As Nigeria’s foremost nationalist and first post independence Head of State, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was (and still should be) to Nigeria, what George Washington is to America, Nkrumah is to Ghana, Nasser is to Arabs, and Mandela is to South Africa. The fact that he is not so remembered is a sad testament to Nigeria’s legacy keeping and failure to honour its founding fathers. Azikiwe transcended national politics to become an icon. He is the father of post independence Nigeria.
1966 Crisis, Coup and Biafra
Although Azikiwe was abroad when Nigeria experienced its first military coup in January 1966, he offered to return soon after it. He was largely ignored by the military government of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, which acted as if he did not exist. When the Igbo Eastern Region seceded from Nigeria in May 1967 as the republic of Biafra, it placed Azikiwe in a difficult position, and gave him a stark choice. He had the choice of either maintaining national unity by supporting his lifelong dream and work of a united Nigeria. To do so would cause him to abandon the struggle of his fellow Igbos in the Eastern Region. His alternate option was to support Biafra, thereby making himself an accomplice in the destruction of his life’s work of maintaining Nigeria as a united country.
In the months preceding the war, Zik repeatedly advised against secession but according to his son Bamidele, Zik “was shouted down by people that were prompting for the war”. Reluctantly, he initially supported Biafra and his prestige allowed him to gain sympathy for Biafra’s cause and international recognition. Using his political connections, he led Biafran delegations abroad to press for recognition for the fledgling state. He persuaded Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia to recognise Biafra (among his other notable successes in this regard was the bizarre President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti).
He was a reluctant secessionist, and it must have broken his heart to see his beloved Nigeria being ripped apart by war. By 1968, Zik was having second thoughts. He appealed to Biafra’s leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, to negotiate with Nigerian leader Gowon, rather than fight on and risk what eventually happened: the elongation of Biafran suffering, defeat, and unconditional surrender. When Ojukwu would not heed his call, Azikiwe appeared in Lagos beside Gowon, and appealed for a cessation of the fighting. Some of his fellow Igbos labelled him a traitor. After the war ended, he lapsed into the background, stayed away from politics, and moved to Nsukka.
Return to Politics
His retirement from politics was temporary. The military’s decision to cede power and return the country to democratic rule in 1979 gave Zik a chance for a political comeback. Now 74 years old, did the grand old man of Nigerian politics have one more fight left in him?
With the help of a new breed of younger Igbo leaders (including Jim Nwobodo), Azikiwe formed a new party called the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) and became its leader. Some say he emerged from retirement in order to once again cross swords with his decades long foe Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Before the NPP could contest the 1979 presidential election, its northern wing split from the party and formed a new party called the Great Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP) under the leadership of Waziri Ibrahim. In the presidential election, Zik was comfortably beaten into third place by Shehu Shagari (National Party of Nigeria (NPN)) and Obafemi Awolowo (Unity Party of Nigeria). The NPP was unable to gain much support outside its power base in the two Igbo states of Anambra and Imo.
Repeating his actions during the first republic of 1960-66, Zik took his party into a coalition with the northern led government. As with the first republic, the alliance between Igbo and northern Hausa-Fulani parties broke down. When President Shagari stood for re-election in 1983, Zik and his old nemesis Awolowo exchanged touching letters with each other to discuss forming an alliance to face the NPN. Despite the emotional and personal tone of their correspondence (“Dear Zik”, “Dear Awo”), they failed to join forces as neither man would stand down and be subordinate to the other. At the election, Shagari defeated the two old men once again, with Zik finishing a distant third for the second successive election. It was to be the last significant political contest for both Awolowo and Zik. The two grand old men of Nigerian politics would never again have the chance to contest in electoral politics as they were foiled by the twin forces of the military, and human mortality.
The military returned to power on the last day of 1983, overthrew the Shagari government and abolished both of their parties. Awolowo died a few years later on May 9, 1987. Even though the two men had been rivals throughout most of their adult life, Zik was moved by Awolowo’s death. With Awolowo gone, he was the only surviving member of Nigeria’s revered founding fathers of Herbert Macaulay, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and Awolowo. His sense of seclusion was reinforced by the earlier death of his long time wife Flora in 1983 (he married Flora in 1936).
Death Before His Time
Zik retired permanently from politics and kept a low profile. However in retirement he fell victim to a moment of tragi-comedy when news media falsely announced his death, and he suffered the indignity of reading his own obituary in a newspaper. Azikiwe eventually resurfaced, announced he was still alive and that he was “not in a hurry to leave this world, because it is the only planet I know.”
Death and Funeral
Azikiwe eventually died (for real this time) on May 11, 1996 at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (in Enugu) at the age of 91. He was given a state funeral by the government of General Sani Abacha and buried in November 1996 following nearly two weeks of national ceremonies. His body was first taken to Lagos, where it was displayed to dignitaries. From Lagos it was taken around the country to various cities including Ibadan, his birthplace of Zungeru in the north, then to Nigeria’s new capital at Abuja. From Abuja Zik’s “national tour” in death took him to Enugu and Onitsha where he was finally buried. He was finally buried in front of his house at Onitsha. The international airport at Abuja was named the Nnamdi Azikiwe Internatioanal Airport after him.
He was survived by his second wife Uche and several children. From his wife Flora, Zik had four children (three sons and one daughter), the eldest of whom is Bamidele.
After Flora’s death, he married another woman named Uche. Dr. Uche Azikiwe is a Professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Zik had two sons from his marriage to Uche: Molokwu and Uwakwe Azikiwe. Both of them were educated in America and returned to Nigeria. Molokwu emulated his father by graduating from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (with a degree in Accounting). He now works for ECOWAS, and is married with three children. Uwakwe also studied at Lincoln University (Biology) like his father and older brother Molokwu. He later studied law at the Un
iversity of Baltimore, before returning to Nigeria to attend law school in Abuja. Uwakwe is also married and had two children, but one of his children died in 2004.
Apparently Zik also had another little known wife called Ugoye Comfort Azikiwe (nee Aneche). Ugoye had three children name Nwamalubia, Okechukwu, and Chiebonam. Ugoye died at the age of 80 in October 2000. Azikiwe had another daughter named Jayzik out of wedlock by an English woman. Jayzik’s mother raised her as a single parent in London with several other adopted children and relatives. Jayzik had a turbulent childhood, ran away from home, was placed in foster homes and ended up homeless as a teenager. She eventually found careers in poetry, modelling and as a reggae musician, but did not meet her father until he was already in his 90s – just before he died. Jayzik died in Gambia, in 2008 at the age of 50. She was survived by her mother, four children named Jolene, Iziah, Nubianna and Nunique, and her younger sister.