Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe (November 16, 1904 – May 11, 1996), usually referred to as Nnamdi Azikiwe, or, informally and popularly, as "Zik," was the founder of modern Nigerian nationalism and the first President of Nigeria, holding the position throughout the Nigerian First Republic. From 1960 until 1963 he was Governor-General of independent Nigeria. From 1963 until ousted by a coup in 1966, he was Nigeria's first President. From 1970, as an Igbo Chief he also held the title of Owelle of Onitsha. Educated in the United States, he edited the African Morning Post from 1934 until 1937, advocating pan-African unity. From 1937, he edited the West African Pilot and ran a newspaper chain. He entered politics in 1946, as co-founder of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, which, based in Nigeria's Igbo dominated Western region, emerged as one of three main parties, each of which was regionally and ethnically distinctive. In the North, the Northern Peoples Congress was Hausa-Fulani while the Western Action Group was Yoruba.
Entering the regional Assembly in 1947, he became leader of the opposition in 1951 to the Action Group, from which the NCNC had separated. In 1952, he moved to the Eastern region, where he was elected to the Assembly as Chief Minister. In 1955, he founded the University of Nigeria. After 1966, he initially advised the break-away Republic of Biafra before switching his loyalty back to the federal government. He was Chancellor of Lagos University from 1972 until 1976 and made unsuccessful presidential bids in 1979 and 1983. Azikiwe, a committed democrat championed the federalist cause in Nigeria. He wanted Africans to forge their own identity, to take pride in their own traditions not to merely imitate the West. Sadly, his ousting from office was followed by 33 years of military rule. Unfortunately, the foundations of Nigeria's democratic institutions were not laid solidly enough between independence and 1966, only six years, to withstand those who thought that autocracy was the best way to resolve challenges facing Nigeria, which included competing and incompatible visions of how the state should be structured. As Nigerians try to ensure that all citizens are treated equally in a nation where have privileged their own tribe or region, Azikiwe belief in equality and human dignity continues to provide inspiration and guidance.
Azikiwe was born on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru, northern Nigeria to Igbo parents. Nnamdi means "My father is alive" in the Igbo language. His father was Obededom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe, who worked as a clerical officer for the British Administrator of Eastern Nigeria. His mother was Racheal Chinwe Azikiwe. His maternal grandfather was an Igbo Chief. His maternal great-great-great grandfather had been Paramount Chief. Azikwe was recognized as a second-rank chief in 1962 and as a full chief, the Owelle of Onitsha in 1970. After studying at the Methodist Boys' High School in Lagos, Azikiwe went to the United States. While there he attended Howard University, Washington DC before enrolling in and graduating from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania in 1927 with a degree in political science. In 1930, he obtained his MA with honors from Lincoln. Among his contemporaries at Lincoln was the future President of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and past American Chief Justice, the late Thurgood Marshall. His was no privileged passage through College; he paid his way by working a variety of jobs including washing cars and as a kitchen assistant. In 1933, he obtained a second masters degree in Anthropology and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked as an instructor at Lincoln before returning to Africa. He was active in several sports as a student, winning medals for swimming, cross-country running and boxing and was selected to represent Nigeria in the long distance running in the British Empire Games of 1934 but was "rejected by the A.A.A of Great Britain on technical grounds" following protest from South Africa. He had "dropped his English Christian name, 'Benjamin'." He then legally changed his name to Nnamdi.
After teaching at Lincoln, Azikiwe returned to Africa in 1934, and took the position of editor for the African Morning Post, a daily newspaper in Accra, Ghana. In that position he promoted a pro-African nationalist agenda. Smertin has described his writing there: "In his passionately denunciatory articles and public statements he censured the existing colonial order: The restrictions on the Africans' right to express their opinions, and racial discrimination. He also criticized those Africans who belonged to the 'elite' of colonial society and favored retaining the existing order, as they regarded it as the basis of their well being."
As a result of publishing an article on May 15, 1936, entitled "Has the African A God?" written by I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson he was brought to trial on charges of sedition. Although he was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to six months in prison, he was acquitted on appeal. He returned to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1937, and founded the West African Pilot which he used as a vehicle to foster Nigerian nationalism. He founded the Zik Group of Newspapers, publishing multiple newspapers in cities across the country.
After a successful journalism enterprise, Azikiwe entered into politics, co-founding the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) alongside Herbert Macaulay in 1944. He became the secretary-general of the National Council in 1946, and the following year was elected to the Legislative Council of Nigeria. In 1951, he became the leader of the Opposition to the government of Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region's House of Assembly. Nigeria's three regions were based on tribal configurations, with the Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the south-west, and Igbo or Ibo in the south-east. The NCNC was the main Igbo party, and dominated the East. In the North, the main party was the Northern Peoples Congress under Ahmadu Bello while the Action Group, under Awolowo, dominated the West. Nigeria itself had been formed by combining British former Protectorates into a British single colony in 1914. In 1952, Azikiwe moved to the Eastern Region, and was elected to the position of Chief Minister. In 1954, he became Premier of Nigeria's Eastern Region. In 1955, he passed legislation that led to the founding, in 1960, of the University of Nigeria inviting British and American advisers to assist in setting up the new institution. Unlike Awolowo of the Action Group, who favored "ethnolinguistic" identity as a basis for party and state affiliation, Azikiwe did not think that this was suitable, preferring to create entities and affiliations across racial differences.
