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MIDWEEK ESSAY: In Praise of “Zik of Africa” On His 100th Birthday (Posthumously)

Posted by By Bolaji Aluko on 2005/01/02 | Views: 393 |

MIDWEEK ESSAY: In Praise of “Zik of Africa” On His 100th Birthday (Posthumously)

If Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had been alive today, he would have turned 100 on this blessed day of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

November 16,  2004






If Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had been alive today, he would have turned 100 on this blessed day of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  


Posthumous birthday felicitations to him!


So I use the occasion to rise to toast Zik  and once again reflect on him – on his contribution to Nigeria, but particularly to the Igbos, right from when Zik allegedly stowed away to the United States in 1925, returned to Africa in 1934 and to Nigeria in 1937,  and became Nigeria’s first indigenous Governor-General in 1960, and its first (non-executive) President in 1963. 


I fully assert that next to God Almighty himself, Zik gave the Igbos the self-esteem that they rightly have today, for without Zik's personal assertiveness and inspiration in education, I fear that the Igbos would not be where they were today!  God may have raised some body else up for the Igbos, but He chose to raise Zik up, and Zik did a darn good job of it.





I will begin by "cutting and pasting" a little.   While reading, please recall that Zik was born in 1904 and Obafemi Awolowo in 1909, to give context to the chronological and cultural milieu into which they were both born:  they are both inextricably tied up with each other in the context of Nigeria’s history.




J.S. Coleman:  Nigeria: Background to Nationalism" (1985)  Broburg and Wistrom, Benin City, Katriheneholm


Iboland is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world.  In some places the density is more than 1,000 persons to the square mile.  Moreover, the soil is comparatively poor.  As a result, in the past the Ibo expanded territorially and exported to other areas large numbers of seasonal laborers and even semi-permanent residents.  In fact, the Ibo were expanding territorially in many directions at the time of the British intrusion.  Since then this outward thrust has continued and has been the source of anti-Ibo feeling among the tribes bordering Iboland (for example, the Igala, the Idoma, the Tiv, and even the Ibibio.)  The Nigerian historian Dike argues that "perhaps the most important factor conditioning Ibo history in the nineteenth century and in our own time is land hunger... The Ibos pressing against limited land resources had, of necessity, to seek other avenues of livelihood outside the tribal boundaries."  British policy has been, in effect, one of containment, mainly by supporting the peripheral tribes through land regulations designed to halt Ibo expansion.  But this policy did not prevent Ibos from migrating to other areas, particularly Yorubaland, to work as farm laborers or as servants and unskilled workers.




The above are the facts in history, despite some of their jarring nature.  Part of the angst between the Igbos and other ethnic groups in Nigeria, particularly the Yoruba, is the early perception of the Igbos as originally "farm laborers or as servants and unskilled workers", but who, as time has gone by, have transcended such lowly occupations and have gone on to greater things in the life of both their new residences as well as the country.  There is residual resentment on all sides - and still defensiveness on all sides.






After British pacification, individual Ibo colonizers steadily drifted to other areas.  During the forty-year period 1911-1951, the number of Ibos in Lagos increased from 264 to 26,000.  In the Northern Provinces there were less than 3,000 Ibos in 1921, and nearly 12,000 in 1931;  by 1951 the number had increased to more than 120,000, excluding settled Ibo minorities along the boundary between Eastern and Western regions.  These figures become more meaningful when it is realized that most of the Ibo immigrants gravitated to the urban centers where wage employment could be obtained.  By the end of World War II Ibo clerks, artisans, traders, and laborers constitution a sizable minority group in every urban center of Nigeria and the Cameroons........


Table 9



 Indigenous Group 

  % of Ibos in non-indigenous population




 Benin City 























Note that a hundred times increase in  population in Lagos alone and forty times increase in the Northern provinces of the Igbos within a 40-year period  cannot but  have brought its social problems both to the immigrants and the original "settlers."  It also must be recalled that Nigeria was still a "colony" ruled by the British, and not a "country" ruled by Nigerians yet as we know it today - that was to wait till 1960 - so a feeling of "Nigerianism" was not really as rampant as a feeling of "Anti-Colonialism" - or even of "African-ness".







