Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was the first Governor-General from 1960-1963 and first President of independent Nigeria from 1963-1966; a prominent National figure in Nigeria politics. Popularly known as ‘Zik of Africa’ he fought tirelessly and aggressively to ensure Nigeria gained independence from the British colonialist.
He was a lawyer, political scientist, journalist, political activist, President and attained an enviable and rare prestige of a national and continental hero.
He is today recognized as a prominent ‘Father of Nigerian Nationalism’.
Nnamdi Azikiwe was born to Igbo parents in Zungeru in Niger State Nigeria on November 16, 1904. His father was a clerk in the British Administration of Nigeria. At the age of eight he was sent by his father to stay with his grandmother and aunt in Onitsha in Anambra State. His father did this due to his son’s inability to speak his native language.
In 1914 he moved to and schooled in Lagos for a brief period but moved back to Onitsha in 1918 where he finished his elementary education.
As a young boy he worked temporarily as a student-teacher and in 1920 moved with his father to Calabar when his father was posted there. He started his secondary education at the Hope Waddell Training College and later transferred to Methodist Boys High School in Lagos. It was in Lagos that the foundational of Nnamdi’s political career started. He got connected to prominent political families that eventually became useful in his life as a politician in Western Nigeria.
Education in America
A lecture he attended organized by James Aggrey changed his entire life and left an indelible mark in his life. At that lecture James Aggrey had advised young Africans to go abroad, study and then come back to their continent to effect desired changes.
He took this advice very seriously and soon was sending applications to universities in the United States. Meanwhile he got a job as clerk in the treasury department of the colonial service.
Fortunately he was admitted by Storer College in the United States but had no money to embark on the journey.
To overcome this challenge he devised a means to get to America as a stowaway on board a ship with a friend. However they disembarked at Sekondi, Ghana due to his friend’s illness on board the ship.
Devastated and unsure of what to do next Azikiwe joined the Ghanaian Police Force but was persuaded by his mother to come back to Nigeria. He returned and as fate would have it his father accepted to sponsor his trip and education in America.
He arrived America and after some years had acquired multiple degrees,
certificates and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. Among his colleagues at the University of Lincoln was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah .
As a student, Azikiwe worked at various jobs to earn a living; washing cars and working as a kitchen assistant. He was also very active in sports, winning medals in swimming, boxing and cross country running.
Due to discrimination against him by the British at the British Empire Games in 1934 he dropped his English name ‘Benjamin’ legally changing it to Nnamdi.
He obtained master’s degree in Religion in 1932 and another master’s in Anthropology in 1934 from University of Pennsylvania.
During his stay in the United States he studied at Storer College in West Virginia, Howard University in Washington D.C., Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York.
As a graduate-student he designed and created a course curriculum in African History for the department of History and Political Science at Lincoln University. He also taught political Science for three years at this university before returning to Nigeria.
As a young graduate in America, he had the opportunity of being a columnist with a couple of American newspapers. His columns soon found way into the Nigerian media space and in no time made him popular when he came back to Nigeria in 1934.
After several attempts at getting a job in Lagos, he accepted an offer from a Ghanaian newspaper the African Morning Post as a founding editor. As a columnist and editor at the newspaper he promoted Pan-African ideologies and radical nationalism. Though not a Ghanaian, he participated actively in the politics of the country.
In Ghana he mentored Kwame Nkrumah who also later became the President of the first African country to emancipate itself from British rule in 1957.
An article he published ‘Has the African a God’ written by one I.T.A Wallace-Johnson earned him a jail term. Azikiwe was tried for sedition and was sentenced to six months which fortunately for him was overturned when it was appealed.
Nnamdi Azikiwe returns to Nigeria
In 1937, he returned to Nigeria and started his own newspaper the West African Pilot. As a Journalist he opposed restrictions on the right of Africans by colonialist to express their opinion and racial discrimination. The African elites were also not left out; he accused them of favoring the existing colonial structure at the expense of the poor African masses.
He then used his paper to preach and promote nationalism in Nigeria. The West African Pilot focused more on the injustice perpetuated against Africans and also tried to raise political consciousness.
