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51 years after: Who really was Sir Ahmadu Bello?

Read about legendary Sardaunan Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who transformed Northern Nigeria from a glorified region into an epitome of excellence

Ahmadu Bello - 50 years after
Ahmadu Bello – 50 years after

Even 50 years after his death at the age of 55, Sir Ahmadu Bello is still venerated by millions of Nigerians. The largest university in West Africa, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, is named after him while his picture is graciously perched on one of Nigeria’s currencies – the N200 note.

Born four years before the amalgamation of Northern Protectorate with the Southern Protectorate, the late premier was born ready to his countrymen to greatness. And this he did with little to no rest! But the legacies he left behind had been left to rut by those handed the baton of leadership of the region.

Who was Ahmad Bello?

Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, was the first premier of the Northern Nigeria region from 1954-1966. Born on June 12, 1910, he died on January 15, 1966, in a bloody coup spearheaded by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.

He is considered to be a founding father of the modern Nigerian nation state, which was formed October 1, 1960 when his party NPC (Northern People’s Congress) 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.

Despite his popularity and political support, Bello chose to remain in the North instead of accepting the post of national Prime Minister, which would have required living in the South.

Birth and early days

The late Sardauna was born in the village of Rabah of Sokoto province. His father, Ibrahim Bello, was a district head and heir to the Sokoto Emirate stool. And thus, Sir Ahmadu Bello, himself was a prince of the Sokoto Caliphate. His great-grandfather being Sultan Muhammed Bello, who was a son of the Fulani conqueror, Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, a scholar and warrior who founded the Fulani Empire in 1809 and became its first Sultan.

Education and Growing Up

Sir Ahmadu Bello lost his father at a tender age of six. Ahmadu Bello received his education first at the feet of Muslim masters, studying the Quran, the hadith, and Shariah. Afterwards he proceeded to Sokoto Middle School, the only modern school at the time in the Sokoto province (1917-1926). He finished at the age of 16 top of the class. He also got his Islamic and Arabic education as a teenager from Mallam Garba who was the Imam of Rabah village.

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He then proceeded to the Katsina Teacher’s Training College (which later became the famous Barewa College, Zaria) where he was a school prefect and class captain. He graduated as a Teacher in 1931 with a credit equivalent Grade III result.

After spending five years at Katsina, he was appointed by the Sultan as a teacher in his own former school in Sokoto where he worked from 1931 to 1934. He was the only surviving son of his father and mother, Mariyamu.


In 1932, he married Goggon Kurya Hafsatu Abdulkadir Maccido, his first wife and daughter of Waziri of Sokoto. Some records indicated he married Hafsatu when she was nine while another stated twelve. Hafsatu would later battle with childlessness. With time, he married two more wives, Kande and Amiru Fadima (divorced them in 1938) and later married Goggon Kano Amina Abubakar, daughter of the District Head of Bici and Jabbo Aliyu, daughter of the Sarkin Yaki of Gwandu, in 1940 and 1952 respectively. In 1952, his five-day-old son from Jabbo died and back in 1936, he had also lost a two-year-old son, Mohammed Tambari, from his divorced wife, Kande.

The late Sardauna of Sokoto was survived by three daughters (Inno, A’ishat, Lubabatu). One of them, Inno died in 2008. There were three sons but all died.

Sardauna's daughter, Aisha
Sardauna’s daughter, Aisha

The eldest today is Hajiya A’ishat Marafa Danbaba who was married to the former Marafan Sokoto, Late Alhaji Dan’baba, was born in 1945. She said that after the brutal assassination of their dad, they have been surviving on the goodwill of close associates such as the late Emir of Daura, Alhaji Muhammadu Bashar, the Sarkin Fadan Kano, Alhaji Sule Gaya and also commended the administration of former Governor Aliyu Magatakarda Wammako of Sokoto State for taking good care of them.

According to her, as from May 29th, 2007, the former state governor placed the Sardauna family on a monthly allowance of N250,000 (about $1250). She added, “Since the death of our father, there has never been a government that showed us care and concern as the current administration of Governor Wamakko which placed this family on a monthly allowance of N250,000 for which we are very grateful.”

