By Chief Mbazulike Amechi
Chief Mbazulike Amechi is perhaps, the only surviving nationalist in the South East and one of the remaining six in Nigeria.Â A formerÂ House of Representatives member and ex Minister of Aviation, Amechi who wrestled and arrested aÂ white assassinÂ asked to kill Nnamdi Azikiwe (which made Zik call him The Boy Is Good)was a strong voice of the now disappearing members Zikist Movement, a radical political group founded in February 1946 by young enthusiastic Nigerian nationalists to fight against colonialism.
Amechi, 80, was the keynote speaker at the Ndigbo Lagos organised 14th Zik Memorial Symposium Lecture held last Tuesday, May 11, 2010 in Victoria Island, Lagos to mark the death of the former president. In thisÂ abridged version of his essay, Amechi reveals the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as never before, including how he inspired nationalist movements across Africa, his mentoring of Nelson Mandela and how Zik scuttled his own chances at becoming Nigeriaâ€™s First Executive President in 1979.
Zik Beyond Nigeria
Dr. Azikiwe while leading the struggle for the freedom of Nigeria, did not lose sight of the needs of our brothers and sisters in East, Central and Southern Africa who were carrying out their own struggle, most of them badly oppressed by white settlers and apartheid policy.
The NCNC Political Training School was set up at Yaba in Lagos and apart from our youths who were trained in the school, Zik extended his hand of fellowship to contemporaries like Kaunda, Nyerere, and Banda to send their youths for training. Many of the youths who passed through this school at Yaba were to become Ministers and Leaders in various fields in their countries. I remember such names as Tom Mboya, Odinga Oginga and Sam Nujoma who later became the President of South West Africa.
He came to us as leader of his party, South West Peoples Organization (SWAPO). Among the teachers in the school may be mentioned, Ogoegbunam Dafe, Chudi Akunyili, Kola Balogun, Mokwugwo Okoye, my humble self and Fred. Mc Ewen.
ZIK and Mandela
In 1961, the racist government of South Africa and British Intelligence were furiously looking for Nelson Mandela. He was obliged to take refuge in Nigeria, and Zik, the Governor_General, assigned him to live with me at Ikoyi. I was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information.
Mandela lived with me at No.5 Okotie â€“Eboh Street, Ikoyi for more than four months. About the fifth month, Mandela soliloquized openly to my hearing, â€œfor how long must I continue in this hide and seek game. Iâ€™d better go back to South Africa to give leadership to the people; if they kill me, my death will inspire the other nationalists to continue the struggle until total victory is wonâ€.
That was how he decided to return to South Africa where he was shortly arrested and imprisoned for life. How he was aided financially when he was going, I do not know; that was at the level of Zik and Dr. Okpara, who was then the Premier of Eastern Region. Apart from the youths who passed through the NCNC Political School, Zik was concerned with the low level of education in some of these sister African countries and initiated a Special Scholarship Scheme for them in the Eastern Regional Government. Dr. Okpara inherited and expanded it.
That is why one would find so many boys and girls from these African countries in the Queens College, Enugu, Government College, Umuahia and Abbot Boys College, Ihiala (then owned by Hon. G.E. Okeke, the Minister of Education). Some of these boys and girls who were caught up by the Biafran war were smuggled home to their counties through Gabon.
Opportunity Sacrificed andÂ Lost
In October this year, Nigeria will be 50 years old as a sovereign nation. The painful irony of our political history and development is that the people who made the most sacrifice and were in the fore_front of the struggle for independence are the ones who have not benefited or have benefited least from the dividends of freedom. The case of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe is most painful; for on two occasions he was at the door of Headship of the Government of the country he captained its players.
He deliberately and patriotically sacrificed one occasion and simply lost the other. He made the personal sacrifice of his right to the Prime Ministership of the country in order that Independence on October 1, 1960 would not be scuttled.
