Two governments in the Nigerian federation recently took different but related steps to immortalise Nigeria’s founding President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The Anambra State government announced that November 16, Azikiwe’s birthday, would henceforth be a work-free day in the state, asking the national government to make it a national holiday. The Federal Government, on the other hand, inaugurated on Friday, January 25, 2019, the Zik Mausoleum, which was started 23 years ago by the Sani Abacha military regime.
Since the two events honouring Nigeria’s foremost nationalist, better known by his sobriquet of the Great Zik of Africa, some Nigerians, especially the younger generation, have been trying to find out Zik’s place under the Nigerian, nay, African, firmament. This reaction is not quite surprising, given that, until now, history as a subject was excluded from the high school curriculum.
It is usual for people to attempt to explain Zik’s place in our history by referring to the positions he occupied in his days. He was Nigeria’s first indigenous governor-general, Nigeria’s first Senate President and the first President of the republic. He is, of course, the only Nigerian to have his name in the country’s Constitution. The 1963 Constitution, which made Nigeria a republic, stated that Nigeria’s president “shall be Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.”
But, as well known to perceptive persons, Zik’s place in Nigeria’s cosmology goes far beyond the positions he held. He gave nationalism and the independence struggle a new meaning. Zik saw himself as, first and foremost, a pan-Africanist. Born of Igbo parentage in Zungeru, in today’s Niger State, he grew up in Calabar and Lagos, studied in the United States, settled in Ghana on his return from overseas and wrote a book titled “Liberia in World Politics.” He spoke the three main Nigerian languages fluently, and so it is no mystery he gave all his children born in Lagos Yoruba names.
Until Azikiwe’s return to Nigeria, the campaign for liberation was not really nationwide and wasn’t pursued with vigour. Zik formed the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun (NCNC) and made it a national movement, the first in Nigeria’s history. The result was that Nigeria’s independence came earlier than the colonial masters had envisaged.
Zik changed the face of Nigerian journalism even more than he altered the nationalist struggle. He established newspapers in Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Zaria, Port Harcourt and Onitsha. The papers became a very important vehicle for social mobilisation. His “Inside Stuff” column in West African Pilot was a compulsory read, laced with ideas and phrases from anthropology, sociology, religion, political science, history, international relations, poetry, etc. He was a Renaissance man, with degrees in different areas. Many people wanted to be like him. Chief Obafemi Awolowo had to travel to London to study law as an adult in order to acquire knowledge and oratorical skills comparable to Zik’s. Chief Awolowo even established Tribune newspaper on Zik’s birthday as a tribute to Zik. The sage himself said so himself in 1980 in private letters to Dr. Azikiwe.
Zik’s Igbo people perhaps benefitted more from Zik. To solve the problem of a lack of university graduates in Igboland in comparison to the Yoruba, he took nine bright and ambitious young Igbo boys to the United States to study. They included Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, Dr. Okwunodu Okongwu, Dr. Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, Professor Chukwuemeka, Prof. J.B.C Okala and Dr. Okechuchukwu Ikejiani. They were known as the Argonauts. On return to Nigeria, the Argonauts joined in the struggle for independence, and made a huge impact.
The Argonauts, in addition, sent their relatives to the United States for tertiary education when the fashion then was to study in the United Kingdom, which was colonising us. This became the basis of Igbo prominence in the Nigerian community in the United States to this day, unlike in the UK, which is Yoruba-dominated.
As Premier of the Eastern Nigerian Region in the 1950s, Zik built the famous Nigeria Cement Company at Nkalagu in today’s Ebonyi State, and it was commissioned on January 1, 1955. He built Nigergas. He also established Nigersteel, Nigeria’s first steel company. He built the Eastern Nigerian Development Corporation, which played a critical role in the building of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, the country’s first indigenous full university, in 1960.
This feat challenged the Western Nigerian government, under Chief Samuel Akintola, to build the University of Ife at Ile-Ife in 1962. It also challenged the Northern Region, under Sir Ahmadu Bello, to set up Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1963. The Federal Government built its own University of Lagos at Akoka in 1962.
It is interesting that the Eastern Nigerian government was then the poorest in the country because its main revenue earner, palm produce, was not commanding high prices on the international market. The richest was the Western Region because cocoa, its major revenue source, was attracting high prices. The second wealthiest region was the North because groundnut, its primary revenue earner, was getting good prices. The annual Eastern Nigerian budget was always a fraction of the Western government’s.
Not to be forgotten is that Zik established in the 1950s Nigeria’s first indigenous bank, African Continental Bank (ACB). The ACB’s emergence caused the Western Nigerian government to set up the National Bank of Nigeria and the northern government to establish the Bank of the North. The ACB was instrumental to the emergence of a big entrepreneurial class in the East from the 1950s. The bank also played a critical part in the rise of the former Biafrans at the cessation of hostilities in 1970. It was granting credit facilities on far more liberal terms than other banks because it knew the erstwhile Biafrans couldn’t afford much collateral.
And talking about the Civil War, Zik was responsible for over 70 per cent of the diplomatic support that Biafra received. Gabon, Tanzania, Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire recognised Biafra simply because of the personal relationship between Zik and their presidents. The fifth country, Haiti, recognized Biafra because of Dr. Ikejiani who was a classmate of the Haitian leader in medical school in the United States. Dr. Ikejiani was, as stated earlier, a Zik product.
When it had become clear that Biafra was no longer going to succeed, Zik travelled to Lagos where he met General Yakubu and began making heroic efforts towards a soft landing for the Biafrans. The war ended a few months later, and Biafrans were not butchered in their millions, as they feared, but rather welcomed without condition back to Nigeria.
Because the Igbo were still afflicted psychologically by the outcome of the civil war, by 1978 when the ban on politics was lifted, there were no serious presidential candidate of Igbo origin. Zik felt bad, and so decided to participate in the presidential race after resisting the urge to return to politics. It was a gesture meant to uplift Ndigbo from “psychological defeatism to psychological glorification,” as Dr. Mbadiwe would put it.
The founders of Ohanaeze Ndigbo like Dr. Pius Okigbo were thoughtful enough to recognise Zik’s unparalleled role in the emergence of the Igbo people in modern history. They made him the only patron of Ohanaeze, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation.
It is, therefore, sacrilegious that the current Ohanaeze officers chose to hold a meeting of its inner caucus on Friday, January 25, 2019, the very day the Nigerian nation, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, was honouring The Great Zik of Africa, by commissioning the Zik Mausoleum in Onitsha, Anambra State. The so-called Ime Obi meeting of Ohanaeze was meant to disrupt the ceremony and discredit Zik’s place in history. As a commentator has noted, Chief Nnia John Nwodo, whose father was a minister under Zik in the 1950s, and his cohorts decided to dance on Zik’s grave. This is an abomination of the highest order. Nwodo must cleanse the land.
•Nezianya was a director of the News Agency of Nigeria.