Benjamin Nnamdi “Zik” Azikiwe, the Owelle-Osowa-Anya of Onitsha, was the first president of Nigeria and one of the leading figures of Nigerian nationalism. He is of one three National Heroes of the Nigerian nation (along with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Obafemi Awolowo).
Azikiwe was born on November 16, 1904 in Zungeru (located in present-day Niger State) to Igbo parents originally from the town of Onitsha in Anambra State. At an early age, he was exposed to the injustices of colonialism when his father, a civilian clerk for a British army regiment, was forced to leave his job because of discrimination. His memories of this incident would eventually lead him to drop his English first name, Benjamin, as well as shape his future political attitudes and actions.
Azikiwe spoke the three major Nigerian languages: as a young child he could only converse in Hausa but at the age of eight, he was sent to Onitsha to live with his paternal grandparents and became fluent in Igbo, Yoruba and eventually English under their tutelage. He was also taught the customs and traditions of the Igbo people.
His formal schooling began at the Roman Catholic and Anglican mission schools of Onitsha where he excelled both in academia and sports. He later attended the Wesleyan Boys’ High School in Lagos and the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, Cross River State. Azikiwe was an avid reader and was particularly inspired by the works of Marcus Garvey, WEB DuBois and James Aggrey; a DuBois publication entitled Possibilities of the Negro: The Advance Guard of Race was particularly influential on his business and political life.
Azikiwe travelled to the United States to continue his education. In 1925, he enrolled at Storer College, a historically black institution in West Virginia where he acquired the nickname "Zik". He spent one year at Storer while completing an intensive correspondence course in American Law and Procedures through Chicago’s La Salle Extension University.
In 1926, he moved on to Howard University in Washington, DC briefly but eventually settled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where a part-time job enabled him to complete an undergraduate degree in political science. He held a part-time teaching assistantship job at Columbia University and obtained a certificate in journalism while editing the Columbia University Summer Sessions Times, his first foray into the publishing world. He later earned an MA in political science from Lincoln and an MSc in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1934, Zik returned to Africa, passing up an offer to pursue a doctorate.
While transiting through Ghana in 1934, Azikiwe met ITA Wallace-Johnson, a trade unionist and newspaperman from Sierra Leone who offered him a job as editor of the African Morning Post, an Accra-based newspaper. He held this job until 1936 when he was tried for sedition after publishing an article by Wallace-Johnson entitled "Has the African a God?" Although he was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to six months in prison, he was eventually acquitted on appeal. He returned home in 1937 and started the West African Pilot newspaper which he used as a means of promoting Nigerian nationalism. He went on to found the Zik Group of Newspapers and set up many newspapers in cities across the country.
Azikiwe dedicated much of his adult life to politics and was referred to by his admirers as "the Great Zik of Africa." Azikiwe became active in the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), the first genuinely nationalist organisation in Nigeria. However, he soon resigned from the NYM in protest at alleged discrimination against Ijebu members, taking all of the Igbo and most of the Ijebu members with him. He co-founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons(NCNC) with Herbert Macaulay in 1944. He became the secretary-general of the NCNC in 1946 and was elected to the Legislative Council of Nigeria the following year. In 1951, he became the leader of the opposition in the Western Region's House of Assembly. In 1952, Azikiwe moved to the Eastern Region and was elected to the position of Chief Minister there, eventually becoming premier of the region in 1954. In 1955, he passed the legislation that led to the founding of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1960.
Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group and Ahmadu Bello of the NPC (the leaders of the other two main parties) were members of the Nigerian delegation at the 1957 constitutional talks held in London led by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the premier of the federal government and vice-president of the NPC at the time. Following independence in 1960, an NPC-NCNC coalition won the national election and Balewa became the federal prime minister. Bello and Awolowo remained in office as premiers of the North and Western regions respectively while Azikiwe accepted the position of Governor-General. Leadership of the Eastern Region went to Michael Iheonukara Okpara, Azikiwe's long-time friend and colleague within the NCNC. When Nigeria was proclaimed a republic in 1963, Azikiwe became its first president.
The military coup of January 15, 1966 led to Azikiwe and his civilian colleagues being thrown out of power. During the Nigerian civil war, Azikiwe became a spokesman for Biafra and an adviser to its leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. After the war, he was Chancellor of the University of Lagos from 1972 to 1976. He joined the Nigerian People's Party in 1978, making unsuccessful bids on its platform for the presidency in 1979 and 1983. He left politics after a military coup on December 31, 1983.
Works and Legacy
Azikiwe was a prolific writer. His work outlined his philosophy of African liberation ('Zikism') which identified five concepts for Africa's movement towards freedom: spiritual balance, social regeneration, economic determination, mental emancipation and political resurgence. His numerous published works include Political Blueprint for Nigeria (1943); Zik (1961); My Odyssey: An Autobiography (1971), Renascent Africa (1973); Essentials for Nigeria’s Survival (1965); The Future of Pan-Africanism (1961); Themes in African Social and Political Thought (1978); Restoration of Nigerian Democracy (1978); Ideology for Nigeria: Capitalism, Socialism or Welfarism? (1980); and History Will Vindicate the Just (1983).
He also carved a niche for himself in the professional world by running several newspapers and other companies. Places named after him include the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja; the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu and the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, Anambra State. Several streets and university campus hostels are also named after him and his portrait appears on the N500 note. He is also the only individual whose name has appeared in a democratic constitution (Nigeria's 1963 Republican Constitution, an amendment of the 1960 Independent Constitution submitted by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa).
Azikiwe is widely acknowledged as one of the key people who promoted Nigerian nationalism and called for the establishment of a federation of smaller states which he believed would prevent ethnic rivalry.
Azikiwe participated in and excelled at several sports as a student including swimming, cross-country running and boxing. He was selected to represent Nigeria in the long distance running events of the British Empire Games in 1934 but was later rejected following his renunciation of his English name, “Benjamin”. He also founded Zik’s Athletic Club with M.R.B. Ottun to promote athletics, boxing, cricket, football, swimming and tennis in Nigeria.
Azikiwe was inducted into the prestigious Agbalanze Society as Nnayelugo in 1946, a customary recognition for men of significant accomplishment. In 1962, he became a second-rank red cap chieftain (Ndichie Okwa) as the Oziziani Obi. He was installed as Owelle-Osowa-Anya in 1970, making him a first-rank hereditary red cap nobleman (Ndichie Ume).
In 1960, Queen Elizabeth II appointed him to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. He was conferred with the highest Nigerian national honour – Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) – in 1980. He received fourteen honorary degrees from Nigerian, American and Liberian universities and in 1990, Lincoln University named a professorial chair in his honour.
Societies and Organisations
He was a member of many organisations and societies, including the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights; Phi Beta Sigma fraternity (Alpha Chapter and Mu Chapter); the Royal Economic Society; the Royal Anthropological Institute; the British Association for the Advancement of Science; the American Society of International Law; the American Anthropological and Political Science Associations; the American Ethnological Society; the Amateur Athletic Association of Nigeria; the Nigerian Olympic Committee and the British Empire and Commonwealth Games Association.
Picture source: Imongo