerian Executive Council headed by a Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
A young radical, Anthony Enahoro, was the first to move the motion in 1953 that Nigeria should have “self rule” by 1956. The motion went no further but caused rioting in Lagos and mayhem in Kano and Kaduna. In 1957, Chief S. L. Akintola moved his own motion, again demanding that Nigeria should be independent by 1957 but was persuaded to change the date to 1959 and the motion was carried. However, Nigeria did not become independent in 1959 and so the motion lapsed.
The last, final and definitive motion for Nigeria’s independence was moved in August 1959 at the House of Representatives by Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. This motion was carried and the date, October 1, 1960, was set for Nigeria’s Independence.
For the celebrations of the Independence which had started on September 24 with traditional dances at the Race Course, Lagos, the federal capital of Nigeria, was spruced for the occasion in a big way. Hardly any street went without its share of colourful decorations. The major thoroughfares were full all the time with people. By far, the most interesting spot was Tinubu Square, the heart of the city, where a magnificent £35,000 fountained-roundabout was built. Traffic was reduced to a crawling pace in the square as it carefully meandered its way through the thick sea of humanity that jammed the square from dawn to dusk each day, as the celebrations warmed up.
The regions too were determined not left behind in the race to create a chromium-plated atmosphere in their capital cities. In Western Nigeria, Ibadan was quickly transformed by the mass of flags and bunting that hung proudly with the armorial bearings of Nigeria at all important street junctions and buildings. Buildings like the massive Mapo Hall were fully flood-lit at night.
Enugu, the capital of Eastern Nigeria, was breathtaking. Beautifully coloured electric bulbs created an atmosphere of splendour and romance. Kaduna, the northern capital was equally romantic to see and the sight of northern horsemen clad in the national colours of Nigeria easily reminded the people of the north of the martial valour of their fore-bears.
The nation awaited anxiously the principal guest to the celebrations-Princess Alexandra of Kent, 23-year-old, cousin and personal representative of the Queen, who arrived on September 26. She was to hand over the constitutional instrument establishing the freedom of Nigeria! Meanwhile, thousands of representatives of 50 nations had poured into Lagos and the fleet of luxurious cars painted in the national colours could be seen everywhere as they careered along the streets with their official guests.
Huge crowds line the 14-mile route from Ikeja Airport to the city of Lagos to welcome Princess Alexandra, waving the national flag and shouting all the way: “Welcome, welcome.” Along the route itself and indeed everywhere else, were large sheets of gaily decorated cloths which spanned both sides of the street, reading: Welcome to Nigeria or Nigerian Independence October 1, 1960.
September 27 witnessed the press being received by Princess Alexandra. Thereafter, there was a reception by President of the Senate and Mr. Speaker for her while in the evening, Hubert Ogunde thrilled the guests with a play at the Race Course. Initiation of trunk dialing system at the General Post Office, Marina, inspection of Junior Red Cross, reception at the Supreme Court and demonstration of Nigerian musical instruments at the Museum, were some of the activities of the Princess on September 28. Excitement reached a fever pitch all over Lagos and indeed throughout the federation.
On September 29, a handful of jet bombers of the Royal Air Force created thrills for thousands of people who watched them during a fly-past. At the same time, the huge crowds on the grand-stands witnessed a spectacular national pageant which depicted all aspects of life in the country. There was also a reception for Commonwealth representatives and another one for heads of foreign delegations.
The rains which had started at the beginning of the week ceased and in brilliant sunshine, happy Nigerians went about the city anxiously awaiting the peak of all the events at the night of Friday, September 30. The excitement was almost unbearable.
At precisely 12 midnight on September 30, 1960, church bells began to peal out triumphantly, a 21-gunsalute was fired from the naval headquarters at Apapa, sirens wailed from ships on the harbour in nearby Lagos Lagoon and thousands of happy Nigerians who had gathered on the Race Course filled the air with a mighty ovation. With all eyes on him in the darkness, Ordinary Seaman Salaudeen Akano of the Nigerian Navy, marched smartly forward, observed the necessary protocol and lowered the Union Jack (British flag – a symbol of authority and sovereignty for the people of the West Coast of Africa since 1914), to symbolise the end of British colonial rule in Nigeria. Then the floodlights suddenly illumined the place as Akano hoisted the Green–White–Green Nigerian national flag (designed by Taiwo Akinkunmi), to mark Nigeria’s independence.
