Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe
Nationalist, Politician, Journalist
DATE OF BIRTH
16 November, 1904
DATE OF DEATH
May 11th, 1996
Howard University, Lincoln University, University of Pennsylvania
PLACE OF BIRTH
Zungeru, Northern Region
Nnamdi Azikiwe was one of the prominent figures of modern Nigerian nationalism. He served as the second and last Governor-General of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963 and the first President of Nigeria from 1963 to 1966, holding the presidency throughout the Nigerian First Republic.
Background and Education
Growing up as a young boy with Igbo parents in Northern Region, Nigeria (Northern Nigeria), Azikiwe spoke Hausa, the language of the northern region. However, his father apprehensive of his child’s fluency in Hausa and not Igbo sent him to Onitsha in 1912 to learn the Igbo language and culture. In Onitsha, he attended Holy Trinity School, and then Christ Church School, an Anglican primary school. He would later on finish his elementary education at CMS Central School. In 1920, Azikiwe started his secondary school at Hope Waddell Training College, Calabar.
After Hope Waddell, Azikiwe transferred to Methodist Boys High School, Lagos. After completing his secondary education, he applied to the colonial service and was accepted as a clerk in the treasury department. After facing some racial discrimination during his colonial service, Azikiwe became intent on travelling to the US to study. He applied to various universities in the U.S. and received admission from Storer College, a two-year preparatory school in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He later on transferred to Howard University, Washington DC and then enrolled at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania in 1930. He graduated from Lincoln University in 1932 with a Master’s degree in Religion and received another Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1934.
Azikiwe became a graduate student instructor in the history and political science department at Lincoln University establishing an African history course. On April 4 1936, he married Flora Ogboegbunam, a native of Onitsha, in Accra, Ghana. They met in 1934 and the couple had one daughter and three sons.
In 1934, when he returned to Lagos, he took an offer from Ghanaian businessman Alfred Oxcansey to become the founding editor of African Morning Post, a daily newspaper in Accra, Ghana. Azikiwe wrote a column for the paper tagged “Inside Stuff by Zik”, a platform which he used for radical nationalistic and black pride preachment. As editor, he promoted a pro-African nationalist agenda and 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 15 May 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 in 1937 and started the West African Pilot, a newspaper he used to promote Nigerian nationalism. Along with the West African Pilot, he started a string of newspapers under the Zik Group of Newspapers in politically and economically important cities across the country. The others papers in the group included the Southern Nigeria Defender from Warri and later Ibadan, Nigerian Spokesman at Onitsha and Eastern Guardian launched in 1940 and published in Port Harcourt. The acquisition of Duse Mohamed’s The Comet in 1944 made it quite obvious that Azikiwe had not only business but more importantly, political ambitions in mind. Many of Azikiwe’s newspapers placed emphasis on sensationalism and human interest stories. Nearly 6,000 copies of the Wet African Pilot were printed in the early years and that number surpass 20,000 copies by 1950.
Leading up to 1940, the West African Pilot focused on the unfair treatment experienced by Africans and the intolerant rule of the colonial administration. The paper also endorsed many of the ideologies of the academic and sophisticated class in Lagos. However, by 1940, a measured change transpired, like the African Morning Post, Azikiwe started a column, “Inside Stuff” which was sometimes used to rouse political consciousness and in the Pilot’s editorials, opinions were written for independence in Africa especially after the rise of the Indian independence movement. In 1943, when the British Council sponsored a number of West African editors including Azikiwe, he and a few of the editors took the opportunity to shed light on why political independence for the region was crucial. The celebrated editors were unified in their joint plea for systematic amendments in governance within the African colonies. These requested changes include nullification of the colony system, enabling regional presence at the local, state and national level and moving towards an independent West Africa free of colonial rule by 1958 and no later than 1960.
Starting in the mid-1940s, Azikiwe pressed his cause for Nigerian autonomy on the political front. He played a key role in the founding of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944, becoming its first Secretary General and then its President in 1946. The prominence of the NCNC and the Igbo people grew under Azikiwe’s leadership. He used the NCNC to push for various reforms, including universal adult suffrage, direct elections, control of the civil service by African ministers, and Nigerian control of the territory’s armed forces. Azikiwe often questioned and challenged the status quo in 1947 when he became a member of the legislative council in Nigeria. In this political capacity, he strove to improve conditions for his people via changes in the constitution. According to the New York Herald Tribune, Azikiwe told the British during his 1947 visit to England that Nigeria would experience severe unrest if the country is not granted freedom in 15 years.
Azikiwe maintained a political balancing act during this period in order to maintain his power. By 1952, he had become the first NCNC opposition leader in the Western House of Assembly, then he was elected to the eastern region assembly in 1953. In the summer of that same year, he traveled to London with a Nigerian delegation and demanded that Nigeria become self-governing within three years. Building his power in the Eastern Region, Azikiwe became its premier in 1954 after a new constitution was put into effect.
After Obafemi Awolowo, a fierce political rival of Azikiwe, formed the Action Group in the West, Azikiwe aligned himself with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who had gained control of the Northern People’s Congress.
Presidency & Life After
When Nigeria’s first independent government was established by a coalition of northern and eastern political parties in 1960, Azikiwe was named President and Balewa became Prime Minister. A few years later, Azikiwe and his civilian colleagues were removed from power in the military coup of January 15, 1966. He was the most prominent politician to escape the spate of assassinations following the coup. During the Biafran War of secession, Azikiwe became a spokesman for the nascent republic and an adviser to its leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He switched allegiance back to Nigeria during the war and publicly appealed to Ojukwu to end the war and expressed his concerns in pamphlets and interviews published during this very tumultuous period.
After the war, he served as Chancellor of University of Lagos from 1972 to 1976 and would later join 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. At the age of 91, Azikiwe died on May 11, 1996 at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, in Enugu, Enugu State, after a protracted illness. He was buried in his native Onitsha.
Azikiwe was an important advocate of Nigerian and African nationalism, and much of his life was spent working as both a journalist and politician to end British control of Nigeria. He wrote over a dozen books on the struggle for African nationalism and other topics. Playing a key role in Nigeria’s emergence as a free nation, Nnamdi Azikiwe served as the first president of Nigeria after it was given independence from Great Britain in 1960. He was also a mentor to Kwame Nkrumah, who as president of Ghana became head of the first African country to free itself from European rule.
Throughout his career, Azikiwe used his nationalist press, political connections, and kinship of his tribe to promote education, self-government, welfare, and progress. As one of the first Nigerians to study in the United States, he instituted a new education program in his region (the Igbo region), and had a major role in Nigeria becoming the leading exporter of students for study abroad programs in Africa. He was appointed to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960, becoming the first Nigerian to receive this distinguished honor.
He has received fourteen honorary degrees from Nigerian, American and Liberian universities. The list of these universities include Lincoln University, Storer College, Howard University, Michigan State University, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello University, University of Ibadan, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, and University of Liberia. Fondly remembered as the Owelle of Onitsha, a title conferred on him in 1972, he would later on be honored when his face was placed on the 500 Naira note in 20002. He was a true ‘Giant of Africa.’
- “Nnamdi Azikiwe”. Encyclopedia.com. Web. 25 September. 2016.<http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Nnamdi_Azikiwe.aspx>.
- Azikiwe, Nnamdi. “My Odyssey: An Autobiography”. Praeger, 1970.
- “Nnamdi Azikiwe”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 25 September. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nnamdi_Azikiwe>.
- Rake, Alan. “100 Great Africans”. Scarecrow Press. 1994. pp. 383-387.