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Ahmadu Bello: Assassinated leader of Northern Nigeria

Premier of then-autonomous northern Nigeria, Bello was top official in Muslim caliphate

Ahmadu Bello: Assassinated leader of Northern Nigeria

By Gokhan Kavak and Adam Abu Bashal

KADUNA, Nigeria

Ahmadu Bello, a knight of the British Empire, was the premier of autonomous Northern Nigeria when he was assassinated in a 1966 coup attempt.

Born in 1909 or 1910 depending on the source, Bello was a grandson of Osman Dan Faido, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate and one of West Africa’s greatest Islamic scholars of all time. 

He was among the earliest nobles in northern Nigeria to have been enrolled in a Western school. He was educated at Sokoto Provincial School and the Katsina Training College.

He later taught briefly and served in colonial offices before being made a district head of his community Rabah in the early 1930s. 

He rose through the ranks as a prince of the Muslim caliphate until he was made sardauna -- a title meaning crown prince -- in the early 1940s. That made him the official political advisor to the caliphate.

He later went into politics, joining a political movement that metamorphosed into the Northern People's Congress (NPC), a party that formed the government in the then-autonomous northern region.  

Bold, charismatic

Bello, charismatic, bold and emblematic of the heritage of the mainly Muslim northern region, served as party leader for 12 years. 

In 1960, Queen Elizabeth made Bello a knight of the British Empire.

Until it gained independence in 1960, Nigeria was divided into three regions: the eastern, western and northern territories.

After independence, having won the election, Bello’s NPC formed an alliance with another party from the eastern region. Bello turned down a chance to be the country's prime minister, feeling it was below his rank as the future head of the influential Sokoto caliphate. He instead reportedly nominated Sir Tafawa Balewa, a top NPC member, for the post. 

As leader of the NPC, Bello carried out educational work. He supported the founding of Ahmadu Bello University in the ancient town of Zaria in northern Nigeria in 1962 and became its first rector.

During his tenure, he visited Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. In 1962 he became vice president of the Muslim World League, forging closer ties with the Islamic world. 

Known for his stance against Israel, Bello refused Israel’s monetary aid in 1964.

Coup attempt and civil war

Bello, the first and only premier of the northern region, was assassinated on Jan. 15, 1966, during a coup attempt in Kaduna. The coup’s other victims included Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first and the only prime minister.

Until 1999, Nigeria was wracked by numerous civil and military coups.

The failed 1966 coup not only impaired Nigeria's economic, political and social order but also led to the Biafran Civil War of 1967-1970.

Previously used as a presidential office, the Ahmadu Bello Museum in Nigeria’s northern Kaduna province today showcases the statesman's photos and documents and is used as an archive and research center. 

*Rafiu Ajakaye Contributed to this story from Lagos

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