Between 1957 and 1958, Nnamdi Azikiwe with the leaders of the other two main parties, Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group and Ahmadu Bello of the NPC were members of the delegation to the Constitutional talks in London. The delegation was led by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa who was Premier of the Federal Government and vice-President of the NPC. Following independence, a NCP-NCNC coalition won the national election. Belewa became federal Prime Minister. Bello and Awolowo continued in office as Prime Ministers of the North and Western regions respectively. Awolowo also headed the official opposition at federal level. Azikiwe accepted appointment as Governor-General and was simultaneously created a Privy Councilor, the first Nigerian to be appointed. Leadership of the Western region went to Michael Iheonukara Okpara, Azikiwe's long-timer friend and colleague within the NCNC.
In 1963, Nigeria decided to become a republic. Azikiwe was chosen as President and Commander-in-Chief. Nigeria's political parties were pulling in different directions. The constitution allocated seats in the federal assembly based on the population of each of the regions. When the former Southern Cameroon joined Nigeria as part of the Northern region in 1961, this guaranteed the North a larger number of seats. The NCNC favored the creation of smaller states to replace the regions and a weaker central government, although Azikiwe was a strong federalist. The Action Group favored a strong central government and also the formation of a West African Federation in which Nigeria, Ghana and Sierre Leone would unite as a single entity. The NPC was criticized for privileging Northern concerns and distributing the oil revenue, which came from the North disproportionately. In December 1964, Nigeria held its second general election. Before the election, controversy about the accuracy of the electoral registers led to allegations of vote-rigging and the UPGA (an alliance of the NCNC, which abandoned its partnership with the NCP and the Action Group) called a boycott. Manly polling stations in the East did not open, honoring the boycott. In March 1965, an election was held in those constituencies that had boycotted the December poll. The UPGA ended up with 108 seats, the NNA (a coalition of the NCP and the Nigerian National Democratic Party, which contested the Action Group in the West) with 189 of which 162 were held by members of the NNC. Before the supplementary election was held, Balewa was invited to form his second administration. In November 1965, election were held in each region. The UPGA, in opposition at the federal level, was determined to consolidate its power in both the Southern regions, the East and the West and the federal territory surrounding the capital. However, these elections were won by the NNA-coalition, despite the opposition's strong campaign. Relations between Prime Minister Balewa and President Azikiwe were increasingly strained.
Allegations of corruption and fraud followed, as did riots and demonstrations in which about 2,000 people died mainly in the West. Politicians campaigning outside their own regions even found the hotels refused to accommodate them. Responding to this violence, Belawa delegated extraordinary powers to each regional government in an attempt to restore stability. This failed to restore stability, which led to murmurs among some military officers that more radical methods were needed to deal with the deteriorating situation. On January 15, 1966, officers from Azikiwe's own Igbo-West region took matters into their own hands, staging a coup during which Balewa and Bello were both killed. Azikiwe was spared. The Igbo-coup was short lived. The very next day Army chief Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, stepped in, suspended the constitution and ushered in what proved to be three decades of military rule. He was toppled July 29, 1966, by a Northern led counter-coup whose leaders then named Yakubu Gowon, the Army Chief of Staff as President. Anti-Igbo riots also rocked the nation. In May, 1967, the Eastern Region declared independence as the Republic of Biafra under Lt Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who removed Opkara from office and civil war broke out. Democracy would not be restored until 1993.
During the Biafran (1967–1970) war of secession (1967-70), Azikiwe became a spokesman for the nascent Igbo republic and an adviser to its leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He traveled widely, trying to attract support for the Biafran cause. In 1969, however, he switched to the side of the Nigerian government. After the war, he served as Chancellor of Lagos University from 1972 to 1976. He joined the Nigerian People's Party in 1978, making unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1979 and again in 1983. He left politics involuntarily after the military coup on December 31, 1983. He died on May 11, 1996, at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, in Enugu, Enugu State, after a protracted sickness. (In 1967, the Eastern region was subdivided into three states, the East-Central, the Rivers State and South-Eastern State. Enugu State was formed in 1991 from East Central and had always served as the capital of the former Eastern region.)
His time in politics spanned most of his adult life and he was referred to by admirers as "The Great Zik of Africa." His motto in politics was "talk I listen, you listen I talk."
The writings of Azikiwe spawned a philosophy of African liberation Zikism, which identifies five concepts for Africa's movement towards freedom: spiritual balance, social regeneration, economic determination, mental emancipation, and political resurgence. He called on Africans to take pride in their own history and culture.
Although Azikiwe shares the title of father of Nigeria with several others, he is widely acknowledged as having been in the main responsible for nurturing, shaping and guiding the nationalist spirit, without which the dream of independence would not have become reality. Unfortunately, competing ideas about how Nigeria should be governed compounded by regional and ethnic rivalry led to years of dictatorial rule. His vision, however, of a federation of smaller states, which would weaken regional parties and undermine ethnic rivalry, was pursued by subsequent governments. Nigeria now has thirty-six states, instead of three. In 1963, the Mid-Western region was separated from the Western region. In 1967, the original three regions became 12 states. Seven new states were formed in 1976. Two more were created in 1987, nine in 1991 and 6 in 1996, totaling 36.
Places named after Azikiwe include the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu, and the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, Anambra State. His portrait adorns Nigeria's five hundred naira currency note. Several streets and university campus hostels are also named after him including Nnamdi Azikiwe street in Lagos, Zik Avenue in Enugu, Ziks Flat at University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Azikiwe Hall at University of Ibadan, Nigeria. The Nnamdi Azikiwe Memorial Foundation honors his memory.
He was awarded fourteen honorary doctorates. Among other Universities, he was honored by Lincoln, Howard, Michigan State, University of Pennsylvania and by the University of Liberia. In 1990, Lincoln named a professorial Chair in his honor.
"There is plenty of room at the top because very few people care to travel beyond the average route. And so most of us seem satisfied to remain within the confines of mediocrity"
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