Today, let us celebrate worthy men. This past Thursday, November 16, was the birthday of a giant of history; a man whom the colorful Ozuomba Mbadiwe could have called “a Caterpillar,” who showed the light, so that Africans may see the way. Incidentally, that was the motto of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s newspaper, the West African Pilot: “Show the Light, and the People will find their way.”
It was the message at the core of his anti-colonial nationalist organizing. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe – “Zik of Africa,” as he was very fondly called – was the leader of the African anti-colonial Nationalist Movement, from 1937 to 1957, culminating in decolonization, with the independence of Ghana, that year, and home rule for the regions in Nigeria also that year, and full national independence subsequently in 1960.
As James Coleman aptly notes, there was none more vital, more famous in mobilizing Africans, particularly African youths, to fight for decolonization and the liberation of Africa in the interwar years than Dr. Azikiwe. He was far more than any man of his generation, the catalyst for African freedom in the 20th century.
Born on November 16, 1904, in Zungeru, today’s Niger State, Azikiwe would have been 119 years, this Thursday. He was born just as colonialism was taking very firm roots in Nigeria, against the raging wars of pacification in the North. On January 1, 1900, the British established the protectorate of Northern Nigeria militarily. They sacked and deposed the Emirate of Kano, and killed the Sultan Attahiru of Sokoto who had raised an Army.
Among the men who were part of these expeditions was Nnamdi Azikiwe’s father, Obededom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe. Born in 1875 in Onitsha, Obededom was among the earliest Igbo to be educated in the western tradition. He later trained as a teacher at the Asaba Institute established by the Church Missionary Society, (CMS), the evangelical mission of the Anglican church.
He taught briefly, and like his friend and classmate who later became Bishop Alphonso Onyeabo, contemplated wearing the collar. But he was disillusioned both by teaching and by Christian missionary work, and instead joined the British military expedition as it was expanding its colonial frontiers through the period of “pacification” from 1901 as a Clerk. He was posted to Lokoja, and soon to Zungeru, when Frederick Lugard moved the HQ of the Northern Protectorate to Zungeru in 1902.
He was on the spot in the various military expeditions in the north, particularly in Lugard’s expeditionary campaigns that sacked Kano and Sokoto. He served as military clerk, and subsequently as Lugard’s clerk in the Government House in Zungeru, and later on in Kaduna, when Lugard also eventually moved, and laid out the capital of the North. Obededom was one of those who would be regarded as an “old hand,” in the British colonial service, particularly its clerkocracy, rising as he did to be come one of the indigenous Africans, to the position of Chief Clerk in the colonial service.
To appreciate the circumstance, and the dimension of Azikiwe’s father’s part in the colonial project, the following statement contained in Lord Lugard’s Annual Report to the British government in 1904, puts it in some context:”The whole-hearted devotion with which the staff has worked is beyond any praise of mine, and I do not believe that there is a more capable and devoted set of public servants in any of His Majesty’s possessions, temperate or tropical. The higher grades of the Civil Service are becoming experienced administrators, to whom large responsibilities can rightly be entrusted.
The administrative staff is still insufficient for its numerous duties, and it has been found impossible to obtain an adequate supply of properly qualified native clerks.” It was to this backdrop that Azikiwe was born on November 16, 1904 in Zungeru, to Obededom Chukwuemeka and his wife, Rachel Ogbeyeanu. Obededom would later be transferred to Calabar in 1914, and later to the government Secretariat, in Lagos.
As it came to be, his father’s circulation, North and South, through his work in the colonial bureaucracy, and as part of the small, very tight local African “colonial elite,” shaped Azikiwe’s perspectives and character. He was sent to primary school in the East. Began secondary at Hope Waddell Calabar, and ended up at the Wesleyan Boys High School (Now Methodist Boys High School, Lagos), where among his teachers was a Fani-Kayode, whose grandson much later became the Deputy Premier of Western Nigeria, using the leverage of Azikiwe’s NCNC. Zik was a child of privilege. But it was his proximity to the effects of colonialism that turned him, like Moses, towards the liberation of his kind.
