Dr Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe - a Biography

Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe usually referred to as Nnamdi Azikiwe, or, informally and more popularly, as "Zik of Africa", was a leading figure of modern Nigerian nationalism and the first President of Nigeria, holding the position throughout the Nigerian First Republic.
Late Nnamdi Azikiwe, Former President of Nigeria
Late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (as President of Nigeria)
As Nigeria’s foremost nationalist and first post independence Head of State, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was (and still should be) to Nigeria, what George Washington is to America, Kwame Nkrumah is to Ghana, Nasser is to the Arabs, and Nelson Mandela is to South Africa.

The fact that he is not so remembered is a sad testament to Nigeria’s legacy-keeping and failure to honour its founding fathers. Azikiwe transcended national politics to become an icon. He is the father of post independence Nigeria.

First President of Nigeria
Father of modern Nigerian nationalism
Born: 16th November, 1904
Died: 11th May, 1996

Nnamdi Azikiwe was born on November 16, 1904 in Zungeru, northern Nigeria to Igbo parents. Nnamdi means "My father is alive" in the Igbo language. After studying at Hope Wadell Training Institution,Calabar, Azikiwe went to the United States. While there he attended Howard University, Washington DC before enrolling and graduating from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania in 1930. He obtained a masters degree in 1933 from a prestigious Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania. He worked as an instructor at Lincoln before returning to Africa.

He was inducted into the prestigious Agbalanze society as Nnayelugo in 1946. Then, in 1962, he became a second-rank red cap chief (Ndichie Okwa), as Oziziani Obi. In 1970, he was installed as Owelle-Osowa-Anya, making him a first-rank red cap chief (Ndichie Ume). In 1960, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the title of Privy Councilor to the Queen of England. He was conferred with the highest national honor 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. The schools 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.

Birth and Weaning
Unlike many prominent figures in Nigeria (such as Yar’Adua, Ukpabio, Fani-Kayode, Sanusi) who came from political dynasties, Azikiwe was from humble origins. He was a local boy made good. Although Dame Margery Perham described him as a “strange, brilliant, protean character from the Ibo forests”, he was much more bohemian. Perhaps the mis-description can be forgiven when placed in the ignorant colonial context from which it emerged.

His father was Igbo from Onitsha and worked as a clerk in the Nigeria Regiment. Azikiwe’s national outlook was perhaps a result of his cosmopolitan upbringing. Although he was Igbo by birth, he was born in the Northern Region, and attended schools in the west (Lagos), and east (Onitsha and Calabar).

Zik the Polyglot
As a child the young Azikiwe grew up in the Northern Region and spoke fluent Hausa. He admitted that he was “just an Hausa boy then”. Concerned that his son would never learn about his Igbo roots, Azikiwe’s father sent him to his native hometown of Onitsha at the age of eight. It was in this sojourn to his homeland that the boy Azikiwe first learned to speak Igbo.

After attending primary school in Onitsha, he later attended the Wesleyan Boys’ High School in Lagos. In Lagos, he became a fluent Yoruba speaker and completed his command of Nigeria’s three most widely spoken indigenous languages: Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

He of course later became famous for his exceptional command of English and “special gift for oratory, characterised by lavish use of ‘long technical, unusual and foreign-sounding words, calculated to dazzle the wholly unsophisticated audiences” (Schwarz). He continued his studies at the Hope Waddall Training Institute in Calabar and became interested at a young age, in the black consciousness leaders such as Marcus Garvey. He later revealed that his cross-cultural upbringing influenced his broad-minded view of his country:

One important feature of my early boyhood days which has had a decisive influence on my latter attitude towards human beings, was the cosmopolitan nature of my neighbourhood and school atmosphere…the contacts made me to be more cosmopolitan and fraternal in human relations.”

Years of Challenge – Azikiwe Attempts Suicide
After working for a short period of time as a civil service clerk at the Treasury Office in Lagos, he departed for the U.S. in 1925 with 300 pounds that his father had managed to save and borrow on his behalf. When he arrived in the U.S. he lived in poverty, at one time having so little money that he survived on lemonade and bread. To make ends meet he did manual jobs, working as a coal miner, casual labourer, boxer and dish-washer.

