The name Nnamdi Azikiwe is not one frequently mentioned in Barbados when reflection is given to some of Africa’s great statesmen. But he is held in esteem in Nigeria and on the African continent for his part in the attainment of Nigerian nationhood. His contributions to journalism, politics and education in Nigeria are of immense significance.
Azikiwe was born in Zungeru, Northern Nigeria. His parents were Igbo; his father Obed-Edom Chukwuemeka Azikiwe (1879-1958), a clerk in the British Administration of Nigeria and his mother was Rachel Chinwe Azikiwe. Nnamdi means “My father is alive” in the Igbo language. After studying at Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar, and Methodist Boys High School Lagos, Azikiwe went to the United States. While there he attended Howard University, Washington DC.
He arrived in the United States in 1925, where he attended several schools. Azikiwe earned multiple certificates and degrees, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and a second master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked as an instructor at Lincoln before returning to Nigeria.
In 1934 he went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where he founded a nationalist newspaper and was a mentor to Kwame Nkrumah (later the first president of Ghana) before returning to Nigeria in 1937. There he founded and edited newspapers and also became directly involved in politics, first with the Nigerian Youth Movement and later (1944) as a founder of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC).
As a result of publishing an article on 15 May 1936, entitled Has the African a God? written by I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson he was brought to trial on charges of sedition. Although he was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to six months in prison, he was acquitted on appeal. He returned to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1937 and founded the West African Pilot, which he used as a vehicle to foster Nigerian nationalism. He founded the Zik Group of Newspapers, publishing multiple newspapers in cities across the country. Azikiwe became active in the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), the first genuinely nationalist organization in Nigeria. However, in 1941 he backed Samuel Akinsanya to be NYM candidate for a vacant seat in the Legislative Council, but the executive selected Ernest Ikoli instead. Azikiwe resigned from the NYM accusing the NYM mostly Yoruba leadership of discrimination against the Ijebu-Yoruba members, Ibos and some Ijebu members with him and thus splitting the NYM along ethnic lines.
After a successful journalism enterprise, Azikiwe entered into politics, co-founding the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) alongside Herbert Macaulay in 1944. He became the secretary-general of the National Council in 1946, and was elected to Legislative Council of Nigeria the following year. In 1951, he became the leader of the Opposition to the government of Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region’s House of Assembly after losing the four-cornered elections to the Action Group. In 1952, he moved to the Eastern Region, and was elected to the position of Chief Minister and in 1954 became Premier of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. On 16 November 1960, he became the Governor General, with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister. On the same day he became the first Nigerian named to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. With the proclamation of a republic in 1963, he became the first President of Nigeria. In both posts, Azikiwe’s role was largely ceremonial.
Azikiwe and his civilian colleagues were removed from power in the military coup of 15 January 1966. He was the most prominent politician to escape the spate of assassinations following the coup. During the Biafran (1967-1970) war of secession, Azikiwe became a spokesman for the nascent republic and an adviser to its leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He switched allegiance back to Nigeria during the war and publicly appealed to Ojukwu to end the war in pamphlets and interviews published at the time.
After the war, he served as Chancellor of University of Lagos from 1972 to 1976. He joined the Nigerian People’s Party in 1978, making unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1979 and again in 1983. He left politics involuntarily after the military coup on 31 December 1983. He died on 11 May 1996, at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, in Enugu, Enugu State, after a protracted illness. He was buried in his native Onitsha.
Azikiwe was inducted into the prestigious Agbalanze society of Onitsha as Nnayelugo in 1946, a customary recognition for Onitsha men of significant accomplishment. Then, in 1962, he became a second-rank red cap chieftain or Ndichie Okwa as the Oziziani Obi. In 1972, he was installed as the Owelle-Osowa-Anya of Onitsha, making him a first-rank, hereditary red cap nobleman or Ndichie Ume.
In 1960, Queen Elizabeth II appointed him to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. He was conferred with the highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) by the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in 1980. He has received fourteen honorary degrees from Nigerian, American and Liberian universities, which include Lincoln University, Storer College, Howard University, Michigan State University, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello University, University of Ibadan, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, and University of Liberia.
He was a member of many organizations and societies, including Anti-Slavery Society for the protection of Human Rights; Phi Beta Sigma fraternity (Mu Chapter); West African Students’ Union; Onitsha Improvement Union; Zik’s Athletic Club; Ekine Sekiapu Society of Buguma, Kalabari; St. John’s Lodge of England; Royal Economic Society; Royal Anthropological Institute; British Association for the Advancement of Science; American Society of International Law; American Anthropological Association; American Political Science Association; American Ethnological Society; Amateur Athletic Association of Nigeria; Nigerian Swimming Association, Nigerian Boxing Board of Control; Nigerian Cricket Association; Ibo State Union; Nigerian Table Tennis Association; Nigeria Olympic Committee and British Empire and Commonwealth Games Association
During his lifetime, he held several political posts, especially in Nigeria. They include Executive Committee Member of Mambili Party, Accra (1935-37); General Secretary of National Council of Nigerian and the Cameroons (1944-45); President of the NCNC (1946-60); Vice-President of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (1947-60); Member for Lagos in the Legislative Council of Nigeria (1947-51); Member for Lagos and Leader of the Opposition in the Western House of Assembly (1952-53) Member for Onitsha in the Eastern House of Assembly (1954-60); Minister of Internal Affairs (Jan.-September 1954); Minister of Internal Affairs, Eastern Region (1954); Member of His Excellency Privy Council, Eastern Nigeria (1954-59); Primer of Eastern Nigeria (1954-59); President of the Senate of the Federation (January-November 1960); Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria (1960-63); President of the Republic of Nigeria (1963-1966); and Chairman and Presidential candidate of the Nigeria People’s Party (1978-83).
Azikiwe was actively involved in sports at every stage of his life, and he was successful in many of the events that he participated in. They include Welterweight Boxing Champion Storer College (1925-27); High Jump champion, Howard University Inter-Scholastic Games (1926); Gold Medalist in Cross Country, Storer College (1927); Back-stroke Swimming Champion and No. 3 swimmer in Freestyle Relay team, Howard University (1928); Captain, Lincoln University Soccer Team (1930); among others.