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Azikiwe, 1904-1987

By Obi Nwakanma
THIS week I pay tribute to the memory of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904-1987), poet, scholar, journalist, and statesman; one of the great leaders of Africa’s anti-colonial and independence movement in the 20th century. He was also founding president of Nigeria. Dr. Azikiwe would have been 105 years last Monday, November 16.

It is always necessary to place him before the scrutiny of history, for if Nigeria in its most ideal state were to seek a guiding national spirit, Nnamdi Azikiwe is that spirit. His was an ambition that contained and ramified the Nigerian ideal.

It is also because he remained true to that vision and ideal of just nationhood, that he suffers great criticism. Because the Nigeria of his dream did not materialize, Azikiwe fails. The Nigeria that has become idealized is not the “Nigeria sans frontiers” of his dreams, but Nigeria bordered and bounded by the fissures and the incontinence of sub-national affiliations.

It is Nigeria in which Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello and Ojukwu are the great heroes. Zik’s critics have accused him of using far too much the tool of “compromise,” although Zik himself always explained that his real tools were the sagacity of “patience” which demanded a semblance of compromise to achieve intricate political objectives.

No wonder his greatest opponents, the British called him, “Zig-Zag-Zik” “Quicksilver Zik” He was a slippery opponent, always ahead of the game. He was a student of the methods of Fabius Maximus Pontifex, the Roman General and military strategist, whose methods rested on patience and compromise.

Nigerians wish today that there are politicians of Azikiwe’s substance, capable of deploying the virtues of compromise rather than the extremism and the absolutism of “do or die” politics that have greatly characterized Nigerian political values.

It is important especially for a contemporary generation of Nigerians to begin to examine the true history of modern Nigeria beyond the revisions. It is important to tell that true story because from its sources we could find the wherewithal to begin a necessary reappraisal of the nation and understand the implications of its roads not taken.

Azikiwe is unarguably the most important Nigerian that lived in the 20th century, and whose documented life and work straddles the fundamental spectrum of Nigerian history from 1935 at least. But a few sleights of hands often attempt to erase or diminish his eponymous life. For instance, my colleague, the Vanguard columnist, Owei Lakemfa penned a worthy tribute to the memory of the victims of the colliery massacres at the Iva valley Enugu in 1949, sixty years ago.

He paid just and rightful compliment to the activists of the Zikist movement: Osita Agwuna, Mokugo Okoye, Raji Abdalla, Nduka Eze, Bello Ijumu, Aminu Kano, etc.“who put their lives on the line for freedom.” About these men he writes: “It is true that many of the official “nationalists” wore long traditional clothes about, making ineffectual speeches in parliament and attending constitutional conferences in London where they had the privilege of taking tea with the colonial masters, but the true nationalists were the patriots who looked the colonialists in the face and demanded freedom.”

I would agree with Mr. Lakemfa in part that there may have been, particularly in the later phase of decolonization, “official nationalists” who made rather bombastic speeches in parliament and who were in cahoots with the colonialists.He in fact studiously, quite deliberately, ignored Azikiwe, the key architect of the anticolonial movement.

Indeed there was no one of that generation whose life and livelihood were put more on the line than Nnamdi Azikiwe, a fact that gets clearer as the British slowly open the archives of that era for public scrutiny. Indeed, in the event of the Iva Valley in 1949, there was no greater champion, or louder public voice challenging the British on the massacres at Iva valley than Azikiwe and his West African Pilot, a fact which the Brits also held against him. Yet in paying tribute to the activists of the era, Owei Lakemfa ignores this basic fact.

It is this project of revision, whose provenances are rather well known, and which began from 1970 to undermine the stature and contributions of Nnamdi Azikiwe and the implication of his life in the 20th century, perhaps because it reflects the actual truth of Igbo contributions to nation-building in the 20th century, that has denied Nigeria the capacity for a reconstructive myth and the use of her own epic national hero of the 20th century.

Whereas the Ghanaians for instance now celebrate Nkrumah, and indeed put up a shebang recently to mark the centenary of their nationalist leader, Azikiwe’s life and work, which potentially carries more cache, for even Nkrumah himself acknowledged Zik’s leadership, is obscured by revisionist and dubious histories. Just for the benefit of those who may wish to get some different perspective on that history, Richard Sklar’s Nigerian Political parties or James S. Coleman’s Nigeria: background to Nationalism  or K.W. J Post and Michael Vickers Structure and Conflict in Nigeria : 1960-1966, are important sources.

They make it clear why it is dangerous, perhaps even fruitless, to attempt to erase or subvert or undervalue Zik’s contributions to the anti-colonial struggle, particularly from the inter war years. It ought now be said that the battle for decolonization was won for the colonies in 1945 largely because of the work done by Nnamdi Azikiwe and his lieutenants, particularly Mbonu Ojike and Nwafor Orizu in the United States, and Azikiwe deploying his own polemical missiles from Nigeria.

The various constitutional conferences that shaped Nigeria from 1950-1958 were simply icing on the cake. At the convention of the nations in San Francisco in 1945 at the end of World War II leading towards the convention of the United Nations, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain tried to steer the discussion towards agreeing that the Atlantic charter did not cover the colonies who were standing upon the argument that the charter guarantees freedom for all peoples.

Mbonu Ojike went to San Francisco distributing petitions, lobbying and giving fiery speeches. From New York Nwafor Orizu was threatening armed insurrection. Azikiwe who had been refused travel permit by the colonial government engaged Churchill in a press war from Lagos, arguing that “Africans did not fight in the war so that Europe alone should enjoy freedom” and wrote that famous article: “there is no new deal for the black man in San Francisco.”

These pressures helped finally to secure American president Roosevelt’s support for the anticolonial movement and the resolve not to support Britain on the matter “simply so that she will be able to ride roughshod over colonial peoples.”


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