As a consequence of the comparative lack of opportunity in their homeland, and other factors to be noted subsequently, the Ibos embraced Western education with great enthusiasm and determination.  Christian missions were welcomed, and encouraged to set up schools in Iboland.  Village improvement unions sponsored scholarships, and Ibo students flocked to secondary schools in what is now the Western Region.  By the late 1930's the Ibo were more heavily represented than any other tribe or nationality in Yaba Higher College and in most Nigerian secondary schools.  Thenceforward the number of Ibos appointed to the African civil service and as clerks in business firms increased at a faster rate than that of any other group.  By 1945 the gap between Yorubas and Ibos was virtually closed.  Increasing numbers of Ibo barristers and doctors began to arrive from England.  By 1952 the number of Ibos (115) enrolled at University College, Ibadan, was nearly equal to the number of Yorubas (118).  The influx of Ibos into the towns of the west and the north and their rapid educational development, which made them competitors for jobs and professional positions, were two indicators of their emergence as an active group in Nigerian affairs.




Let us reflect a little here:  The Igbo Union was established in 1937, and Zik became its president in 1946; the Nigerian Youth Movement was established 1937 and broke up effectively in 1941 after some altercations between Zik and Awolowo over Akinsanya and Ernest Okoli.  The National Council of Nigerian and the Cameroons (NCNC) was established in 1944 as a counterpoise to NYM (first president was Herbert Macaulay, with Zik becoming president when HM died in 1946) and the Egbe Omo Yoruba was formed (by Obafemi Awolowo and co.) in London in 1945 , and imported to Nigeria in 1948.  The Action Group was formed in 1951, discussions of which began secretly in 1950; this was quickly followed by a re-organization of the NCNC,  and the formation of NPC as political parties.  All of this was happening within the time period of the expansion of the Igbo population in Nigeria and particularly in the heartland of the Yoruba.


Zik was clearly at this time in the thick of engaging the Igbos to be major national players.






Before Zik came onto the scene in Nigeria between 1934-37, there was absolutely no Igbo person of note who impacted on ANYTHING going on in Nigeria.  NONE, I mean no one with a clearly identifiable Igbo name!  None. 


Then in 1934, Zik, barely  30 years old, started pulling his weight, along with Herbert Macaulay, a Yoruba, who by that time was 74 years old!  There were of course other Yoruba (Sapara Williams, Adeniyi-Jones, Solanke, Alakija, Jibowu, Samuel Akinsanya, HO Davies, etc.) like Macaulay, but Zik was the only Igbo around to begin to pull his weight!


So Zik was the psychological break-through for Igbos among the educated elites  in Nigeria that had to begin to see the Igbos as intellectual equals.  That was a BIG AND HUGE contribution of Zik to the Igbos which is lasting and nobody can take that away from him.


What else did Zik do for the Igbos early on?  He began for Nigeria, but also particularly for Igbos, an AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL INFLUENCE as a counterweight to the neo-colonial BRITISH education which permeated Nigerian - and particularly Yoruba western education. 


Let me "cut and paste" again, again recalling that Zik returned from the US to Ghana (then Gold Coast) in 1934, and settled back in Nigeria in 1937:




ibid  p 242 ff


Until 1938 only twenty Nigerians, including Eyo Ita and Nnamdi Azikiwe,had gone to the United States to study.  Most of these pioneers had been sent by missionary societies for religious studies; none of these religious students, except Ita, had returned as active nationalists.  In 1938 twelve Nigerians sailed for America, and not until 1945 did others join them.  Of these twelve, three men were Ibibios sent for higher studies by the Ibibio State Union, and eight were Ibos who had been under the influence of Azikiwe.  Eleven of the twelve went to Lincoln University, Azikiwe's Alma Mater.  The Nigerian students were joined at Lincoln by three Gold Coastians, also inspired by Azikiwe, and a few students from Sierra Leone.  These Africans, educated in America during the war, have been leading figures in postwar nationalism on the West Coast........