Nature had also endowed him suffusely with drop-dead good looks, a brilliant mind, athletic prowess, and oratorical power. He was made perfect for the job the gods entrusted on him in one incarnation: to free Africa from its colonial burden. While his peers went to Britain to study for the “dead professions,” of Medicine and Law, which prepared them for work, Zik arrived the United States in 1925, at to study the Humanities – Anthropology, Politics, History, Philosophy, Poetry and Journalism, which gave him exposure and leverage. He attended both historical Black Colleges and Ivy League universities in America. He began his professional life teaching in one of those universities, his alma mater Lincoln University, where he was Instructor in Politics and was by 1933, Head of the department of Political Science at Lincoln University.
But as he stated in his autobiography, My Odyssey, he chose to return to Africa, because he felt his calling was Black liberation. He went to Ghana, and became Editor-in-chief of the Accra Morning Post. Until Azikiwe arrived Accra in 1934, there was no anticolonial nationalism in Ghana. Azikiwe brought what has been called “militant nationalism” to Ghana, through his work from 1934-1937, editing the Morning Post, and his public speeches and debates at the Palladium in Accra. One of his greatest works was his recruitment of Kwame Nkrumah who came frequently to listen to his public speeches in Accra, and others, whom he pointed to school in the US as part of the revolutionary vanguard of African nationalism in the 20th century.
He returned to Nigeria, following his expulsion from Ghana by the British, to rouse, using his West African Pilot, the ideas of national liberation. I want to quote, in some detail, the piece of insight by Martin Lynn, the distinguished British historian of West Africa in his very important 2002 essay on decolonization, in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth Studies, which situates the truth, and the historical stature of Zik:”The CO (Colonial Office)” Lynn wrote, “saw the NCNC as the key threat to British policy in Nigeria, and indeed had done so since the emergence of the party in 1944.
This was due not least to CO views of its leader, views that had been forged in the political conflicts of the immediate post-war years. To the CO, Azikiwe remained the most ‘dangerous’ Nigerian leader and a continuing and potent threat. He was ‘an exceptionally skillful politician … but completely unprincipled and ruthless’, noted a CO official.
Azikiwe was not to be trusted, felt the CO, he could, represented a sharp challenge both to British interests in Nigeria and to the ‘managed’ decolonisation process more specifically. But there were deeper issues. While the CO welcomed the fact that the NCNC by the 1950s was anti-communist, it feared the radical policies it championed and was concerned at apparent NCNC attempts to politicise the Eastern public service.
Of most significance was the fact that the NCNC held a commitment to rapid self-government and to the maintenance of a strong federal centre in an independent Nigeria – it pursued these two principles firmly at the various constitutional conferences of the 1950s. Both these policies represented a sharp challenge to CO interests and especially to CO desires to protect the North and avoid secession.
Moreover, the CO was concerned that the policies that Azikiwe pursued in the East raised the stakes more generally and forced other Nigerian leaders, especially Awolowo, to respond in turn, or see their nationalist credentials come under attack in the West, a process which thereby generated further fears among Northern leaders” To be called “completely ruthless,” “unprincipled” and “not to be trusted” by the colonizer is actually a badge of honor. The point of this however is that Nigeria failed because the British ultimately, “defeated” Azikiwe, and handed Nigeria to his opponents.
Azikiwe’s idea of nation, nationalist interest, and national development was defeated and upended by the narrow, revanchist politics of his opponents like Awolowo, Balewa, and the Sardauna, aided by the British, who ensured the triumph these anti-Zik tendencies in Nigeria, even after independence, in the attempts to maintain a postcolonial control of Nigeria. The effect today is the failure of the Nigerian project, because Nigeria as imagined by Zik, was literally, forcefully aborted.