In the Constitutional Conferences held in London and Lagos, the British had woven in a caveat that if any Region of the country expressed opposition or unreadiness for Independence on October 1, the independence would be postponed indefinitely. In the pre_independence election conducted by the British on December 15, 1959 the following results were obtained:
NCNC_NEPU Alliance scored a total of 2,595,577 votes to capture 73 seats. The Action Group_UMBC Alliance scored 1,922,364 votes to capture 73 seats. The NPC scored a total of 1,992178 votes to capture 142 seats.
It may be said that Awolowo showed bad faith or extra smart politics by offering simultaneously to the NCNC and NPC the option of Prime Ministership in an alliance with the Action Group provided he could be made Minister of Finance. Zik could have accepted Awolowoâ€™s offer and became the Prime Minster, but considering the threat which the NPC had expressed that if the Prime Ministership did not come to the North, they would stop Independence on October 1, 1960, he patriotically sacrificed the opportunity.
He said that his primary objective in the nationalist struggle was for Nigeria to be free and independent. Indeed he reflected this in his speech after being sworn is as Governor_General when he said â€œconsumatum estâ€.
Zik and 1979
The second opportunity is the opportunity to become the Executive President of this country on October 1, 1979. Let me take this opportunity to say what happened or what I know of what happened.
In April 1978, Zik sent a message that I should see him at his Nsukka residence. I promptly honoured the invitation, which of course I regarded as a command. At Nsukka, the Owelle told me that he wanted to contest election to become the President of Nigeria in 1979 and wanted to assign me, as his field go_getter and organiser throughout his period as Premier of Eastern Region, to go into the field and prepare the ground for him.
We then discussed the modalities and implications and agreed that it was absolutely necessary to win the support of the North in view of their population. I then went to Lagos and discussed with Alhaji Shehu Shagari who had his residence at Victoria Island. Shagari brought in Alhaji Shetima Ali Monguno Chief Sunday Awoniyi into the discussion. After consulting with Zik, I brought in Chief Dennis Osadebay and R.B.K. Okafor from our side.
We held series of meetings and agreed that since the North and the East worked harmoniously in peace in the First Republic, it would be desirable for them to collaborate again in the Second Republic. After a rather hard bargaining, we agreed in principle that Zik should be Presidential Candidate with Shagari as his running mate.
The North, however, insisted that Zik should run for one term only and hand over the mantle to a Northerner. When I reported this provisional agreement to Zik, he told me that it was the Emirs who held ultimate say in the North and asked how I was sure that the Emirs would not veto the agreement. I went back to Lagos and told Shagari what fear Zik expressed.
Shagari assured me that the Emirs were being briefed on our negotiations but in any case he would try and do something concrete. The following weekend, Zik told me that the Emir of Zaria came to him and presented to him a gift of four leather_feet stools and four pieces of brocade material as present from the Sultan of Sokoto with a message that â€œwhat his delegates were discussing with our boys were being reported to their committee of six and had their full endorsementâ€.
Yet further, Zik expressed another fear, and asked me; â€œwhat of the Army, how can we be sure that they wonâ€™t strike again if an Igboman becomes President?â€ I went back to Lagos again and told Shagari of my Leaderâ€™s new fear. Shagari said, â€œHaba! Whatâ€™s all these fears; does the man really want to be President?â€
He said he would answer this in a practical way. He arranged dinner with General Danjuma who was the then Chief of Staff at the Supreme Headquarters. At the dinner, he briefed Danjuma on the discussion and the fear of the Army as expressed by Zik. Danjuma said that what they were looking for was somebody like Zik really, but said that he could not go to Nsukka to assure him for fear of the press spotting him.
He said that I should tell Owelle that he (Danjuma) would be addressing the army at the Army Sports holding in Calabar that weekend; that in his speech on that occasion he would pass his message to Zik. Gen. Danjuma spoke in this vein. â€œI want to use this opportunity to reassure all Nigerians that the military would truly hand over to a democratically elected President on October 1, 1979 but the President_elect must be a father_figure who will truly reunite the countryâ€¦â€ Zik got this message and told me that he had got all the assurances he needed.