Hajia A’ishat has five children and the fourth one, Hassan Danbaba Marafa is the Magajin Garin of Sokoto, who happens to be one of the 11 kingmakers of the Sokoto Caliphate saddled with the responsibility of appointing the Sultan. Her first daughter is married to Nigeria’s former Ambassador to South Africa, Alhaji Shehu Malami.

A second daughter of the late premier, Hajia Luba, is married to the Marafan Sokoto, Alhaji Ali Umaru Shinkafi (CON, NPM, MNIM), former Head of the National Security Organisation (NSO) and one-time Presidential Aspirant.


In 1934, he was made the district head of Rabbah within the Sultan’s administration. Four years later, he was promoted and sent to Gusau to become a divisional head. In 1938, at the tender age of 29, he made an unsuccessful bid to become the new Sultan of Sokoto, 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 traditional, now honourary, title of Sardauna (Warlord) of Sokoto 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.

As ‘successor-in-waiting’ to the throne of the Sultan, he wore the turban. In 1943, a drama played out when he was thrown before the Sultan’s court for misappropriating jangali (cattle) tax for the Gusau region where he was the Councillor.

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He was sentenced to one year in prison. All this while, there had been a rivalry simmering below the robes between him and the new Sultan. But with the aid of the other prominent northern individuals like Shehu Shagari, Aminu Kano and Ibrahim Dasuki, Sardauna filed for an acquittal after he had already spent three months in jail. And this actually boosted his popularity because many felt he was a victim of unfair political tussle.

Foray into Politics

In the 1940s, he established the Jamiyya Mutanen Arewa which would later become the NPC in 1951. In 1948, he got a government scholarship and was off to England 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 interest and embraced a style of consultation and consensus with the major representatives of the northern emirates: Kano, Bornu and Sokoto.

As the movement for independence from the British Empire gathered momentum, Bello emerged as a strong advocate of federalism as the system of government that in his view was most suitable for Nigeria. This was especially attractive to Northern Nigerians, who had a history of sharing power. Nigeria has some 360 clan groups. He may also have wanted to protect the North from what he perceived as the possibility of Southern domination. He also served on the national constitutional drafting commission as a representative of the North.

In the first elections held in Northern Nigeria in 1952, 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 successively minister of Works, of Local Government, and of Community Development in the Northern Region of Nigeria. In 1953 and in 1957, he led the Northern delegation during independence talks in London.

Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa: Nigeria's first Prime Minister
Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa: Nigeria’s first Prime Minister

Premier of the North

In 1954, Bello became the first Premier of Northern Nigeria. In the 1959 independence elections, he 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 the Nigeria, Bello as president of the NPC, chose—although arguably one of the most influential politicians in Nigeria—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. He apparently did not want to live in Lagos and preferred the political climate of the North from that of the South. His disinclination to head the national government also suggests that he was not interested in power for the sake of power but in serving the people whose votes had elected him to office.

Political Accomplishments

Bello’s many political accomplishments include establishing the Northern Regional Development Corporation (NRDC)(subsequently the later the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation (NNDC), the Bank of the North, the Broadcasting Company of Northern Nigeria (BCNN) and the Nigeria Citizen Newspapers. The North was less developed economically than the South, and Bello argued that it was necessary for the North to catch up with the South for the sake of national unity. He traveled constantly across the North, meeting people and listening to their concerns.

Sir Ahmadu Bello and his co-travellers, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (left) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo
Sir Ahmadu Bello and his co-travellers, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (left) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Religious practice

Ahmadu Bello was a practicing Muslim. In 1955, he performed the Hajj, becoming Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. From then until his death, he visited Mecca annually to perform the Umrah. He walked every day to his local Mosque for prayer. He chose “work and worship” as the slogan for Northern Nigeria. Bello established a reputation for religious toleration.

On Christmas Day 1959 he stated, in a broadcast, “Here in the Northern Nigeria we have People of Many different races, tribes and religious who are knit together to common history, common interest and common ideas, the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. I always remind people of our firmly rooted policy of religious tolerance. We have no intention of favoring one religion at the expense of another. Subject to the overriding need to preserve law and order, it is our determination that everyone should have absolute liberty to practice his belief according to the dictates of his conscience….”

