By Obi Nwakanma
The mish-mash of Nigeria’s post-war history has permitted many sad revisions which in turn has made Nigerian historical studies and its statements therefrom to be lopsided, ethnic, and gnarled. We have tended in Nigeria to celebrate the worst of us, and have confined Nigeria’s true national heroes to the dustbin. Today, only in a place like Nigeria, with its twisted ethos, can a man like Ahmadu Bello for instance, have greater pride of place in the National rolls than Akweke Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu, one of the great spirits of the anti-colonial Nationalist movement.
While the likes of Nwafor-Orizu were in the trenches fighting for Nigerian independence, and pushing the British out, and in turn being blackmailed and jailed, the likes of Ahmadu Bello known collaborator with British colonialism and its neo-colonial aims n Nigeria, were vociferous against the independence movement, and the emergence of Nigeria as a free and United nation.
Here of course is not the place or the occasion to tell this story or do that analysis fully of events between 1945 and 1947 that continue to have implications for Nigeria even today. But as the future unveils the archives of colonial Nigeria, and as those invested in the “single story” of Nigerian history begin to finally and fully exit from the stage, and down the line, as a true national history begins to shape with the solid formation of Nigeria, those coming in the future will see the true texture of that story; who did what, and who didn’t do what. Who did what, from the end of the 2nd World War in 1945, to free Africans in general and Nigeria in particular from the clutches of colonialism, and who collaborated with the colonialists to destroy the possibilities of political and economic freedom and independence.
Of course, those who are afraid of Nigeria’s true history have decreed that history be neither thought, nor even taught in our schools, but history ultimately has a way of freeing itself, because frankly, true history is like the moon shining, no palm can cover it from the face of the sky. It is important to let a new generation of Nigerians know their history. We must tell the story of Nigeria, from its colonial struggles, to its postcolonial situation. Among those who have been strategically eliminated, or bowdlerized from the pages of Nigerian history is Akweke Abyssinia Nwafor-Orizu, President of the Senate of Nigeria from November 1963-October 1965, and President of Nigeria from October 1965-Jan. 16, 1966.
For three months Nwafor Orizu was Acting President of Nigeria, and in that capacity suspended Parliament sine die during the military coup, and handed emergency power temporarily to the military in a move that signified the temporary end of the republic. This should be a matter of public record. Dr. Nwafor Orizu should therefore be counted among the Heads of State of Nigeria, and accorded his due place in the National Hall of Fame. The mere fact of taking the oath of the office of President, even in the acting role, places Nwafor Orizu legally as President and Head of State of the Federal Republic, and in that wise, of a higher status and capacity over Ernest Shonekan, who served as Head of the interim Government for three months, and who has been accorded all the rights due a former Head of state of Nigeria.
If Ernest Shonekan could be regarded as Head of State, what disqualifies Nwafor Orizu, who had a higher status in the republic, and whose position guaranteed under the law of an elected parliament of the republic gives him significant cache? This is the question that should have long occupied legal historians, political historians, theorists of Nigerian jurisprudence, and scholars of the public system.
But the circumstance of Nwafor Orizu’s presidency has often countermanded his position. Nwafor Orizu was acting President of Nigeria in a particularly difficult situation. When Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, then president of the republic took his extended vacation in October 1965, he wrote to Parliament to swear Orizu in as President in situ, which legally transferred albeit in the interim, every power, obligation, and rights of office accorded to the president of Nigeria, to President Orizu. This should be reflected in the official annals of the Republic, and an acknowledgement of his official status as the President of Nigeria, albeit for a very brief and dangerous period, indemnified. Nwafor-Orizu deserves to be so considered for the clear reason that it is his constitutional right, and it is a historical fact, that he piloted the affairs of Nigeria legally as president for at least three months.
Now, why has this not been done? Why has this bare fact of Nigeria’s political history not been reflected in its official national narrative and observances? Well, I suspect because Nwafor-Orizu was an Igbo from Nnewi. The circumstance of his presidency – his ceding of authority to General Ironsi has also often been regarded as quite controversial, and whatever is done to obscure his contributions to Nigerian history has been framed in the context of his Igbo identity, and the national pastime of erasing powerful Igbo footprints in the making of Nigeria’s National History; and it is complicated by the fact that under his watch, power was transferred to the Army.