In the centre of the field stood Sir James Robertson, the Governor General and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister. They were standing at attention and so did everyone else – Nigerians and their guests as the band of the Nigeria police played the national anthem. Over 50,000 voices, quivering with emotion, sang “Nigeria we hail thee, our own dear native land, though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand.” Explosions of crackers and fireworks loud enough to wake the dead, reverberated through the whole of the Race Course. The world must have heard the shouts of victory. The sparks dancing in front of the sky were complimented by the ear splitting responses of joy and gaiety by all those who had come to witness Nigeria’s independence from British colonialism. The latest, but the greatest of African nations had been born. In the pubs, nightclubs and hotels, thousands of Nigerians danced and wined until independence morning, October 1, 1960.
The programmes of October 1 started with nationwide religious broadcasts by representatives of the Islamic faith, Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Thereafter at the Race Course, Princess Alexandra formally presented the Constitutional Instrument by which Britain transferred sovereignty to Nigeria to the Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Then, Sir James Robertson was sworn-in as the first Governor-General of an independent Nigeria. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa addressed the congregation thus:
“Today is Independence Day. The first of October 1960 is a date to which for two years, every Nigerian has been eagerly looking forward. At last, our great day has arrived and Nigeria is now indeed an independent sovereign nation.
“This is a wonderful day and it is all the more wonderful because we have awaited it with increasing impatience, compelled to watch one country after another overtaking us on the road when we had so nearly reached our goal. But now, we have acquired our rightful status and I feel sure that history will show that the building of our nation proceeded at the wisest pace: It has been thorough and Nigeria now stands well built upon firm foundations.
“Today’s ceremony marks the culmination of a process which began fifteen years ago and has now reached a happy and successful conclusion. It is with justifiable proud that we claim the achievement of our Independence to be unparalleled in the annals of history. Each step of our constitutional advance has been purposefully and peacefully planned with full and open consultation between representatives of all the various interests in Nigeria, but in harmonious co-operation with the administering power, which has today relinquished its authority.
“At the time when our constitutional development entered upon its final phase, the emphasis was largely upon self-government. We, the elected representatives of the people of Nigeria, concentrated on proving that we were fully capable of managing our own affairs both internally and as a nation. However, we were not to be allowed the selfish luxury of focusing our own interest on our own homes. In these days of rapid communications, we cannot live in isolation, apart from the rest of the world, even if we wished to do so. All too soon, it has become evident that for us, Independence implies a great deal more than self-government. This great country, which has now emerged without bitterness or bloodshed, finds that she must at once be ready to deal with grave international issues.
“Time will not permit the individual mention of all those friends, many of them Nigerians, whose selfless labour has contributed to our independence. Some have not lived to see the fulfillment of their hopes – on them be peace – but nevertheless, they are remembered here and the names of buildings and streets and roads and bridges throughout the country recall to our minds their achievements, some of them on a national scale. Other confined, perhaps, to a small area in one division, are more humble but of equal value in the sum total.
“Today, we have with us representatives of those who have made Nigeria representatives of the regional governments, of former central governments, of the missionary societies, and of the banking and commercial enterprises and members, both past and present, of the public service. We welcome you and we rejoice that you have been able to come and share in our celebrations. We wish that it could have been possible for all of those whom you represent to be here today. Many, I know, will be disappointed to be absent, but if they are listening to me now, I say to them: ‘Thank you on behalf of my countrymen. Thank you for your devoted service, which helped to build up Nigeria into a nation. Today, we are reaping the harvest, which you have sowed and the quality of the harvest is equaled only by our gratitude to you. May God bless you all.’
“This is an occasion when our hearts are filled with conflicting emotions: we are, indeed, proud to have achieved our independence and proud that our efforts should have contributed to this happy event. But do not mistake our pride for arrogance. It is tempered by feelings of sincere gratitude to all who have shared in the task of developing Nigeria politically, socially and economically. We are grateful to the British officers whom we have known, first as masters and then as leaders and finally as partners, but always as friends. And there have been countless missionaries who have laboured unceasingly in the cause of education and to whom we owe many of our medical services. We are grateful also to those who have brought modern methods of banking and of commerce and new industries. I wish to pay tribute to all of these people and to declare our everlasting admiration of their devotion to duty.