Three of the NIgerian students (Mbonu Ojike, Nwafor Orizu, and Ozuomba Mbadiwe - all Ibos) made lecture tours of the United States, and published one or more books each.  Their writings were the first contribution to Nigerian nationalist literature since Azikiwe's "Renascent Africa."  Upon their returne to Nigeria these three became crusaders for American practical - or what Orizu called "horizontal" - education, as contrasted to British literary ("vertical") tradition.  Their agitation in behalf of American education, couple with Azikiwe's great success, was one of the principal reasons for the post-war migration of hundreds of Nigerians to America.  Their propagation of the American educational ideal and their positive nationalism contributed to the antipathy of both the British and the British-educated Nigerians towards American education and American-educated Nigerians.




So those of us who are enjoying the US higher education TODAY have Zik, Ojike (who unfortunately died in 1957), Orizu (who was Senate President when the 1966 coup occurred) and Mbadiwe (the colorful Mbadiwe, man of “timber and caliber”) for early acceptance of our American education.  Of course, recognizing that Awo had a British education (going for further “adult” studies in 1944, at the ripe age of 35), the "antipathy" between them might also have this educational dichotomy element in it.


But there was to be more.....






p. 245ff.


Analysis of the ethnic origins of Nigerians who have studied in the United States during the past three decades reveals a striking predominance of Ibos.  Although the Ibo peoples constitute no more than 17 percent of the total population of Nigeria, until the late 1940s more than two-thirds of the Nigerian students in the United States were Ibos.  As the figures in Table 19 shows, the Ibos were still in the majority as late as 1954




Table 19  Ethnic Origin of Nigerian Students in the United States*









1/5% **






8 /67%


















*Because numbers have been calculated from lists of names, they are only approximations.  "Others and unknowns" may possibly include several Yoruba who retained their Anglicized names.  The Efiks and Ibibios are counted togehter because it is difficult in most instances for a non-Efik or a non-Ibibio to distinguish between Efik and Ibibio names.


** Nnamdi Azikiwe




There are several reasons for the Ibo predominance.  One was the strong influence of Azikiwe, Ojike Mbadiwe, and Orizu, who were among the first-university-educated Ibos and who consciously sought to popularize the virtues of American education.  Indeed, Mbadiwe and Orizu fostered scholarship schemes designed to send Nigerian students to
America, and most of the successful candidates were Ibos.  In contrast, most of the older-generation Yorubas had been educated in the United Kingdom, and the later generation tended to adhere to that tradition.  In addition, by 1945, the Ibos were the upcoming group, and the number of Ibos in British universities may well have equaled or exceeded the number of Yorubas.  For by the late 1940s the number of Ibos with a secondary school education, a prerequisite for university training, actually exceeded the number of Yorubas with a similar qualification.  In any event, the preference of Yorubas for British education and of Ibos for American education, coupled with militant Ibo claims of the superiority of American education and of the easier-to-get America degrees, has exacerbated Yoruba-Ibo tension.  As table  19 indicates, however, the differential is rapidly changing.




So the influence of Zik in Igbo education in Nigeria was phenomenal, and the competition it engendered with the Yoruba too was helpful to the Yoruba.


It was most likely that Awolowo, thorough man that he was, seeing all of these numbers and developments, with the rampaging quartet of Zik, Orizu, Ojike and Mbadiwe, decided that something drastic had to be done in and for Yorubaland if the Yoruba were not to be completely overwhelmed in the country.  This was not to stop Zik and his cohorts, but rather to ensure that the Yoruba began more consciously and systematically to pull their own weight.


Finally, as one of the many "quid quo pros" to becoming Governor-General of Nigeria in alliance with the NPC, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe negotiated the establishment of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to start October 1960, with the help of Michigan State University, East Lansing as the first "indigenous" university in Nigeria (UI established in January 1948 started as a college of the University of London)




University Development in Africa - The Nigerian Experience
by Chukwuemeka Ike, OUP, 1976,pp 9 ff


Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who founded Nsukka almost as an antidote to Ibadan, appears also to have been influenced by the
Ibadan pattern of development.....The University of Nigeria was ceremonially opened on October 7, 1960, as part of the week-long celebrations marking the attainment of political independence by Nigeria on October 1, 1960.  The university was fully autonomous, with the power to grant its own degrees.Technically speaking, therefore, it became the first fully-fledged university in Nigeria, since Ibadan was still at that time a university college granting London degrees.  It also became the first university established by a Nigerian Regional Government....


