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.
Azikiwe in Nigerian Politics
For over a decade after his return from his sojourns to the USA and Ghana, Zik was the most influential politician in West Africa (if not all of Africa). At a time when Nigeria was still a collection of disparate regions, identities and local units, Zik started canvassing for Nigerian independence and for the creation of a de-ethnicised, de-tribalised sense of Nigerian nationalism and patriotism. He was the architect of Nigerian nationhood. He was a strident campaigner for Nigerian independence, and believed in Nigerian self rule as an article of faith. “I fought against British rule, because I honestly believed that it denied me and my people the basic freedoms and fundamental rights. At the material time, I believed, as I still do, that in normal times no man should impose his rule on any people unless he has been elected to do so at a free and fair election. It was an article of faith with me than an African citizen should enjoy individual freedom under the law.”
“Tell Oged to Keep the Flag Flying”
In 1944 Azikiwe was one of the founders of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) along with Herbert Macaulay. When the Southern Cameroons became part of the country of Cameroon, the NCNC kept its acronym by changing its name to the “National Convention of Nigerian Citizens”. In 1946 the NCNC began a pan Nigerian tour during which its leader Herbert Macaulay became fatally ill in Kano and was taken back to Lagos. On his deathbed in Lagos, Macaulay’s last words were the touching epitaph: “Tell the National Council delegates to halt wherever they are for four days for Macaulay and then carry on….Tell Oged to keep the flag flying” (“Oged” was Macaulay’s son Ogedengbe). Azikiwe (who was the NCNC’s General-Secretary) then became NCNC president following the death of Macaulay in 1946.
His own pan-Nigerian outlook was demonstrated by his service as a member of the Western Region’s Legislature. In 1951, Azikiwe became embroiled in an incident which still causes rancour till today. His NCNC party and the Ibadan Peoples Party (IPP) together held a majority in the Western Region House of Assembly which was poised to make Azikiwe (an Igbo) the Premier and ruler of the Yoruba Western Region. Several Yoruba members of the NCNC and IPP defected and joined the Action Group party of Azikiwe’s rival Obafemi Awolowo. Many NCNC members bitterly complained that the defections were calculated ethnically motivated incidents to prevent an Igbo from becoming the ruler of a Yoruba area. This might be the incident that tainted Nigerian politics with ethnic competition. After this he became Premier of the Eastern Region (1954-1959), and later relinquished the Premiership to Dr Michael Okpara when he moved to the Senate.
Nigerian Independence- “I Pray that We May Guard our Unity and Keep our Faith”
Despite political setbacks Azikiwe retained his messianic dream of Nigeria one day becoming a great country:
“As a young man I saw visions: visions of Nigeria becoming a great country in the emerging continent of Africa; visions of Nigeria offering freedom to those in bondage, and securing the democratic way of life to those who had been lulled into an illusion of security under colonial rule…..I trust that I shall dream my dreams amid the peace and ever-increasing prosperity of the people of my native Nigeria. The motto of the independent federation of Nigeria is “Unity and Faith”. I pray that we may guard our unity and keep our faith.” (summer 1960, London)
His dream of Nigerian independence and self rule was realised on October 1, 1960 when Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom. Yet despite being the country’s most famous political figure and laying the groundwork for nationalism and independence, he did not inherit leadership of his newly independent country. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa became the country’s first Prime Minister and Azikiwe was given the sinecure position of Governor-General. The post of Governor-General of the federation in titular terms made him the representative of the British Queen in Nigeria.
“My Stiffest Earthly Assignment is Ended and My Major Life’s Work is Done. My Country is Now Free”
When Nigeria became a Republic in 1963 Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa proposed an amendment of the 1960 independence constitution to transform Azikiwe from Governor-General and redesignate his title as a ceremonial “President”. Although the post of President was purely ceremonial and was not an elected one, Balewa suggested that Azikiwe be named President in the 1963 constitution because “Nigeria can never adequately reward Dr. Azikiwe” for his nationalist activities and service to the nation”. Therefore section 157 of Nigeria’s 1963 constitution was titled “Nnamdi Azikiwe to be President”, and read “Nnamdi Azikiwe shall be deemed to be elected President of the Republic on the date of the commencement of this Constitution”.
Although no election was held for the post, the amendment proposal was accepted and Azikiwe became the country’s ceremonial President and Head of State, with formal governmental authority being vested in Balewa as the Prime Minister. To my knowledge Azikiwe’s appointment as President by name in the Nigerian constitution is the only instance in a democratic country, of a Head of State being specifically appointed and referenced by name in his country’s constitution. His post was ceremonial, did not vest him with formal executive or political authority, and was merely a formality to recognise his role as the country’s founding father. Yet despite not being the head of government, Azikiwe was ostensibly satisfied that his life’s work was done. He argued that his duty to his country was to lead it to independence, not to lead it politically:
“I can say without hesitation that I have no personal ambition in partisan politics. This explains why I have been able to play the role of a prisoner in a gilded cage with personal satisfaction and complete equanimity. My stiffest earthly assignment is ended and my major life’s work is done. My country is now free and I have been honoured to be its first indigenous head of state. What more could one desire in life?” – Talking about Nigeria’s Independence on Oct. 1, 1960.
1964 Crisis and The Majors’ Coup
Azikiwe did not manage to stay on the political fringe for long. The controversial federal election of December 1964 caused a massive crisis and ruptured the coalition government of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and Zik’s former party, the NCNC. The elections were marred by widespread boycotts, rigging, intimidation, arson and violence which left Azikiwe so aghast that he refused to call Prime Minister Balewa to form a new government. For a few days, apocalyptic tension hung over the country until Azikiwe’s sense of constitutional propriety prev
ailed. He eventually negotiated a compromise with Balewa and called him and the NPC to once again to form a government. However the wounds of the 1964 crisis had not gone away. There were to resurface in murderous fashion less than two years later
In January 1966 a group of radical army Majors violently overthrew the government in a military coup, assassinating Prime Minister Balewa in the process. Azikiwe was outside the country when the coup occurred. Although he was accused of sympathising with, or having knowledge of the coup, he strongly condemned it and called it a “national calamity”. Despite his criticism of them, many of his opponents suspected him of sympathising with the Majors who staged the coup.
To be continued….