In November 1934, shortly after he returned from his studies in the USA, Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik) was invited to the Methodist Boys High School, Lagos where he delivered a speech and part of that grand oratory prowess, his nuclear person, on education said: “I postulated at the outset that scholarship is coterminous with social progress. It is a scholar who makes or unmakes a society.” That was the true Great Zik of Africa. That philosophy took him to US for knowledge towards a better world of his in 1930 totally defined who he was. Twenty one years later, he laid a solid foundation to live out that statement to advance education and ensure that the education he believed in as the only way forward for a society is assured among his own people. That 1955, Zik, the Premier of Eastern Nigeria, founded the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN). That was the first in so many ways…the first full-fledged university in Nigeria from the outset and the first university any African indigenous government founded for her people.
On May 18, 1955 at the Easter Region House of Assembly, he made his speech in support of the bill to create the UNN and said: “In order that the foundation of Nigerian leadership shall be securely laid, to the end that this country shall cease to imitate the excrescences of a civilization which is not rooted in African life, I support the Bill to the effect that a full-fledged university should be established in this region without further delay.” UNN came to be the first as he coined the catchphrase for it: To Restore the Dignity of Man.
Again, he knew a people can never make any much headway without a sound economy, therefore, in 1948, his leadership and love for his people prompted him to create the African Continental Bank (ACB) the first bank to be founded by any African politician. At its inauguration on September 1, 1948, Zik sounded an alarm that the founding of the bank was in continuation of a tradition of revolt by Nigerians against the arrogance of the foreign banks towards Nigerians and that “the African Continental Bank is not an exception to this phenomenon. It was founded on a righteous revolt against palpable injustice.” Little wonder that the people he referred to their injustice, the white man, had a singular mandate of smearing Zik to run the bank out of business.
I was moved to write this tribute to the greatest Igbo man that ever lived by my colleague, Martins Ori. After reading his snippets and series he started issuing on his Facebook wall to celebrate Zik’s birthday, I felt moved once again to put this together. I wasn’t among the generation that knew Zik. But we read documentation that enabled those of us that chose to read to see through the veneer of lies knitted to downgrade Zik. I dare the older Igbo people who refuse to say the truth about the greatness of this giant that some of us younger generation have decided to tell the world who and what Zik meant to the Igbo. While I am too young to have known Zik, Ori is even younger. We challenge all of us to speak up for the truth. How on earth would some of us from pitiable background out of a callous war have had the opportunity of traveling to Lagos, Ibadan or Zaria for university education if Zik didn’t bring it closer to us in Nsukka? Meanwhile, would these universities mentioned have existed if Zik’s motivation as the pacesetter didn’t trigger the movement? It galls when uninformed people just re-echo what they heard others say that Zik didn’t do anything for the Igbo. Nobody in Nigeria or anywhere in Africa conceived or built a university for his people apart from those that copied Zik. That is why when the war broke out in 1966/67, all the students and workers in the universities in Ibadan, Lagos and Ife and possibly in Zaria who were thrown out or forced to flee found a nesting ground and refuge in the UNN.
UNN also provided Prof. Eni Njoku, the first Vice Chancellor of the federal government’s University of Lagos when ethnicity pushed him out, refuge as the third and first indigenous VC. While Zik did nothing for the Igbo and East region, the ACB he founded was later handed to the Eastern Nigeria government in 1957. And those that did more for the Igbo colluded and looted it dead. Two months ago, I was with Prof. Ihechukwu Madubuike, former two-time minister in his home. At a point he asked if I knew the first person to bag a PhD in University of Ibadan. I said yes, that it was Prof. Adiele Afigbo, the great historian. He said ‘of course you know because you said he was your godfather in UNN,” and he re-emphasised that that PhD by Afigbo was made possible through the Eastern Region scholarship. Of course, the erudite professor would not have been the only beneficiary. The last region in Nigeria to have western education institutions was Igbo land with the first secondary school in 1923, next in 1925 and 1932. But there was proliferation of primary and secondary schools in the late 1940s to the mid 1960s before the war when Zik was in charge. When they tell you some others entrenched mass education in their regions and Zik did nothing, you agree without asking questions.
The Igbo State Union, 1936-1966, which championed much of the Igbo renaissance aggregating the people outside Igbo land, was one of the records set by Zik who was one of the backbones. He came back from the US in 1934 and in 1936 was still the firebrand revolutionary. This body laid the foundation for the Igbo galvanizing themselves into what lingers till date as tradition where the Igbo in their town unions champion scholarships and town developments that also helped them rebuild the ruins of the war. After all these were done by one man for his people, some who felt their greatness depended on destroying Zik invented calumny against him as abandoning Biafra. But same Zik said in an interview to the New Nigerian Newspaper in September 1979 that he crossed the Atlantic 46 times on the instance of the government of Biafra as the Peace Envoy, and unfortunately, almost all the recommendations he made from the trips were scorned. Even when General Odumegwu Ojukwu had started listening to his wise counsel, some close advisers as Zik noted, told him Zik was playing compromise and trying to outshine him and take credit.
He mentioned this particular instance after the diplomatic blunder in Addis Ababa where his counsel was again scorned even as he sat next to Ojukwu at the conference, they came back to Enugu and he was told outright that whoever goes against the words of the C-in-C was guilty of subversion and the consequences were predictable.
Emewu, journalist of the Afri-China Media Centre, writes from Lagos ([email protected])