November 16, 1904, in the North-Central semi-urban town of Zungeru in today’s Niger State, heralded the birth of an averter to a colonial civil servant from the coast town of Onitsha in the Eastern Protectorate. He grew to a tall, handsome, athletic, urbane young man with a cosmopolitan outlook. He was restless, self-motivated and tenacious in his quest for the Golden Fleece.
After listening to a lecture by Dr. James Aggrey while a student at Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar, he was fired to explore the New World, which despite its advances was eclipsed by the conservative colonial administration of Great Britain in the Dark Continent. But neither of this could quench his quest for adventure to explore the system that baked that great missionary from the Gold Coast.
Restless and determined, he and two other civil servant-friends fired by similar ambition began to save for a trip to the United States. He negotiated with a mariner and stowed away, but could not go beyond Gold Coast. All that followed is now part of his rich history.
We are calling to remembrance the life journey of Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, the legendary Zik of Africa. From available records of his education, erudition, human relations, political engagements, Journalism practice and sportsmanship, Zik could safely be described as a perfection of God’s creative work and carbon reflection of His attributes.
He towered above his peers. Intellectually, he was a genius, endowed with wisdom and insight with an elevated command of the English Language and depth of philosophy, which made him a meticulous wordsmith and engaging orator, constantly adorned in sartorial excellence. The profundity of his delivery made him the envy of his numerous admirers even as it became a thorn in the heart of the envious. A symbol of justice and equity, his belief in the Golden Rule made him ever appreciative of benefactors and determined to intersperse his own life with benefactions, both of which combined to make Zik the luminous star in the liberation of his continent, particularly Nigeria.
He singled out two of such benefactors who played critical roles in his life: Prof Wright who offered him part-time job as an undergraduate and the Ghanaian business man who gave him his first dream job of editing The African Morning Post. “If Prof Wright and Mr. Ocansey had not fed me with the milk of human kindness, I do not know what would have become of me.”
Dr. Akwaeke Abyssinia Nwafor-Orizu, one of the eight Argonauts Zik helped to secure tuition-free scholarship in Lincoln University (as he did for Kwame Nkrumah and Abdulkarim Adisa), recalled:
“One morning in 1937, while I was teaching at CMS Central School, Onitsha, news came that one Prof Nnamdi Azikiwe, an American-trained Onitsha man was scheduled to give a lecture in the Court Room that evening. The news got more exciting when it was told that one philosopher-poet and merchant, Dr. JMR Stuart-Young, an Irish, was to be the chairman. In the Nigeria of 1937, to hear that a Whiteman would chairman a lecture to be delivered by an African was, indeed, an unusual story.
“Zik was 33 years old then. He appeared like an immaculate eagle which was standing on the branch of a tall tree, gazing impatiently across four corners of the earth, undecided yet as to what direction to fly. He looked all academic, vigorous, attractive, restless … full of dreams and visions.”
And Wikipedia notes: “Nnamdi Azikiwe founded Zik’s Athletic Club (ZAC) which would open its doors to sportsmen and women of all races, nationalities, tribes, and classes of Nigeria. In 1942, the club went on to win both the Lagos League and the War Memorial Cup. After these victories, Nnamdi opened up more ZAC branches throughout Nigeria. In 1949, some ZAC players participated in a tour of England. On the return from the tour they stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria defeated the locals by 2 goals. This victory was more than a decade before Nigerian independence, but it marked the birth of Nigeria’s National Team.”
Against this backdrop of cosmopolitanism and commitment to African liberation, is it not strange that some paid-pipers of ethnic demi-gods choose to drag the name and personality of such a great patriot despite the overwhelming facts of his eminence. A New Telegraph columnist, Bola Bolawole, offended by Pa Adebanjo’s backing of an Igbo presidential candidate, released his “yeast of the Pharisees” on Wednesday, Nov 9, regurgitating:
“Is it true that the Igbo never ruled Nigeria? Nnamdi Azikiwe was Governor-General at Independence in 1960. In 1963, … Zik was its first president (ceremonial). Zik wanted it that way because he had the offer of Primeministership, which wielded effective power, laid on his table by Awo before he chose to KO-TOW (emphasis mine) before the Fulani and accepted the ceremonial presidency stuff,” adding: … “Ironsi destroyed the federal system…”
Such regurgitation makes one wonder if the “destruction” by Maj-Gen Aguiyi-Ironsi’s six-month old regime was cast in stone as the Laws of Medo-Persia and made irrevocable that subsequent military administrations from July 1966 to 1979 could not revoke it.
