Yakubu Tali: Pioneering Educationist in Northern Ghana

I first heard the name Tolon Naa Yakubu Tali during the final funeral ceremony of the former Northern Regional chairman of the NPP, the late Alhaji Salifu COP in 2006 when the then National Chairman delivered his speech. Then as a JHS 2 student, I really wanted to know who this man was, so on our way home, I asked my grandfather whether he had any knowledge of the name and he only told me, he was a great man and a “karachi bieng”.

So as I grew up and got involved in social and political activities in this country, I began to get insights into who this man was and his contribution to the development of Dagbang, the north and Ghana as a whole and this led me back to my constant source of Dagbang history, my grandfather Alhaji Hidr Ibn Alhassan popularly called Alhaji Alaru. This time Yakubu Tali’s name came up in the context of education in Northern Ghana.

Born in 1916 in the village of Tali in the Tolon district, 32 kilometers away from Tamale, Tolon Naa Yakubu Tali was the son of Tali Naa Alhassan Sulemana and Mma Ayishetu (Mpag’ Kong) and belonged to the two royal families of Tolon and Kumbungu to his paternal and maternal sides respectively.

His name at birth was Yakubu but when he started school at age 9, many students had the same name so in order to easily identify them in class, names of villages children came from was attached to their names. This is how he got the name Yakubu Tali. He was an exceptional student. He was also an outstanding athlete and footballer which prompted some of his teachers to advise him to choose sports over education.

Though Yakubu Tali was an excellent student he had to go against a system that privileged education in Southern Ghana over Northern Ghana. There was a deliberate colonial policy by the British to deny students of Northern descent secondary education which accounts for the wide educational gap between the North and the South. In the first Republic under Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the ‘Northern scholarship’ was initiated to bridge this gap. According to accounts, Yakubu Tali was the first northerner to attend Achimota College in 1928. It was at Achimota that his political career began as he interacted with like-minded colleagues at the elite school.

It was at Achimota that Yakubu Tali met Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Edward Akufo Addo, Dr Kwegyir Aggrey, Robert Mugabe, Dr. K.A Busia and a host of others. He completed Achimota College in 1937.

When he returned home after completion, he began a career in teaching to impart knowledge to the younger ones. His linguistic competence earned him the position of translator in royal circles. His knowledge of English and Dagbanli positioned him strategically as the link between the white colonizer and his people. In this way, he became a man of the people.  At this time, the North was a protectorate of the British colony and had no representation at the national level. This meant that he was one of the few educated elites that were invaluable to participating in the national civic society.

Then came the 1948 riots which opened up the opportunity for Northern representation at the national level as recommended by the committee that was set up to investigate the riots. As the man of the people, Yakubu Tali was elected to represent Western Dagbon which consisted of modern day Tolon and Kumbungu districts in the Northern Territories Council where on six (6) occasions he was president from 1952 to 1958 when it was dissolved.

Prior to his success at the Northern Territories Council, Yakubu Tali was a member of the Coussey Constitutional Council which was set up to draw the road-map for Ghana’s independence. Representing Dagbang South at the Gold Coast legislative assembly from 1950-65 first as an independent candidate and later as a member of the foremost political party in the north, the Northern People’s Party. 1954 was remarkable and was also the turning point of politics in Northern Ghana as a group of elites consisting of Simon Diendong Dombo, J.A Braimah, Mumuni Bawumia, Jato Kaleo and Yakubu Tali formed the Northern People’s Party. This party had presence in all parts of the north as its leading members where from dominant ethnic groups in the north. Yakubu Tali was tasked with organizing and building a solid base of the party in Dagbang. This is why on 10th April 1954, the party was officially out-doored in Tolon a town of which he would later become chief. This is the reason my grandfather always tells me, Tolon is the modern political capital of the three regions of the North because it was the first place a major political activity took place.

In his days as a Parliamentarian, he was known as the “Golden Voice of the North” because of his eloquence. Anytime he stood up to make a submission, he would have the rapt attention of the whole house because the golden voice was on the floor. Due to his competence, he became deputy speaker of the National Assembly in 1960 and was also in the delegation of Ghana to the United Nations in 1960,  61 and 69.

After leaving Parliament in 1965, many would have thought his political career was over. He served the country as a diplomat when he was appointed Ghana’s High Commissioner to the Federal Republic of Nigeria from 1965-68 and ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1968-72. His diplomatic career continued despite the coup d’etat that toppled the second republic. He served as ambassador to Sierra Leone till 1979.

In 1979, he was a member of the constituent assembly that drafted the constitution for the short lived third republic. He found his way back into mainstream politics as National Chairman of the Popular Front Party (PFP) and was later selected by the presidential candidate of the party, Victor Owusu, as his running mate a decision which some attributed to the party’s defeat at the national elections.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Late Tolon Naa Yakubu Tali. The second will look at his life as a Chief and his legacy.

About the Writer

Iddrisu Abdul-Hak is a former student of the University for Development Studies, Wa.

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