The Voice of Courage

Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto was a conservative Nigerian statesman who served as its first and only premier of the Northern Nigeria for over a decade. 

He was also the leader of the Northern People’s Congress, the ruling party at the time consisting of the Hausa–Fulani elite. He had previously been elected into the regional legislature and later became a government minister. A member of the Sokoto Caliphate dynasty, he made attempts at becoming Sultan of Sokoto before later joining politics. 


Sir Ahmadu Bello was born in Rabah c. 1910 to the family of Mallam Ibrahim Bello. His father held the title of Sarkin Rabah. He was a descendant of Uthman dan Fodio (founder of the Sokoto Caliphate), a great-grandson of Sultan Muhammad Bello, and a grandson of Sultan Atiku na Raba. 

He received Islamic education at home, where he learnt the Qur’an, Islamic jurisprudence and the traditions of Muhammad. He later attended Sokoto Provincial School and the Katsina Training College (now Barewa College). During his school days, he was known as Ahmadu Rabah. Some also called him Gamji growing up. He finished school in 1931 and subsequently became the English teacher in Sokoto Middle School. 

In 1934, Bello was made the District Head of Rabah by Sultan Hassan dan Mu’azu, succeeding his brother. In 1938, he was promoted to the position of Divisional Head of Gusau (in present-day Zamfara State) and became a member of the Sultan’s council. In 1938, at the age of just 28, he made attempts to become the Sultan of Sokoto but was not successful, losing to Sir Siddiq Abubakar III who reigned for 50 years until his death in 1988.

The new Sultan immediately made Sir Ahmadu Bello the Sardauna (Crown Prince) of Sokoto, a chieftaincy title, and promoted him to the Sokoto Native Authority Council. These titles automatically made him the Chief Political Adviser to the Sultan. Later, he was put in charge of the Sokoto Province to oversee 47 districts and by 1944, he was back at the Sultan’s Palace to work as the Chief Secretary of the State Native Administration.

In the 1940s, he joined Jam’iyyar Mutanen Arewa which would later become the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in 1951. In 1948, he travelled to England on a government scholarship to study Local Government Administration, which broadened his understanding and knowledge of governance.

After returning from Britain, he was nominated to represent the province of Sokoto in the regional House of Assembly. As a member of the assembly, he was a notable voice for northern interests and embraced a style of consultation and consensus with the major representatives of the northern emirates namely Kano, Bornu and Sokoto. He was selected among others as a member of a committee that redrafted the Richards Constitution and he also attended a general conference in Ibadan. 

His work at the assembly and in the constitution drafting committee brought him appreciation in the north and he was asked to take on leadership positions within Jamiyya Mutanen Arewa. In the first elections held in Northern Nigeria in 1952, Sir Ahmadu Bello won a seat in the Northern House of Assembly and became a member of the regional executive council as minister of works. Bello was successfully minister of Works, of Local Government, and of Community Development in the Northern Region of Nigeria. In 1954, Bello became the first Premier of Northern Nigeria. 

In the 1959 independence elections, Bello led the NPC to win a plurality of the parliamentary seats. Bello’s NPC forged an alliance with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons) to form Nigeria’s first indigenous federal government which led to independence from Britain. In forming the 1960 independence federal government of Nigeria, Bello as president of the NPC, chose to remain Premier of Northern Nigeria and devolved the position of Prime Minister of the Federation to the deputy president of the NPC, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. 

I am not unaware that I have often been a controversial figure. I have been accused of lack of nationalism and political awareness because I considered that independence must wait until a country has the resources to support and make a success of independence. I have been accused of conservatism because I believe in retaining all that is good in our old traditions and customs and refusing to copy all aspects of other alien civilizations have been accused of many things, but the views of others have never made me deviate from the path which I am certain is the one which will benefit my people and country. I have always based my actions on my inward convictions, on my conscience and on the dictates of my religion. 

Sir Ahmadu Bello originally embraced the Indirect rule system of colonial Nigeria before gradually embracing reforms. During his period of premiership, his biographer, John Paden described him as a progressive conservative, because he was an agent of change and also of the traditional elites. Bello’s leadership characteristics were a blend of religious, traditional and modern values and his obligation in colonial and post-independence Nigeria was performing these different roles in the northern region. 

Premier of Northern Nigeria Sir Ahmadu Bello far right, and Muhammadu Sanusi I leaving the Atomic Museum Oak Ridge in 1960.

Due to a limited number of qualified graduates from the region, Sir Ahmadu Bello instated the northernisation of the region’s public service. Administration in the North was through indirect rule and Western education was not considered very important in many divisions. After the regionalization of the public service, political leaders in the region felt that the number of Northerners in the service was minimal in comparison to their counterparts in the South. Due to political considerations, leaders in the region limited the recruitment of Southerners into the Northern regional service and found ways to push up the ranks of Northerners in junior and senior positions.

The leaders retained the services of expatriates because Northerners regarded expatriates as transients but feared Southern domination of the regional civil service. Measures were put in place to train northerners; in 1949, a scholarship board provided grants to almost all Northerners with qualifications to enter universities.  In 1957, administration courses were taught at the Institute of Administration in Zaria. Apart from trying to fill positions in the civil service with Northerners, political leaders in the zone also made it a priority to secure Northern representation in senior positions of the Federal service. 

In a legislative debate held in 1952, a traditional ruler from the North expressed his support for the policy. He likened Nigeria to a compound with three houses. The people in Mr. West’s and Mr. East’s houses have already gone far on the way, having started their journey earlier in the morning, but we of Mallam North’s house only have started after mid-day and have begun to understand that alien way. 

Therefore it is very necessary for us to run at a very terrific speed in order to overtake those people and be able to reach our common destination together.

Various institutions were created under Bello, including the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation (NNDC), Bank of the North and Northern Nigeria Investments Ltd (NNIL). NNDC was a holding company with capital sourced from the region’s marketing board while NNIL was a partnership between the Commonwealth Development Corporation and NNDC created to assist in the industrial development in Northern Nigeria.

Bello initiated plans to modernise traditional Koranic education in Northern Nigeria. He set up a commission to this effect and gave official recognition to the schools. The commission recommended the introduction of secular subjects in the schools and the creation of different classes for pupils. 

Part of his educational objectives was building a school in each province in Northern Nigeria.

Bello’s final years were characterized by his earlier years. A major priority of his was making sure the region was at par politically and economically with the Western and Eastern regions. This contributed to the decision to replace both Southerners and Europeans in the Northern region’s civil services with Northerners, a policy that received criticism from opposition leaders such as Ibrahim Imam. 

Sir Ahmadu Bello’s greatest legacy was the modernization and unification of the diverse people of Northern Nigeria. His personal residence in Kaduna, now called Arewa House (Gidan Arewa), was transformed into a museum and centre for research and historical documentation managed by the Ahmadu Bello University. 

Ahmadu Bello believed that every Nigerian and all human beings are created equal and that they are endowed by God with rights among which are life, liberty, equal opportunity, blessings and the legitimate pursuit of happiness. Throughout his political career and before, he espoused high morality and intellectual virtues. 

A number of localities and monuments around the country have been named in Sardauna’s honour. They include: 

The Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria is named after him.

His portrait adorns the 200 naira banknote.

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