Shagari, who was then the chairman of Peugeot Automobile Nig. Ltd gave me a note with which I took delivery from SCOA Lagos, the first three cars with which Zikâ€™s preliminary campaign was launched. While these haggling were going on, National Movement had transformed to National Party of Nigeria, NPN while Club 79 had welcomed Nigeria Peoples Party, but none had been registered as a political party.
I was myself, a leading member of Club 19 or NPP, In fact, the old Anambra branch was formed in my house at Ukpor.Â Our proposal was to fuse the two associations into one political party, to be named Nigerian Peoples National Party and this fusion was to the effected during Zikâ€™s next birthday.
When I brought this merger proposal to my own NPP, a powerful group from the Middle Belt (Benue/Plateau) led by Paul Unongo nearly attacked me physically, saying that they would never belong to the same party with the far_North.
Shortly after I left for the UK to inspect machines being assembled for my Kaolin processing factory and to dash to Ireland to brief Dr. M.I. Okpara then in exile about final arrangements for his return, a political opportunist took advantage of my absence from the East and the country to convince Zik to sponsor him as Governor in the NPP and that with his name and popularity he could win as President.
Somehow,Â the Owelle bought this stunt and issued a one_sentence press statement; cancelling â€œall arrangements made for my birthdayâ€. Igwe Ezenwa of Oba heard this statement on the radio and raced to my residence to ask what was happening. I rushed to Nsukka to find out but was stopped at Zikâ€™s gate with the message that the Owelle was not feeling well and his Doctor said he must not be disturbed.
Dennis Osadebay from Asaba rushed to Nsukka but was not allowed access and on his way back, he had the accident that left him paralysed. Mojeed Agbaje from Ibadan rushed to Nsukka to see the Owelle but was blocked and on his way had a ghastly motor accident between Ore and Ondo and died, along with four other political timbers from the West.
My last desperate effort to warn the Owelle that some opportunist merely wanted to use him for selfish end was when I went to the NPP convention at Apapa and Bobo Nwosisi and one thug from Enugu state who later became a traditional ruler, used hemp-smoking thugs to stop me from entering the field.
I finally had audience with Zik at his Nsukka residence on November 21, 1978 where I candidly advised him that having mismanaged the chance to become President, it would, in my opinion, be better for him not to contest than to contest and lose with all his honour and glorious role in the nationalism and politics of Nigeria.
He told me that apart from the assurances given to him by Unongo/Jim/Mbakwe group, he could honestly not belong to a party with Chief Akinloye as National Chairman (remembering what Akinloye did to him in the Western House of Assembly in 1952).
I may be wrong but I consider this an opportunity missed.
After these painful experiences, I went into month_long retreat and meditation and finally joined the NPN which had then nominated Shehu Shagari as its Presidential Candidate. This was on December 26, 1978 and I was immediately co_opted into the Presidential Campaign Team.
I toured the whole North with the team and as we rounded up in Kwara State, Shagari the Presidential Candidate and Akinloye the National Chairman of the NPN invited me to a private suite at Kwara State Hotel on January 13, 1979 and informed me that I had been chosen as Presidential Running Mate to Shagari and the announcement would be made when we got down to Lagos the next day.
I thanked them for the honour but told them that even though I was in an opposing party to Zikâ€™s, I would never contest any election in opposition to Zik. I must mention here that years after, Zik told me that I should not have declined the offer, that it would have been better for me to cut the tail of an animal he missed killing.
Zikâ€™s Golden Key
Finally, ladies and gentlemen, let say it for the first time to a public gathering. Dr. the Rt. Hon. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Zik of Africa, the Owelle of Onitsha at exactly 5 a.m. some six hours before he breathed his last, gave to me a ONE FOOT LONG KEY, made of Pure Solid Gold. I fully understood the message of the key and I hold it dear and close to my chest. Thank you.