The fallacy of Awo offering Zik “primeministership” stemmed from acute selective amnesia of denying the reality of the Carpet Crossing incident of 1952, which Zik recalled in My Odyssey: “Towards the end of 1951 I stood for another election, this time to the Western House of Assembly, as a representative of Lagos, under the Macpherson Constitution, I topped the poll. The NCNC was under the impression that it had won the election with 43 members out of 80. As it turned out, 20 of the legislators ….. decided to align themselves with another party….”
He named the 20, but for space constraint, let’s take three, namely: Chief A M A Akinloye of Ibadan; Chief Arthur Prest, Legal Adviser of NCNC in Sapele, and Chief Anthony Enahoro, whom Zik appointed Editor of the Comet at 22. This raised two questions: First, was there any evidence that Awolowo that engineered the Carpet Crossing in 1952 had become Zik’s friend seven years later to the extent of “offering him primeministership”? Secondly, with Action Group being third, next to NPC and NCNC, how could he offer such top post to Zik?
Details of the 1959 election and how Zik emerged Senate president, which qualified him for governor-general, was captured by a Daily Times Periodicals Editor in his book Nigeria: Yesterday, Today, And…
No party secured the requisite majority vote in the December 12, 1959, general election. “As leader of the largest party (the Northern Peoples Congress), Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, was invited by Sir James Robertson, the Governor-General, to form a new Federal Cabinet. Sir Abubakar, the former prime minister, who was accompanied to Lagos by the Premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, said he had not ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition government, adding: ‘We certainly cannot compromise on the suggestion that a leader of another party might become Prime Minister.”
On the emergence of the President of the newly-created Senate as first governor-general, James Ojiako wrote: “It is announced that the Prime Minister of the Federation intend to recommend to Her Majesty, the Queen, that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe should be appointed the Governor-General of the Federation after the retirement of Sir James Robertson on November 15, 1960.
“Dr Azikiwe, who was in Rome attending the Olympic Games when the announcement was made, arrived on September 21, after watching the Games. The Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello and the Alake of Abeokuta sent Dr Azikiwe letters of congratulation.”
On his inauguration, West Africa Magazine reported: “Several thousands of people, including specially invited visitors from over a dozen countries thronged Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, on November 16, to witness the installation of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe as the first African Governor-General of the Federation of Nigeria.
“Also on November 16 (which, by coincidence, was Dr Azikiwe’s 56th birthday), it was announced from Buckingham Palace that the Queen had graciously appointed the new Governor-General to be a member of her Privy Council. His correct style and title thus becomes: His Excellency the Right Honourable Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, P.C.”
The magazine equally captured messages from world leaders. Among them were The Queen of England; Pandit Nehru of India, President Einsenhower of the United States, Soviet Union president, Leonid Brezhnev and Tom Mboya from Kenya.
A Nigerian university graduate assuming the role of a writer or social critic, who lacks the understanding of how the prime minister and governor-general emerged in 1959/1960, should have his credentials re-examined. Ditto for someone who recalls Ironsi’s ill-informed Decree 34 of 1966 without knowing that the Aburi Accord nullified everything Ironsi did wrong about the federal system. The accord presented everything in the extant call for restructuring.
At Zik’s death, The New York Times gave a deserving tribute: “He towered over the affairs of Africa’s most populous nation, attaining the rare status of a truly national hero who came to be admired across the regional and ethnic lines dividing his country.”
• Nwafo is a journalist in Lagos.