“And finally, I must express our gratitude to her Royal Highness the Princess Alexandra of Kent, for personally bringing to us these symbols of our freedom and especially for delivering the gracious message from her Majesty, The Queen. And so, with God save our Queen, I open a new chapter in the history of Nigeria and of the Commonwealth and indeed of the world.”
That was the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He was not the only one impressed, other eminent Nigerians could not also hide their joy: Chief Richard Akinjide said with nostalgia in an interview recently that “many foreigners in Nigeria, during that hour of history, had expected to see thousands of gloating Nigerians. But what they saw were calm and sober faces of millions of people who, even at the hour of their great triumph, continued to treat their former British masters with a great deal of friendliness. Many foreigners had swarmed into Nigeria to witness another Congo roulette. They were greatly disappointed. What they saw was a mighty giant taking over power with a great ‘thank you.’”
Nigerians were determined to prove to the rest of the world that they had not got independence in the spirit of unruly urchins but in the spirit of politically mature people. Their leaders did not lose their own heads during the memorable occasion. They all were happy-but happy after the fashion of responsible people.
According to Chief Solomon Lar in a newspaper chat, “we worked as patriotic Nigerians without emphasis on our differences to see the mission accomplished. This came to reality when, just before the midnight of September 30, 1960, we all gathered at the Lagos Race Course awaiting the birth of an independent and emancipated new nation called Nigeria. What seems our loses, we can still regain if our leaders will cherish a sense of history and focus more on what binds us together, rather than create parochial issues that would divide the electorate.”
As Editor of the Daily Times, Babatunde Jose, personally covered and captured the event as he wrote in the newspaper: “Forty million Nigerians are free.”
“The time is 12 midnight. The place: Lagos Race Course. The dramatis personae: Sir James Robertson, representing Queen Elizabeth II of Britain and Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, representing the 40 million people of Nigeria. There were about half a million people in the arena and several millions more scattered over the 372,250 square miles of Nigeria, sitting by their radio loud-speakers listening to the proceedings. “The ceremony was watched by Princess Alexandra of Kent.
“And I am sobbing. For I remember Nigerians who lived and died during the bloodless fight for Nigeria’s independence. Men like Herbert Macaulay; Sir Adeyemo ALakija; Dr. J.C. Vaughan; Chief Bode Thomas; Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, Malam Zaad Zungur and many others. They were not destined to see the Promised Land.
“And at this moment, I remember the Nigerian youths who were imprisoned for daring to attack British rule in Nigeria. Men like Anthony Enahoro (“Bravo Sir Bernard”), Osita Agwuna (“A call for revolution”) Mokwugo Okoye (sedition); Malam Raji Abdallah (“I hate the Union Jack”); A.Y.S. Tubyvy (“Whose Empire Day”); Fred Anyiam, Oged Macaulay; Ikenna Nzimiro and many members of the outlawed Zikist Movement. And I remember, youths like R.A. Fani-Kayode, QC; N.A.B, Kotoye, Barrister-at-law; Oxford University educated Fed McEwen; who voluntarily trooped to the Lagos prison in protest against the official celebration of the Queen’s coronation.
“At this moment, I can see the broad smile of Alhaji Sir Abubakar, who by the grace of Allah, becomes the first Prime Minister of an independent Nigeria. And I see Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in the happiest moment of his life. And I remember when in the bitter struggle for independence, he once threatened Sir Hugh Foot, at that time, Chief Secretary to the Government of Nigeria, that “the tree of liberty shall be watered by the blood of tyrants.” And I picture Chief Awolowo, joy filled and remember many years ago, when he threatened Britain that “we shall proclaim self-government and proceed to assert it.”
Fifty-two years after, we still struggle against tyranny and want, fetid social conditions and diseases; against ignorance; against oppression and injustice; against mental, social and political slavery. We still struggle for the most basic human needs. What can we say about the goal and the labour of our nationalists and indeed, the great hope and admiration, particularly among black people all over the world on October 1, 1960 at the Race Course?
Happy Independence Day Nigeria!