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Speaking about the vision of Ahmad Bello University, he stated, “The cardinal principle upon which our University is founded is to impart knowledge and learning to men and women of all races without any distinction on the grounds of race, religious, or political beliefs.”

And Mahmud Jega, a columnist at wrote that, “Sardauna’s entourage was rigorously pan-Northern. Among the men closest to him were Michael Audu Buba, Pastor David Lot, Jolly Tanko Yusuf, Sunday Awoniyi and George Olu Ohikere.”


Ahmadu Bello’s greatest legacy was the modernization and unification of the diverse people of Northern Nigeria. He was awarded several honorary doctorates, including the Doctor of Law from UNN (University of Nigeria Nsukka) in December 1961. He was honored by the country from which he had helped to negotiate independence, being made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959 just before the end of colonial rule.

He founded the Ahmadu Bello University (1962) in Zaria, the second largest University in Africa, which is named after him. He was the University’s first Chancellor. Nigeria’s 200 naira carries his portrait. There is a 1995 biography about his first wife, Hafsatu Ahmadu Bello, who was slain alongside him. His assassination, for which members of the Igbo tribe were responsible, was one of the factors that led to the subsequent Civil War (1967-1970) when the Southern province of Biafra attempted to secede. He wanted both national and Pan-African unity. He did not waste time blaming the ills of his time on colonialism, but instead set out to develop his region and to adapt from the West what suited Nigeria, while retaining those cultural practices and values that were cherished and integral to Nigerian identity.


Hajiya A’ishat Marafa Danbaba, the eldest surviving daughter of the premier had this to say of him: “I had a very close relationship with my father. He showered us with great love and we will continue to cherish those moments. My dad was a simple man despite being an aristocrat. He was temperamental but easily forgets after sometime.

“He doesn’t bear any grudges against those who offended him and forgives those who wronged him. My father was kind and just to people and never discriminated against anybody based on his ethnic group or religion.

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“He was a man of the people. He always sat on the floor in his house, to eat food with his bare hands, from the same bowl with his drivers and relatives. He maintained an open house, and anybody who wanted to see him got audience. He listened to people’s problems and helped both the high and the lowly.

“My father was generous and loved to give out gifts to people. He never had material accumulation instincts, did not accumulate wealth and gave out whatever came into his possession. He was scrupulous and prudent with public finance but generous with his own money.

“His happiest moments were always when he was in the company of people. He constantly toured the length and breadth of the Northern Region, always on the move persuading, cajoling, mobilizing, urging, inspiring people to be disciplined and law abiding, to work hard for common goals, to measure up to their potentials. My father had the desire of transforming the North so that the country can attain its true potentials.”

Late Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Secretary to the Executive Council in the Northern Regional Government of the late Premier, has this to say about him: “He believed that education was the most important single item that he must pursue, and pursue very ruthlessly to bring up the North to a competitive status vis a vis the rest of the federation. There was a policy whereby irrespective of the community, if you wanted to build a secondary school and you built one classroom at the village or community, you got grant to build a second one. That was how he pushed education very very rapidly.”

According to Professor Iya Abubakar, Former Vice-Chancellor, ABU Zaria, Sir Ahmadu Bello “championed the fight for a genuine and durable independence for Nigeria, insisting that it must be founded and built not on a fragile but solid foundation, based on parity of level of development of the components of the federation. A tripod cannot stand upright and balance with one leg shorter than the two legs.”

And Mahmud Jega added this: “Despite his awesome political standing, Sardauna was very forgiving, according to Alhaji Yusuf Dantsoho who, as NEPU Secretary in 1951, used to stand up and urinate whenever Sardauna was approaching. However, when he crossed over to NPC in 1954 Sardauna forcefully protected him from other party men who alleged that Dantsoho was a NEPU mole in NPC.”

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Sir Ahmadu Bello, the fearless leader of Northern Nigeria has come and gone leaving in his wake fruits that nurtured and sustained his offspring for more than half of a century. Will these offspring continue from where he stopped? This question has not yet been answered!

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