In the same year, the Report of the Commission on Post-School Certificate and Higher Education in Nigeria (popularly known as the Ashby report) was released.  The commission recommended, inter alia, the establishment of three universities in addition to Ibadan - one in Lagos, one at Zaria in Northern Nigeria (on the site of the Northern branch of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology) and the third the University of Nigeria which had already been planned by the Eastern Nigeria Government.  Each of the three existing Regions would thus have located in it one centre of higher education, with a fourth university in Lagos.......


....Ahmadu Bello University was officially opened in October 1962.  The Western Nigeria Government pressed ahead with its plans to build its own regional university, even though such a university was not among those proposed by the Ashby Commission.  The Federal Governement yielded to the pressure and made available to the Western Nigeria Government the site and assets of the Ibadan branch of the Nigerian College (which were to have been turned over to the University College, Ibadan.)  The University of Ife began to offer classes in October 1962, though the political misfortunes which beset Western Nigeria in the same year prevented the university from making any significant impact until a change of leadership in 1966 provided rays of hope.


Following the Report of the Unesco Advisory Commission for the Establishment of the University of Lagos (Paris, Unesco, 1961), the University of Lagos came into being in 1962 as the second Federal university institution, Ahmadu Bello and Ife being, like Nsukka, regional universities receiving part of their support from the Federal Government. The Enugu branch of the Nigerian College was turned over to Nsukka as a second campus instead of being converted into a full-scale university.


Thus within a space of two years from the date the country attained independence, four brand new universities were established, each empowered to grant degrees.  Ibadan, the oldest university institution, cut its umbilical ord with London in October 1962, becoming the University of Ibadan.  In July 1965, it turned out the first graduates holding Ibadan (rather than London) degrees, by which time Nsukka had produced two crops of graduates and taken all the publicity for turning out the first graduates of an autonomous Nigerian university.....


Nsukka has been the most controversial university in Nigeria.  Many within and outside Ibadan were infuriated by its immodest choice of the name : University of Nigeria, a name which Mellamby (then VC of Ibadan) claimed in his "Birth of Nigeria's University" he had tried unsuccessfully to give to Ibadan in its early years....



All of the above was due to Zik - Nsukka's pride, the country's pride.  It also served as the motivation for Awolowo in the Western Region  to INSIST on setting up the
University of Ife for the Western Region, despite the presence of Ibadan and Lagos FEDERAL universities.





In conclusion, it is not a stretch to conclude from all the above that the Igbos OWE a lot of their self-esteem in Nigeria to Zik.  Nigerian higher education also owes a lot to Zik.  I also firmly believe that iron sharpened iron when it came to Zik and Awo:  Awolowo respected Zik FULLY for that visionary aspect of this contemporary of his, despite the mutual distrust that they had for each other throughout their lives.


I have deliberately played down Zik’s contribution to Nigeria’s independence in 1960, because he had a lot of fellow contributors.  I have also played down his contributions from 1960 till he died on May 11, 1996,  because he does come in for a lot of criticisms for those later years – and we don’t wish to talk ill of the dead, certainly not on his birthday.


So on this his 100th birthday, let us all rise to toast Zik of Africa, of Nigeria, of Ndigbo and of Owelle!

Best wishes all.





A version of this essay was first written on June 22, 2004 on Naijapolitics




for the context

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Comments (3)

Okfold(Sobe, Edo, Nigeria)says...

I want the meaning of female owan name Ekeke (Edo state)

Toluwalase Samuel Olufemi(Ijebu, Ogun, Nigeria)says...

Authority belongs to God, once He decrees it is final and binding

Ikponmwosa Osamede(Edo, Nigeria)says...

Your meaning of Osamede is wrong. Osamede means God has given me a crown