OBITUARY : Nnamdi Azikiwe

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The Independent Online
Nnadmi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha, popularly known as "Zik" or "Zik of Africa", was the first president of Nigeria. He made his name in the 1930s when he returned to Nigeria after studying in the United States and became a messianic figure in the nationalist movement while working in journalism, commerce and politics. Nigeria's achievement of independence from Britain was so dear to his heart that he once described it as "the consummation of my life's work".

Azikiwe's passion and struggles for the independence of African nations, which were not restricted to Nigeria, were inspired by a lecture given by the Rev Dr J.E. Kweggir Aggrey in 1924, which made him determined to study in the United States. He was working as a clerk after leaving school, but through his friendship with sailors on the cargo boats at the Port of Lagos, managed to stow away on a boat. He was discovered and put off at Accra, in the Gold Coast - present-day Ghana - where after wandering around aimlessly for some time he served in the Police Force as a constable. The following year, 1925, he returned to Nigeria and pleaded with his father for money to travel; his father gave him pounds 300, all he could raise.

Azikiwe's father was a member of the clerical staff of the British administrator, Sir Frederick Lugard, and Nnamdi was educated at Christian mission schools - Roman Catholic and Anglican primary schools in Onitsha, and the Wesleyan Boys' High School in Lagos.

He spent nine years studying (and then teaching) in the United States, first at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania and then at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated in philosophy and anthropology. In order to pay his way he took on odd jobs as a lift operator, miner and dishwasher. In 1994 Lincoln University instituted a professorial chair in his honour.

After America, Azikiwe went to the Gold Coast as a propagandist for the nationalist cause. The late Kwame Nkrumah, who later became the president of Ghana, was one of his pupils. Azikiwe also edited the African Morning Post in Accra from 1934 to 1937.

On his return to Nigeria Azikiwe continued in journalism, editing the West African Pilot (1937-45), launching five newspapers and writing regular columns to stir up nationalism in Nigeria and along the West African coast. By 1944 he had become the president of the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a post he held for the next two years. The NCNC was a political party which united radical elements that had emerged during the Second World War.

In 1960 Nigeria became independent from Britain. Azikiwe was appointed Governor- General and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal State of Nigeria. Three years later he was the first Nigerian to be sworn in as president, when the country became a republic. He held this position until the first coup d'etat in 1966 ended his administration and led to the Nigerian civil war. This started in June 1966 when the Igbo in the east of Nigeria seceded to set up the State of Biafra under Colonel Emeka Odumegu Ojukwu. When the coup happened Azikiwe was in Britain, which made people suspect that he knew about it. This he denied, but he did at first support Ojukwu.

The 30-month civil war caused the death of about a million people, many of whom died from starvation. It was not long before Azikiwe, himself an Igbo, saw the hopelessness of the war and helped bring it to an end by returning to the federal side. The Biafran leadership denounced him, and it seemed that Azikiwe's political career was at an end. However, the Igbo had such admiration for him that when the army lifted the ban on party politics in 1979, he re-emerged as their most popular figure.

Nnamdi Azikiwe's Nigerian People's Pary (NPP) came third in the polls for the 1979 election, which was won by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) under the leadership of Shehu Shagari. Azikiwe took his party into an alliance with Shagari, thereby obtaining plum jobs for his NPP members. The alliance came to an end a few years later, however, when he asked for more than Shagari was prepared to give.

Azikiwe was christened Benjamin, but in 1934, when he applied to compete for Nigeria in the British Empire Games was barred after protests from the South African team. Shocked by this display of colour prejudice, Azikiwe decided to give up the name of Benjamin and instead changed it legally to Nnamdi.

He was a fine orator, and had the advantage of speaking the three major languages of Nigeria: Hausa, Igbo and Yorub. As a child he spoke Hausa; from the age of eight he learned Igbo when the family moved to the east, and later as a student in Lagos he learnt to speak Yorub fluently.

Nnamdi Azikiwe was a strong believer in democracy, the welfare state and the rule of law. Emeka Ojukwu, the leader of the Ibo state of Biafra, once said that he had secured "a good place in history by arousing West Africa and thereby Afri-can blacks to seek independence". However, Ojukwu also felt that Zik had not carried on with this mission up to the end.

However Zik's efficacious charm, his position as the father of Nigerian nationalism and his political astuteness are three outstanding qualities that his opponents cannot argue about. His wife, Flora Ogbenyeanu Ogeogbunam, a daughter of the Adazia of Onitsha, died in 1983, since when he withdrew into seclusion.

B. Akntnde Oyetde

Benjamin (Nnamdi) Azikiwe, politician and journalist: born Zungeru, Northern Nigeria 16 November 1904; Premier, Easter Nigeria 1954-59; PC 1960; President, Federal Senate 1960; Governor-General and Commander-in- Chief, Federation of Nigeria 1960-63; President of Nigeria 1963-66; Leader, Nigeria People's Party 1979-96; married 1936 Flora Ogbenyeanu Ogoegbunam (died 1983, three sons, one daughter); died Enugu, Eastern Nigeria 11 May 1996.