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 the 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.
Birth and Weaning
Unlike many prominent figures in Nigeria (such as Yar’Adua, Ukpabio, Fani-Kayode, Sanusi) who came from political dynasties, Azikiwe was from humble origins. He was a local boy made good. Although Dame Margery Perham described him as a “strange, brilliant, protean character from the Ibo forests“, he was much more bohemian. Perhaps the mis-description can be forgiven when placed in the ignorant colonial context from which it emerged.
Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe was born on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru in northern Nigeria. His father was an Igbo from Onitsha who worked as a clerk in the Nigeria Regiment. Azikiwe’s national outlook was perhaps a result of his cosmopolitan upbringing. Although he was Igbo by birth, he was born in the Northern Region, and attended schools in the west (Lagos), and east (Onitsha and Calabar).
Zik the Polyglot
As a child the young Azikiwe spoke Hausa. He learnt Igbo after being sent to his native hometown of Onitsha at the age of eight. After attending primary school in Onitsha, he later attended the Wesleyan Boys’ High School in Lagos. In Lagos, he became a fluent Yoruba speaker and completed his command of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken indigenous languages: Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. He of course later became famous for his exceptional command of English and “special gift for oratory, characterised by lavish use of ‘long technical, unusual and foreign-sounding words, calculated to dazzle the wholly unsophisticated audiences.” (Schwarz) He continued his studies at the Hope Waddall Training Institute in Calabar and became interested at a young age, in the black consciousness leaders such as Marcus Garvey. He later revealed that his cross-cultural upbringing influenced his broad-minded view of his country:
“One important feature of my early boyhood days which has had a decisive influence on my latter attitude towards human beings, was the cosmopolitan nature of my neighbourhood and school atmosphere…the contacts made me to be more cosmopolitan and fraternal in human relations.”
Years of Challenge – Zik Attempts Suicide
After working for a short period of time as a civil service clerk at the Treasury Office in Lagos, he departed for the U.S. in 1925 with 300 pounds that his father had managed to save and borrow on his behalf. When he arrived in the U.S. he lived in poverty, at one time having so little money that he survived on lemonade and bread. To make ends meet he did manual jobs, working as a coal miner, casual labourer, boxer and dish-washer. While working in a coal mine he was racially abused, being called “nigger” and “coon”, by the time-keeper. Azikiwe later lamented, “It gave me food for thought that an uncultured, tobacco chewing and vociferous Yankee foreman could speak to me, a university undergraduate, in such vein.”
His early years in America were so difficult and at one point he attempted suicide by lying across train tracks and waiting for an oncoming train to crush him. A good Samaritan saved his life by pulling him off the track with the train only a few yards from him.
Nonetheless he was deeply impressed by the U.S. presidential elections of 1928 which exposed him to the rigours and complexities of democratic practice.
“Zik” is Born
He attended Storer College in West Virginia, and later Howard University in Washington DC. He lectured in political science at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (where he also obtained an MA in Political Science), and while there he obtained postgraduate qualifications from Columbia University (Certificate in Journalism of the Teachers’ College) and the University of Pennsylvania (MSc in Anthropology). While he was at Storer College his fellow students nicknamed him “Zik”. The nickname stuck for the rest of his life.
The Return of Zik of Africa – “Nnamdi is Born”
Now a graduate in multiple disciplines, Azikiwe returned from the U.S. in 1934, and the following year moved to Ghana where he became editor of the Accra based African Morning Post. He was convicted of sedition for an article printed in the paper (the conviction was quashed on appeal). He also wrote a book called Liberia in World Affairs.
Zik was also a college athlete of some repute with an athletic background from his university days in the U.S. In 1934 Zik applied to compete for Nigeria in the British Empire Games. However he was barred from competing after the South African team objected to his participation on account of his race. Shocked and aggrieved by this blatant racism, he decided to give up his English name “Benjamin”, and started answering the Igbo traditional name “Nnamdi”. Zik used his athletic prowess as a metaphor for challenges he faced in life. In an article in a 1938 edition of the West African Pilot, Zik claimed he “always looked at most of my life’s problems as problems which confront a miler in a mile race.”
Assassination Plot and the Zikist Movement
In 1938 he returned to Nigeria from Ghana and founded the West African Pilot newspaper, which championed nationalist causes and published under the motto “Show the light and the people will find the way”. The paper supported a 1945 strike by workers demanding higher wages. The colonial authorities banned the paper as a result, following which Azikiwe wrote his “last testament”, fled back to Onitsha and went into hiding, alleging a government plot to assassinate him. Although the authorities denied the assassination plot, it was widely believed by his supporters and reinforced his popularity. It also led to the formation of a young radical group called the “Zikist Movement”, which was dedicated to defending Zik from his opponents. The colonial authorities outlawed the group, accusing it of sedition, violence and unlawful behaviour. Such measures merely reinforced Azikiwe’s popularity and made him seen like a local hero standing up to bullying colonial authorities. He became a messianic symbol of Nigerian nationhood and nationalism.
As a fluent and intelligent orator with an athletic 6 feet plus physique and telegenic good looks, he was in many ways born for politics. Schwarz referred to Zik’s “exceptional charm, handsome face and special gift for oratory, characterised by lavish use of ‘long technical, unusual and foreign-sounding words, calculated to dazzle the wholly unsophisticated audiences.” (Schwarz) Yet he was more than just a slick talking showman. He was a shrewd political operator too.