For those who do not know, Nwafor Orizu was among the great leaders of the Nationalist movement, who challenged imperialism both as students in the United States and as political activists in Nigeria. His story is actually quite remarkable. Orizu was one of those nationalists whom Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe specially recruited from 1935 on his return to the continent, to be trained in America, and to form the backbone of his liberation movement in West Africa. Among those included Dr. Kwame Nkrumah whom he sent to Lincoln, his alma mater in 1935, followed Ako Adjei, who later became Ghana’s Foreign Minister under Nkrumah, K.A.B Jones-Quartey, who later became Azikiwe’s biographer and Professor at Legon, from Ghana.
From Nigeria sailed those Zik called the “Argonauts” in 1938, and these included Nwafor Orizu, Ojike, Mbadiwe, Ikejiani, Chukwuemeka, and Okongwu, and people like I.U. Akpabio, who had been inspired by Zik to seek the “golden fleece” in America… These men became the critical vanguard of the West African movement for decolonization and political independence. They all met at Lincoln and at Columbia – where Zik himself had been educated. Nwafor Orizu studied Political Science at the Ohio state University in Columbus, and earned an MA in Politics from the University of Columbia, New York. Orizu formed the Africa Students Association in America, which elected Nkrumah its first president, and Ojike after him in 1942.
From that year, Orizu was active in America, writing in American newspapers, going on speaking tours, and making numerous radio broadcasts and giving interviews; speaking out powerfully for decolonization in West Africa, and circulating Azikiwe’s message of Freedom. He founded the American Council of African Education, a move through which he secured thousands of scholarships for African students to be educated in America, rather than going to Britain, to receive what he called, “vertical education” which in effect compromised their minds and methods. He was jailed by the colonial authorities because of that on charges of fraud. In 1944/45, these “Argonauts” led the charge for the campaign for the re-interpretation of the Atlantic charter, circulating Azikiwe’s memorandum in the United States against Churchill’s attempts to exclude the colonies from its interpretation. While Ojike was in San Francisco campaigning for the African voice to be heard at the first meetings founding the new United Nations, Orizu, Mbadiwe, Okongwu, I.U. Akpabio were in New York, Pittsburg, Philadephia, mobilizing critical American public opinion. Orizu was on record to have threatened that West Africans will have no alternative than to resort to armed struggle, if they were excluded from the coverage of the Atlantic charter, and if no efforts were made to begin the transition towards independence.
“We will enter the bushes and fight” he proclaimed. These sustained campaigns attracted the attention of the US government, and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the activist first lady of the United States, who invited them – Orizu, Ojike and Mbadiwe – to the White House, brokered through Ralph Bunche, Azikiwe’s friend and former Professor at Howard who had been recruited into the Roosevelt administration as Under Secretary of State for African Affairs, to help the Roosevelt administration outline the American policy in response to Churchill’s stance on the Atlantic charter and on decolonization. That meeting was ultimately crucial because subsequently, President Roosevelt took the stance that American policy will not support Great Britain in the continued colonization of the colonies; and in that situation, affirmed the interpretation of the Atlantic charter to include not only what he termed the “Four Freedoms,” but the human rights basis of the charter as circulated by Zik’s own memorandum in 1944, and as propagated by his acolytes in the United States.
The settlement of the issue of decolonization by 1946/47 was largely the work of these men, whose agitations pressured the new global super-power to back the decolonization of Africa. In effect the decision to grant independence to Nigeria was fully taken by early 1947, everything else that followed, was Britain supervising the division of the meat of the great elephant, to cover its strategic interests from 1947-1957.
Orizu founded the militant Zikist movement, and theorized “Zikism” as the philosophy of African liberation. He was a thorough Nationalist, and a true soldier, among the party that fought Great Britain for the freedom of the African continent. He was President of the Nigerian senate, and for three months, the last President of Nigeria, in the first republic. He should be fully acknowledged and given his due as a Nationalist politician, but above all, as President of the Nigerian federation. That is the just and realistic thing to do. Happy Christmas to Nigerians.