Throwback/1966: What President Yew of Singapore Said About Nigeria, Ghana

Throwback/1966: What President Yew of Singapore Said About Nigeria, Ghana

Sunday, May 31, 2020 11:13 am

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (16 September 1923 – 23 March 2015), was the first Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. As the nation’s founding father,he was credited with rapidly transitioning the country from a “developing third world country into a developed first world country within a single generation”. He visited Nigeria and Ghana and put down his impressions of the two countries, his apprehensions still haunt the two till date.

We were greeted, inspected a guard of honour in turn and then whisked into Lagos. It looked like a city under siege. Police and soldiers lined the route to the Federal Palace Hotel. Barbed wire and troops surrounded it. No leader left the hotel throughout the two-day conference (for Commonwealth leaders). The night before the meeting, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, whom I had visited two years before, gave us a banquet in the hotel. Raja and I were seated opposite a hefty Nigerian, Chief Festus, their Finance Minister. The conversation is still fresh in my mind. He was going to retire soon, he said. He had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory. As Finance Minister he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes. Raja and I were incredulous. Chief Festus had a good appetite that showed in his rotund figure, elegantly camouflaged in colorful Nigerian robes with gold ornamentation and a splendid cap. I went to bed that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules. Four days later Tafawa Balewa was overthrown.


Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s president, did not rejoice at the news (of the coup that ended Balewa’s government). He himself had had a narrow escape about two years before, just before I visited him in January 1964. By 1966, “Osagyefo” (Redeemer), as Nkrumah was called, had recovered enough of his bounce to give me dinner with some of his senior ministers and a bright young Vice-Chancellor of his University. This man, Abraham, was only about 30 years old, had taken a First in Classics at Oxford and was a Fellow of All Souls’ College. Nkrumah was very proud of him. I was impressed, but wondered why a country so dependent on Agriculture should have its brightest and best do Classics – Latin and Greek. Nkrumah was toppled a month later. Later, i wondered what would happen to these two countries. They were then the brightest hopes of Africa, the first two to get their independence, Ghana in 1957, followed shortly by Nigeria. I was not optimistic about Africa. In less than 10 years after independence in 1957, Nigeria had had a coup and Ghana a failed coup. I thought their tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood.”

Yew in his book, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story from 1965-2000

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