While working in a coal mine he was racially abused, being called “nigger” and “coon”, by the time-keeper. Azikiwe later lamented, “It gave me food for thought that an uncultured, tobacco chewing and vociferous Yankee foreman could speak to me, a university undergraduate, in such vein.”

His early years in America were so difficult and at one point he attempted suicide by lying across train tracks and waiting for an oncoming train to crush him. A good Samaritan saved his life by pulling him off the track with the train only a few yards from him.

Nonetheless he was deeply impressed by the U.S. presidential elections of 1928 which exposed him to the rigours and complexities of democratic practice.

“Zik” is Born
He attended Storer College in West Virginia, and later Howard University in Washington DC. He lectured in political science at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (where he also obtained an MA in Political Science), and while there he obtained postgraduate qualifications from Columbia University (Certificate in Journalism of the Teachers’ College) and the University of Pennsylvania (MSc in Anthropology). While he was at Storer College his fellow students nicknamed him “Zik”. The nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

The Return of Zik of Africa – “Nnamdi is Born”
Now a graduate in multiple disciplines, Azikiwe returned from the U.S. in 1934, and the following year moved to Ghana where he became editor of the Accra-based African Morning Post. He was convicted of sedition for an article printed in the paper (the conviction was quashed on appeal). He also wrote a book called Liberia in World Affairs.

Zik was also a college athlete of some repute with an athletic background from his university days in the U.S. In 1934 Zik applied to compete for Nigeria in the British Empire Games. However he was barred from competing after the South African team objected to his participation on account of his race. Shocked and aggrieved by this blatant racism, he decided to give up his English name “Benjamin”, and started answering the Igbo traditional name “Nnamdi”. Zik used his athletic prowess as a metaphor for challenges he faced in life. In an article in a 1938 edition of the West African Pilot, Zik claimed he “always looked at most of my life’s problems as problems which confront a miler in a mile race.”

Assassination Plot and the Zikist Movement
In 1938 he returned to Nigeria from Ghana and founded the West African Pilot newspaper, which championed nationalist causes and published under the motto “Show the light and the people will find the way”. The paper supported a 1945 strike by workers demanding higher wages. The colonial authorities banned the paper as a result, following which Azikiwe wrote his “last testament”, fled back to Onitsha and went into hiding, alleging a government plot to assassinate him.

Although the authorities denied the assassination plot, it was widely believed by his supporters and reinforced his popularity. It also led to the formation of a young radical group called the “Zikist Movement”, which was dedicated to defending Zik from his opponents. The colonial authorities outlawed the group, accusing it of sedition, violence and unlawful behaviour. Such measures merely reinforced Azikiwe’s popularity and made him seen like a local hero standing up to bullying colonial authorities. He became a messianic symbol of Nigerian nationhood and nationalism.

As a fluent and intelligent orator with an athletic 6 feet plus physique and telegenic good looks, he was in many ways born for politics. Schwarz referred to Zik’s “exceptional charm, handsome face and special gift for oratory, characterised by lavish use of ‘long technical, unusual and foreign-sounding words, calculated to dazzle the wholly unsophisticated audiences” (Schwarz). Yet he was more than just a slick talking showman. He was a shrewd political operator too.

1). Azikiwe, Nnamdi, My Odyssey: An Autobiography, Praeger, 1970.
2). Glickman, Harvey, editor, Political Leaders of Contemporary Africa South of the Sahara, Greenwood Press, 1992.
3). Hatch, John, Africa Emergent: Africa's Problems Since Independence, Henry Regnery Company, 1974.
4). Markovitz, Irving Leonard, African Politics & Society: Basic Issues and Problems of Government and Development, The Free Press, 1970, pp. 456-457.
5). Olisa, Michael S. O., and Odinchezo M. Ikejiani-Clark, editors, African Revolution, Africana~FEP Publishers, 1989.
6). Rake, Alan, 100 Great Africans, Scarecrow Press, 1994, pp. 383~387.
7). Segal, Ronald, African Profiles, Penguin, 1962.
8). Zik, A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 72.

1). Black Collegian, December 1981/January 1982, pp. 90~96.
2). Jet, June 3, 1996, p. 16.
3). Negro History Bulletin, February 1961, pp. 104~109.
4). New York Herald Tribune, December 21, 1947.
5). Journal of Modern African Studies, June 1974, pp. 245~263.
6). Time, August 5, 1956; March 25, 1957, p. 33.