With his entrepreneurial skills he spread his newspaper to different important cities in the country and then used it as a political tool to disseminate his political ideologies. Azikiwe later diversified and found other businesses such as the African Continental Bank and the Penny Restaurant.
Azikiwe indeed played a crucial role in revolutionizing the West African newspaper industry and journalism in Africa.
As an upcoming youth activist and politician he joined the Nigerian Youth Movement; the first national organization in Nigeria. In no time Nnamdi Azikiwe rose through the ranks to become a prominent member in the organization. In 1946 he was made the organizations Secretary General.
Nnamdi Azikiwe was really active in the liberation of the Nigerian masses from colonial oppression which led to the suspension of his newspaper. It was suspended on July 8, 1945 for supporting a general strike and constant attack against the colonial government and its repressive policies.
During the strike he had alleged that an assassination plot was being orchestrated against him and thus went into hiding. The authenticity of this claims were however in doubt, however the newspaper resumed operations by August same year.
After a successful journalism enterprise he joined politics, co-founding the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944 with Herbert Macaulay.
The NCNC dominated politics in the Eastern region of Nigeria where he hailed from and had some influence in the Western Region of Nigeria. The Action Group (AG) – the AG emerged as a result of internal crisis in the NCNC- was the dominant party in the west while the Northern Peoples Congress dominated politics in the North.
The marked differences and tribal dispositions exhibited by these parties unfortunately set the stage for the tribal sentiments played in Nigeria politics today.
Contesting under this platform in 1948, he was elected to the Nigerian Legislative Council and subsequently became Premier of Eastern Nigeria from 1954-59.
As Premier in the Eastern Region in 1955, he founded the University of Nigeria Nsukka; He also served as Chancellor of University of Lagos from 1972 to 76.
His party the NCNC formed an alliance with the Northern People’s Congress in 1959 that ushered Nigeria into independence. The alliance produced Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the Prime Minister while Azikiwe was made the President of the Senate and Governor General which were both ceremonial.
When Nigeria became a republic in 1963, Azikiwe was chosen as President and Commander-in Chief.
Azikiwe in Sports
Azikiwe competed in boxing, athletics, swimming, football and tennis. After being denied an opportunity to compete in a track and field event in Nigeria he founded his own sports club which he called Zik’s Athletic Club (ZAC) and went on to win the Lagos league and the War Memorial Cup. Thereafter he opened more branches across the country.
After every march they played, they made out time to speak against British colonialism and the need for greater nationalism. With this Zik was able to unite Nigerians using sports and consequently brought about a sense of nationalism.
Involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War (1967-70)
During the Nigeria-Biafra civil war he travelled extensively, trying to attract support for the new nation and their cause. He was the spokesman for Biafra and adviser to Emeka Ojukwu- the leader of Biafra. He however switched allegiance to Nigeria in 1969, when he realized the new nation lacked the capacity to win the war.
Azikiwe for Presidency, Retirement and Death
After the war he made unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1979 and 1983 during a transitory interval of democracy between military governments. He involuntarily quit politics after the 1983 military coup led by Gen Mohammed Buhari.
There were rumors of his death in 1989 due to his absence from the public shortly after the death of his wife. He reappeared saying ‘I am not in a hurry to leave this world, because it is the only planet I know’.
He died on May 11, 1996 at the University of Nigeria teaching Hospital Enugu after a long illness at the age of 91.
He was often referred to by his admires as “The Great Zik of Africa.” And his motto in politics was “talk I listen, you listen I talk.”
So many federal and state institutions are today named after him; an airport, university and numerous streets, and he appears on Nigeria’s N500 note since 2001.
He holds several chieftaincy titles in his native Igbo land, notable among his titles is the title of Owelle of Onitsha.
Philosophy and legacy
His concept of emancipation of Africans as espoused in his philosophy of Zikism identified five concepts for Africans movements towards freedom; spiritual balance, economic determination, mental emancipation, social regeneration and political resurgence.
One of the founding fathers of Nigeria, he is widely acknowledged for nurturing nationalist ideas, without which independence would have been impossible.
His ideas for a united Nigeria were however truncated due largely to ethnic rivalry and sentiments.